Arboit Diez (Mikrourbanisme AS): “What actually makes a city richer is to believe in design” | Interview

Newsroom 15/06/2016 | 15:17

Urban beekeeping is the newest and strongest environmental movement, with designers pushing the creativity to new limits and expectations. Present at the Romanian Design Week to show its project By-Bi, Facundo Arboit Diez, founding partner of Mikrourbanisme AS, offered BR an exclusive interview about the project that made his company worldwide famous, the Norwegian architecture market and the new design values and forms.

Romanita Oprea


Please tell us more about the Bee Highway project and its urbanistic challenges.

The project that we are presenting is a Bee House, in the business center of Oslo and it has been created in order to produce attention, calling big, international companies to set up business there. This is one of the reason we found very interesting to make this project happening.

The conditions for the project were a little bit complicated, because we had to have bees at the 13th floor, the place is by the harbor, therefore is very windy, very high up and there isn’t too much food for the bees there. It was a complex situation to work with. But, at the same time, for me, the more complex the project is, the more fun I have thinking about it and creating it.

The esthetics of the project are very much related to the conditions of the environment and the different challenges we had to surpass in order to achieve what we intended to. That’s why what we did with the façade (different openings that are denser in some arias and less dense in others) was with the purpose of keeping the temperature inside at a stable level and increasing the sun impact in different parts of the year, when the bees need it the most. And also to protect them from the wind and other weather related issues.

We also benefited of a top location. To have the bees on a business top location talks about how important this project is for the urban economy, because this is urban agriculture and it helps the local market and produces local honey for the people of the city. At the same time it responds to some needs that the bees have in order to produce their own food and to protect themselves from different environmental problems. Moreover, it represents a mapping system. By tasting their honey you have a taste of the environment around you.

This project is more about awareness and understanding that we are part of a bigger eco-system. The city doesn’t have to crush the other systems and the environment, on the contrary. We have to learn how to live together with other species and what is important for them, in this urban environment. What we do is affecting them and at the same time affecting us, on the long run. It’s the little details that are making the difference.

So, in that context, next to the Bee House, we had two other projects. One was the Bumblebee streets (more of a guerrilla installation) – we created some molds that we painted and put them on the streets, with bee related patterns, so that we could raise awareness for the bees and get questions from the people that we would then offer answers to. We succeeded in creating awareness about the bees being present in the city and making people relate to these little creatures.

We also wanted to see the city from the perspective of a pollinator and understand if the city is a good environment for different species.

So was this project prior to the Bee Highway?

We actually started with the Bee Highway website, which is an interesting topic because it’s a collaborative mapping system. What we did was to set up the plan of the city and a system where people could map where they find a pollinating plant, take a picture of it and uploaded on the map. It created a healthy competition between people of who is doing more for the city and a buzz of shares on social media.

After this we were contacted by PwC, who wanted to collaborate with us and help us on our plan of raising the awareness and who ultimately also funded the Bee House. In their company there was a person who is a bee keeper and helped us take the project even further.

We are an architecture company, but I realized that architecture has changed in the last years. Now we have the possibility to build campaigns or any kind of project, doesn’t matter its size, to put it out there for people to see it, create buzz around it, have people read about it and give us their feedback. Moreover, motivate their curiosity about it. This is, in my opinion, the greatest value of architecture today.

Did you work with an advertising agency in order to create the buzz that you were talking about or was it just a team work?

The person that came up with the idea is Agnes Lyche Melvaer, who is a partner in our company, in Mikrourbanisme, our spin-off company that we started almost 8 months ago. She has a very good relationship with the environmental office in Oslo and she came up with the idea, everybody was super positive about it and lined up behind her. After applying for funds we were able to kick start the website and from that point on it was a rollercoaster: things happened and started to work really fast. If you do something that is in the mind of the people it becomes very inspiring and gives you the power to keep going with the project.

What we did next was to bring information to the interested people: what are the conditions that the bees need in order to strive and to nest, to grow and to develop in the city, how they can help and then create this back and forth with showing others what you are doing.

How did you decide to come to Romania and present your project during Romanian Design Week?

Due to the big impact that the Bee Highway had in the media (articles from The Guardian, ABC from Australia, CBC from Canada, etc, even from Thailand) we were contacted and invited to come to Romania. We were delighted, because for us is a really good opportunity to present our work.

What I heard prior to coming here, was that Romania is investing more and more in design development, which I believe is a great investment. What actually makes a city richer is to believe in design.

The Scandinavian countries know how to put the emphasize on design, they understand that is a “culture creator” in the city. If the city is culturally rich the people want to go there, live there, and that produces economic growth.

Do you believe that the Scandinavian architecture has some characteristics that make it different from other architectural industries in the world?

Yes. Every place has its own character and its own history and technological reality. Those are factors that make people use a certain kind of material or a certain shape instead of other. Everything is kind of limited to the resources that the designer has. It also has to do with the functions that the people need to address in each social context. In Scandinavia is more about having extraordinary interior design in the houses or having a really striving city or being a really organized city. Everything is about cleaning and creating better solutions for the city, as much as possible.

There are other cities, like Barcelona, for instance, that pushes to be richer, to have more and more things going on, almost like a little bit of chaos, overlap of functions. But that I think it has to do with the social context. Also, the more cosmopolitan the city tends to be the more overlap of cultures you tend to have and that gives you, as a designer, different solutions or functions to address.

For Romania is a great opportunity to produce something, because there are a lot of things to address here, in my opinion. Coming to Romania you see so much richness and so many things you can address or rethink or even maybe modify in some way. And that is what for a designer or an architect makes an ideal environment.

And that is why I decided to go and work in Oslo and not in Copenhagen or Gothenburg, because they are cities that are already almost resolved their environmental issues. When I got to Oslo the first impression I had was that is Norway is a very rich country when it comes to nature and it has excellent natural environment, people are warm and very curious. Then, you see that is a city that has grown too much in what I could call “the worst years of development” (after the modern movement and the industrialization, when the belief for the city to be an “ordered, concrete, dry place” was important). While right now it has been proven that the greener the city is, the better is to live in it. And it attracts more people and produces a stronger use of public spaces. And that makes it socially richer.

So Oslo is learning the “law of the sustainability”. Something that Romania should learn as well.

Of course. I think that sustainability is an essential topic these days. “Water is getting to the neck” and now is the time to figure what the way to organize ourselves in order to have a rich city, where people are happy and social and a city that responds to environmental constrains and the problems that the people created to it by the industrialization. It’s really important to see how we deal with big urban issues like waste, transportation, etc, and not to copy-paste from what other countries did, but create our own solutions, customized to our situation.

What I’ve learnt recently is that most of the things that make a city rich have more to do with the political will to let people do what they want and let people organize themselves into creating their own solutions and find ways of funding them. People should live as they want to, not as they are told to.

But doesn’t the city need to have a cohesive image?

Yes, it does, but here is the place where the real actors come to solve the problems. It has to do with the community and the ownership of the community. The participation of the community in the urban projects is really important. That is what will produce a personality for the place. If you have a mix community you will have mix solutions, if you have a community with certain cultural qualities there are solutions that are going to relate to those cultural qualities.

What is your company’s positioning on the market, what do you do different?

We are not a big architectural firm. We are 4 experienced individuals, all with our own strengths and specialties. Our main goal is to be organic and not be so structured, just to keep least structure possible and then just be free to do what makes us happy. And then when a project comes in we just brainstorm in together and whom feels that is more eager to go for it and has the possible solutions for it just creates a module and we fail prove it and we take it from there.

A very important thing to point out is that in Argentina, where I was born, we have the same approach as the Southern European or the South-Eastern Europeans countries: there is very little patience in general and even less patience for design. People think that if you are a designer you are going to solve the problem in an instance, because this is what you studies for. When, actually, design is more about fail proving, making a model and putting it out there, see how it works and experiment with it and then go for another beta version and another one and so on. Is very rare that you build something and create an alpha version on the first try.

With the ByBi project, even if it was a fast one (the bees were coming in 3 weeks), I had to do a lot of research about them, understand the conditions they needed. It took a lot of work and believing in it.

We did 4 or 5 projects this year from around 35 potential projects. So, patience is key.

What do you do when you are inspired and you have a deadline and you really have to do it?

I try to clear my mind that is a good reason for which I live in Norway. I try to go snowboarding, because this is my solution for getting in the “now” thinking. I have to clear my mind about what is happening tomorrow, about the deadline, of the future, of the outcomes, problems, etc. Because the now is all you have and all you can do. Of course is very difficult if you are overwhelmed and fighting a project. But this is my way out.

For example, another colleague of mine is doing yoga.

I think it has to do with the environment we chose for our office. We are not looking over each other’s shoulders. We all know our deadlines. So if we are a day before presenting the project and not having the solution yet I think you should just go out, chill out for some hours and then you will have to spend the night working. But not because I’ve told you to, but because you know you have to, it’s your responsibility.

When you are a designer, your design is your baby and it’s also about being happy with comes out of the door of your studio. For me when I send something outside the door that I am not extremely happy about I still have peace of mind because I know I did everything I could in the time I had and if it doesn’t work, then I can do it again.

Think about what you can do right now instead of worrying about what may happen tomorrow.

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