Pablo Oriol, Fernando Rodriguez
A certain practice
When talking about our architectural practice, we feel that we need to describe processes rather than results in order to unveil the logics that underlie our work, consciously or unconsciously, and find the coincidences that reinforce those logics. Identifying those coincidences, the actual practice ceases to be a mere set of results and becomes something more complex, which intertwines personal interests, experiences, cities and authors, all organized around a series of topics. The description of these topics is not immediate; it is in fact hard and difficult, but also necessary.
For some time now, we have had the feeling that we are fundamentally working with structures and mechanisms. This, although it may seem to be an extreme simplification, has helped us to write this text, a sort of description of those interests that constantly appear in our work. It is a difficult text that attempts to put 24 projects into words, with the idea of articulating the next 24.
We are interested in a broad, syntactic concept of structure (1): structure as a system of order, as a system of relationships between parts, structure as something capable to build a whole. Structure is, someway, a support-system for that architecture which is aware of belonging to something bigger than itself, an architecture which is therefore, somehow, against formal singularity.
The use of structure as an idée-force helps us to outline two main concerns in our work. On the one hand, on what we would call the normalization of design (2), we deal with the material concerns that link the present work with the tradition of architecture. On the other hand, the contextualization within a common cultural history links it to the idea of an extended understanding of territory.
A fundamental aspect of our work is the understanding of the fact that every project of architecture belongs to a greater context which transcends itself, but into which it must be incorporated. The understanding of the context as a complex intellectual, physical and social construct requires a deep reading of what is suggested by its conditions: its internal logics, the dynamics that give shape to it, its extensive character, its identity... These comprehensive considerations seek to achieve a difficult balance between what the context is and how the architecture contributes to that context.
Talking about this idea of structure requires talking about the territory, about the realm in which these structures become necessary and therefore operate. Assuming that every architecture becomes part of a certain realm, we focus in the contemporary condition of that specific realm.
We are interested in a geographic understanding of the territory that replaces the classic reference to genius loci with post-metropolitan thought. The objective of revealing the unique logics of a territory, refers to a certain infrastructural understanding of design which we have been proposing in our work on the contemporary city (3), implying that a project is something to be incorporated into the context, with a sense of belonging to the ongoing dynamics of each specific site. This understanding allows us to incorporate small-scale design into territorial concerns.
In a text called “Castro is Bilbao,” which we wrote about the OS House when it was published for the first time, we referred to the infrastructural scale of the north coast of Spain in order to show how architectural design should meet territorial concerns, and that this should be achieved through the knowledge of the logics of every territory. In some ways, this stance involves a certain prevalence of order over form, of topos over type, and requires that our designs adopt a strong condition of neutrality, that can be understood within a wider context that goes beyond the superficial.
Of course, there have been specific places which have shaped our general interests in this contemporary urban realm. Madrid gives us some kind of equidistance in this territorial understanding, both through its disjointed nature and lack of urban identity, and through the assumption that its character is the result of the history of many other cities and the pressure that they have operated on this central space.
Berlin, Chicago and Rotterdam were other places where we were trained and our experiences there form the backdrop of our personal way of understanding territory as a complex intellectual construction into which we must become incorporated.
In Mexico City, Puebla, Geneva or Lausanne, we have developed an intense design activity, in which the understanding of the specific substratum was not as important as the underlying metropolitan logics, allowing us to adapt to different contexts our design strategies, and thus strengthening them.
In the past, we have referred to the idea of Super Normal, as coined in 2006 by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa (4). We did this in order to evoke the neutrality that we seek in our architecture. For these designers, an object can be called super normal when it re-establishes a solid link between design and use, recomposing a usually forgotten normality in the atmosphere generated by this object when it is used. You can simply replace the word “object” with the word “architecture” to understand our intention when using that term. The ambition to produce supernormal architecture and the awareness that it must belong to a broad territory, have produced a series of distinctive traits in our projects. This has allowed us to speak about a shared topic that we intuitively call support. A support can be understood as a load bearing structure but also as a basic diagram of order; it is a way of simultaneously defining the project logics, its basic materiality and its desire to form a neutral space.
In some ways, this idea of support expresses a broad response to the question about how to intervene, within the rigid tissue of our cities, with the flexibility and sustainability that contemporary times require.
Supports as structures
Supports are no longer those majestic but ancient structures described by Habraken or Banham. On the one hand, supports are systems with a simple and direct materiality which, from the start, can adapt to the context and determine the scale of the surroundings. On the other, they can provide a sort of common minimum space transcending classical programmatic obsolescence. Supports build architecture with character, but its character resides in order, in its organizational ability and its enormous and paradoxically simple solidity.
In our work in recent years we have designed various supports. Berlin M20, ORSP and Far Roc can be understood as examples of the use of support as structure, representing the change of awareness implicit in the recognition of a greater scale on which to operate. In these cases, it is easy to understand the duality that characterizes this type of structure. A greater, primary order responds to the scale of the context; it is adapted to the general framework and it is arranged in a metropolitan manner, occupying the blurred space between architecture and urbanism with similar logics. This notion of support as a primary order can operate in different contexts such as the Berliner Kulturforum, the Rockaway Peninsula of New York and the Oslo Metropolitan Region.
Meanwhile, a secondary order composed by a series of elements addresses the specificity required by different programs, different cultural contexts and different materials in each situation (always from a flexible point of view) and works on the functional and perceptive scale of the project.
In Juárez 204-Estación San José and San Lucas Pavilion, this idea of support as structure is radicalized. The reduction of scale carries within it the direct identification of the structure as a load-bearing construction: the structural system becomes a whole that guarantees the character of the building, beyond its specific use.
The materialization of these structures (their size, their geometry, their colour) becomes a determining factor, so powerful that the subsequent program is relegated to the background. In both cases, the specific materiality is a visible reinforced concrete structure with large scale beams and screened pillars. The interior structure is formed using flexible and folding materials and various assembly systems, always clearly showing that they belong to a secondary order.
When the support is understood as a basic-order diagram, a second and particularly interesting paradigm appears: one which we could call organizational supports, as the result of freezing in time a continuous process of design, that produces a certain architectural result.
Supports as diagrams
These organizational supports are closely related to the field condition (5), understood as the evolution of the classic systems of order. As described by Wiel Arets and Stan Allen, the field is presented as a system that is at once general and specific. And thus it is clearly a conceptual support.
In a text that is now a few years old, “The Experience of Simple Complexity” (6) we laid the foundations of what would be a constant in our work for many years. The idea of building complexity through the manipulation of the relationships between simple elements – structures, configurations, orders and systems – based on our fascination for the field condition. This game of relationships can produce highly complex spatial conditions within their own configuration.
This search for simple complexity has manifested itself in our work on different scales and with apparently contradictory results, but the idea that the project itself lies underneath, latently, and that each case is a local singularization of this underlying order, has been kind of an obsessive drive for us.
Based on the design of supernormal elements, the creative process is focused on exploring the different relationships that these elements may establish among themselves, mainly through two variables: the level of programmatic specificity and their interaction with the context. There then appear variations of apparently neutral plans, organizational supports capable of synthesizing a minimal order to host the required uses with a level of uncertainty. Clean, simple structures which organize the development of those same plans. Primary formalizations, slightly manipulated in order to respond to the context conditions, without losing a level of abstraction which is always of interest to us: the OS House, the San Lucas Pavilion, Juárez 204-Estación San José, the PS Residence, the MO House, the CJM Access Building or the EPFL Pavilions... all of them are exercises of order in which the program is arranged naturally in the place and organized according to their own pattern: a generic matrix with the ability to be singular in certain points. In these projects, once again it is the structure that turns into the plastic expression of the project, not as much as a brutalism revival or a mechanical glorification, but rather through a radical conceptual simplicity.
Understanding design as a mechanism implies a discussion about the logics of assembly, the technical consequences of the configuration of the support, on the one hand, and about the systems which enable the exploration of the relationships between the parts, on the other. Therefore, the technique allows the constructive decisions to take the project one step further in its conceptualization. Far from suffering the formal and material concretion, we find it a necessary step in the materialization of the project’s orders and systems. The communion of a strong conceptual concept and the search of constructive honesty produces an architecture that unashamedly reveals its underlying logic. Supernormal.
There is no place in this text to deeper develop these statements, but we have chosen three words which we summarize our approach to technique and its consequences: assembly – about material complexity, superposition and independence; texture – about materiality, catalogue and invention; and lightness – about energy, ecology and economy.
In terms of materialization, we operate using the superposition of differentiated constructive natures. On the one hand, there are those which are linked to a certain specific organization. On the other hand, there are those which allow a particularization of the spaces, adapting them to the users who must occupy them.
Again, a condition of uncertainty concerning the evolution of specific works of architecture appears, influencing decision-making on a technical level.
Sometimes, the base structure – the support – is materialized in an opposite way to the additional layers of the project, like a primary structure on which some specific material actions rely. This clearly happens in Juárez 204 - Estación San José, in the MO House and in the San Lucas Pavilion, among other projects. Other times, both systems are melded into a blurred situation which does not allow an easy reading of the project conceptualization, such as the PS Residence and the OS House. But in any case, there is an underlying idea of complexity through the superposition of constructive natures and a certain material dependency between them. We have called this condition assembly, convinced that the term, originally a process of material fabrication, has extended its meaning to the design process of those techniques associated with the construction and design of our architecture, as indeed it has – since Deleuze – to our understanding of the city and the territory.
Another aspect that is linked to the technical understanding of our projects stems from the existing polarity between catalogue and invention.
The desire for neutrality expressed in our working systems, what we could call the condition of supernormality, leads us to generally use catalogue constructive elements. This decision separates us from the idea of the architect-inventor, something which is otherwise a necessary response to the age of cool technique labels. However, it is obvious to all that the growing demands of technical, eco-friendly codes and certifications is making the epidermis of our cities uniformly monotonous.
We face this condition from a contradictory statement, seeking to work with the idea of texture as an invention, as a repetitive and unique combination of catalogue elements, giving each design its own character.
“From the point of view of sustainable economic development, light materials and light structures are of key importance” (7)
We wish to incorporate a final word into the previously described conditions of assembly and texture: lightness. In our understanding, this single word condenses the concerns about energy, ecology and economy that affect our work.
Those paradigms are doubtlessly directly linked to the material challenges of our age: obtaining maximum performance with minimum energy consumption (8). And similarly, they form a substantial part of the interests of our work as architects. Although these guidelines do not always allow us to explore this material condition, since Terence Riley’s description in his Light Construction exhibition for MoMA in 1996, it has become a part of our catalogue of preoccupations.
Structures, mechanisms, supports, fields. Assembly, texture and lightness. Territory and city. Public space, flexible space, levels of uncertainty...
All these words are an attempt to name concepts needed for a project manifest. If we ask ourselves, over and over, what is our mission as architects and what sort of architecture we should be making, teaching and defending, it is because we are aware that we cannot separate the architecture of the city from the architecture of the thought. And the unequivocal commitment to making more and better architecture for everyone must, unavoidably, reside in the desire to defend architecture that can be talked about, architecture which produces not only a physical but also a certain intellectual progress that will doubtlessly make our cities better.
Understanding design as progress and therefore as a tool to better operate, seems to be crucial in our moving forward with our particular architectural practice.
Edited and printed on the occasion of The Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Awards
Ed: FRPO - Madrid 2019
Pablo Oriol, Fernando Rodriguez