BART LOOTSMA: SADAR VUGA BALANCING ACT
For an office that exists for only such a relatively short time, SADAR VUGA has realized an amazingly broad and mature oeuvre. Even more amazing is that the maturity was there from the beginning. I think for almost any one of us, except for the courageous clients, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Ljubljana from 1996-1999 came completely out of the blue. Stunning is that from the beginning, in the work of SADAR VUGA maturity goes hand in hand with innovation –be it never really with experimentation for the sake of the experiment. Firmly rooted in the great former Yugoslavian and Slovenian modernist tradition, Sadar Vuga orientate themselves internationally and their work indeed looks international and timeless. Sadar Vuga work for the new liberal condition, that became almost global in the nineteen nineties, but at he same time always design with ideas of collectivity in mind. Cross-grained compositions are alternated with surprising moments of formal frivolity. In other words: Sadar Vuga’s work is a constant balancing act, but they accomplish it in the most relaxed, elegant and convincing manner.
All these characteristics were there from the moment Jirij Sadar and Bostjan Vuga started to collaborate. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for example, is a building that is of course crucial in Slovenia’s new development in the direction of a capitalist state after having been a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1991. At the same time the building speculates on different formal levels what new forms of collectivity could look like. From the square that is kept open in front of the building to the vertical hall that gives access to the different floors and spaces: the Chamber of Commerce and Industry demonstrates its generosity towards the city. As, in Sadar Vuga’s words, a ‘megastore’ it reverses the traditional more top-down arrangement of public buildings. The loose arrangement of boxes in a structure of concrete beams, leaning with its back to a seemingly more traditional modernist building, suggests certain openness towards individual initiative and growth. There are slight correspondences with contemporary buildings like maybe Peter Eisenman’s formal experiments on one hand and MVRDV’s WOZOCO in Amsterdam, which also dealt with possible individualization within a modernist structure on the other -in this case for apartments for the elderly. But Sadar Vuga’s formalisms are not so formal as Eisenman’s and MVRDV’s project was realized one year later and somehow lacks Sadar Vuga’s sophisticated materialization. Actually: Sadar Vuga’s work lacks the dry mechanical experimentalism of both these practices. Instead, with offices like Archi-Tectonics (Winka Dubbeldam), Périphériques, Jacob/McFarlane and Ian+, they seem part of a younger, mannerist generation that alternates and mixes methods and formal vocabularies that were previously considered irreconcilable. Different from previous generations of architects, this generation tries to seduce their clients and colleagues more than that they to convince them in extremis that they are right (and of course nobody else is). They do not just try to convince with theories, schemes and images (that they have all absorbed from the predecessors they left behind in their trenches and man-holes), but also in ways that sometimes come close to contemporary fashion, in the way that they offer sensuous, material, multi-dimensional spatial experiences, accepting that not everything can be explained in words. They may present themselves in exhibitions with multimedia installations or, as Sadar Vuga once did in ArchiLab in Orleans, with T-shirts and merchandising. Fashion boutiques are recurring commissions in their work. In their elegant modern mannerism that wants to be experienced rather than thought, these architects may be the Mallet Stevens, Dudok, Chareau or Mendelsohn of our time.
Indeed, this attitude seems to address the issues of our time just as much as globalization, increasing densities, new technologies and cosmologies, the linguistic and the digital turn. The development of Slovenia after its independence seems largely a success story that feeds optimism that almost anything is possible if it is done carefully and in the right way. Two housing projects by Sadar Vuga illustrate this belief. Both address the increasing demand for much larger, more individualized, luxurious and modern apartments in the vicinity of the city centre. Locations for such projects are still available in Ljubljana, be it that the buildings, because of their deviant scale, of course risk to stand out amidst their historical surroundings.
The Trnovsky Pristan Condominium, for example, is a large volume that is partitioned in such a way that all individual apartments have light, views, balconies and winter gardens. The individualization of the apartments and its effects on the overall composition is the first step in adapting the volume to its surroundings, which are of a much smaller grain. The next is the covering of the façade with coloured tiles, in such a way that the effect of a pixilation is achieved. Around the windows there is a concentration of black tiles, as to make them bigger. Yellow tiles try to establish a relationship with the light green of the willows along the river. Towards the edges of the building, blue tiles increasingly dominate yellow ones, as to dissolve the block into the air. With this pixilation, Sadar Vuga try to achieve an affect of camouflage –an effect used more and more by architects recently, now that computer software allows for experiments with texture mapping. It is also, on the other hand, a trend that started in fashion with camouflage patterns and prints on clothes in general. In the way camouflage is used here, it reminds most of the so-called ‘dazzle painting’, as it was applied to make ships unrecognizable during the first and second World War.
The Gradaska apartment house deals with similar issues. Again, it is a collective building, in this case housing twelve different luxury apartments. Here, it is even more obvious that the building outranks all surrounding buildings in scale, as it stands in the former periphery of Ljubljana, where we can still find an informal, rural, intimate, village-like structure in which allotment gardens alternate with smaller houses. Already the individual apartments appear almost as big as some traditional houses. In this case, using different materials structuring the façade fragments the otherwise almost monolithic volume. Large surfaces of mirroring glass cover the façade, only interrupted by almost equally generous wall-to-wall, floor-to-floor windows play treacherous games with the observer. Sometimes the glass makes the building virtually disappear in its surroundings, than again it makes it more distinctly present. Once it may appear monolithically closed, than again, towards the evening, when the lights inside go on, it opens up completely, allowing voyeuristic looks inside. A carefully treated, partly shiny stone base makes it seemingly grow out of the ground. A stone facing shows the outlines of the different apartments. Different modern and traditional materials and detailing as well as different scales are played out in a virtuous mannerist way that here faintly reminds of Plecnik, de great Slovenian architect that is so present in the city of Ljubljana.
The stone facing demonstrates how the overall form in fact consists of separate three-dimensional, individual elements, like the game Tetris. This reference to Tetris reminds of some of the work of MVRDV, like Berlin Voids or the house for two families in Utrecht, that equally try to fit individualized apartments in a dense, collective form. Similarly to MVRDV, it seems as if Sadar Vuga want to make their clients to ‘feel their neighbours’, as Winy Maas would call this particular spatial sensation.
Compressed containers, matrix enfolders and volumes
Adaptations to both the site and to the individualization inside the volumes of the buildings, while at the same time maintaining certain ‘wholeness’ in the projects seem to be important issues in Sadar Vuga’s work. This becomes apparent in a series of projects that have been planned and realized more outside the historical context of the city, in more open situations –even if it is just a fountain on a square. These buildings appear more monolithic and tend to have shapes and forms that cannot immediately be named –or it should be with a nickname that suggests associations with other objects or subjects. Because of their cross-grained character, the projects do not really invite to give them nicknames, however. There is something weirdly futuristic about them as they appear as a kind of mechanical chameleons. ‘Matrix Volumes’, as Sadar Vuga call these often almost monumental buildings, dominate their surroundings as a ‘Grossform’ –a term Hans Kollhoff once introduced- but the form is at the same time adapted to these surroundings by pushing, twisting or folding the overall shape. These adaptations work at the same time a bit delayed and reluctant, as if an elephant would try to turn itself around, and therefore give the buildings a certain amount of crossgrainedness and power.
Sadar Vuga call these buildings ‘Matrix Enfolders’ when they are systematically wrapped by a surface, be it in such a way that the wrap reacts temporarily to local interior or exterior conditions. This reaction is often realized by means of mechanical parts in the wrap that open and close. It is striking that these building do not really attempt to be ‘fluid’ or ‘liquid’ or ‘blobby’, as much architecture today tries to be in the era of computer generated architecture, but really remain mechanical. Examples are the Bookcarrier, an installation for a publisher that allows him to present his books in different ways, and the Mercator Shopping Centre in Nova Gorica. The latter, completely wrapped in red Eternit panels that can open at certain points, stands on a slab covered with tarmac (for parking) that partly hovers above the ground, as if an alien spaceship has just landed or is taking off. It is here that Sadar Vuga’s architecture inevitably reminds of some of the great but unfortunately almost unknown architecture Yugoslavia produced in the nineteen seventies and eighties and than particularly to the work of Slovenian architects like Edvard Ravnikar or Marko Music. But of course, I should have kept these references a secret here, to make Sadar Vuga’s work appear even more intricately fascinating and enigmatically mysterious as it is.