Interview with Architects Sla Malenko and Aurimas Sasnauskas

In your blog you wrote about plagiarism in students’ works…

A.S. It was about pastiche rather than plagiarism. It is more difficult to speak about plagiarism in realized objects, but you can easier make comparisons, when analysing unimplemented design projects – whether the performance, idea, aesthetics are identical [to the alleged original] or not…

S.M. Similarity (in the above-mentioned work) can be found in character, spirit, performance, use of colour, without taking into consideration the function, arrangement, etc. These two works have similar mood. After this case, we, ourselves, were accused of plagiarism at the architectural competition for Bauska Library. But, actually, we had never seen the students’ work, with which our work was compared. Like it or not, we have to conclude that sometimes coincidences happen. To cut it short, we ourselves have occurred in similar situation, so it was interesting to compare.

A.S. I believe, plagiarism is certain word-by-word copying, rather than cases, when only functional solutions coincide or objects are similarly influenced by environment, etc.

You have just mentioned similar emotion, but it is very nonspecific, so as is function and some other things. Plagiarism should have some quantitative expression – how much has been taken and copied.

S.M. Yes, actually, such word-for-word plagiarism does exist in China or Moscow, where entire cities are copied, including mood, structure, size and even materials.

But here, in Lithuania, we also hear people talking about plagiarism from time to time.

S.M. In this case, environment, economic conditions, constructors, client are the determining factors. And, finally, regardless of all attempts to plagiarise, realisation of an object often makes its own corrections, so that afterwards it is impossible to trace any similarity.

Is it possible to plagiarise in a competition work?

S.M. Possible. Especially, when you have to present an idea in a concentrated way and have little time, it is possible to find some similarities or analogues. When everything is just on paper, everything is possible.

There are architects, who often see cases of plagiarism and analogues. So, can they be more sensitive to environment? For not every person can notice this, not every person can see a problem in this?

A.S. Appearance of new trends, use of new materials is common in architecture. Everyone is interested in similar sources, even subconsciously; this is how elements from other objects appear, similar facade solutions, similar presentation, because it is “fashionable”.

S.M. Like fashion or music, architecture also has its trends. You can always find some parallels between certain performers, rank them according to certain styles. The same is in architecture: certain trends, styles, common denominators do exist. For example, rusted facade; but it is just an element.

According to a definition of plagiarism, in order to call a work plagiary, many of its elements have to coincide with the original. Can such coinciding elements be considered plagiarism?

S.M. Probably, not. This is not fashionable in our culture; there is such common belief that copying is bad. If you copy, it means you lack something. Sometimes you take pain not to make similar to somebody else’s project. Sometimes even a solution seems logical, but you reject it a bit artificially, so you could be different from all others.

It is hard to talk about realized projects, but can some particular screening system be applied to competitions? As in most cases by using minimum means you have to produce an effective to the maximum result.

A.S. Usually, a competition winner is a signature object. Such object can be easier compared to other works as far as plagiarism is concerned. On one hand, it is better to be distinguished, but on the other, copying is easier to recognize in such case.

Let’s return to Bauska’s Library – did you change the solution in the designing process after being accused of plagiarism?

A.S. Of course, not. We were addressed by the authors of some academic design project, which was green field.

S.M. Whereas our solution was dictated by complicated configuration of the site, so any other implementation of the program on it could be hardly possible. We originate our architecture from the context and thus have fewer chances to plagiarise, at least in the aspect of structure. And we have no signature style of our own, thus we think we are not so easily recognizable. This particular case (we discussed above) was like a response of the youth to our blog writing. We had analysed the object, which our work was allegedly similar to. [And I can say] internationally there are many such analogues – with one volume corresponding to one function. There are examples, where every room is a separate volume and all of them are joined into one common living space. This is just a space formation principle.

 Maybe we can comment that this is an archetype or traditional form…

S.M. Probably this is one of the reasons why plagiarism in architecture lawsuits are quite rare in the world. Because it is difficult to qualify what is it.

Remembering the international postmodernist quoting, the question arises how much plagiarism or copying can be conscious or unconscious?

S.M. I think, in postmodernism architects most likely copy common historical images rather than one another.

What is your opinion on statements by some authors that soviet modernism copied its foreign predecessors?

A.S. I consider it natural that after discovering a form or mark that was little used before, everybody tries to repeat it afterwards.

S.M. When you look through the works of such abundant competition, as, for example, the Agila centre in Nida, they can be classified into certain groups: “houses with sand”, “houses on a stage”, “curvy roofs”. Theoretically speaking, all this is known already as a certain access to solution of some problem. So, maybe there is no need to invent a bike for solving the same issue, but look for a ready-made solution. But in this case again, only certain characteristic elements of a building can be compared.

Certain influences often may be discerned in architectural design projects. So, can this be considered copying?

A.S. Resemblance or influence often is superficial. Narrowly speaking, all glazed office buildings look similar.

S.M. All such buildings are replications: they must cover the site at maximum, be in compliance with all applicable norms and their operation must be convenient. If (while talking about commercial buildings) you write all variables (quite restricting) into an equation, you get similar solution. So, in a word, plagiarism in architecture does not exist, nope…

…I just expected you to say it does exist.

S.M. Well, maybe it does, but I think, even if such cases do exist, they are not analysed and are not interesting to our guild.

A.S. This subject is more relevant for students’ works. In real architecture copying always meets some obstacles, such as context, program or functional aspects.

S.M. In our blog we wanted to show that it was not the buildings that were identic, but rather the mood.

A.S. In case of students’ works, they do not have any real program, real client, real context, so sometimes they choose the easier way and some imitations happen.

Students’ position is paradoxical. I mean that copying as a tool of education turns into copying as negative experience.

A.S. While making some abstract works, there is a lot of looking through some magazines with application of certain elements.

S.M. I have noticed that with time I go through less architecture analogues, we have fewer architectural magazines in our office and we just go through announcements on the Internet. So, one of the ways, how to avoid influences, is to abstain from watching. Thus you can become very original. But this also does not mean you won’t make anything similar to another architect.

A.S. I think, at present the dominating trend in Germany or Switzerland is doing something different. For example, Lithuanians always want to be like Dutch, whereas Dutch are more interested in Lithuanians as far as they can be different from them.

S.M. We also discuss a lot how particularly Lithuanian architects can be different. Too often we watch others, what they are doing, and thus make just low-quality copies. Recently, it has been difficult to find differences between offices designed, let’s say by Lithuanians and Germans.

A.S. Yes, we often discuss the problem of shortage of architects working not like “somebody else abroad”, but in their own unique way.

S.M. The subject of copying or plagiarism is ok, because we, all of us, plagiarise and copy trends, which have been tested already and sometimes even no longer fashionable.

A.S. When you take a signature building and use its elements in your own work, you expect achieving the same effect; this is not making an identical copy, but finally it’s clear that the idea has been borrowed from someone.

Sometimes, unfortunately, a certain solution (possibly, analysed somewhere in the past) seems fitting exactly for a given situation…

S.M. …It means you must take and use it, it’s the right solution (laughs). For example, when the rules for some competition are very strict, the participants may produce a lot of similar solutions. This is not a weakness, just remains to pick the best.

How many per cent of architecture must coincide, so that an object could be considered a plagiarism?

S.M. In some cases even one per cent that has been copied may spoil everything.

Do architects have always to strive for authenticity or innovation?

S.M. For example, we design a lot of office interiors, where the circumstances and programs are very similar. But we always take pain to make a little bit different. There are architects, however, who (in our opinion) always use the same combinations of materials, details, furniture and elements. And probably they are right, because in such a way they become recognizable.

A.S. If you have a style of your own or signature thinking approach (there are just a few such architects in Lithuania), others will start copying your style.

Interviewed and prepared by Martynas Mankus