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Bratislav Tošković, Architect

Architecture is a Mirror of the Culture of Social Dialogue

One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked by media in recent months is “how will the Memorial Centre look?”, and my answer is that it will look the same as the dialogue that results in its emergence

The general public recently had an opportunity to get acquainted with Bratislav Tošković, a Serbian architect who has spent years living and working in Finland, when multiple media articles appeared presenting him as a member of the Multidisciplinary Team and Working Group tasked with creating the future memorial centre for the tragedy that occurred at Belgrade’s Vladislav Ribnikar Primary School.

A selected vocabulary, prudence in communication and pointing to what really matters in considering the search for a solution to respond to this painful issue all demonstrate our interlocutor’s conviction that architecture is a product of dialogue. This interview touches on all the topics that cause the public of Belgrade and Serbia to shudder – from the Memorial Centre to the Belgrade Waterfront and from the Army General Staff HQ to the preservation of cultural heritage, but also the steps that lead to solutions that will render society more inclusive, tolerant and sustainable.

The modern is replacing the old in Belgrade and throughout Serbia, often at the expense of valuable cultural heritage. Could you use a few examples of your work in Finland to show us how it’s possible to reconcile these elements?

— I see Belgrade as a large, pulsating and dynamic field where things are constantly being built and demolished, often unnecessarily. This is all the result of some dialogue that ultimately materialises and is called architecture. The quality of architecture is merely a reflection of the quality of the dialogue from which it emerged. It isn’t enough for us to have excellent architects if they don’t have a strong enough position in that dialogue. That’s why we end up with the Belgrade Waterfront and Slavija Square, the Fair, the Army General Staff HQ and Expo2027, which, if I’ve been properly informed, are being designed by foreign architects instead of us showing the world the kind of class that we possess.

Sustainability has become the key word in all serious discussions in Finland, and this refers to ecological, cultural, economic and social sustainability. I view cultural sustainability as one of the most important aspects of sustainable construction. It arises in renovation, revitalisation or repurposing processes, when cultural layers develop and the story of the house continues. Demolition is the last option.

When architectural forms outlast their original functions, that opens the way to creative repurposing. Seemingly limiting factors actually lead the way to innovative solutions and represent the seeds of a new, unique identity. A huge industrial hall can thus be converted into a small interior city for 800 inhabitants, and endless dark corridors can be turned into a branched system of small alleys and sunny squares with cafés and kiosks. The “interior city” concept was conceived as the basic idea behind the winning project in a contest for the reconstruction and conversion of an old Ericsson mobile phone factory into a modern and innovative business space. Its successful implementation was followed by two more projects with a similar programme: Metso Automation and ABB Strömberg Park. Over a period spanning more than 20 years, the interior city concept has proven its dependability and its timeless character as a new genre in architecture. And that would all be lacking if the existing buildings had been demolished and replaced with new ones.

As successful examples of creative repurposing in Belgrade, I would mention Beton Hala (Concrete Hall) and the Silos of the Danube quayside.

The reconstruction and conversion of protected buildings is a special category that’s based on the postulate that the protection status will be respected by all project participants. This is never questioned in Finland, but rather is a given.

I see Belgrade as a large, pulsating and dynamic field where things are constantly being built and demolished, often unnecessarily

Tilkka is a former military hospital in Helsinki city centre, representing a jewel of Finnish white functionalism dating back to 1936 and an icon of national independence. The hospital ceased operations after existing for 70 years. This led to a paradoxical situation in which a functionalist structure designed according to the “form follows function” principle was left without its original function, and every new function must be adapted to its form because it is under the highest level of protection as a cultural asset.

After a design and implementation process that lasted four years and was extremely demanding in every respect, Tilkka was successfully converted into a care centre for the elderly, with all accompanying medical services – “function follows form”.

There is also an ecological dimension to the option of preserving existing buildings, even if they aren’t classified as cultural heritage sites.

In an ecological sense, the best material is one that isn’t produced, which is why demolition is always the last option. We need to work to demolish and reconstruct our way of thinking, not our buildings.

The Finnish have a strong collective awareness of the universal importance of green building and all related activities are becoming increasingly better synchronised.

For example, Helsinki’s circular economy cluster programme promotes innovation and operations harmonised with the circular economy principle by bringing together players in the construction sector.

I’m currently working on a project to reconstruct a commercial building that dates back to the 1970s. The building has 600 windows that don’t satisfy contemporary energy requirements and must therefore be replaced. Such old windows would ordinarily be transported to a recycling centre, but we decided to reuse all the glass plates by integrating them into the building’s interior in the form of partition walls. The exterior becomes the interior.

If we were to treat buildings like we treat people, we would have a built environment of higher quality.

Was it difficult to introduce to Finnish architecture the new way of thinking that you brought with you?

— The only things I brought with me to Finland were a sincere love for my profession and ambition, and everything that followed was just a combination of tenacity, motivation, proper communication and a feeling for the moment. If I contributed to Finnish architecture in any way, then that happened spontaneously and involuntarily, because I take an intuitive approach to design.

Two serendipitous factors were crucial to my 36-year professional career in Finland: the possibility of creating in continuity and unique projects.

I create places – I approach every design project as an opportunity to create a new and recognisable place that’s given its meaning by architecture: an identity that’s memorable and calls on one to reflect time and again. Each realised project thus fixes a small pixel in the universe and makes the world a better place by just that much.

Every object that I’ve designed is indivisible from its context and that’s what makes them special, while they simultaneously possess some universal values that extend beyond the physical boundaries of the location, values that can be transposed into some other contexts as a thought model.

Which aspects of that way of thinking would you transfer to Belgrade?

— I experience architecture as a call to play. That playing creates a new reality, changing our perception of time and space.

My way of thinking isn’t conditioned by context, but there are two contexts living in me simultaneously, defining me as a person and an architect, “tickling” my imagination and driving me towards introspection. This resulted in the 2019 exhibition “Parallel Places” where the exhibited projects are personified fragments of my 30- year creative oeuvre that “wander” Belgrade shooting selfies. This refers to the concept of relocating 11 objects from their original context in Finland to different locations in Belgrade, thereby offering a fresh and provocative approach to considering the relationship between architecture and context.

How important is it for today’s architects to take an interdisciplinary approach and how do you achieve that in your own team?

— Architecture is based on teamwork. An interdisciplinary approach has always been applied in architecture, but the current zeitgeist emphasises its importance even more. The intensity of changes, amounts of information, sustainable building, BIM, AI, participatory design, service design and many other aspects have introduced new components to the design process that any responsible architect, as the main coordinator, must consider. Olla Architecture employs 50 professionals of various profiles. Teams are formed very flexibly, depending on the project in question, and each team member is aware of their own task.

Serbia is unfortunately among the countries that have witnessed the terrible tragedy of children being murdered in a mass shooting, which has, among other things, ignited numerous discussions over the fate of that space. How do you view the role of architecture in communicating such deeply traumatic topics?

— Architecture plays one of the key roles, because architecture is first and foremost a dialogue. This is a great tragedy that’s not easy to overcome and process. A painful spot has been created in the very fabric of the city, and no ready-made recipe exists to treat it. This refers to a global phenomenon with local characteristics, because every tragic event is a story in its own right, one that requires a deep understanding of the context and transparent communication in order to find answers to all the questions that bother us, and those questions include why this tragedy befell us, what are its consequences and what do we need to change in ourselves and society to ensure such things don’t happen to us.

It was with this goal in mind that the parents of the murdered children initiated the formation of a multidisciplinary team to carry out comprehensive consultations with the aim of preparing recommendations and proposals for concrete measures to establish a memorial centre, formulating the conditions of the international architecture concept contest for the Memorial Centre and the selecting of the best solution. The Government of the Republic of Serbia supported this initiative and established a Working Group that’s obliged to implement and conduct these recommendations and measures through its departments.

If I contributed to finnish architecture in any way, then that happened spontaneously and involuntarily

A very complex public dialogue process was launched, the embodiment of which will be a new spatial whole that comprises the school and the Memorial Centre. The Multidisciplinary Team, of which I am a member, is tasked with creating the framework, guidelines and programme of the international architectural contest, and to participate in its implementation.

However, at this juncture one shouldn’t think about the Memorial Centre as some building, or about how it will look and how big it will be, but rather as a place with which we want to achieve something more. That won’t only be a place to preserve the memory of that terrible event and the children who died, rather it will also be a place that can stimulate society to reflect and foster a culture of remembrance.

One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked by media in recent months is “how will the Memorial Centre look?”, and my answer is that it will look the same as the dialogue that results in its emergence.