FABER is an independent cultural centre in a rehabilitated factory building located on the banks of the river Bega in Timisoara, Romania. Its mission is to “create sustainable projects that have the power to change the cultural, social and creative scene” of the city. The name FABER (“smith” in Latin) has a double meaning: it pays homage to the Farber family that historically owned the industrial site and to the philosophical concept of “Homo Faber” – the human being as a creator. The founding partners include actors from the local IT community (Valentin and Cristina Mureșan and Adrian Eirmescu), from the cultural centre and social enterprise AMBASADA and the architecture studio FOR, which was the main force in the planning as well as in the construction process. We spoke with FABER founding partner and FOR architect Oana Simionescu about her journey from coordinating the BETA Architecture Biennial that focuses in 2022 on “the city as a common good’, through her involvement with the Capital of Culture Timisoara to the idea and realisation of FABER. We also cover why buying a building serves the long-term perspective of the initiative, the potentials and challenges of being on an industrial site, the process of securing finances and designing a governance structure and what impact FABER has on its surroundings
Could you introduce yourself?
I’m an architect from Timisoara. Like many people who studied here, I have been working abroad. Specifically, in Copenhagen, I found the inspiration that I needed in order to come back and work on relevant issues for the community that I belong to. Professionally, I coordinated the BETA Architecture Biennial in Timisoara. I am a member of the Romanian Order of Architects where I am the treasurer at the national level but I was also involved with the local branch.
I have always been concerned about the impact architects can have on a city and the community and this has influenced the structure of our architecture company, FOR. It’s not a straightforward architectural office. We also have a co-working space and a design studio. This approach led us at some point to try to find even more partners in our community to transform Timisoara and to generate an experience that integrates work but also culture, leisure and education. This is how FABER came into my professional life.
How did you want to change the local architectural culture in the period when you returned to Timisoara?
The professional community here does not have enough energy and is not involved enough in the problems of the community beyond the professional interests we normally have. Together with other local architects we participated in a local competition with the aim to organise annual architecture events here, which later became the bi-annual BETA Architecture Biennial. Our programme was to develop all sorts of events that connect the local community with the professionals. Before, all the events organised by the Order of Architects were addressing the specificities of the architectural profession, without connecting with the local community. We wanted to move it towards an inclusive dialogue, trying to understand in a more open way what the community’s needs are, or the needs of specific areas.
We developed a programme with three main pillars. The first pillar is education. We tried to develop programmes together with schools in the European region. A result of that is the Triplex Confinium Project which is a European program we do with the Faculty of Architecture here in Timisoara, with partners in Budapest, Debrecen, Bucharest, Novi Sad, Sofia and Cluj-Napoca. Basically we created a consortium, looking at the knowledge of these different schools and how we can understand the problems of this specific territory. It aims to find answers that are more interdisciplinary, contemporary and relevant from the perspective of the architectural profession. It is always about the question: what needs to be built or what could be the role of the architect in Banat’s hinterland?
The second pillar is the city. We tried to look at general problems and to understand how these problems can be solved in a collaborative manner. In 2015 we organised an exhibition together with KÉK, looking into problems and solutions for Eastern Europe’s urban environments and we were debating how hard it is to implement solutions together with the administrations from this Euroregion. We also had a big exhibition about housing in 2018, looking at the stock of collective housing in Romania and exploring different perspectives on housing. The biennial also has a programme that was built together with the European Capital of Culture initiative, called “Look at the City” which is about whether urban space has meaning in the life of local communities. The project aims to build characters out of specific urban spaces to make easier connections between the spaces and the local communities.
The third pillar is profession, looking at more classical issues through debates amongst architects. It was a wide ranging programme.
One of the most interesting things about the BETA Architecture Biennial in Timisoara is its European-regional quality and the fact it got us talking: Romanians, Hungarians, Serbians, who have similar problems. For example, the best practice competitions that usually happen for annuals and biennials of architecture are really interesting because you can see projects from these three countries so you can debate, and understand how different types of policies in these countries intervene in the quality of the projects. I would say this is the one of the best things about BETA, that it is looking at the European region.
How did your work with BETA connect with the Timisoara Capital of Culture? And how did BETA contribute to you winning the Capital of Culture and create a buzz or professional discourse about how to change the city?
I’m sure it contributed as much as other projects that were part of the Bid Book. We collaborated with the “Bid Book” team from the very beginning. I can say that BETA is one of the few partners that kept its programmes going during all the turbulence that the Capital of Culture had in the past years. The “Look at the City” programme has taken place every year since 2016, either during the Biennale of Architecture or during the Biennale of Art. It has been taking place in the city continuously. What is interesting about the connection between the parts is that through the “Look at the City” programme we were curious about the spaces that were in a more uncertain state and had an objective with the Biennale to intervene in these “uncertain” spaces. We did that in partnership with Art Encounters Biennale which led to finding the place where FABER is and some other places in the city with high potential.
This issue is still on the table of the Cultural Operators community in Timisoara, talking about spaces we need for the Capital of Culture and beyond. Because spaces are where events are happening, they are the backbone. It is really important to support what the City Hall is trying to implement and to encourage the local cultural community.
Already years before the Capital of Culture, new independent spaces began to emerge. How could you build on this movement when assessing the need for spaces and starting to develop new ones?
Many spaces we used years ago, like AMBASADA, were parts of former industrial sites that in the meanwhile were bought by investors and then demolished and now they are becoming new housing neighbourhoods. This is basically the fate of most industrial sites, being generally the more affordable ones for cultural activities. That is the first problem that was happening in the city. Then, in terms of our business strategy, we realised that we need to have an office in an environment that could inspire us to explore at the periphery of our profession and to engage in businesses and projects that bring together knowledge about space, about arts or the IT sector and try to break through projects that are looking in a more fresh, more innovative way at spaces.
We realised that in order to develop the structure we imagined, we need to be a part of something bigger. We need to have more activities in order for the experience to be complete. It is not enough to have a working space. We tried to find partners in order to build up a space that can have this atmosphere and creative capacity. At the same time, the European Capital of Culture season was approaching and it wasn’t just us needing space but also the community.
It was quite easy to assemble the team for FABER from this perspective. We came together with the team from AMBASADA because they needed a new place to run their business and their events. We had the great luck to meet with very generous people, Cristina and Val Potra-Mureșan, and Adrian Erimescu. They are important people in the business and IT world, and they also had the experience in living abroad and moving back to Timisoara to do something meaningful for this community. This is how we could imagine and build this place together.
What was the process in terms of finances and building up the ownership structure?
What’s really nice is that it was quite clear from the beginning that we wanted to have all our experiences combined in the drafting of the programme for FABER. Us, as architects, we led the entire project from the creation of the bid, how it should work, and up to the project management during the construction period. We handled the entire process. As a team, we agreed from the start that we wanted to do something relevant for the city and relevant in the long run, not just for the European Capital of Culture season. This is why we felt we needed a property and decided to buy it.
We didn’t want to be vulnerable. We were committed that we needed to recover an existing building and not to build something new. All our discussions were about making an impact in the long term. It was clear that we needed to found a company together. So we established a company and that company bought the property and refurbished it. FABER has a dual personality, it is both a business and an association: this corresponds to our goal to bring together the cultural-creative and business world. Of course we want to support the local creative and cultural community. The association offers space in FABER at subsidised rates for NGOs. The business plan stipulates that FABER’s return on investment is 25 years plus. The commitment of this group is clear.
How long were you looking for this building?
It was not a quick process. We looked at various properties but this one was on the river, which was really important for us. Secondly, since it is an industrial building, it had more flexibility with what we could do with it, and it was more appropriate for the larger events that we imagined doing here. A further factor in the decision was the price of the property. The seller was in a hurry and sold it at a reasonable price, compared with other available properties.
The trick to that was that we had to buy a former industrial property really fast which is always a big gamble because you never know what you will find from an ecological perspective. After we bought it we had a lot of troubles with the ecological regeneration of the site. We had to enter into a crazy world of industrial regeneration which in Eastern Europe is something like the wild west. We were lucky in that in our part of the industrial site they were only producing soap. But we did all the chemical analysis we could to make sure we know what is in the soil and that we properly regenerate the site. (At some point the chemist from the lab called and she told us that mercury levels were 1000 times the maximum limit. Basically that meant we could do nothing on the property. This happened two weeks after we bought it. Then she called back and she said she redid the test and she actually had made a mistake with the previous reading. We repeated the test with another lab too, and it was fine.)
Besides renovating the building, therefore, we had to remove 40 centimetres of the soil and properly regenerate it. It was a very tough adventure: for instance, we found a container with 40 tonnes of waste that was produced in the soap factory. It was there, buried, for 30 years in a container.
How much did you spend on the refurbishment?
The overall costs were €1.6 million. The surface of the building is 800 square metres and the site is 2400 square metres overall. Considering everything, the costs were reasonable. But still above what we imagined initially. Fortunately, we did not have to take out a loan. The entire project is self-funded by the FABER team.
Do you have shares in the company according to how much you paid in?
Yes, FOR (the architects) have 10%, AMBASADA has 10% and the remaining 80% belong to the three main stakeholders. The way we are governed is that the stakeholders are represented by the board, and this board establishes the strategy for FABER that is then implemented by the executive team. We have focused mostly on establishing everything related to the building in the past two years. We opened in 2020 during the pandemic. Our office (FOR) is renting most of the first floor with the co-working space and the Makers space. AMBASADA is renting the ground floor. We also have meeting rooms and a big multipurpose room for events, and the courtyard.
We also host a lot of events which bring us additional revenue. This is the baseline, beyond this we want to build a programme and we are slowly reaching this part of our mission. We are now working with two wonderful curators in order to obtain that: with local legend Florin Unguras; for the musical programme and international designer Martina Muzi for the rest of the cultural offer.
Did opening FABER during the pandemic create any problems?
It generated a massive visibility problem. But we are afloat because of the dry rentals. Our model is based on a really low basic rent and also a variable part of the rent which depends on the income of each tenant. The flat rate of the rent is €5 per square metre which is quite low for Timisoara. The variable rent is 3% quarterly of all income, which is a consequence of the value that FABER has. We want to generate an ecosystem where players encourage each other and flourish together. We thought this would be a fair way to work together.
We are sustainable through the rent and events which took place even during the pandemic, we had enough buzz around FABER to stay afloat. But being sustainable is not enough. We need to find ways to become more relevant and to earn more profit so that we can then reinvest it in our mission. Otherwise it is hard to take care of such a big building. It cannot be only a container, it needs to be alive.
What kind of impact can FABER have on its surroundings?
The plot we brought is part of a bigger industrial plot. For us, as architects, it was important from the beginning that we do not create any sort of physical limit between our property and the rest of the courtyard. We generated a big dispositive that has the aim to connect our building with the entire property: this is a big staircase that we built behind the building and which overlooks the entire area, and hosts an array of outdoor activities.
This was manifested later on when we met with our neighbour. It is important to say that we are very lucky to have a neighbour with a fantastic story. The family that owns the industrial site next to us is the original builder of this industrial complex that used to be a candle and soap business, set up in 1844 by a family called Farber. They had to leave Romania for the USA at the time of nationalisations in 1948 and lost their factory. In the early 2000s, they bought back their factory, now called Azur, from the Romanian state. Azur is still functioning (on another site), they manufacture paint and are very well-known in Romania. What is outstanding is that the owner of this company, Mr Farber, who is 96, learned chemistry on this site from his grandfather. He is really connected to this place in Timisoara and is very caring about how people develop this space. His story inspired us so much that it is one of the reasons we are called FABER. It is in honouring him as well as the philosophical concept of homo faber.
We are really lucky that they are so concerned about how this neighbourhood develops and we are discussing how together, in this courtyard, which is big, we could refurbish some of the buildings and have a mixed-use environment that is beneficial to both its current tenants and Timisoara.
Interview by Levente Polyak.