Attila Kim talks about wood, translating art into space and the idiosyncrasy of Romanian architecture
At 38, Attila Kim is the Romanian architect with the most national prizes and the man who managed to rehabilitate the image of wood in architecture, especially that of the fir tree, as a 21st-century material at a time when Romania considered it exclusively rustic. Kim’s love for wood started in his childhood, when he was playing with the communist wooden equivalent of Lego. Although he claims a disinterest in eternity, and a tendency to be absorbed by the here and now, it is the timeless elegance of wood that determines his long-standing attachment to it.
His projects range widely from a Secession-period cinema, an ecological centre in the countryside and residential projects, through to collaborations on exhibitions for the Venice Biennale and the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNCA). His buildings got six awards at the Romanian National Biennale of Architecture, two nominations for the Mies van der Rohe Award and one nomination for the Iacov Chernikov Prize, among other accolades.
‘I see so much potential in Romania and Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a place that inspires me a lot’
Kim’s time is split between residential architectural projects and architectural design for art exhibitions. Having read fine art at university, he has retained an eye for contemporary art. He is of the same generation as Romania’s best-known contemporary artists such as Adrian Ghenie, Mircea Cantor and the Fabrica de Pensule group, an interdisciplinary group of artists and curators from Cluj, a Transylvanian town, focused on socially engaged, community and conceptual art; Kim collaborates closely with them.
What he likes about Romania is how idiosyncratic it is, and how it varies from the small traditional village architecture and the charming museum towns of Transylvania to the dynamic, eclectic spirit of Bucharest. While other Eastern Europeans see their birth region as a black hole, Kim sees it as a land of opportunity.
Where are you from in Romania?
I was born in Targu Mures, a medium-sized town in the centre of Romania. But I live in Bucharest now.
Why did you become an architect?
I grew up in a family of artistic intellectuals – my mother did music and piano, my father pharmacy and my maternal grandfather was a painter with a degree in art. My sister and I were always pushed towards the intellectual and artistic areas – she eventually did piano and musicology.
I played with wooden construction toys from an early age, and my parents encouraged me to go down the architecture route. At the age of 10 I went to art school, but it was clear to me that I didn’t want to become an artist; my education was just preparing me for architecture.
What kind of work do you do?
I design houses where I work with the residents directly. I try to help clients to ask themselves questions about their future they haven’t yet asked – what happens when their children leave the house, when they grow old? Otherwise, residential clients tend to switch on autopilot. Once you enter a dialogue with your clients and you explain that the house has to express their needs in the long term, their enthusiasm grows; I feed myself on that enthusiasm. In this way, the house becomes the home – it’s not the place in which they just want to sleep and not work, but the place to which they can’t wait to return.
Because I went to art school, I’ve always been surrounded by visual artists so I also collaborate with curators and artists to design exhibition spaces. In 2012, I did architectural and curatorial work for the greatest Romanian contemporary art exhibition abroad, which took place in Budapest at the Kunsthalle. After that, I collaborated with the MNAC and one of my latest projects (in 2015) was the Romanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, showcasing Adrian Ghenie’s exhibition.
Casa meda romania
Ghenie remembers recent history in his works. I reinterpreted the original three-room structure of the pavilion, which was transformed into one single space in the ’60s. So in the rectangular space of the Romanian Pavilion, I insisted on the classical museum structure with central doors. But as the viewer moves on, they discover the walls they believed to be solid are, in fact, temporary structures, similar to a set design. They see the back of the wall, all made out of wood painted in black and discover that the apparent rigidity of the space is ephemeral.
In the middle of the exhibition, the viewer finds themself in a no-man’s land, 2m wide, a black space with no natural light that links the main parts of the exhibition, such as the portrait of Lenin and an irreverent series of Ghenie’s Pie Fight Study. Immediately afterwards, a calm space is re-entered: white walls and natural light, like a revelation, a rebirth.
What is it like being an architect in Romania?
I wouldn’t be able to work anywhere else. I had the opportunity to study abroad (USA, the Netherlands, Hungary…) but I always craved to return home. My studies and travels charge me with the energy and the ideas I want to apply here. I see so much potential in Romania and Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a place that inspires me a lot.
I couldn’t have ever designed my own building at 28 in Western Europe [for which Kim was awarded the National Biennale of Architecture Prize]. This lack of hierarchy and my direct access to beneficiaries and art exhibitions is unique in Romania.
Does the Romanian architectural tradition inspire you?
Yes, especially if it’s relevant for the place where my project is developed. For the ecological education centre, for example, I replicated the dimensions of local architecture. If you come with a building of 3,000sqm in a village with small, one-storey houses, it may feel like an UFO – so we built the centre as a bunch of small wooden houses, collaborating with local craftsmen.
The proposal for the Milan pavilion was also inspired by traditional architecture, and particularly by its sustainability, which comes from the use of local resources and the connection to the seasonal cycle.
Educational Center romania
What is the context (social, political, architectural) in which you are working?
Bucharest doesn’t have a planned development like Vienna, Paris or Budapest, which are stuck in the 19th century. You can find any kind of building on any street – a house with a garden, a four-storey block from the interwar period, an office building, the neo-Romanian house. I am not talking about the quality of this architecture but of its dynamism.
So Bucharest is more flexible with the architect and the beneficiaries. In Sibiu and Cluj, which are museum cities, the architect is subordinated to the architectural environment. I think the idiosyncrasy of Bucharest must continue, and the public – the inhabitants as well as the tourists – must be helped to understand it.
‘Bucharest is flexible with the architect and the benficiaries but its inhabitants have a lack of attachment for the city as a cultural space’
But the problem of Bucharest is the lack of attachment its inhabitants have for the city as a cultural space. The majority of existing spaces are treated as a problem, not an opportunity. Everyone prefers to work from scratch. This is partly because most of Bucharest’s inhabitants don’t have a local patriotism as they have come from other areas of the country, but it’s also a lack of architectural culture.
What inspires you?
People and conversations. The creativity of people around me. Seeing them fighting for the ideas they believe in and not getting scared by daily problems or others around them.
What kind of architecture, besides the Romanian tradition, inspires you?
What interests me in architecture is change. For instance, there is a sense of laboratory that comes from Japanese residential architecture. They’re not happy with what we already know, they don’t just want a good result but a different good result.
I like architecture that belongs to a place, that takes into account the history of that place. The architecture that puts a human being and not an object at the forefront.
What project are you most proud of?
I don’t have one. I never go back to visit my old projects. The Elvire Popesco cinema I renovated is only 10 minutes away from my house but I only go there if there’s a great film on that I can’t see anywhere else. The last time I see an exhibition is at its opening. I am terribly attached to the work during the design and execution phases but once the project is ready, both the building and myself have our own separate lives.
What are your favourite design tools?
I draw by hand. We do the design in 3D and then translate it into 2D. In our communication with the clients, we use virtual reality to make the presentation. People have a better trained eye for video games than for 2D or 3D designs.
How would you like to be remembered in history?
I believe that the value of the contemporary human being should be felt while they are active. I do believe in values that should surpass generations but I feel closely rooted in a particular time and space. So perhaps I’d like to be remembered for my attitude towards a social environment.
Lead Image: Educational Centre, Turulung-Vii, Romania, 2011