In 1998, Serge Borenstein began implementing his first residential projects in Karlín, Prague. Since the devastating floods in 2002, the district has become much livelier and grew more beautiful – this also being thanks to the development company Karlín Group.
We asked the two current owners – the founder, Serge Borenstein (SB) and Jan Ludvík (JL), what has changed in the 25 years of existence of a company that prefers creative and timeless architectural renderings in its projects.
So, let’s go back 25 years, to the beginning…
SB: Initially, the development company Karlín Group was significantly supported by the American investor Marc Rich, thanks to whom we were able to buy a large area of ČKD Holding. This is where the long history of Karlín Group began…
JL: I started with Karlín Group shortly after that, 23 years ago, through a part-time job during my university studies. Some 10 years later, when I gradually reached a more important post in the company, Serge was dealing with a former business partner and also with the consequences of the 2008 crisis. That is when he approached me to see if I would like to help him start Karlín Group again and offered me a share in their upcoming projects.
Can we briefly recall the history of Karlín Group?
SB: As already said, we started by buying a large area in Karlín, which we concentrated on. From the beginning, our philosophy was to develop the urban area and at the same time mix functions in order to create a lively district. Real estate agents discouraged us from this model, because they claimed that it was impossible to combine residential and office segments, that people would not want to live there. We wanted to create a city that would live. I saw a deterrent example here in Brussels, where the administrative buildings for the European Union are built in the central part, which becomes deserted in the evenings. It is a challenge for every developer to be involved in the development of a large urban area. We got lucky right from the start, and I really enjoyed it. It is different than some solitary projects in the city. It was nice to see the city change.
JL: It is not only encoded in the name of our company Karlín Group, but also in the projects we proceed with. Our portfolio mainly comprises residential and administrative buildings, depending on the current market development. What is important though is that apart from Karlín, we also continued to transform larger areas, which has developed into a relatively important segment of our activity, that is land development. Only few people know that we were at the beginning of some important projects such as River Garden or Libeňské doky. In these locations, it was necessary to consolidate the land, propose a new urban plan and obtain a zoning permit, with which we subsequently sold the land for realization to other investors. We have never had the ambition to grow into such a sizeable company that would be able to build everything we designed from the ground up.
Do you have a stable team of co-workers? How many of you are there in total?
SB: Interviews sometimes speak about Prague developers, but the people behind those companies do not get mentioned. Since day one, I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with people who have created an excellent team, and whose initial enthusiasm persists. Our team now numbers around 30 people. It is important to mention them sometimes too, because they tend to be forgotten!
JL: We keep our team this small on purpose, and we would like to keep it that way in future. Nevertheless, the flexible work structure allows us to work on several projects of different sizes at the same time.
What projects are you currently implementing?
JL: Now, we are working on about six or seven projects – from the smallest to larger areas. These are residential and rental projects in Prague, which have, after all, already been written about thanks to the partnership with PPF, but also larger city planning units, some with the aim of land development. We have discovered several interesting brownfield sites that are suitable for potential transformation. At the moment, we are, for instance, organizing an architectural-urban planning workshop on land in Chuchle. Karlín Group also made their first acquisition outside of Prague – in the premises of a manufacture of jointing materials in Libčice nad Vltavou. It is a brownfield site left after a former factory complex, right next to a train station. We are mainly preparing a conversion into housing, accommodation for the elderly and other civic amenities there.
Does it mean you are moving out from Karlín?
JL: It is difficult to find any more suitable land for construction in Karlín. And as we still enjoy our work, we looked across the river and found similar areas in Holešovice, where we are preparing one specific project near the exhibition grounds, and together with the Prague Public Transit Company, we are trying to transform the entire area around the vestibule of the Nádraží Holešovice underground station. The Railway Administration and CPI are also involved in the project as other significant local owners. We are preparing an international architectural workshop for this interesting location, which we could possibly realise before the end of this year. We have previously implemented one project near this location, at the intersection of Na Zátorách and Partyzánské Streets – the student housing project, which is now operated under the brand name The FIZZ and belongs to the International Campus Group. We would like to continue to develop similar projects in the future.
SB: But we have other activities as well. For instance, we support the So Concrete startup. After all, you could see it at the Festival of Architecture held at the exhibition grounds in Brno. It is a remarkable project and certainly a suitable topic for Development News. It is a combination of robotic programming, innovative concrete and the most advanced practices in construction. In time, artificial intelligence might design architecture and print it at the same time!
Karlín Group is known for paying its attention to quality architecture. Which architects do you collaborate with on projects? Do you choose a particular architect for each individual project, or do you have some ‘court’ architect?
JL: We select one for each individual project and in that context, we try to map the scene with both renowned and young architects. It is certainly no coincidence that many architects who worked for us in the past are better known today and have many more references than when we once approached them. They also used to be much more affordable for us then but today, we probably wouldn’t even be able to afford some of them! For instance, the Keystone building, where we are right now, was designed by the EM2N studio, which are generally very renowned architects in Zurich today. And I think that it was also this earlier realization of theirs that helped them to some extent. But there are some architects that we have been happy with and have great chemistry with, and with whom we have worked on multiple projects. However, I still wouldn’t call them court architects.
Can you name some?
SB: Certainly, the already mentioned Mathias Müller and Daniel Niggli from the world-renowned studio EM2N from Switzerland, Vasa Perovic and Matija Bevk from Slovenia, Baumschlager and Eberle from Austria, David Chipperfield or the recently deceased Ricardo Bofill. But there are also Czech architects with whom we have done several projects, historically with Šafer & Hájek, Pavel Hnilička and from the young architects with Under Construction; as for the younger ones – the aspiring ones – the Edit studio or perhaps Chybik & Kristof, who are far from being beginners by now. It is very interesting to watch those young and budding architects grow. For instance, Roman Vrtiška who worked on the first model apartment in our residential project Cornlofts Šaldova.
How will you celebrate the 25 years of Karlín Group?
SB: We are preparing a summer event that will revolve around music. Besides architecture, music is another common passion of ours. With the Metronom festival, we will also bring the popular French singer-songwriter Zaz, who has already performed several times in the Czech Republic and sold out Forum Karlín three times. Since it will be in the summer, it will be a suitable kind of celebration, where we want to invite our business partners and friends.