Interview: Viktor Udzenija on creating a strong design community

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic and Nick Ames talk to, architect and designer about the importance of creating a strong design community in the region

After graduating top of his class at the prestigious Technical University of Munich in Germany, Croatian-born architect and designer Viktor Udzenija found himself at a crossroads.

His choice – pursuing further postgraduate education at the Harvard Design School, or taking a job that many fresh graduates dream of – to work for Foster + Partners in its London office.

The lure of Lord Norman Foster’s global firm won out, and Udzenija was assigned to work for the company’s Group 5 division, which handles all projects in the Middle East.

So fresh out of design school, he was engaged on landmark projects in the UAE such as Central Market, Abu Dhabi and the Index Tower in Dubai.

Modern residence in Index tower in Dubai outfitted with quirky accent features.

The designer’s plan was to stay in Dubai just for one year, overseeing this project, but due to the financial crisis, it was delayed, extending his tenure to three years.

“It was an amazing experience to work for a company like Fosters. The accesses to knowledge, the experience, the expertise that company has and with so many people with interesting backgrounds,” says Udzenija.

“I joined Foster + Partners in 2006. I came to work on the Index Tower at the age of 28 and at that time it was the biggest tower Fosters was building worldwide. The best thing was being included in a project from start to finish, experiencing all phases of work.

“As a 28-year-old to be given the privilege to work on one of the biggest projects in the world was a great opportunity. The knowledge you gain, being on site every day, going through construction drawings, making adjustments to design so they can be implemented on the site, all that experience is just invaluable.”

Sustainable products were placed throughout his own studio in d3.

After his work with Fosters was completed, Udzenija decided to stay on his own in the Middle East. With two projects ahead of him, in 2013 he founded his design studio, Viktor Udzenija Architecture + Design.

Last year Udzenija and his team of three were one of the first tenants to move to newly established Dubai Design District (d3).

His office acts as a showcase for his expertise and work.

“I am very happy with our place. We wanted to showcase our skills regarding detailing, coordination of various materials, elements and products that we specify a lot on our projects, products we believe in,” says the designer.

“I decided to invest quite a lot of funds, in order to have a nice studio.

Sharp lines and clean design created a backdrop for the modern art collection from the Middle East.

“It is not only for the clients, but it is also for suppliers and most importantly for our staff. I wanted to provide a great working environment for our employees as architects and designers spend hours and hours a day there and need to be as comfortable as possible.”

Udzenija was awarded the 2015 CID Award for Sustainable Design for his studio space.

He says: “A big emphasis was put on using sustainable products, either from manufacturers who are following green regulations or with factories that are using recycled materials. For example, the flooring that we used is from Bolon and is 40% recycled while all of our lighting is LED.

“On projects we spend a lot of time and effort studying the environment, the location of the project, the sun’s position throughout the day, how to keep the comfort zone within the project and minimising energy consumption.”

Maximising natural light entry is a key objective in all of his designs.

The studio works nationally and internationally on high-end residential and commercial projects. Current projects include a 2.140 m2 private residence in Jumeirah, Dubai.

Udzenija says: “We have just finished the concept design for a 100m tall two-tower residential complex in Mamzar [Dubai]. It is with a significant local development company and is our largest project so far.

“We have just won a big international competition in Zadar, Croatia. It is a residential complex with a retail mall [working] with a Turkish developer which is investing a lot in the [Adriatic] coast. Zadar is a historic city protected by UNESCO and in a heritage zone.

“We are doing something modern and contemporary but have to work very closely with the government and local authorities. They’ve been very strict, but the E30m project’s final design will be published in a month.

“We are also negotiating the redevelopment of hotel in Turkey, close to Marmaris with the same client. The rest of our projects are in the Middle East.”

Maximising natural light entry is a key objective in all of his designs.

Udzenija admits the market is slowing down in the region but adds that his own business is not feeling the effects as much as others.

He says: “We are in a niche zone, mostly high-end residential, private residences and villas, a market which has not been affected. Some people who have money are not willing to invest in commercial properties but are still investing in their houses.

“In terms of big commercial projects, there is a definite slow-down. Maybe not in the heart of Dubai but many of the satellite projects around the suburbs are put on hold or slowing down drastically.”

The designer also gave his views on the competitive nature of the business in Dubai and whether he feels there is enough work to go around.

Little Rocker

Udzenija works of design include the Little Rocker, based on an exploration of childhood memories.

The Little Rocker brings together form and function in a marble object that is designed following human ergonomics.

It is crafted in Carrara (Italy) out of a solid 800kg block of marble. The piece is milled by a robot and then hand-chiselled and polished to a smooth satin finish. The final piece weighs 45kg and is 1.5cm thick.

The designer says: “With the Little Rocker, it took me a year-and-a-half to get to the final product. I was studying ergonomics, the movement, making sure it is comfortable and rocking smoothly. The final product was exhibited during Design Days in Dubai.

“If you want to do things properly, then you have to take your time and study the matter in depth.

“Marble was the only material which I could use to achieve a seamless look. If I were to make it out of wood, there would have to be a joint. If I were to make it out of metal, there would have to be welding.”

The Little Rocker is manufactured in a limited edition of 20 pieces plus four artist proofs in Bianco Carrara marble and Nero Marquina marble.

He says: “In the last couple of years, I’ve been really in my zone and haven’t been able to follow what’s happening, but there is a lot of talented people, and there is space for everyone to find their niches.

“The whole buzz that’s been behind design in the last couple of years has made the subject kick off, especially with the fairs here and the newly established design district.”

Udzenija is also looking at wider horizons and a bigger picture – as well as continuing to grow locally.

He says: “Networking is everything here, all of our projects, apart from those in Europe, have been word of mouth. I think that is crucial, especially when you work with the local community, they all know each other, and so if you do one job well, they’ll recommend you further. But I’m trying to focus more on the international side.”

The concept visuals for an office project.

Udzenija thinks that there is a growing trend to adopt progressive methods in design across the Middle East, reflecting similar global trends.

He says: “International experience is coming in, including the way materials are used, an emphasis on sustainability, new technologies and innovative products.

“Until now, the trend was always towards highly tinted windows, which I believe are horrible to have in a home because you can’t enjoy the colours of nature outside.

“We always try to use highly UV-rated glass, but as transparent as possible, allowing the sun to enter the room. We work a lot with canopies and shading to create a relationship between inside spaces and outdoors, which is imperative.”

For Skai Holdings headquarters in Dubai, Udzenija used custom cut hexagonal Italian marble floors and textured natural stone wall cladding to enhance the luxurious feel of the spaces.

A new generation of Emiratis is the focus of much of Udzenija’s residential work in the region.

He explains: “The age of our clients is 30-45. They are young people who have been mostly educated abroad. They travel a lot; they are very cosmopolitan, and they love, art, architecture and design. They are well aware of what’s happening in the world and tired of the old-fashioned style of homes they grew up in with their families.

“They are more contemporary and up-to-date, but we still keep in mind their way of life. Such as how the internal arrangements work, where the staff areas are and where the kitchen is. They also consider the main majlis, the areas that are dedicated to a family and those which are more private.

“So all of this still has an enormous impact on the way we design.”

High-end residence in Index tower features modern looking gym.