Founded in 2004 by its CEO and Founding Director, Përparim Rama, 4M Group (pronounced ‘form group’) is an award-winning London-based design+build practice, with a second studio in Prishtina, Kosovo. 4M’s portfolio includes residential, retail, hospitality and urban mixed-use designs. Rama (as he is known) is a five-time former WIN Awards judge, and we are privileged to have him on-board for the sixth time this year.
A popular and magnetic practice leader, he describes himself as ‘acutely aware of the impact of space on human emotion and well-being’. Rama’s pavilion at the 13th Venice Biennial (the first ever for Kosovo) explored this theme in a characteristically unique way, described by the Biennial’s President as ‘architectural democracy’. Rama tells us more about it.
He first came to the UK from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 as a 16-year old. War broke out back home and it was unsafe for him to return. Instead, he settled in the UK, which he says adopted him ‘literally’, providing him with the ‘opportunity to get educated and work’. He chose to study architecture. Today, he runs marathons to raise money for children fleeing war zones.
Rama’s approach to design goes far beyond the physical into the realms of the deep and mystic. When you hear the beautiful and touching account of his early years in this interview, it’s easy to see why. A famous artist for a father, a gentle guru-like figure in his beloved grandfather, and the ever-present love of his mother have helped shape the man who used to dive to the bottom of the sea for starfish as a child. But first…
As well as being a WIN Awards winner (2013 Bars category), you’ve sat on five judging panels for us since 2014, and now we’re lucky enough to have you again for the 2018 Awards. That suggests that you enjoy the experience (hopefully!), so what is it that you find rewarding?
Design is my passion. Being confronted with so much passion from people passionate about design from all around the world makes this experience highly elevating and fulfilling. Apart from the pure joy of going through some of the best projects in the world, I feel I learn a lot, it is educational, enlightens me, excites me, and fulfils me. Every time I receive an invite to join the celebrated jurors I feel like a kid in a candy shop all over again. Yes, it is extremely enjoyable.
And, regardless of the category, what qualities do you think make the difference between a good WIN Awards submission and a great one?
The way studios present their work can sometimes be that fine line between the winning concept and the one that gets put to one side. One’s ability to tell the story through the fusion of written, graphical and photographic form is very often underestimated. This of course only makes sense when the design itself is well thought out and holistic - from the tiny details to the overall feel.
A good design is a good story told well. A great design is the same story but told beautifully, one that creates that surprising WOW factor that manages to capture multiple senses as a consequence, even though it is being observed through a 2D graphical representation.
4M not only provides design and architecture services, but also in-house construction and master craftsmen teams. Why do you favour this very integrated approach?
I feel designing within the studio premises only provides us with limited exposure, and therefore limited opportunities, to create truly outstanding places and spaces that captivate or initiate people’s emotions in a positive way.
One’s ability to shift from the design studio into the construction site or the joinery workshop - to surround oneself with the master craftsmen and brainstorm ideas - I find is a necessary process for finding new and exciting ways to create space and place and new ways to play with emotions, with the human subconscious mind. The teams on site become extended bodies that allow the designer to capture and create feelings through space and material, which otherwise would have been lost. One becomes an artist with multiple hands and brains that put it all together on a multidimensional spatial canvas.
There is this continuous discussion that happens between body and space, and to have a chance to utilise these opportunities on the spot becomes magical and miraculous. We need to place ourselves right in the midst of everything we are creating; we need to be able to capture the magic of the subconscious mind and its intelligence to then use it to push and pull, so that the space becomes this funnel for always channelling positive energy on the bodies that will inhabit it.
What’s in the pipeline for 4M?
We are very busy with several projects in London and internationally: two boutique hotels in St-Pauley in Hamburg; a funky restaurant in Helsinki; a Grade II listed hotel in Weybridge near London; a landmark building/landscape in Prishtina city centre called ‘City Gardens’; the first 4* BREEAM Eco Village on the outskirts of Prishtina called ‘Lakeside Gardens’; six bar/restaurant designs in London, and several high-end residential houses in London and Prishtina to name just a few.
We are also very excited to be expanding our Soho offices by an additional two floors. We will now have spaces where our team members can relax, socialise and brainstorm more easily. We are also looking to acquire new premises in Prishtina to expand our studio there, as the current location is shrinking fast as we grow!
You seem to place a high value on transcending the usual conformities of work relationships with colleagues and clients, often forming enduring friendships. Can that sometimes have its drawbacks, or do you feel it has been fundamental to the success of the practice?
I see architecture as a tool for forging new friendships, new relationships. It is therefore fundamentally important that one does not get lost in the many various pitfalls and drawbacks throughout the process of engaging with and creating architecture.
On several occasions I have advised my clients not to proceed with their projects, purely because I felt their depleted and drained energy, and the need for them to recover prior to engaging in creating architecture. For many people it will most probably be the most stressful experience of their lives. Many are investing their life savings into creating homes for themselves and their families, or establishing new businesses for their and their family’s futures.
Entrusting us with the process of transforming their dreams into reality is a major responsibility, which we never take lightly. We ensure we use everyone’s brain to engage in the initial stages and establish a scope which ensures as smooth a process as possible, so that at the end we always celebrate together with our clients and establish lasting, lifelong relationships.
Most practices are mindful of sustainability, but for you it seems to be an absolute passion. What has influenced you to be this way?
Sustainability has become a buzzword. I am a strong believer that us designers should always be surrounded by sustainable, ecological, natural processes and materials by default. Various construction industry bodies and organisations should ensure that all that is at hand and available is truly sustainable, and circular, by default.
We have disturbed the divine frequencies by mining, extracting - polluting resources that are shifting our Mother Earth to dangerous levels of unsustainable life that threaten our very existence. We need to wake up, we need to listen to our inner self and engage with what we feel, hear, see, taste. Human wellbeing is at the centre of what we do, and there cannot be any human wellbeing without a truly well-balanced living ecosystem, which takes into account all life forms.
We are at peace and most innovative and creative when we are as close to nature’s frequency and vibrations as possible. And – if we are smart - we surround ourselves with them to maximise our potential as conscious beings.
You’ve contributed a lot to the wider discourse about design and architecture, appearing on the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg to name but a few media platforms. Of them all, what’s the most interesting discussion you’ve been involved with so far?
The human aspect [of architecture] on both CNN and Bloomberg. The necessity of treating every single human person on earth as important and equal no matter where they are from, or where they are going. How we think about other people very much impacts on how we think about design, architecture and how we treat and evolve our cities in general, as they are all products of our minds.
Can you tell us a little bit about being invited to take part in the 13th Venice Biennial in 2012 as the first ever representative of Kosovo? Can you briefly describe your Pavilion? And what were people’s reactions to it?
It was a great honour to be the first ever curator of the Kosovan Pavilion in the Venice Biennale. ‘Common Ground’ was the theme. I was interested to explore how society, culture, tradition and overall beliefs impact the creation of the places we live in. Our cities are a social representation of where we stand as a society. Cities represent our social consciousness; our common ground.
The Kosovan Pavilion in 2012 was a dynamic platform that captured the emotional reaction of the people and countries in relation to its building fabric. We created an emotional barometer, whereby we requested for people to upload images of buildings, places and spaces that impacted them through one of the six emotions: happy, sad, excited, angry, trapped and free. Each emotion was represented with its own colour. The Pavilion was glowing in six different colours every three minutes, depending on what emotionally representative buildings were being shown: it was alive.
Everyone could cast a vote. Visitors left us with their names, country where they came from, their emotional reaction to buildings they were seeing and so on. We could slice through data in many different ways to find out how these buildings were impacting not only the people, but groups from, say, a particular country, gender, age group, and how they related to particular a building, be it religious, historic, modern, and so on. Paulo Barrata, the Venice Biennale President called it ‘architectural democracy’. People loved it. It was fun and insightful.
At the end we discovered interesting outcomes: the common ground. The Kosovan National Library, which according to the British newspaper, ‘The Guardian’, was one of the top 10 ugliest buildings in the world, was voted through our platform as the most exciting building in Kosovo and internationally.
We understand your father was a famous artist, and your grandfather taught you how to make mud bricks and form enclosures by twisting branches. How do you feel that these powerful early influences have shaped your life?
I was so proud of my father and everything he did. I spent hours and days in his atelier, watching him and trying to draw and paint the way he did. He was ultra-busy with his activities and exhibitions at home and abroad, and his academic schedule. He was exhibiting together with Picasso and Chagall - amongst others - in the late 70s, but we always struggled financially. He did push me towards science, as he always complained that the artist’s life is a poor life, financially that is, and since I was excelling in science he was pushing me more towards the scientific realm of maths and physics. Both my mother and father were surprised when I told them I was pursuing architecture, having initially enrolled into computer science.
My grandfather was a great and wise man, extremely patient and knowledgeable. It felt as if he had all the answers of the Universe. I enjoyed reading and looking at the pictures in the books he had on his shelves - predominantly about the stars and planets, the solar system and the Universe. We would then go out and play with mud and straw, with branches, learning about how mud bricks are made, how structures stand, how you can fuse materials together for a greater use.
My mind was focused on the tiny, small details of how things come about, while at the same time expanded to discussion about the Universe and the question of higher intelligence. I remember before going to sleep I would ask for stories, of which my grandfather had many to tell, and then ask for another one until I would fall asleep, and sometimes grandpa, or Babi Li as I would call him, fell asleep too.
And then there is love, a mother’s love. No matter what, she was there, and made the place feel like home and secure. All the above are very powerful and defining influences that have for sure helped shape me, what I do, and what I stand for.
If you hadn’t become an architect, what other career might you have pursued?
I love travelling, exploring, learning, meeting people. I am also fascinated with the human mind, and subconscious behaviour. It may have well been something related to any or all of the above. Academia, teaching maybe?
And lastly, we’re curious to know how you came to be a very good underwater swimmer?
This brings back very happy memories from my childhood. We used to spend summer months in Montenegro in a little village called Shtoj, on the outskirts of Ulqin, a small town by the Adriatic coast. We would get bored going to the beach every day, so we would engage in other activities such as fishing, diving, water polo, and so on. We would then start competing as to who could dive the deepest and bring back a starfish from the rocks submerged in the deep waters, or simply a fist of sand to show that we made it to the bottom. Fun times!
www.4mgroup.co.uk
Gail Taylor
Img 01: © WIN Awards 2017 Hotels and Bars Jury
Img 02: © First 4 star BREEAM Eco Village, Lakeside Gardens
Img 03: © First 4 star BREEAM Eco Village, Lakeside Gardens
Img 04: © First 4 star BREEAM Eco Village, Lakeside Gardens
Img 05: © City Gardens, Prishtina
Img 06: © 13th Venice Biennial 2012 - Kosovan Pavilion
Img 07: © 13th Venice Biennial 2012 - Kosovan Pavilion
Img 08: © 13th Venice Biennial 2012 - Kosovan Pavilion