For more than a year now, we at AABH have been working on this project. Quite an unusual one for a professional association. It’s a website, on the surface a fairly simple one. But why did we work on it for so long?
To be completely honest, we’ve had enough. Enough of this constant struggle with “lack of people”, “lack of investments”, “lack of financial resources”, “unfavourable circumstances”… No, we are not talking about the state of our Association but of architecture in South-East Europe in general. Architecture is probably the profession that was most devalued in the transition to a capitalist system. Now we already have entire generations of architects who have never had a chance to experience a normal working relationship or to work on projects. While they scroll through advertisements for jobs in the EU and overseas, they hear stories about some distant “gilded age”, a concept so hazy and ill-defined that we suspect it ever existed in the first place. And the future? No one even mentions the future.
And why would they?
Let’s take an example from (51% of) our home country. According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the level of investments in the AEC industry is laughably low. In the period 2014-2018 it amounted to about 400-450 million euros annually. For the sake of brevity, let’s multiply this by two and add a few hundred million and say that it was one billion euros per year for the whole country. Translated into square metres, this amounts to 242,597 m² of constructed space. To put that into perspective, a single building, the Berlaymont building, headquarters of the European Commission, has an area of 240,500 m². This tells us that very few architects in Bosnia and Herzegovina have had an opportunity to build something big, which becomes evident at our annual exhibition in Collegium Artisticum where most of the works are small residential projects, additions and reconstructions with just a handful of more complex designs. Of course, size is not a measure of quality and presented designs are of extremely high quality, but the lack of more complex projects is indicative of the kind of engineering and various other problems our architects encounter and know how to solve. There is an alarming lack of socially conscious architecture, sustainable architecture and generally any typologies that are not connected with immediate financial gains, typologies usually financed by the state. Competitions as a tool for launching younger architects to prominence are rare and, because of a poorly formulated legal framework, do not guarantee the winner's design will be pursued to completion. Therefore, younger architects who are not fortunate enough to have the “right” connections have no way of finding clients in a country that is extremely prone to nepotism and corruption. If they want to pursue a career in architectural design proper, they are sentenced to slaving away in one of the local offices without much room for professional development.
Once employed, they have to face the usual problems of our profession, more or less common for all architects in the world: unpaid internships, work without a contract, minimal wage, low salary, continuous overtime, work on weekends and holidays, no annual leave, stress, work with shady clients, bad management, uncertain future and so on and on… You know the drill.
They, of course, are leaving the country in large numbers. Here in AABH we see the effects through diminishing membership and activity of younger architects – coincidentally, a core demographic that keeps the Association alive and drives it forward.
Bosnia and Herzegovina and the whole Balkan area behave somewhat like the Okavango delta. In the dry season the water recedes, leaving only small puddles where animals fight for resources that are gradually becoming more and more scarce. Only those that manage to latch on to the main stream survive.
Almost paradoxically, there is a small community of like-minded architects that produce extremely good architecture. Despite unfavourable circumstances, low and non-existing budgets, absence of project briefs and coherent ideas from investors, poor legal framework and, as if that was not enough, constraints presented by the lack of skilled labour that can actually construct their ideas, they somehow manage to design buildings that can stand with the best in the world. Architecture here is the architecture of survival, hustling, zero-budget improvisations, constant struggle, architecture of making do and getting by.
Just like AABH. But we digress…
While we (architects) have to constantly argue with investors and prove that having windows in your bedroom is actually a good idea, the rest of the world is advancing. BIM, a hot topic for the last couple of years, is a de facto standard today and new technologies are already on the horizon. There is too much going on in the world for us to just sit and wait for things to change. Why don’t we, instead of designing an illegal addition to a garage that the investor wants transformed into a motel with a slaughterhouse and a used tire shop with a helipad on top, at least try to be a part of it?
Architecture as a trade was traditionally tied to a place or a country. In the not so distant past, save for starchitects’ offices, few architects worked outside their home country. Regulations, permits, construction codes and legal obstacles thwarted the idea. Besides, technical solutions for remote collaboration were not developed yet. Today, the landscape is changing. With the advancement of broadband came various services that facilitate collaboration and remote work. That collaboration is still limited at this stage, but with improvements in BIM and the advancement of VR the need to be physically sitting in the office to design or even supervise construction will diminish. The architecture will, we hope, open up and go the same way IT and creative industries are already going. When large Asian economies step into that market, that world is going to be overwhelming, just like the most popular outsourcing websites for IT and design now. We are now taking one step forward. We are going small. What we want is a small community, easily manageable and talent oriented.
So, here is the platform. A small place that we made with the support from Swiss government that came through our friends who call themselves MarketMakers. It’s a place where, hopefully, some deals will be struck and some work done. But, while that matters to us, of course, we also hope that it will connect architects and make their work more free. The site will be connected to our physical space, our co-working hub in Sarajevo. The hub is a small place where some of us work, collaborate, learn, experiment and generally have fun most of the time. Hub members are some of the most agile and resourceful, having both the ability to quickly gather around bigger projects or have the freedom to work on smaller designs individually. We named the site Archlink. There is no exotic philosophy behind the name. It’s just a place where we connect and promote architects. As simple as that.
But why us? Why would an obscure bunch of architects tucked in the deep woods of the Balkans think that this could work?
All those sexy socialist and brutalist buildings and all those moody “Spomeniks” (we hate that word, but ok) that are all the hype on the Internet had to be designed by someone. Architecture schools here were founded by Bauhaus students and Le Corbusier collaborators. There are hundreds of extremely talented architects that are forced to survive by working for peanuts or fleeing the country and we simply can’t bear to watch that anymore. We built this site because we need it. We need something that will change the landscape for young architects right know. And we believe that the problem is not confined to a small area where we currently live. We don’t want to become rich, to “disrupt the economy”, become the next Facebook, next Uber or next whatever that, in the end, just makes people more miserable.
If the site proves to help someone from who knows where, if it helps connect talents from anywhere in the world, if it helps them grow and fulfil their potential – then we have succeeded.
That’s why we tasked ourselves to check everyone on the site very thoroughly. What we want is to have people who are really into architecture. But not only that, we want people who are easy to cooperate with. You know, normal people. We worked very hard to establish some credibility for this organization and that’s what we want to extend to the platform. Language skills, software skills and company resources and quality of work will be thoroughly assessed so that we can guarantee that people here can be tasked with the assignments they bid on.
The title of this article is not quite a quote from the movie Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner. The quote became a meme recently. In the movie, Costner, an Iowa corn farmer, builds a baseball stadium in the hope that people will come to watch the games and thus, through that project, make peace with his late father. If we observe his behaviour in the movie from a strictly objective perspective, he is probably mentally ill and his idea is doomed from the start.
And that’s what we did.
Far from going all Leeroy Jenkins on this, we made thorough preparations. Market research, mapping, financial plans all that stuff architects actually don’t do. We also double-checked the second and third pages of Google search results and we are completely sure that no one actually tried something like this before. (Whether that says something about our ingenuity or complete stupidity of the idea, is something we will quickly find out). We actually think it can, but considering the obstacles and constraints that we are facing, its feasibility under these exact circumstances remains to be seen.
But, whatever. Here in front of you is the fruit of our labour, a result produced by fools and idealists (perhaps they are one and the same). Certainly, it is not perfect but it is done out of love. It is place, a tool, call it what you like, but without you it is meaningless. We made it. Now it’s up to you.