Welcome back to “Archipreneur Insights”, the interview series with leaders who are responsible for some of the world’s most exciting and creatively disarming architecture. The series largely follows those who have an architectural degree but have since followed an entrepreneurial or alternative career path but also interviews other key players in the building and development community who have interesting angles on the current state of play in their own field.
This week’s interview is with Igor Marko and Petra Marko, founders of Marko&Placemakers.
Marko&Placemakers is a city design and research consultancy based in London.
Their concept of placemaking is about understanding the city as a living organism, linking the different layers of a city in unexpected ways and creating new narratives to allow curiosity and desire to interlace with the physical space, both existing and new. In this experiential design process, the role of Marko&Placemakers is that of a creator, bringing new ideas, as well as a mediator, linking existing processes and people.
And process – interaction, mediation and communication with groups and people – is the core of the work of the consultancy.
Keep reading to learn how these two architects address social, environmental and economic issues that cities face today.
I hope you enjoy the interview!
What made you decide to found Marko&Placemakers? Was there a particular moment that sealed the decision for you?
Igor: Our paths crossed collaborating on public realm projects. I had previously led FoRM Associates, an urban design practice. Petra worked as architect at John McAslan + Partners before qualifying as a ‘creative entrepreneur’ to develop her role as enabler and facilitator.
We strongly felt there is a new paradigm in city making, which is about involvement and education of users. While our portfolio builds on a decade of hands-on experience of implementing urban regeneration projects at FoRM, our goal with the new consultancy was to work much more closely with the clients and users in the strategic and conceptual phases of projects.
The initial stages are when important decisions are made with impact on long term design quality and resilience of places. This negotiation process often happens without creative input and doesn’t have a holistic understanding. Form an entrepreneurial perspective this is a niche our consultancy operates in, striving to break generic and mechanical city making processes.
What are the major problems and opportunities that cities face in the 21st century?
Igor: The biggest problems are inflexible and technocratic planning systems, which can’t cope with constant change – a natural state of cities today. Lack of effective instruments of communication; distrust between the citizens, local government and private sector; and ultimately lack of political vision add to the planning conundrum. “Who owns the city” (David Harvey) is a question pertinent to 21st Century urbanisation.
On a global scale, migration and climate change are huge challenges that cities can’t solve on their own – we need to work together as a global community. Transport and mobility remain big issues as cities try to move towards pedestrian-friendly environment while retaining the convenience of cars. Recent transformations such as pedestrianisation of Times Square in New York show that it is possible to reverse the trend from a car-oriented to a people-oriented environment.
On the other hand, multi-million cities are springing up in Asia entirely focused on cars. It is a challenge the global leaders need to address urgently. That’s why it is important that architects have the right communication tools to engage with policy makers about these issues.
What services does your company provide to create successful solutions for city development?
Petra: Our work addresses the overlaps between place, process and people, reaching beyond the physical aspects of design. In this experiential design process, we see the role of the placemaker as that of a creator, bringing new ideas, as well as a mediator, linking existing processes and people. We often work on client side in the strategic phases of projects – helping them to develop the brief and long term vision, as well as a ‘roadmap’ how to achieve this.
We see public space infrastructure as fundamental in city making, especially when creating new urban areas. Public space is the glue in between – an exchange space for people, which helps develop character of a place through joint experiences.
Our work is supported by continuous socio-economic research, which identifies strengths and performance of neighbourhoods in order to help integrate new development as well as supporting the existing assets of the place. Our approach is ‘parametric’ in that each of our projects revolves around its specific challenges. While our core team remains small, we collaborate with a wide network of experts, often beyond the field of architecture and urbanism, such as economists, sociologists, geographers or artists.
How do you create great places? What strategies does your company provide?
Igor: Our ‘signature’ as a consultancy is our way of working – i.e. the process, rather than specific aesthetics or form. Our process can be described through several principles. Firstly, inclusivity and sustainability – not only ecological but more importantly social, understanding the impact of projects on existing and future communities. Secondly, it is the experience a place enables – something that may sound basic but for us is fundamental, such as meeting friends. And finally – communication – without which nothing could happen!
Our approach is about facilitating and negotiating change using design thinking and creative tools drawing on these principles. We believe that successful city making needs to combine both bottom up and top down approach, in order to sustain growth and genuine character of places. This means not only engagement of local people and stakeholders, but also lobbying and negotiating with decision makers to ensure that energy invested into bottom up initiatives will have genuine and lasting effect on the whole community, not just communities of interest.
Who are the clients you usually work for?
Petra: We work for public, private as well as third sector. Our consultancy is part of London Mayor’s special assistance team for High Streets regeneration. Many of the local High Streets which used to be central hubs for the capital’s town centres are struggling with competition from shopping malls and other more popular destinations.
In our research we focus on building on the existing qualities of these places. By engaging the local shop owners and visitors we uncover potential of places which can be often harnessed through simple interventions and support. We have already mapped the London Olympic legacy area and several London boroughs, revealing the people behind the local economy. Our most recent study of Coulsdon Town Centre for London Borough of Croydon will establish the base of a Business Improvement District, which will help attract greater mix and build on the existing assets of the town centre.
Igor: On another scale, we are working on several riverfront masterplans in Central Europe, where we oversee the public realm strategy – so we are working as an intermediary between architects, the client and the municipality. In Bratislava, we are working on the public realm framework for a new city quarter designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. The new mixed used development will integrate an existing industrial heritage building which will act as a cultural hub for the place.
Alongside these strategic projects, we have also completed a number of public realm commissions, including a community park and a new public space within an administrative complex. We also enjoy getting involved in projects outside Europe, with successful competition collaborations in South Korea and Singapore, where we were recently shortlisted for a strategic vision for Orchard Road – the central shopping precinct of Singapore – in collaboration with ARUP.
Which one was your most challenging project and why?
Igor: Northala Fields Park in London has been the most challenging, but perhaps also most rewarding project, which fundamentally shifted my thinking about the role of architects. Architects naturally default to controlling up to the last detail. In case of Northala park, we have gone through a two-year participatory process, where locals were directly engaged in shaping the future programme and activities within the new park. Working directly with the users meant that as designers we could always test ideas in discussion with people and make them better suited for their needs.
Our role as designers went beyond the physical aspects to developing a financial model – we used recycled construction waste from adjacent developments. The deposit of this inert waste material generated £6milllion income to create a new topology and programmable landscape at no cost to the taxpayers. Today, Northala is a vital community asset and people actively take care of the park. Coming back after years to see that the park is becoming more and more loved and cared for by the people is what motivates me.
Petra, you have a degree in Creative Entrepreneurship in addition to your architecture degree. From your experience, do you think this is absolutely necessary in order to run a consultancy?
Petra: Since the economic crisis of 2008, the architecture profession has been adapting to the new realities of the industry – lack of investment, unstable political landscape, as well as global factors such as climate change. I found there was little room for discussing these challenges in practice.
If you are working on a tender package of a £40million building, it is all about the detail and delivery. I was interested in the bigger picture – how does a project come off the ground in the first place – how to assemble the best team for it – and how to retain a vision from inception up to completion.
ICCE (Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship) was in its second year running at Goldsmiths when I joined the course in 2009. I conceived of my masters’ as a ‘sabbatical’ to allow me to get out of the ‘architecture box’ and explore the possibility to develop my role as facilitator of built environment.
The learning process at ICCE was very much revolving around each individual student as we were a diverse mix of creative individuals from a wide range of backgrounds from performance, media and music through to architecture and design. It was very much about recognising and fine tuning one’s personal values and reflecting these onto our professional lives; as well as huge amount of practical learning from business planning and time management to networking.
The course Director Sian Prime’s one-to-one approach gave invaluable guidance and confidence to each of us on our path ‘in between’. Many of the people I studied with remain good friends to date and a great network beyond the architecture field.
Alongside my masters’ I also started working for an architect-turn-developer (Solidspace) and gained a glimpse of the development process from the other side of the fence. This was really eye-opening. You start understanding that the architect is part of the process only for a limited period in the middle – with important strategic phase and post occupancy phase on either side. Land acquisition, which in London is the biggest challenge, along with financing, are perhaps two most significant factors determining any new development.
It is not surprising that many architects today act as facilitators of self-built housing projects, in order to gain more control over the building process and thus also the final product and its financial viability. This role requires additional skill sets apart from design and an MA in creative entrepreneurship or even a ‘traditional’ MBA could provide the additional tools that many architecture schools lack.
You told me you are currently part of the new London School of Architecture (LSA) practice network and leading the Unstable City design think tank. Could you tell us a little about this project?
Petra: The London School of Architecture was set up by Will Hunter and his colleagues as a response to the need of a more practice-based education model, which would prepare students for the realities of the profession today. With my interest in architecture education I was immediately drawn to the school and our practice joined the LSA network right at the start. It is a very exciting time with the first academic year nearly completed.
We led the LSA Unstable City design think tank jointly with Grimshaw architects and over the past 6 months our group of students developed ideas around the notion of instability as positive phenomena. Our starting point was that cities are in constant change. We embraced this change and sought to understand London’s instability as an unlocking mechanism for sustainable development.
Our aim was to explore resilient and responsive approach to understand, design and manage the evolutionary balance of London in face of the pressures of the next 25-50 years on the case study of Rotherhithe, a somewhat ‘forgotten’ central predominately residential area on London’s riverfront. The research and proposals from all five think tanks will be published online so look out for news on the LSA website. You can also find out more about the school and its ethos by reading the Archipreneur interview with the founder, Will Hunter.
Do you have any advice for “Archipreneurs” who are interested in starting their own business?
Petra: Become an expert at communicating. Nice images won’t be enough – you need to be able to describe the benefits of your work and the process not only to your peers, but to a range of people from investors through to the users. Promote your work where your clients are – it is nice to be featured in architecture magazines, but these are often followed by architects only.
While architects are an important and natural network you will be part of, reaching beyond the field can be surprisingly rewarding. Get out as much as possible and don’t be shy to ask questions – people who are passionate about their work always have a good piece of advice, no matter how ‘important’ they are. And finally follow your instincts and be true to yourself.
How do you see the future of the architectural profession? In which areas (outside of traditional practice) can you see major opportunities for up and coming developers and architects?
Igor: I think it is time for architects to get engaged with politics in order to enact change. Cities today are the most powerful social and economic structures, and while we are in an increasingly digitally networked world, cities are still physical structures and urbanism and politics are inherently interconnected.
Architects default to communicating with each other, but it is vital that the value of architecture is promoted at policy level as well as towards the general public. A good example is the office of Chief Urban Designer in New York City. Any bottom up processes that make cities more livable can only thrive and survive while there is good decision making enabling this from the top down.
About the founders Igor Marko and Petra Marko
Marko&Placemakers is part of a growing wave of new city design consultancy that fundamentally shifts from a product-focused to a process-based urbanism. Their role is often strategic, looking at the overlaps between place, process and people, and goes beyond the physical aspects of design to address socio-economic issues.
Igor Marko is the co-founder and director of Marko&Placemakers. He has extensive experience in advising on strategy and integration of public realm in new developments and major regeneration schemes. Igor has led transformational projects including Northala Fields Park in London, critically acclaimed as an exemplar of people-led sustainability. His experimental approach to urbanism crossing boundaries between art, architecture and public space resulted in visionary ideas preparing the ground for transformation of London’s pedestrian and cycling environment.
Alongside practice, Igor is a passionate mentor, having supervised initiatives for organisations including European Urban Design Laboratory Stadslab and various architecture schools. He is a regular speaker at debates concerning participatory placemaking including forums such as European Economic Congress (Katowice), reSITE conference (Prague) and Changwon Eco City (Korea).
Petra Marko is an architect, communicator and enabler of creative projects within the urban realm. She is co-founder of Marko&Placemakers and believes that sustainable design practice is about combining creativity with hands-on facilitation, mediation and communication. Pursuing her role as facilitator of good quality built environment, Petra completed a masters in Creative Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London.
She has been actively promoting research and entrepreneurship through her work, as a member of the RIBA Small Practice Group and as leader of the Unstable City design think tank at the London School of Architecture. Petra has led several High Street and employment studies in the UK and Europe and has been a contributor to numerous initiatives including RIBA Guerrilla Tactics, reSITE (Prague) and Urban Transcripts (London and Berlin). She is the author of Together Alone. Architecture and Collaboration – a book exploring the future role of architects.