We must provide the best - Florian Frotscher, concept architect of Agora Budapest
ÉF: As a London based architect, you live in a city with a very different atmosphere than Budapest. As a foreigner and as an architect how can you balance your global knowledge with local specialty?
Florian Frotscher: I love discovering new countries and new cities as an architect, and take whatever opportunity I can to collect inspiration from local advisors and companies. While planning Agora Budapest, our team was inspired by Hungary’s rich cultural heritage and architectural traditions. When you walk through the city, you can see amazing detailed work on each building. We tried to incorporate this into the project – we wanted to reflect this attention to detail in the small details of Agora Budapest. Of course, we’re not looking to copy these details one-to-one; instead, we’ve found an abstract way to express them by developing a sensitive, articulate massing concept and choosing materials rooted in the local vernacular, including white ceramic facades that reflect the city’s strong tradition of ceramic ornamentation.
ÉF: HB Reavis wants a human-scale, people-oriented development. How can this be accomplished with such a huge development?
FF: Getting to know the environment and engaging with future users as well as local advisors has been key to creating a friendly, human-scale and open building complex. A crucial aspect of achieving this is making the public realm as open as possible and providing numerous public amenities. We have linked the individual buildings directly to both the public realm and their immediate context. We made a great effort to provide a variety of different spaces within the public realm so people can find what fits them best. Along with the planned 30 shops and new cycle paths, there will be numerous gardens, trees and grassy open spaces for people to explore, plus a beautiful central ‘agora’ that provides a focal point. Inside, the development will offer a contemporary working environment that prioritises wellbeing by providing ample natural light and connections to the outside world, including the green public realm.
ÉF: What was your main concept with the masterplan?
FF: Our core concept was to create a holistic development rather than a bunch of different buildings side by side. The vision was not to create an architectural zoo of many different buildings but a family in which each building, while expressing its own characteristics, is legible as a member. So the low buildings are not simply ‘next’ to the tall ones, per se, but part of a broader linked development.
ÉF: Make Architects’ singular aim is to design the best buildings, places and spaces in the world. While planning Agora Budapest, you put great effort to creating community spaces beside the office buildings. As your motto is to design the best, what makes a public space to the best?
FF: An ideal public space prioritises the needs of the people who will be using it. For Agora Budapest, we examined precedents across Europe – squares in London as well as in Budapest, Paris and Vienna – and found that what unites the most successful ones is their human scale and focus on serving users. Achieving this means considering variety and activity – making sure the right mix of spaces are provided to enable a range of activities. Versatility is also important – how can we maximise the function of a public space and enable its use to change across the day? And then there’s connectivity – ensuring people have easy access to the space and can comfortably find their way around it.
These considerations can be seen in Agora Budapests’s pedestrianised squares and market streets, which can be accessed from all sides, as well as the variety of characters visible across the public realm – the transient arrival square, the multi-functional central agora, the tranquil square from the Danube side. With its array of retail and breakout functions, the public realm will provide external workspaces along with areas for quiet and retreat.
ÉF: How can a building complex become an organic and living part of the city?
FF: Establishing a connection with the development’s immediate context is crucial. With Agora Budapest, we studied the local environment and determined that a permeable ground floor with public transport connections would be key to weaving the development into the city’s fabric. We’re connecting to the adjacent metro station, which serves up to 20,000 people a day, to deliver a new retail space and create level access into the scheme’s arrival square. We’re also integrating the development into the city’s growing bicycle path network and merging the office and retail functions to create a genuinely open, public place. The development will not shut down overnight and features a variety of recreational offers, including a planned public viewing terrace at the top of one building.
ÉF: How can an enormous project like this be sustainable?
FF: It sounds counterintuitive, but when you consider economies of scale, a large, compact building complex is naturally more sustainable than that same offer of workspace distributed across a city. We’ve prioritised efficiency in the buildings by using as few resources as possible, providing natural shading where we can, reducing the amount of glass through upstands and balustrades, and specifying natural, self-cleaning and long-lasting materials for the facades, such as ceramics.
The links to public transport are also important here, particularly the integrated cycle paths and the focus on a smooth arrival experience for cyclists, who will benefit from parking, showers, lockers and bike services on site. This will not only encourage the development’s workforce to cycle into work but also ensure that cycling is not treated as a second-class means of transport.
ÉF: Our world is totally different now than it was 10, 20 and 50 years ago. How can an architect design something today that is timeless and becomes iconic? Is there still a need for a country, a city degining building?
FF: In my view, timelessness is best achieved by focusing on the key functions of buildings and their environments and providing a pleasant space for people to get together and pursue their various activities. These activities will only continue to become more varied, so the spaces accommodating them must be versatile and robust – ‘simple’ in a way and not overly prescriptive. We tried to make the buildings for Agora Budapest as elegant and timeless as possible, not by following any trends but by reducing the amount of detail to the necessary minimum. They maintain enough expression of detail to have a human scale and approachability, and to fit into the city-wide context, but do not run the risk of seeming faddish several decades on.
A distinguishing factor for this development is the way the public realm between the buildings is open to all, which is not typical in a business development. This is truly the way forward in terms of serving the community and fully integrating new office schemes into a city’s fabric. We’ve put a great deal of effort into ensuring the buildings communicate with this landscape and the transition from one to the other is seamless. We hope that through this, as much as through their calm, confident appearance on the skyline, the buildings will eventually become icons of quality.
ÉF: What is the architect’s responsibility today?
FF: From a moral perspective, I think it is – today as much as ever – to provide the best possible service to our clients as well as to the cities and communities we build in. Without our clients’ investment, there would not be any development and no improvement of the urban fabric and the offer of the city, so generating revenue for their investment is paramount. At the same time, this can only be achieved if we deliver a ‘working’, functioning development; otherwise the yields in the achievable rents will not stack up.
So, while some may perceive the aims of the client and the city as contradictory, a closer look reveals that with an enlightened client who has a long-term perspective on their development, the aims and goals are largely aligned. I see our role as architects largely as one of the facilitators of these aims – able to create a tangible ‘vision’ for manifesting the underlying ideas and responsible for doing our utmost to keep the project on track and in line with this overarching vision.
Interestingly, this does not mean it is our role to ensure the project in the end looks exactly as initially proposed – Agora Budapest has changed dramatically during the time of its design. Rather, it’s up to us to react to changing parameters, be they regulatory, political or commercial in nature, and refine the design as needed to more closely match the overarching ambition.
ÉF: As a foreigner, how do you see Hungarian architecture?
FF: I admire many aspects of the local vernacular, including the tradition of bright ceramic ornamentation, as well as the happy comingling of different historical styles: Roman, Gothic, Baroque, Turkish. I am especially interested in Hungary’s blend of old and new architecture, a quandary that architects across Europe are constantly grappling with, and in many novel and interesting ways. Budapest is increasingly exploring large-scale architecture as a means for addressing its growing commercial ambitions, including its booming tech sector, and this is a fascinating transition to be a part of with a development like Agora Budapest, which will house thousands of millennial workers.