INTERVIEW #13
Petokraka

Belgrade (Serbia) — 14/06/2016

Interview Milica Maksimović and Aleksa Bijelović, Petokraka, Belgrade

By Maïlys Gangloff & Johan Soubise for Learning From Europa project, on 14th June 2016 in Belgrade.

14th of June, one day after our arrival in Belgrade. We are about to meet a very small studio made of two friends, who have almost always lived in the Serbian capital city. We look for their office in a small tree-lined street with several individual houses. We finally find the address where we meet Aleksa Bijelović, who just arrives at the office at the same time. He invites us to enter and to meet his friend and associate, Milica Maksimović. They receive us in a small meeting room with a glass partition and old bricks on the walls.

They share their workspace with graphic designers, a “sister company”, as they call them, they are part of the family. This proximity helps them to be involved in that part of the design scene, which they consider more lively and more creative in Serbia.

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

“We are always leaning towards the design society, away from the architecture mainstream.”

One of the reasons for this opening to other fields is their criticism of the study process of their faculty at that time. The university in Belgrade was a huge architecture school, closer to an engineering school. So they always wanted to pursue something else, something more, something beyond architecture as a strictly building profession. They took advantage of the few creative projects or classes that they had, to develop other skills. Their first professional engagements were actually graphics and webdesign. Today they still feel the differences in studies between European countries.

Milica Maksimović : There are students who are coming here for practice or internships, from all over Europe actually. And there is such a difference between the students that are from Belgrade and from Serbia, and those from Europe. Actually there were those two students from the same university in the Czech Republic, they were so phenomenal, in the way of behaving themselves as creatives. They were in their first year and they were already so independent, so self-aware. And we really think that it is because of their school, because it is some sort of experimental school. Also the local society, and growing up in a different context, but they have some sort of completely experimental programme, in a way that there is no scheduled exams and no working times, stuff like that. It’s some sort of community, sharing knowledge, sharing space, sharing time. Definitely education is really important.

Aleksa Bijelović : Here, you have the professor as the power unit of the school and you have the students below, and we hate that. It’s all rigid, and the people who are finishing this school, they look for a job, that’s it, what else to do?… it shouldn’t be that way.

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

Both architects, they always try to look critically at their profession, and their experiences led them to avoid most of the time the competition market in Serbia. This position is part of a natural process of project selection.

AB :  We used to be engaged in a couple of public competitions, especially when we were still at school. Soon enough we found out that these types of competitions are pretty much a waste of time and resources. Mostly because there’s a poor possibility that the work and effort invested in the competition would result in a physical realisation. For so many different reasons. However, after all this time we still consider and sometimes do answer to invitational competitions that are paid and actually some of it does get built after all.

Being open to other fields, and not considering architecture as a closed up profession, allowed them to grow step by step. They started with many different things, from many different disciplines, like graphic and web design, exhibition design, then interior design and furniture design, and everything “in-between”. One thing always leads to another, but everything is still equally important for them, small or big, whereas many architects or designers consider small projects just as a starting point until bigger things. They treat all projects with the same approach, the same intensity of work, the same intensity of talks. Starting with very small things, small assignments, they remained patient, without expecting something more or something bigger. Keeping their activity low and local in a sense of exposure, without high expectations, was maybe the only decision they made for the evolution of their company.

“We are really trying not to be too exposed, that is mainly the problem with design studios all over the world, because you become a brand of some kind of things. I think that the creativity suffers when you are not as small as you were at the beginning.”

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

Their work and the studio evolve with a very natural process, taking things as they come, going with the flow. Commissions always came from personal recognitions, personal experiences with previous clients that are just spreading the word. This natural process applies itself also to their daily work, made of intuitions and flexibility.

AB : We are not structured at all, we don’t have working time strategy, we are not open from or until precise hours… If we don’t feel like working, we just take a couple of days off, or if needed, we can work for a couple of days and nights.

MM : I think that it is our student habits that we sort of pursue on and on.

AB : Sometimes people are trying to tell us that it’s a bit wrong…

MM : Yes, I guess people have a problem with unconventional style or approach in business.

AB : Yes, but we don’t even consider our work as a business, and actually when you say “business”, it is really serious. But yet, it is a business.

The words “company” or “business” seem to be out of step with their philosophy. They can not imagine working with employees. If they have to integrate a third person in the studio, it would be someone who will work with them and not for them, in accordance with their attachment to independence as a studio, but also as individual creative minds.

“We are acting to be a “normal” company, like we are the bosses… But we hate to be the bosses, we hate to tell someone what to do, when to do it, and what to do next.”

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

Their evolution, even intuitive or going with the flow, has always been in reaction to the overall context in Serbia. If today they look at the architecture scene from aside, it is probably because they found in this position a solution to reconcile their own attraction to other fields and the necessity of having projects to survive as a studio. After 2000 and the fall of Milošević’s regime, private funding really increased, until the economic crisis around 2008, when everything crumbled. The impact was huge, especially in a small architecture society like Serbia, because of the very small number of open possibilities. So when all the big money went out, all the huge projects stopped, and many architecture studios shut down due to that problem. Doing small things, that does not require big funding or big infrastructure, was definitely a way to avoid the collapse. And enjoying those small projects as much as bigger things leads them to see this crisis more as an opportunity rather than just a negative thing. It helped them, maybe unconsciously, to build their own approach and to find their place in this profession. This is a point of view that they try to spread to the young generation.

AB : I worked for six years as teaching assistant at the faculty and I was always trying to tell the students “be independent, be yourself, don’t look for a job, there is no job actually, this crisis is a great thing because you can’t even find a job so make your own job, make your own life…”.

MM : So what we always tell all young people is to never give up and to try to make a position for themselves to work independently, it is really hard, but that’s the best place you can be, in our personal opinion.

AB : You know, to be really independent, I think that is to be free. Don’t ever get a job! You can try, you should try, but you should never get a job as a life goal, never ever! Don’t work for anyone, always work for yourself, the money is at the last place.

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

We also find this intuitive approach and this acceptance of the unexpected in their way of carrying their projects. For them, the most important part of the process is the creative part, the first phase, the time when everything is still uncertain, vague, and when the concept is defined little by little. They try to extend this period as much a they can, not doing concrete stuff, but just thinking about the problem, talking about it, ping-ponging ideas.

AB : As a creative being you always need to visualize something at first, I think, and we learnt that it could really be a problem if you do something before the right time of doing that. I think that doing these talks and thoughts, we are just building up the machine, we are building up the system, and then the realisation is very short, when you sit down and draw and make models and design and try things in 3D models, we are trying to shortened this part of the process as much as we can, the actual producing of drawings, producing of images…

MM : Yes, that part, that is the end of that creative phase. And if we have time we always really like to – after we finished some visualizations or drawings – try to have a couple of days completely off, and then go back to that and rethink it again, just looking at what we did and wondering if we still like it or not?

Time seems to be an essential factor in their process, which is rather intuitive than structured, but this time let them feel things and adapt to situations. During the construction phase, they like to go on-site, look at things, feel things, change details according to some discoveries made during demolition for example. They are always trying to fix, to adjust things, giving its own life to the project, which is always a bit different once executed than it was on the drawings. This is not something unusual, and we saw this way of carrying construction in many other countries in Europe, but they try to see the local context and its dysfunctions as an advantage to push it a bit further.

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

“We really like the projects where something goes wrong actually, and it shut down because of the funding for example, but shut down not like forever, just paused, so there is no deadline…”

To illustrate it, they take us on one of their project sites, under construction. It was supposed to be open a couple of months ago when we went there, and it had already been under construction for a year. This delay gave them the opportunity to really think and re-think every details of the interior. They knew the client well, and it was quite easy for them to communicate with him, and to make him accept their way of working, because they already worked with him on a previous project. They always try to push the limits if they have the opportunity and to experiment things, materials, so that they often think that their proposal is going to be rejected.

“We are always going intentionally harder than we should, and maybe than we would.”

They are amused by some situation that they met with clients who did not understand the seriousness of their proposals, thinking that it is not going to be like this in the end, and finally get surprised by the result. Trying not to do stuff which provokes no reaction is one of their goal. For example, they like to highlight materials that suffer from a bad reputation in Serbia, materials from the seventies or the eighties, considered outdated by people, and often associated to some periods of Serbian history and collective memory. On the building site, they show us the terrazzo on the staircase and a wooden floor, that used to be applied in big housing programmes during the socialist regime.
They are trying, at their level, to make the way people see the construction evolve, and to open some ways to unconventional thinking, even if it is hard to be understood, at least for now.

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Photo credits : Learning From Europa

“I hope that we could stay as we are, independent and small, but I really hope that we could be a bit different in a natural way, to evolve to something different, not something else, stay the same, stay small, but maybe new experiences, like working in different locations, countries… But actually if nothing changes, I think that we would be really happy, but I think that it is impossible, because in our experience, in the last fifteen years of our work, nothing ever stayed the same, it is such a learning process, every day we learn something new, and it’s exciting.”

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Bistrot Les Fleurs du Mal, Belgrade, Serbia, © petokraka / Photo credits : Relja Ivanic