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Jelena Krstovic Nikolic

Estimated reading time: 6 min

With extensive experience in commercial, residential, sport and interior design, Jelena Krstovic Nikolic is RMJM Serbia‘s Lead Architect. Jelena studied at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade, one of the oldest and most respected schools of architecture in Europe. Upon receiving her Master’s degree Jelena quickly moved onto designing a contemporary dual villa which later received widespread praise. Since then she has taken an uncompromising focus when it comes to her work and, after 10 years, was welcomed into the RMJM family where she continues to play a pivotal role.

When did you decide you wanted to be an architect?

I never had any other idea; it came so natural, like it was not a choice at all. I don’t even know if there was a time when I have said “I want to become an architect”. I just knew that I would be an architect. When I went to interview for a place at the Faculty of Architecture with the University of Belgrade the professor asked ‘What is your other option if you are not accepted?’ My answer was immediate: “There is no other option, nor will I need one.” I was sure that a professor who does not believe in my 100% cannot prepare me for a career in architecture. As it turned out, he was testing me and had got the response he wanted. The esteemed professor wanted only students with great talent, devotion and determination. Fortunately, I was accepted on the course.

You were born and raised in Serbia. In the autumn of 2014, the Polish architectural photographer Piotr Bednarski visited Novi Beograd (where RMJM Serbia office is currently located) and admitted to have fallen in love with the architecture of the area. He wrote: “Seeing the dense, raw and, desolate modernist architecture… made me fall in love with Novi’s neighborhood. I saw people from different social backgrounds living peacefully in one place”. What makes Serbian architecture unique?

The answer to this serious question differs by focusing on the one of the plural positions and perspectives involved, because it opens an interdisciplinary debate on the relational nature of projects for spaces where people live and interrelate. I will speak in the terms of the city I live in [Belgrade] yet I will also be following up Piotr Bednarski’s discussion on New Belgrade. His photographs reflect deep understanding of our city. He knows and loves it. At the same time New Belgrade is my favorite example of Serbian architecture. It is evolving intensively but in the process of permanent revolution. His intense circulation and magnetism are the central theme of the adaptation to new urban situations. New forms of inhabiting space are arising in this contemporary city, which is synchronized to the world. Project development and implementation are characterized by a stronger awareness of and care for the entire territory, as well as an awareness of environmental values. In New Belgrade we can tackle these challenges, both in people and in the space. The next 10 years will hopefully emphasize the importance of ethical concern in projects and interventions proposed and managed by architects and planners that could benefit both the space and the people.

In a recent survey conducted by Women in Architecture, the participants were asked if women can have a good work-life balance in architecture. In continental Europe, 44% responded that yes, women architects can have a good work-life balance but only if they don’t have children or dependants to look after. We know you have a wonderful family and still a very intense professional life. How can you balance these two important parts of your life? Do you agree with the 44% of the respondents?

My experience does not reflect the opinion of the 44% of the women questioned. As you have said, my family (my priority) and architecture are two most important aspects of my life. It is hard to balance the two, but it is my life, it is who I am. It is easier to give myself to the both selflessly, then to sacrifice who I am. I’m trying to be inventive about my time management. I take my kid to my business travels as much as opportunity allows me, so we can benefit from spending time together. That has also enriched his childhood with many amazing places he has seen.

Many think that with Zaha Hadid’s passing, women have lost a role model in a field that has already few others. In Serbia, one of the first pioneers who inspired women to enter the profession was Jelisaveta Načić (1878 – 1955). She was not only the first female graduate in architecture from Belgrade, but the first female architect in Serbia. Do you think that women studying architecture and women architects today are lacking role models? Who were your models when you were a student?

Thank you for mentioning Jelisaveta Nacic and I will use the opportunity to also mention Milica Krstic and then the architects who have influenced our development after second world war like Milica Steric and Ivanka Raspopovic, women who shape Serbian architecture today. Now, I do not think we are lacking the role models. Architecture has many varieties and has never been so multidisciplinary. There are many amazing architects, engineers, artists, musicians, writers who can be a role model to follow. And it is much easier now. At the first years of my studying we couldn’t wait for a new publication to show in the library. I was interested in the work of Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Peter Eisenman, Toyo Ito, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, the great Ellen van Loon of OMA and, later, Kazuyo Sejima. But, of course, Zaha Hadid is unique. Her Vitra Fire Station had shaped my notion of esthetics.

Would you encourage a woman to start a career in architecture?

Architecture is hard and requires endless hours of work but it is also both fulfilling and rewarding. Being able to visualise and materialise space provides an opportunity to affect people’s lives, therefore it is a role that comes with great responsibility. I would like to encourage woman to start this, I wouldn’t say career, but life as an architect. Philip Johnson once said: “I hate vacations. If you can build buildings, why sit on the beach?” If you work as an architect and are a mother you are building great sandcastles for your child when you are on holiday anyway. In this way, an architect is never on vacation. There is no ‘off-switch’ from the project and its possible solutions.

As for the question of professional relations, I think that most of female architects have experienced the situation where they are the only women in the room, among many male architects and engineers. I have always had a positive experience in those situations. By realizing the situation, my colleagues, if anything, give me more respect, allowing me to express my opinion on the details that I think could benefit the project the most. There are many pages in the history of woman in the architecture waiting to be filled.

What is your personal motto?

My personal motto is to always make decisions based on my values. It reflects on the architecture, as it is my creative expression of values. So my personal mottos mirror my professional ones, and vice versa. The most productive part of creative process is asking many questions, exploring the diversities of answers given. As Zaha Hadid said: “There are 360 degrees, so why stick to one?”