Stretching Architectural Boundaries along with Studio 8FOLD | DT Interview

Young practices across the globe are challenging conventional ways of practicing architecture. In this process of redefining the architectural scope, the practice in conversation with us this week – Studio 8FOLD – strikes right on what the field can really deliver beyond the known conceptions and how.

The talk covers their recent projects and issues that are also close to the hearts of many proactive sustainability lovers, like yourself, and concerned social reformers. If you were also impressed by their well researched competition entries and ‘Wasteline’ exhibition, we have got it all covered. Read on to get inspired by what Aleks, Alex and Lloyd have got to say!

Aleksandar Stojakovic

Alexander Frehse

Studio 8FOLD

Studio 8FOLD is an innovative design, strategy and research led studio based in London & Berlin.

The founders of the studio, Aleksandar Stojakovic & Alexander Frehse, see architecture as a powerful nexus to fuse social & environmentally conscious projects with capital-driven projects, spatialising  an outcome that leverages the best attributes of each.

In their words, “We seek out organisations that aim to bring about a cultural shift for a more sustainable world, starting at a neighbourhood scale, and with this innovative initiative create a powerful USP for the capital-driven party involved. Through our unique set of skills in synthesising research, spatial intelligence, and bringing together the right people we help both parties to find a win-win outcome.”

At Studio 8FOLD, the team values collaboration, initiative, and offer synthesis through spatial intelligence.

Lloyd Martin

Competition Head

Lloyd Martin heads the competition team at Studio 8FOLD. He was born in Zimbabwe, raised in Botswana, trained in South Africa and spent over six years travelling. He is driven by new experiences in creative and social realms; feeding off the unknown, with hunger for knowledge and adventure.

His two years at Netherlands were spent in finding opportunities for the urban metabolism framework to contribute to the sustainable development of the city. For the past two years he helped set up and has been lecturing at the Architecture Department of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. During which, he has been conducting research/working with the Great Demas Nwoko. (artist, architect, renaissance man).

DesignTerrains (DT): Welcome Aleksandar and Alex! Thank you for letting us cover your practice. Foremost, we would like to hear about the germination of Studio 8 Fold.

Alexander Frehse (Alex): The idea of studio 8FOLD was taking shape when we were both still studying at the University of Cape Town, first having met on registration day for our Bachelor’s degree. Our undergraduate years were hands-on, walking the earth, having to tackle problems in extremely complex environments, and we shared the same values when it came to talking about architecture’s role in shaping a better future. I guess we knew already then that we wanted to start something that would do exactly this.

Aleksandar Stojakovic (Aleks): After completing undergrad, I came to London and worked a few years at Paul Davis + Partners in London and then Grimshaw. Alex went down a different route at first and initially we parted ways. He worked at Alejandro Aravena’s office ELEMENTAL, which had a remarkable impact on him. A few years later after further studying in Cape Town, he came over to London and joined me at PDP.

In the office there were a bunch of us looking to do our Part 2 qualifications, and the London School of Architecture (LSA) caused hot debate. At that stage it was a risky option to apply because it didn’t yet have accreditation, no previous students, and we would be the guinea pigs, but it was promising to break ground in an architectural education that merged academia and practice and fixated on tackling the real world problems. You can guess what we did!

DT: We are grateful that you ended up setting a practice that is potentially inspiring many. Could you also share what went by to come up with the name ‘Studio 8 Fold’ for your practice?

Alex & Aleks: The practice’s name comes from when we were discussing what we wanted to do as a practice. We were interested in the idea of taking a brief, breaking it down and seeing it in a completely different way. There’s a myth that you can only fold a piece of paper in half seven times – until recently it was thought that physics simply doesn’t allow it. But we heard about a group in Japan which was the first to figure out that if you have a different shape of paper you can go beyond even eight folds.

The name – Studio 8FOLD, encapsulates our idea that if you reassess the framework within which you’re working, you can achieve things that no one thinks are possible: debunking myths is what we want to do in our practice. In brief, 8FOLD means to reshape and resize the problem until you discover the solution.

DT: Thanks for sharing this. Your practice also seeks to explore cultural shifts that respond to sustainability. How do you think this value is reflected in your projects?

Alex: We start with a very open conversation about sustainability. What are the client’s or user’s aspirations in terms of sustainability – environmentally, economically and socially? What do they fear about sustainability and how do they define it? Through a conversation we begin to discuss value, and encourage long term thinking and early planning for a project. We believe that ‘Sustainability’ is a mindset.

“An integral part of design is sustainability, it’s not an add-on, it is a system.”

We strongly advocate for an early integration because this often can assist in tackling a classic fear – cost. But is it a cost or an investment? We also explain that there is a spectrum of sustainability which the client can access, it’s not an all or nothing. We take a stance on this, that if design is to be relevant and of this day and age, it is inherently sustainable. If it is not, it is irrelevant and a harmful contribution to this planet.

DT: It’s impressive that you are scoping out sustainability and its meaning for your clients. On a different note, in what different manner would you say a project evolves when the focus is on engaging stakeholders and community in its development?

Alex: We are working on a project in Germany together with a local office, where the entire inception of the project came from the stakeholders themselves. “Dorf im Dorf” or “Village in a Village” is a project where the stakeholders themselves walked into the architecture office, Architekturbüro Lindstedt, with whom we collaborate, and requested an alternative, a middleground, between a care home and single family house that should exist in their village.

The proposal has evolved to a 60 unit- intergenerational housing project that is being developed by a house builder, and has even secured some government funding for the communal spaces. Through a series of workshops with those interested, and balanced with the housebuilders requirements for it to be a feasible project, a design (still taking shape) emerged that is driven by the key values of community living, yet also has the density and logic that allows for an affordable structure, with extremely high energy standards.

Hand drawn visualisation to entice the concept of communal space and intergenerational living. Drawings by Anna Mill. Src – Studio 8FOLD

Aleks: On another scale, we were approached by a philanthropist a few years ago and have since been involved in a school library project in Sri-Lanka. We started off designing it from afar and came up with the initial concept, however remembering our architectural education in Cape Town, we knew that when being on site, the project would morph, pushed and pulled by on-the-ground realities.

The key here was to have a resilient concept- ours was to make the library a place both to read and to play, which is what stuck, but we certainly had to make huge adaptations when we got there. Our drawings, which we prepared in advance, became guidelines but the reality was walking around on site with the foreman and the team, and marking in the sand or on the side of the container what we were trying to achieve. These ideas were often met with alternative suggestions, supported by their acute knowledge of the seasons, animals, and culture. These suggestions were essential for the design to be a success, the design was hence a collective effort. This hands-on design approach was extremely rewarding, and allowed for quick adaptations.

Concept Drawings for BookPlay, Sri Lanka. Src – Studio 8FOLD

DT: These projects certainly bring forward the journey of a design from an architect’s perception to the tangible forces of the site and community. We were also struck by your research-led work on understanding the waste industry and the resulting design of exhibitions for public outreach. Where and how far do you plan to take this initiative?

Alex: Waste is a huge subject that no longer can be hidden in a 20L plastic bag. We like to think of waste as a live-archaeology of mankind. What we create, use and then choose to discard is extremely revealing of who we are – as you can imagine it paints a rather dismal picture.

Aleks: I did my thesis “Wasteminster” on the topic of food waste in Soho, finding ways to bring people together to experience and understand this process and life cycle of food in our cities. With food being the catalyser that brings people together to even begin to acknowledge that this massive problem exists, our ultimate aim is making people aware.

This notion formed the basis for our exhibition “WASTELINE” (yes we have a thing for puns!). We were given an empty space on Brompton Road, opposite Harrods, and tasked to create an installation that responded to the topic “Material Consequences”.

“We figured the best thing we could do is have everyone experience waste – numbers mean nothing.”

To understand the magnitude of our waste problem, a simple illusion of mirror-clad walls extrapolated a floor curated in waste that represented 1 month of office waste, scaling the issue both in time and people. Through vastness of the mirrored, the measurable amount of waste begins to convey the severity of how our consumer society occupies the planet. This experience of a partly beautiful but scary space evoked people to shift and change their habits.

Alex: Following on from this we were asked to contribute to the Seoul Biennale last year, where we exhibited our latest on-going R&D project, BLUE (Better Living Urban Environments) with the exhibited idea WasteData. The UK produces around 27 million tonnes of household waste per year, equal to around 400kg of waste per person each year. But we are also wasting 400kg of data.

If we track, analyse and understand the waste of citizens, we gain a far more honest insight of what they are consuming, wasting or replacing. It can also help us to understand how people change their behaviour in response to different conditions (social, economic or physical) such as food shortages, price changes and marketing campaigns – future archaeology.

We plan to take this further so that future city developments can be far more intelligent when it comes to planning waste management, and making society aware of its behaviour.

DT: We are completely with you on raising ‘waste’ awareness and inspiring conscious shifts in consumption. Another achievement of yours is the Jorejick Competition, through which we found your practice. We would like to know more about the background thoughts on this one. Like, why did you choose to work on it? And, what were your presumptions?

Aleks & Alex: We constantly look out for competitions, so much so we have Google alerts set up with the competitions that may interest us (environmental impact, innovation, Africa, Europe and UK!). We actually as of a few days ago won a competition in Lagos, Nigeria- looking at developing innovative construction and off grid systems for its housing along the waterways.

Coming back to Jorejick, it was a special competition for us because it incorporated in the brief all the aspects we know and love about architecture. It was about solving real world issues, in Tanzania, looking at the future of housing in rural and urban landscapes, and using limited resources that stemmed from a very personal story. Part of our vision and plan is to open an office in Johannesburg, South Africa and use it to develop research and delivery methods for projects such as these.

The brief for the competition allowed us to seek further understanding in fields we know little about, but are hugely interested in, such as decentralised power, urban farming, metabolic systems and impact investment. So like our many other projects we seeked the help of professionals who were experts in these fields and share the same values and ambitions. Quite often we go into a project thinking we don’t know how to unlock this so how do you create a team that does.

Lloyd Martin (Competition Head): As an architectural collective, that grew up and was trained in Southern Africa, we are currently working on projects in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania and I was lecturing in Nigeria at the time.

“All too often with these types of international “African” competitions, the entries come out with a myriad of stereotypes that are a copy and paste of an enforced idea of ‘African’ architecture.”

So in order to subvert this common trend we chose to challenge the way in which we designed the buildings in a landscape and also how we represented our entry, drawing heavily from the local cultural and ecological context. Promoting a bottom up approach, instead of imposing a collective idea of what an African building should be.

The process of collaboration and several years of knowledge about building in environments like this lead us to design repeatable structures that could expand and contract as the family needed it too. This was shaped by the size and fluctuation that the family experienced in the form of migration to cities, new family members and the context of being rural, an agrarian society. Ultimately, we realised that this combined with new technology, such as solar water pumps, would mean families could double or triple their crop yield in a single year, have a place to store it, and be able to not only feed their family more easily but could sell more for additional income.

Jorejick Competition Entry. Studio 8FOLD.

DT: Yes, a sensitive and local approach must be taken to address competition briefs, specially when these are conducted at international level. Meanwhile, congratulations on winning the Lagos: City of Water Architecture Competition hosted by Voen Associates! How did this new style of working play out and what was different about your entry, trying to tackle African Architectural stereotypes?

Lloyd: The competition was an incredible opportunity for us to explore the invaluable lessons learnt from my time in Nigeria and lessons learnt from my mentor Demas Nwoko, who had set up the New Culture Studio and Mbari club, both pivotal elements of the post colonial Nigerian creative movement, giving rise to the likes of Wole Soyinka and Fela Kuti. Using the latter as inspiration, the project was named “Water No Get Enemy” after Fela’s classic 1975 hit, which explains the salience of water. It mentions the obvious needs – washing, cooking, bathing, the raising of a child, etc.

In this highly politically charged song, Fela also suggests that, if the Nigerian political opposition work with nature, their ultimate victory is assured. The proposal does not criticize the current political and urban planning that lead to the severe flooding in Lagos or the dire situation of the Makoko floating village, it instead accepts this reality and embraces the opportunities of this inevitable water based future.

So our proposal embraced this inevitable future, more so because of the climate change. It envisions a new form of urbanism that enhances a symbiotic relationship between man and water. Adopting the monopile construction system, that is utilised in offshore wind farms, we made a deliberate choice in stark opposition to the typically used floating technique. Spatially, each community cluster is supported by Service Platforms, Biorefineries and Market/Sports fields. The Clusters grow organically over time, adapting to the ever increasing demand for housing in Lagos. Each home is envisioned as an enclosed loop, in which the circular economy and metabolism of the home is of primary importance. All of this is supported by the sturdy nature of the pile, that provides a secure and solid base for communities to flourish, free from flooding.

DT: It’s incredible that your proposal chose to work with the flood water as a comrade and respected nature’s working. This brings us to the ultimate part of this inquest. What kind of projects do you look forward to working on in the near future? Is there a new domain in the field that you are planning to experiment with?

Aleks: Many of our friends say we are “YES” humans, that we can’t help ourselves but get excited by people’s stories and ideas. So naturally, there are a few projects we are working on for the future. We would love to be doing more public buildings and public spaces, further engage with stakeholders and deal with complex scenarios, where there is an opportunity to create a positive impact for a wider audience. As we are a recently set up company, we are getting access to these types of projects by collaborating with larger firms.

Alex: Ultimately we want to work on design that primarily responds to issues surrounding our natural habitats, climate change, and to make architectural services available to those who need it the most. This year, prompted by the COVID outbreak, we hosted a competition calling for briefs from around the world with the winning brief receiving a free concept design. It has been hugely positive and we are aiming to continue it as an annual competition. You could say we like working in the fringes. In our collaboration with Architekturbüro Lindstedt, we are looking forward to intensely study and look at the edge of cities, the space between urban and rural. We see a great future there.

Alex & Aleks: Finally, our longer term play is to use architectural thinking to move our practice, and even the profession forward, in becoming more resilient to the ebbs and flows of economies and help deal with the Climate Emergency. Currently, architects come across many issues, both in urban and rural working. Often these are outside the realm of architecture, even though it has led them to the problem and possibly the potential solution, sometimes the solution is not an architectural one, but rather a manufacturing one, a tech based solution or policy based change. By using the strength of architectural thinking in problem solving and combining it with the business of architecture, architectural practices can broaden their portfolios and become more resilient in uncertain times. Diversity of business means resilience. So we are excited to take some of these problems and turn them into new forms of business like BLUE, that is looking to be a tech-company that develops urban solutions.

We are thankful to Alex, Aleks & Lolyd for giving us a chance to brew this immersive conversation. We hope that our readers would have found it encouraging to propel towards responsive and responsible architecture.

Let us know what were the most inspiring sections of the conversation by adding a comment below!

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