I regret I cannot afford anymore to enter open competitions

I regret I cannot afford anymore to enter open competitions

Interview with architect Vladimir ARSENE,
by Alexandra FLOREA

  • Any immigration is a trauma.
  • In American architectural offices, unlike the European ones, projects are designed to the smallest detail.
  • Romania is in a constant mess, with which we try to get used to and which, besides all the misfortunes associated with it, can bring some opportunities for creative architecture.
  • I believe in the power of architecture to question the rigidity of an urban zoning.
  • My advise for the young architects is to participate in all open competitions.
  • They say that the density in Bucharest is very high. I think there is a lot of room for more.

Vladimir Arsene graduated the Ion Mincu Institute School of Architecture in 1976. At the end of the 1970’s he emigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. He worked for large american architectural firms, gained significant experience and returned home to implement his acumulated knowledge and influence the Bucharest’s public space. He established his office in Bucharest working in parallel with the Westfourth offices in New York and Istanbul, producing the design for very large projects that impacted the Bucharest of the post 89’ events. He spoke about issues of contemporary modernity and the difference in this regard between New York and Bucharest and about issues and problems within the Romanian architectural profession.

Alexandra Florea: What made you choose architecture as a profession?
Vladimir Arsene: I do not remember exactly, it was a long time ago. My parents were professors of economics, nobody in my family was an architect. My father wanted me to study economics, which I hated. I liked to draw, so I went for architecture.
A.F.: Your career started in New York. Which was the first firm you worked for?
V.A.: At the beginning, I worked for a firm called Armstrong Childs Lang Architects. It was a small 7-8 people firm, but the partners were well known, they wrote books on architecture, they had really interesting personalities. However, I did not had the chance to work on anything important, I just got to New York, I was mostly making order in the documentation, drew a bit and run to construction sites. I did not last there very long. The firms where I really worked as an architect were Harrison Abramovitz (the authors of a significant number of office buildings in the city and of La Guardia Airport), Samton Steinglass Architects (for which I designed an apartment building in Battery Park City) and Grad Partnership, the largest firm in New Jersey. At this last one, I was at one point a principal project designer and designed an office tower and a Law School in Newark, New Jersey. I remained with them until I opened Westfourth Architecture.
Any immigration is a trauma
A.F.: How did the cultural difference between New York and Bucharest affect you? Was it difficult to adjust to New York daily life considering where you were coming from?

V.A.: Getting to New York means stepping into a world with a completely different system of refferences. The more you are connected with the world you are coming from and the more sensitive you are to everything that surrounds you, the more difficult is the adjustment. It was difficult for me, but I was helped by my New Yorker wife and my work. Immigration is a trauma than can be cured easier or harder, depending on who you really are. For many people, the trauma consists of getting born in Romania and the cure is brought by the emmigration to New York. This was not my case.
In 1980, I was hired by a big architectural firm in New Jersey which trusted me with more responsibilities. I was a Principal Design Architect and I was in charge with several projects. The firm (Grad Partnership) was not a firm of any significant notoriety, but this is what I was looking for as here I could get more responsibility for design. Working for big star architectural firms, one could spend many years before getting to do a significant project. I felt I did not have this time. During that period I started teaching a design studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture and this helped me a lot in my adjusting to New York and the setting of my professional life.
A.F.: Which was the first building you designed in New York?
V.A.: I established my company following the winning (with a team of students) of an architectural competition in Romania. The first project designed in the US after establishing Westfourth Architecture, was an academic building in the Seton Hall University campus on South Orange, New Jersey. The comission was the result of winning an invitational competition against two very well known firms at that time, Venturi Scott Brown And Associates and Polshek Partnership. We were invited to that competition because, while I was an architect at Grad, I designed a 20 story tower, part law offices, part Seton Hall University Law School and the academic building in the South Orange campus, belonging to the same institution. The 20 story tower in Newark was the model for the high rise buildings we designed later in Romania. The Newark tower was my first experience with a tall building and with all its challenges and its technology.
In American architectural offices, unlike the European ones, projects are designed to the smallest detail

Composers Headquarters Competition, Bucharest

A.F.: What architectural style did you bring to Bucharest? What influence American offices had on you?
V.A.: It was not a style per se, but knowledge about technology and a special design mentality that I brought with me back to Bucharest. In the American offices, a project is designed to the smallest detail, of course, outside specific shop drawings done by the builders. In the US, like in France per exemple, those bureaux d’etudes that take the project after the Building Permit and finish it with all the details, do not exist. In the US, everything is done in the same architectural office. There is a pretty high level of technical design and a very intense and constant design effort. When I started to get commisions for large projects in Romania, I used the same approach to design. Of course in our offices, both in New York and Bucharest, it was a different atmosphere than in the large corporate American architectural firms, but the approach to projects and technology and the intensity of effort were similar.
Romania is in a constant mess, with whitch we try to get used to and which, besides all the misfortunes associated with it, can bring some opportunities for creative architecture.

A.F.: How do you think that the chaos that followed the colapse of communism affected architecture in Romania?
V.A.: The mess continues partially even today. The beginning was a real challenge, as the investments were few and far between and consequently there were few projects, the construction firms just started to set themselves up, the construction materials market was practically innexistent, the few active developers had no development experience, there were no construction managers and the banks wouldn’t give construction credits so easily. On the other hand, the urban zoning was less restrictive, the permitting process was easier and we did not really have a real competition as the architectural firms were at their very beginning. The initial mess, besides the problems and confusion it produced, offered some real opportunities for architectural creation.


Manisa City Hall Competition, Manisa, Turkey

A.F.: What is the difference between the landmarks protection in New York and Bucharest? Are the Americans more permissive about the construction of new buildings in historical and protected areas?
V.A.: Americans are more pragmatic and realistic. Of course the Bucharest and New York landmarks are not comparable, but the concern for their preservation is similar. The legislation for their protection is different but the permitting process is somewhat the same. My personal opinion regarding the landmarks preservation is the same with the American and even European mentality. Of course the landmarks have to be maintained and protected, but on the other hand, we cannot freeze the city in the architecture of the beginning of the XX-th century. It is precisely the mixture of new and old buildings that is representative for the natural evolution of the urban environment, as the landmarks protection cannot be the single criteria in the evolution of the city, as it cannot represent our only identity card.
The landmarks preservation should be synced with the urban development, within a contextuality which should not be limited only to roof edge alignments, but to more profound issues that would allow the conditions in which modern, taller buildings can exist in the proximity of older ones. Our landmarks, being currently in a state of neglect and many of them in danger of colapsing because of insufficient funds necessary for their protection, could benefit from the consequences of the normal city evolution, as is the case in New York. Many historical buildings that lack funds for their preservation could be financially helped by private real estate developers in exchange for certain flexibility in the zoning restrictions. The city can obtain funds for public transportation, landmarks preservation, utilities modernization, social housing, public space and cultural projects, by allowing footprint and floor area ratio bonuses to these developers. This strategy can constitute an extraordinary engine for the city development, following the American model where this collaboration between the city and the promoters is even legislated in the urban zoning. In Romania, the landmarks are in the process of continuos deterioration and there is no incetive for developers to get involved in their protection and their active participation to the urban evolution. Of course there are the PPPs, Public –Private Partnerships, but those are only about city’s participation in the private development projects with the value of the city land for these projects. There is no real collaboration that would enable the developers to contribute to city needs. This collaboration is of course hard to achieve, considering our political mess and the problems in getting a new and progressive zoning ordinance.
A.F.: What are the reasons behind the difficulty in implementing the changes you reffered to?
V.A.: Real estate development is partially seen here by some influential organisations as a part of the general public and even by some architects working for landmarks preservation, as a city wound done by profiteurs who only look up to their gains, process in which the city only gets traffic congestion, pollution, the distruction of its landmarks and of our traditional identity. 

The city development depends on the evolution of the built environment, which contributes to the progress of all aspects of traditional, contemporary and future urban civilization.

The relationship between the preservation and the integration of landmarks in the evolution of the city and the real estate development process is important for both aspects of the urban transformation which should be based on the collaboration between the City Hall and the private promoters, between old and new, between the landmarks and the new buildings. In New York, the zoning resolution is more flexible than here, where one cannot built unless it is done this way and only this way, without considering the opportunities for development and transformation that can enlarge the context of the zoning resolution itself to the benefit of the city.

Corfu Resort Competition, Island of Corfu

A.F.: In Romania, a lot of constructions are done randomly, without architects, due to the poor general architectural education. Which is the situation in the US from this point of view?
V.A.: I do not think that the poor architectural education is the main cause for the random construction activity without architects. I think that there is not an adequate legislation regarding this. In the States, architectural firms are professional corporations that have a different status than commercial firms, protecting the obligation of all projects to be signed by a registered architect, or architectural firm, independent of the project size. A firm cannot practice architecture if an architect is not the majority shareholder in the company. The city inspections during construction are very serious and they are many along the entire building process. The penalties for those projects which are not signed by an architect are tremendous.
A.F.: Between conversion and demolition and building from scratch, which is the best option in the context of the evolution of Bucharest? Why do you consider that?
V.A.: There are more complex issues here. It is one thing to talk about the renovation of a landmark, or a building in a landmark designated district, or to talk about renovating an old building without any significant architectural value. From the economic point of view, it is more advantageous to demolish and build from scratch. Renovations are mandatory when landmarks are involved. For buildings in landmark designated districts, partial demolitions or partial additions might be the proper way to go, depending on the particularities of each case. Renovation costs are high, as there is need in many cases for structural reinforcing, underpinning, new insulation and new systems within the old premises, etc. So building from scratch is in general a better option, at least from the economical point of view.
A.F.: Is it important to preserve an image of Bucharest to a much closer scale to that of the interwar’s historical buildings ?
V.A.: The 7-8 story modernist buildings, constructed in Bucharest in the 20’s and 30’s, were received with a lot of criticism regarding their size in a city used to small dwellings and their gardens in the backyard. Actually, which image of the city is the most appropriate? The city’s identity is in its eclectic architecture and it is precisely this eclecticism that is valuable, this mixture of styles and sizes, all touched by a local manierism. So it is not coherence that we should seek in the city, as diversity is its real identity in the permanent oscillation between East and West. The new buildings of larger size than those of the 20’s and 30’s are a natural part of the normal scale transition of the urban environment.
I believe in the power of architecture to question the rigidity of an urban zoning .

Apartments in Dreilini district, Riga, Latvia

A.F.: There are many critics about the construction of high rise buildings in the historical center of a city. What is your opinion about this criticism and how do you see the evolution of the urban environment in the center of a city?
V.A.: We have been criticised for the Cathedral Plaza tower set next to St. Joseph Cathedral. As I have said many times, the zoning would have allowed us to build a 5-6 story building that would have occupied most of the site and would have blocked the main view of the Cathedral from Calea Victoriei. The tower facilitated the creation of a public plaza against the eastern wall of the cathedral. This was a concession of private land towards public space and it was possible only by building a small footprint high rise. The plaza is set not only in front of the tower’s lobby but potentially in front of an independent access to the beautiful chapel included in the eastern section of the cathedral and initially was welcomed by the bishopric. I do not believe that absolutely all high rise buildings located in the center of historical cities should be banned. All labels and preconcieved ideas in this regard should pass a critical examination. I do believe in the power of architecture to question the rigidity of an urban zoning.

A.F.: What is your relationship with the investors? How difficult it is to maintain a balance between the quality of the building you envision and the clients’ desire for an ever increasing profit?
V.A.: We are performing a service that has to observe the construction budget that makes possible the investment. This is one of the profession’s main challenges. The cost reductions, the so called value engineering process can be generated by the escalation of the construction costs, the desire to increase the profit, the loss of an important tenant, a project designed over the assumed budget, the existence of hidden problems in the site, or a wrong estimation of the initially planned construction budget. The cost reduction process starts following the building tender, when the results are over the estimated construction cost. This process is difficult for us in the attempt to maintain a quality of the project while the reductions affect mostly the finishes and the exterior envelope. The task is made harder also by the high percentage in the construction cost taken by the structure, that has to observe the tough seismic conditions in Romania and the poor quality of the soil. This is leaving less money in the budget for architecture.
The most difficult issue for us is not the cost reduction per se as much as some of our clients’ need to impose the areas of the project where they want cost reductions. This is difficult for us as one cannot cut a part of the whole without affecting the entire thing. Cutting a component of the project, affects the quality of the entire project. This is why we had, in these instances, to do whole project reconsiderations followed by massive redesign in order to protect the general quality of the building. The better situation is the one in which the cost reduction is left up to us as long as the savings are achieved. In these situations we have a lot more control over the project and we can find an easier .

Mall and residential and office complex, Sofia, Bulgaria

A.F.: I know you have won a competition for the design of the IndustrialExport Headquarters. What challenges did you face then?
V.A.: This was the tallest building in the country at that time and the first project we did in Romania. The challenge we faced was bringing the contemporary technology of high rise construction in a city that just exited the communist period, keeping in 1991, the mentalities and preconcieved ideas of the past. It was not an easy endeavor, but in the end we managed to build that tower, using for the first time on a high rise office building in Bucharest, structural steel and a 20 story curtain wall.
My advise for the young architects is to participate in all open competitions
A.F.: Many architects spend a lot of effort in architectural competitions. What satisfaction do you get in doing such a competition?
V.A.: We participated in many competitions, losing many and winning few. They all produced a great professional satisfaction independent of the final result. Now we cannot afford to enter them unless they are invitational and adequately compensated. A competition, in order to be done with the dedication it deserves, requires a serious financial effort and the commitment of enough time and work force. This is not easy for our firm as we are all involved in the tough deadlines of the contracted projects. An architectural competition implies great effort and creativity and is important in the professional evolution of any architect. We regret that for the time being we cannot afford to participate in open ones. At the beginning of my career, we were participating in one competition after another, no matter what type of competition we were entering. In those days nobody was inviting us in limited competitions so we had to participate only in the open ones, but important for us was to experiment, to understand and to know ourselves better. My advise for all young architects is to enter as many competitions as possible. A.F.: Do you like free contests where the accent is put on creation and utopia or those with strict restrictions?
V.A.: Talking of creativity, freedom and restrictions, at the beginning of the academic year, I tell my students the following story: when Pope Julius II was replaced by Leo X, Michelangelo almost finished the Sistine Chapel and was going with his young aides to do the final touch ups. They came across on Vatican’s corridors with Leonardo da Vinci, who at that time fell out of favor with the new Pope and was hired to only renovate Vatican’s toilets. The two giant artists were in competition and Michelangelo, looking to humiliate Leonardo in front of his disciples, said: Ah, maestro what an honor to meet you! Would you mind showing to these young fellows the drawings you are carrying? Leonardo, opened the drawings showing the toilets’ hydraulic systems and laid them on the floor. Michelangelo looked, turned green with envy, turned around and returned home where he remained locked for a week, very depressed.

True art and architecture can be achieved independent of the nature of the subject or program and this story about the meeting of the two artists is true and relevant. Leonardo’s toilets drawings were on a parallel plane with the chapel paintings…
A.F.: At what other competitions did you participate?
As I mentioned before, we did many, especially during slow times when we were not very busy. We entered competitions for some new City Hall buildings in several Turkish towns and we won the third place in one of them. These were open contests with hundreds of entries. We won the invitational competitions for developments in the Iride and Ventilatorului areas in Bucharest, we came second in large residential competition in Beijing, we won the invitational contest for the new Embassy of the State of Kuwait in Bucharest. And, as mentioned before, we won our first contest ever for the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, US.

A.F.: You design mostly residential and office buildings. How did you choose to specialize in these areas?
V.A.: We did not, they were chosen by our clients. Of course we would like to design a stadium, a church, an opera house or a museum, but we were not commissioned for such work. We succeeded to design a Law School, we managed to design two embassies, but the rest of our work followed the market’s demand for offices and apartments. It is hard to find investors in public or cultural type buildings which are not as profitable as the commercial ones and the state does not have enough funds.
A.F.: For a long time, Westfourth buildings were among the tallest in Bucharest. Tower Center International was the tallest for a long time after its completion. What kind of technology did you apply in its design?
V.A.: The structure was made of steel and mixed concrete with rigid steel reinforcement, modern electro-mechanical and building management systems, stick system curtain walls, matt foundations on piles and other systems, very usual now in the construction industry in Romania. Our 26 story Ana Tower project is now near completion, with a concrete tube in tube structure, post tension slabs and a unitized curtain wall, a more contemporary technology.
They say that the density in Bucharest is very high. I think there is a lot of room for more
A.F.: How do you see the issue of densification in Romania? What can we do about it?
V.A.: The future does not belong to suburbanisation and urban sprawl, but to concentration and higher urban densities. The flows of transportation and energy have to be shortened because of limited energy resources. The distances will be reduced, services compressed, buildings will get taller, building’s footprints will get smaller. This is the world direction and Romania cannot remain behind. There is room for greater density in Bucharest, for distances, traffic and waste of energy to be reduced.
A.F.: What is the philosophy at the base of your designs? Which are the main ethical principles you follow?
V.A.: There are a lot of constructions and very little architecture. I do not believe that the social awareness or ethics can turn constructions into architecture. These have of course an important role in the development of a built environment for a responsible and just society, but architecture is neither philosophy, nor literature. Lately, especially in the US, the social and ethics role of architecture became a main criteria for assesing the performance of architecture and in the universities the discussions are concentrated more on philosophy than on architecture per se. The theoretical aspects of architecture, its relation with the contemporary society issues, are important aspects in defining architectural values, as long as these do not become the single criteria for design and its evaluation. We do not have in our work a defined philosophy per se, we try to produce an architecture that is contextual in the more profound meaning of the word, an architecture that can be representative of our time, our clients and ourselves.

A.F.: How did the life in New York affect your architectural sensibility?
V.A.: With so much diversity there, one has endless sources of inspiration and experience. Even this mixing of races, this New York melting pot, intensifies the way one sees the world, art and architecture. It is without doubt a stimulative and stressful experience which opens new angles of observing the city and which affects one’s sensibility in seeing and feeling architecture. With many world class architects building in New York, the city becomes a constant transforming museum of contemporary architecture and beeing the witness of this dynamics, enlarges the horizon of understanding and living architecture.

Concurs pentru proiectul Ambasadei Statului Kuwait în România

A.F.: Which are your favorite projects?
V.A.: I should say that all our the projects are my favorites, I cannot really choose between them. Actually I love them at the beginning, I hate them afterwards and I like them again in the end. Our last project in which I was very much involved and which was one of our most important designs, will remain with me for a very long time. This is the Embassy for the State of Kuwait in Bucharest. Winner of an architectural competition, it was a difficult project for an actual office building with special requirements, due to severe height limitations in that area. It was an exhaustive fight for centimeters. In addition we had to reconcile the demand for a traditional islamic architecture with the city’s modernist tradition.
A.F.: How do you reconcile the technological revolution with the preservation of the Romanian memory and identity? I am referring here to the preservation of a the specific character of Bucharest.
V.A.: Which is the specific character of Bucharest? Is it the city of two story dwellings on long and narrow sites with gardens along them? Is it the city of Neo-Romanian architecture, of the modernist-manierist-architecture of the 20’s and 30’s, or the city of the communist residential districts built after the war? I really do not know. In fact I think that the character of the city rests precisely in its eclectic organisation and architecture in its diversity and oscillation between Orient and Occident. It is a character which can for sure accomodate the mess of contemporary technology.
At the end of this interview I would like to mention my oldest collegues and collaborators without whom none of our projects would have been possible. They are my partner for 28 years, Călin Negoescu, my associate for 30 years Zzing Lee, with whom I started the New York office in 1991, my asociate for 28 years Cristiana Ștefan, our principal architect with us for 15 years, Silviu Chițu, our project coordinator, with us for 19 years, Raluca Ionescu, our technical expert architect, with us for 15 years, Antoniu Craiovean, our administrator for 18 years, Eugenia Alexandrescu and finally, my encoragement, partner and support for 41 years, my wife, Stephanie Charny.

These projects represent just a small part of Westfourth Architecture’s intense activity. Out of all contests that Westfourth participated to, we have selected the most interesting ten.

1. Corfu Resort Competition, Island of Corfu
This was an invited competition for a resort on the Island of Corfu. The program included a 5 star hotel and villas to be administrated by the hotel. The site was set on a rather steep side of a mountain at the edge of the sea. The buildings’ setting on the site represented the main challenge and, in the same time, the most interesting opportunity for design.

2. Usak City Hall Competition, Usak, Turkey
This was an open competition for the City Hall building in Usak, Turkey. In our project, the building, located on the edge of a canal that crosses the city, resembles an industrial, glazed high-tech warehouse. All activities and various private and public functions of the City Hall are structured inside this apparently simple envelope.

3. Manisa City Hall Competition, Manisa, Turkey
This was an open competition for the design of the Manisa City Hall and the weekly food market fair in the center of the city. In our project, the food market turned into a multipurpose hall, accommodating everything from agricultural exhibitions to rock and roll concerts. Westfourth won the third prize in this competition.

4. Bakırköy Residential Development Competition, Istanbul, Turkey
This was a residential and invitational competition in the Bakırköy district of Istanbul. The main challenge was the local zoning that mandated that new buildings should have the same volumetric envelope as the typical existing apartment buildings in the district. This resulted in rows of cube shaped 5 story buildings that were integrated in the local fabric. We won the competition, but the project was not built.

5. Alexandria Courthouse Competition, Alexandria, Romania
This was an open competition for the Courthouse of Alexandria, Romania. The project used the same concept as in the Usak competition, organizing the entire program of offices, courts and public areas under a single roof and a simple and strong volumetric configuration.

6. Iride Masterplan Competition, Bucharest
This was an invitational competition for the design of a masterplan, concerning the development of a mixed use office and residential area of the Pipera section of Bucharest. The main issue in this competition was the phasing, as the existing buildings to be demolished in order to make room for the new and larger ones, were rented and the tenants had to move in the new ones without interruption of activity. It was like a game of chess with a rational sequence of moves and a well-defined strategy. Westfourth won the competition, but the owner, an international bank, decided to leave Romania and sold the site.

7. Composers Headquarters Competition, Bucharest
This was an open competition for the design of the Bucharest offices for the Union of Romanian Composers. This was a very small building on a rather narrow side street, on a site with a limited street frontage. The project proposed a building that seemed to vibrate to the sound of music.
Westfourth won the second place.

8. Office Building on Matei Millo Street Competition, Bucharest
This was a competition for a commercial office building located in the very center of the city, close to Novotel Hotel. The project is an insertion in the dense urban fabric, facilitating an interesting pedestrian route between the Ion Câmpineanu and Matei Millo Streets. The brick envelope relates to the similar material on the tall building on I. Câmpinenau Street.

9. Ventilatorul Development Competition, Bucharest, Romania
This was an invitational urban project competition for the residential development of the Ventilatorul factory site behind the Military Academy, on the West side of the city. The site is lower than the level of the surrounding streets. Our project featured, besides several office buildings, nine G+11 story residential mini-towers, set in a park landscaped on deep natural soil. The large garage surrounds the site and is built in the berm that connects the site with the higher level of the streets. A curving bridge crosses the site and allows off and on ramps to the park level. Westfourth won the competition.

10. The Competition for the new Embassy of the State of Kuwait in Romania
This was an invitational competition for the design of this embassy located in the northern site of the city, in the vicinity of Bordei lake. We had to address two main challenges. The first one was the limited building height allowed by the urban zoning. This led to locating the consular section of the embassy at the basement level, and creating for this purpose a sunken garden between the street and the building. Furthermore, we had to „squeeze” three embassy office levels in the 3,10 meters floor to floor height, a close to impossible task that required a lot of creative undertaking. The second challenge was to find a reconciliation between the embassy’s request for traditional Islamic architecture and the city’s modernist tradition. Westfourth won the competition and the embassy was constructed.



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