To mark the founding of the Women’s Architectural Society we are publishing the interview with one of its founders and its first president, prof. PhD Eva Vaništa Lazarević, full-time professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Belgrade University, from the book Women in Architecture. Prof. Vaništa Lazarević is the author of numerous publications dealing with topics of urban reconstruction. Besides her academic work, she successfully runs her own architecture office. She is the author of a series of remarkable architectural realizations and the laureate of various awards. She was an adviser at the Ministry for environmental protection and spatial planning and also participated in the work of numerous professional bodies.
On Beginnings, Support and Role-Models
My first picture related to architecture, which I vaguely remember, was taken in completely white space of my father’s office, with drawing tables and T-square rulers. I had no more than five or six years then. Architecture was present throughout my growing up, from everyday conversations at the table, discussions, dialogues, comments in our house to Mies Barcelona furniture – at that time most unusual for non-architectural guests.
I never doubted what would be my future occupation, even as a child.
My father, still an important support and role-model in my life, did not believe in the possibility of my professional development in a different environment – that is why – I suppose, stubbornness, along with inherited diligence, is my strongest characteristic, that has probably unconsciously led me through my career.
Bauhaus movement, in the broadest sense, presents an axis, way of thinking I adopted very early – characteristic for the Zagreb architecture school and the artistic environment of my background. I graduated early, at 21, as a serious, responsible and too early matured. Still, in spite of my rational attitude, I was determined to, due to an emotional turn, stop practicing architecture and become a housewife in the capital of France, the most beautiful city in the World.
After a brief work experience in Rad company and usual tiresome non-creative architectural tasks of drafting, or to begin with, only erasing with razors, and then later bad experiences at the Heritage Preservation Institute, life brought me to the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade.
My arrival did not go unnoticed – though not because of me personally, but because 29 other candidates of male sex, all from this faculty. The issue of my origin was openly brought up (it was in 1990), but one of the most respected professors, without actually knowing me, publicly stood up for me. I learned this detail much later, by chance.
As a Master of Science (in preservation of building heritage, in Zagreb), I still had to start from the beginning: as a junior teaching assistant. It was an injustice, done to me by the faculty lawyer, quite common at that time.
Nevertheless, I have passed all steps up to the position of full-time professor without delays, unusually for our faculty environment. Until recently, before reaching the highest title (when you become a potential danger to the majority), I felt only good energy, blessed by friendship and professional affection of fellow-professors Miljković and Mladenović (my mentors), Mitrović, Arsić and Pavić. Professor Rajović created a sketchbook dedicated to me, where our colleagues would draw and write down their comments regularly.
I did what I studied for and what I enjoyed, in an environment that gladly accepted me. Today, it is considered to be almost impossible to achieve. And I am grateful for that privilege.
People in our line of work seldom give advice, so all my experience is gained through errors in entrepreneurship – and they were numerous: such as too great expectations and faith in people. I was new to business and had a totally anti-managerial way of thinking, leading my company – and here we are in a woman’s world – like a mother. Some fifty young colleagues, most of them female, came and went through the bureau and I believe to have provided them firstly with work élan and taught them to be responsible. Of course, the most important in the process were practical suggestions and upgrading of knowledge they lacked.
The results of their academic training were modest, probably due to insufficient engagement and ethics of individuals participating in the process. I believe that the problem is not in the structure of their training, but in teachers that did not give themselves enough and weren’t good role-models. All those problems aroused in the last decade.
Professional advices at the faculty, or rather negative objections, related always to my personal emotional approach – especially while i was the head of the Urban Planning Department. Still, I claim that emotionality, and vulnerability along with it, is the strongest female virtue and should not be given up. Even, literally, in a man’s line of work, at a construction site, with a helmet on. I wore high heels, for instance, throughout my entire career and I am a living example that it is impractical, but possible. It is a part of the femininity a lady-architect should not give up.
My advice today, in a hard year we live in, would certainly be to create a background before undertaking any business activities, such as founding your own office: that is everything that I did not have. You need a partner behind you, if possible a good and already powerful architect, you need a manager and (or) developer, so you wouldn’t have to maintain close contacts with the source of your problems – clients. A lawyer is necessary, to make sure you do not get crossed, because fraud is an omnipresent and constant danger. It is good to have political or social background support and, most of all, a good patron (medieval style). Personally, I said no to a patron of that sort once, and he is now one of World’s leading businessmen. I refused such a long-term trade as humiliating… perhaps I was wrong.
On Career Traps
I do not distinguish so called female and male jobs – people differ in wits or capabilities and I especially value in people their creativity and broad understanding.
I regret that still most of my former excellent female students, for various reasons, abandon forever their demanding profession. I am horrified by theeastern syndrome – the role of women imposed to us through media: educated women in passive position, happy to be housewives. As marriage is one of the institutions slowly vanishing as a form of social binding – such thinking is not long-term. I am not a person contemplating on lost times, I unwillingly look back on them, but a framework of relations within which women function nowadays has never been more complicated.My impulsive resolution of some twenty or more years to stop practicing architecture and leave the country for emotional reasons seemed simple and temporary at the time – an today would be an immense challenge.
To my daughters, I gave this advice: Private life and emotions are more important in life, and work and ambition can wait. If with that there is a chance for a female person to do a creative job she studied for – the better. Both my daughters did not learn (since I do not have that shield myself) to protect themselves from a bad environment and often suffer because of that: it is, in my opinion, the most important trap Little Red Riding Hoods need to foresee and overcome.
On Most Important Projects
My most important realized project was (in my subjective opinion) the residential complex in Teodora Drajzera Street at Dedinje in Belgrade. Those are buildings on the edge of the Topčider hill, a serious engineering task, with the advantage of a great view of Avala mountain woods. A complex urban planning situation, problems with ownership and permits, all resulted in the end with the construction of villas and a larger office building at the corner position, now a landmark visible from multiple directions.
Many are still surprised to hear that this large complex was designed by a woman. Unfortunately, female hand is still expected to deal with interiors, and those are prejudices we yet have to fight. I have to admit that I unwillingly accept interior design tasks. I have a hard time dealing with conflicts, and interiors, requiring direct several months long work with individual clients, often culminate with a conflict, usually caused by unpaid fees. If the author is a woman, female principle is recognized in a backward environment as a lack of intelligence and the absence of strength, to be taken advantage of. Later, it is the subject of gossip, presented as a measure of success of those individuals.
My largest project, not realized up to this date, was a five-star hotel in Bečići, on Montenegrin coast. A Russian investor, tycoon, invited me to be one of three architects participating in a competition: my opponents were very respectable architects, one particularly powerful in that region and the other a professor from Italy. At first, it seemed to be an impossible mission. I can’t say how I found strength to engage in designing 18,000 sq. m of complex function in less than a month. At that time, I did not have a bureau of my own, but worked with a partner and had to quickly establish one, rent an office space and furnish it.
I gathered the best of my ex students; we eagerly worked in two shifts. In fifteen days I had to design everything, and in following fifteen days to prepare a three-minute movie about the hotel. Professor Ličina helped a lot to resolve the function. The tycoon, Russian, upon the receipt of the movie and posters, spent one more month touring European and American hotel companies to verify the project.
I regard the first prize at this competition to be my most important victory so far.
And no, you can not tell in any way that all those project were done by a female architect. Architecture can only be good or bad, not female or male.
On the Sensibility of Investors
For an investor I remember as a hard adversary, with aesthetic demands unacceptable for me, I designed a complex of villas close to a hospital at Dedinje, Belgrade. He wanted those villas to resemble his hometown, Vrnjačka Banja, and I tried to make those villas – if not in my neomodern, minimal style – at least in accordance to local conditions and making use of the advantages of the location.
A sloped roof is the most common demand of the investor to be fought with. From Wright and his villas with strong elements and sloped roofs to reminiscences of Belgrade villas of 1920s and 1930s, the path of quasi-negotiations was hard. In the end, the investor won – unsatisfied with my purist expression, he gave the final blow with the help of the contractor and on-site supervisor (who later claimed to be the author), framing all windows with additional ornaments “to make the houses more beautiful” and adding on the front facade on each side his own mark – the chubby god Aeolus. That is why I do not recognize this complex as my own work. The power of the mightier, the one with the money, prevailed.
On Design and Urban Planning
Architectural design is my first choice, and I practiced it passionately from the early days, already during studies in Zagreb, working in the author studio of the famous architect Ivana Vitić, a rigid follower of the modern movement and a fabulous architect, as well as with the respected professor Nevena Šegvić, the author of the modern interpolation at the Peristyle in Split, Croatia, often compared to Adolf Loos villas.
Less is more (without is a bore – as postmodernists used to say), remained a motto I adopted from the great ones. I learned a lot form professor Ines Filipović, my mentor, who happened to be my first, and quite coincidentally, female role-model in architecture. She was at the same time a skilled designer, very feminine and strong, a fatal combination of power in our line of work. Her fashionable clothes was discussed in design and architecture circles of Zagreb with the same passion as her interior designs. Creativity reflected in all aspects of her personality. Unfortunately, she left us too early.
Since I got to lead, back in 1990, by chance Urban regeneration course, it grew from elective, with only a few students, to become one of important courses at the faculty, and also the topic of separate specialist studies. For more than twenty years, along with design work, I am involved in (by chance) theory of urban planning, with the same energy.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me how I spend my free time and was stunned with the answer. My free time is filled with writing books, reading and studying, and I do not consider this – unlike my friend – to be my disadvantage.
And to return to the issue of borders and scale: lines between design and urbanism do not exist in practice. The author who aspires to higher goals shows through his work that he masters both. He must – in order to be recognized and to mean something or leave something behind.
Illustrations courtesy of Eva Vanište Lazarević
This article was originally published on the website of the Centre for Architecture Belgrade