Multicultural perspectives

Tomas Gulisek, principal and lead architectural designer at Burt Hill, on prototypes, passion and projects big and small.

Tomas Guselik. (Burt Hill)
Tomas Guselik. (Burt Hill)

Tomas Gulisek, principal and lead architectural designer at Burt Hill, on prototypes, passion and projects big and small.

What is architecture to you?

Someone once said that art is a skill in which you make something out of nothing and then sell it. Some might say architecture falls into that category. But there's no question, architecture is an art form. It's a very special field in which we mix a lot of technology, functionality and logic and affect people's lives in very specific ways.


Usually, the current project you're working on tends to be the one you're most in love with.

We create environments that are safe and unsafe, stable and unstable, and can make people happy or sad. We deal with an art form that is probably more powerful than any other media.

What inspires your design?

I often find myself intrigued by industrial design; even more so than show architecture. I think industrial design is more open-minded. It's inspired by things that architects are not always willing or able to incorporate.

I'm inspired by nature; by organic environments; by things that are very logical and very logically structured in the world.

How much does a design architect need to know about structural challenges?

Whoever does the conceptual design of the project should be able to take it all the way through to construction. Otherwise, it's very difficult to call yourself a good designer. You're not a complete package. I follow all my projects from day one to construction; I don't believe that it can be done differently.

Is that the accepted philosophy throughout Burt Hill?

It is actually something we preach to our young architects. Some architects look to lock themselves into just concept or production or on-site work, but our architects are never going to be like that.

Some think specialising on a particular aspect is a more efficient way of producing good architecture but we feel it creates inconsistency in the project.

How do you separate your personal and professional life?

Some people have hobbies or things they're passionate about, but for me they're one in the same. In my personal life, I never stop thinking about the projects I'm working on.

For example, one of my partners and I are always talking about light. How light is perceived on textures and how light can change one's perception of different spaces and materials.

Light is something I can never escape. I experience and am fascinated by light everyday. It goes back to how my profession is linked together with my passion.

What was your first impression of regional architecture?

I've learned that impressions vary at different times in different places. After a while, it's a whole mixture of things that work together to create your opinion.

I've been in the Middle East for four years now and at the beginning I was seeing very little contextual material here. There were some high-end projects and a lot of theme developments. Frankly speaking, there were a lot of mediocre products that you could find anywhere in the world.

Now, there are some very famous and successful projects here. Of course, the whole region continues to attract highly talented architects who exhibit their own influence, skill and style.

A lot of people working in the region come from completely different backgrounds, different cultures, different schools and have different ambitions. It's all kind of mingling together here.

What is the most unique aspect to working here?

If I imagine cities of the future, I think Dubai is a good prototype. You rarely see this many cultures mixing in the same place, working on projects shoulder-to-shoulder.

In Burt Hill we have more than 30 nationalities working together, which makes for a fantastic experience. This scenario creates a huge variety of really great ideas and the beauty of it is that they're actually being built here.

Throughout the region, several highlights are popping up in various cities but generally speaking, the rest of the region is about a decade behind the development we're seeing in the UAE. That goes back to the quality of products and quality of process, but everybody is learning.

Are you sometimes surprised by the scale of projects here?

Absolutely. We are doing a lot of mixed-use developments, as per the trend here, but we're also doing a lot of hospitality, healthcare and school projects as well.

Recently, I was speaking to one of my partners and we were a bit taken aback when one of our two million ft2 was labelled a ‘small' project. We are beginning to look at bigger masterplans that incorporate up to several hundred hectares.

We recently began work on a project that measured several km2 and, in that case, you're talking about more urban planning and development than anything else.

This seems to be the new paradigm for projects from Dubai to Abu Dhabi to Doha to Oman to North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Far East.

Is it more satisfying to work on small villa or a massive mixed-use development?

Everyone will give you a slightly different answer but small projects are always the ones that allow you full control and allow you to excel. Bigger projects need to be more structured and require bigger teams.

Decision-making is done very differently on bigger projects, whereas decisions on smaller projects tend to be very personal and offer more opportunities to do something really special. Certain things that are possible in a small scale project would never happen on a bigger project.

Personally, I love to work on the small ones. They're not usually the money-makers but we do them out of passion. Truthfully, doing big projects is something everybody aims for because they're more visible and they increase publicity.

But, fine detail and really good architecture is always found somewhere in the little ones. In these is where the passion lies.

What is the reason for the increase in 'iconic' architecture?

A lot of people would probably argue with me on this one but it all goes back to the idea of globalisation.

If you go to Bilbao [Spain] or Milwaukee [USA] or Sydney [Australia] or Paris [France], these cities are very proud of their icons. Icons serve as very successful tourist attractions.

It's fantastic that these cities have enough courage to understand architecture and invite these star architects to spread their talent around the world.

With regard to being contextual or non-contextual, it depends on the project. Certain things are sometimes harsh and don't fit very well but it depends on the theory of the project and how the architects are able to justify their vision.

There are a lot of successful projects and a lot that are questionable, but that's the business of architecture. It ends up being a very subjective opinion.

Which architects are you keeping your eye on?

Within Burt Hill we have John Kim and Ivar Krasinski, both of whom are top tier leading architects in the region.

They're both design principals with us and they're both going to be involved in several major projects in the next few years. They're very unique and very talented. It's fun to be around them.

Outside Burt Hill, we're always looking at what Rem Koolhaas is doing and what the guys over at Foster+Partners are producing. Of course, if you look at the recent activities of Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid here, those are the obvious ones to watch.

Are green buildings the way of the future?

There are a lot of incentives, including legal requirements, to making buildings more sustainable, which is great. The industry is learning how to cope with these requirements. Luckily Burt Hill has a lot of experience in environmentally friendly building but there is a lot of catching up to do throughout the region.

Is LEED an appropriate measurement tool for the Middle East?

When we started evaluating the possibility of incorporating LEED certification into our projects, we went through the questionnaire and realised that it's a system that was crafted for a different environment.

Can you expand?

I think LEED certification for every new building is quite a challenge . We'll see how the industry responds to it because there are a lot of variables to consider. Could you imagine if this same law were enacted in the US?

For that reason, this is a very unique time to be here. Everyday we learn something new. The industry here seems to be advancing in dog's years.

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