News & ideasMilena Katić: The potential of industrial hall mirrors the flexibility of its space


21 / 11 / 2023 Vladimir Đorić Portal interview with Milena Katić, Project director at Zabriskie Studio.
Interview conducted by: Nebojša Antešević, PhD.


Why, in your opinion, isn’t the multitude of abandoned structures in our country used to its full potential? What’s the reason for that and how should refurbishment, reconstruction and renovation of the existing structures and urban complexes be stimulated?

I will focus on the first thing we can do to make an impact and that is raising collective awareness on benefits resulting from refurbishment and reconstruction. This Conference is a great example of how to do just that – by demystifying and promoting the power and skill of design in order to create positive changes and shape a more resilient future. 

However, raising awareness is not enough by itself; it is necessary to take one step further, towards a national strategy focused on sustainability. This applies to a set of concrete measures, such as projects and programs designed to stimulate circular economy, subsidies or green financing credit lines. That way, the economic aspect of refurbishing and reconstruction would be put in balance with the aspect of sustainability.

Clear recognition of the subject through its incorporation into the planning documents is also very important. The extent to which this issue has been taken into account in the planning documents through zoning and repurposing has a direct impact on the probability of its realization.

Raising awareness is not enough by itself; it is necessary to take one step further, towards a national strategy focused on sustainability.

How well is the topic of refurbishment represented in today’s architectural tasks and projects – from urban planning to interior design? 

I think that the bigger the scale of the enterprise the lesser share there is of reconstruction and refurbishing. The subject topic is mostly represented on small scale projects, i.e. on interior design assignments. These topics have always been part of our practice, we are used to contemplating the use of a certain interior time and again; there’s little doubt about that – it comes natural for us.

As a matter of fact, the area in which this topic is the most valuable to us and bears the greatest impact is the refurbishment of urban complexes. That way we utilize the largest existing resources: the built-up land, the existing traffic network, the available infrastructure, the existing building stock and, last but not least (as is often the case) the history of the site and its place in the collective memory providing us with the opportunity to revive values such as the sense of belonging, care for the wellbeing of the community and the sense of progress.

In our country, refurbishment of urban complexes is still more of an exception than the norm. Transformation of the Novkabel industrial hall into the Schneider Electric development center and office building is just the beginning of transforming the entire compound of the obsolete technology manufacturing plant into a facility that can be once again exploited and put to profitable use by giving the entire complex a new, well thought, economically viable purpose.

Can one acquire enough knowledge and skill through architectural education, namely in Serbia, to be able to carry out design work on refurbishment – reconstruction – revitalization?

Basic architectural education in Serbia provides a wide foundation for carrying out designer tasks and even offers certain specific knowledge concerning refurbishment, reconstruction and revitalization. 

However, the times we live and work in are forcing us to continuously learn and adapt. Apart from expanding our knowledge by drawing from different contemporary fields, we have to be prepared to change the way we work. In the world of today, our work should be defined by agility, speed and fast adaptability to changes happening globally as well as inside the particular project.

The potential of an industrial complex lies in its existing spatial luxury, which is certainly appealing to large and environmentally aware companies.

In your opinion, what are the key potentials of refurbishing/reconstructing industrial buildings/complexes and where do challenges lie?

The potential of an industrial hall lies mainly in the flexibility of its space, which can be easily adapted for different purposes. There’s virtually no typology which couldn’t be created by transforming an industrial hall. 

The potential of an industrial complex lies in its existing spatial luxury, which is certainly appealing to large and environmentally aware companies. The surface industrial complexes occupy, their building coverage ratio and their floor space index if preserved and transformed, possess a spatial quality virtually impossible to find elsewhere given the current market circumstances and the price of land.

On the other hand, the great challenge when it comes to reconstruction is to prepare a scope of work plan (SOW), i.e. to forecast the sequence of preparatory as is condition studies which can help minimize surprises while carrying out the project (even though surprises can never be completely avoided). There is also a challenge in retrofitting the existing structure to modern day regulations and standards that have substantially changed in respect to statics, seismic provisions and fire protection.

The challenge in this particular case was how to find the right answer to the question of maintaining continuity of values via the concept of complex reconstruction and rebranding. One of Novkabel’s values was its branding as a socially aware industrial giant making conscious investments into raising the quality of working and living conditions of its employees but also into the welfare of the entire community. Although the existing structure of the Novkabel production hall was not under protection, it was treated as a monument, with the purpose of preserving and reviving awareness on the time of progress.

What designer experiences in reconstructing and repurposing the Novkabel production hall in Novi Sad into an IT hub would you single out? What has proven to be of special architectural value when it comes to the existing industrial hall?

I would like to single out awareness of interdependence and common goal experienced by all participants. We all need to be one team   and that is even more necessary when working on a reconstruction project than on some other tasks. Good relationships and cooperation between everyone involved in the process are crucial to success. This statement is true for all starting from the investor through all the external consultants whose input is necessary in examining and carrying out this project, to project managers in charge and expert supervisors and contractors. Challenges are big at every single level and require agile approach and adaptability.

The architecture itself is hardly ever as honest and pure in its expression as in the case of industrial architecture. The distinctive architectural value of the existing industrial hall lies in the fact that its massive, pre-fabricated concrete structure actually represents its very architecture. This structure, its structural grid, its aesthetics and logic have greatly defined our design approach.

With the original structure and appearance preserved, the hall was transformed into a modern office building with spatial qualities that could not have been achieved elsewhere.

11.000 m² of ground floor base with additional 6.000 m² of floating galleries and almost 1.000 m² of green spaces accomplished inside the structure itself made it possible to design an office building with the typology uncharacteristic  of our market – a small town in just two levels with great diversity of interior ambiances, allowing for an easy orientation in space with lines of movement that offer frequent meeting opportunities, interaction and information exchange with great flexibility of working spaces.

The distinctive architectural value of the existing hall lies in the fact that its massive, pre-fabricated concrete structure actually represents its very architecture.

To what degree are industrial structures suited for repurposing and revitalization? What are their advantages and disadvantages?

Industrial structures and complexes possess a great potential for transformation. The most obvious advantage is the use of existing spatial resources – in terms of energy as well as responsible approach and limited waste production.

Another important advantage is in connecting with the existing genius loci thus creating a multi-layer identity. The advantage is also, as I said, in their flexibility, open plan – something that was inherited from their previous purpose.

As for disadvantages, I would say that the complexity of the process is certainly one of them. It implies a wide scope of preparatory work necessary for the beginning of project realization ranging from elaboration of the soil mechanics study to drafting the study on the current condition of the structure etc.

20th century industrial architecture legacy is diverse – varying in different aspects from size to spatial characteristics. Many industrial architecture structures do not have a status of cultural monument, so technical measures for their protection are not defined while on the other hand many of them are situated on brownfield and greenfield locations considered to possess investment potential. One of the competencies of the future Spatial and Urban Planning Agency will be to keep the registry of brownfield sites.

Future purpose and program for each individual case should be thoroughly investigated and thought over by putting sustainability, architecture, and economy in balance.

What kind of approach should be applied/taken when it comes to protecting the industrial heritage in order to stimulate its refurbishment rather than tearing it down – from repurposing to [assigning it] appropriate roles contributing to the presentation of that heritage (museums, galleries, cultural centers etc.)? Which designer aspects are, in your opinion, particularly important for modern day refurbishment of industrial structures and halls?

Industrial architecture of the 20th century is the picture of an era, of progress and technology never to repeat itself. And once it is gone, it will be gone forever. It often bears many messages depicting the relation of society towards an individual and labor.

Architectural expression of the industrial architecture is specific, often completely frank and void of unnecessary ornaments. In some cases, I really think that architectural value of industrial structures should also be recognized and valorized. There’s a lot of elements that need to be scrutinized; maybe a set of criteria should be established, specific to the industrial architecture, and then we should work on establishing technical protection measures where those criteria are met.

Based on your experience from working on the Schneider hub project – how do you see the future of industrial heritage refurbishment in Serbia?

Based on our experience, I can say that, as far as transforming of industrial heritage in Serbia is concerned, the future has arrived. However, its subsequent purpose and program for each individual case should be thoroughly investigated and thought over by putting sustainability, architecture, and economy in balance.

We need to understand that these elements should be connected in a way that will enable us to be initiators able to recognize circumstances and offer solutions.

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