On 12 November 2008 at the College of Architects presented the Monographic book “Octavio Mestre, living and working spaces”, published by the Institute Monsa, which contains some forty works constructed during the first twenty years of professional study. The event was chaired by Roger Pallarols, representing the Mayor of Barcelona, Lluis Cameron, Dean of the College of Architects of Catalonia and was addressed by Ricardo Guasch, Jose Juan Barba, Félix Arranz, Manuel and Jose Miguel Roldán Gausa, all Architects and friends. The papers presentations and speeches of the different participants were collected in a book that was edited by the Cooperative College in his collection “talking around the books”

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Monsa
Preface

Knowing that our only mission is to make things a little better than we receive, remembering that some Native Americans claim that we don´t received the earth an inheritance from our ancestors, but we borrow from our grandchildren and it is they whom we must give account. And yet some people consider them, disdainfully, primitive peoples…. Knowing what’s things they are on fashion, won’t be in the future and there is a time that is proper to anything, the durée, which speak the French, in a time cycle which, obviously, we are overcome and that just we are a small link… Knowing that you teach to “help to” others to begin, to return to others what one day we received, knowing that not only “we learn by teaching,” likes Seneca said but only by comparing their own ideas with those of others, they grow healthy (nothing worse than navel-gazing). And knowing finally that, although what is important can not to be taught (the teaching is always insufficient, except where when it is totally unnecessary), you can always learn everything from everyone… Learn how to sit at the table of the powerful and the poor people, with students, clients and workers who raise the buildings we design with their hands and treat them equally, as the men they are, as the triumph and defeat, to say that Kipling poem, that one day help me be a man, a better person… Knowing that our work and its results are beyond the contingencies of client money (sometimes only to have more resources makes that evil is greater), they are beyond the enforcement of regulations. And that our work is not really ours … not just us that we do, not even those who ordered and paid us for it, but our work ends up being of everybody and which, if right or wrong, it will be for other reasons, not by having more resources, and more freedom … for what, a priori, it helps, sometimes it’s a drag, so creation it remains a mystery. The rose is without why… Knowing that sometimes, projects that cost more effort are what allow us to do our best work. As the muscle, “no pain, no work” and our daily work should be in that line. As the skier, sliding down a slope, he must be always falling to advance, knowing that if it stands for and where, indeed, fall. Knowing that our race is in the background, it´s a marathon… Knowing that no one cares what you think or what you feel, just the final work is important, that which is above all. We have to know that we must educate the stomach (rather than the head or the heart). Because the head can defend the most disparate approaches and because, at heart, how many people do not love but who should not? But how rarely the stomach does not stir us to fuck! Clear what “make three times a sin and you thought that it is lawful,” as the Jews proverb says … Knowing that you can’t give up our consciousness, because there is where it all lies. “A man drowned at sea, but the man is most important than the sea. Because the man knows he is dying and the sea does not know that it kills him”(Pascal). Knowing that today in the era of information technology and global communication, a lot of true wisdom is lost after the culture (as pompous word, uttered by intellectuals to which he fills their mouth) and how culture diluted, after the excess of information that we submit the media… the really important thing is to be wise and not to be aware (and because to “catch old” comes only with the years)… Knowing that, although the clothes make the monk (contrary to what the saying goes), you do not dress in architecture, for being an architect. That is enough to feel that first emotion and build it, everything is easier than it seems. And be aware that because of this, everything can be done in sandals. These sandals you can see at the picture that summarize the essence of the Mediterranean and, perhaps, of our work in the office. I´m always in sandals in summer time, a fact that is the envy of more than one of my clients in suits in the hot days of our summers. With the wish that every day be sunny for all of you…

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Text and photography Octavio Mestre
Inhabit, build, think…

They say novelists only ever write one novel, like architects who only ever build one work. And perhaps they’re right. As much as building someone’s house corresponds to the private and most intimate kingdom of each and every individual, clients don’t know how similar their programs are to everybody else’s. It is none other than our job as architects to make the small distinguishing details stand out, in order to exploit them and offer a different solution. Nobody would understand that a writer begins a new novel “somewhere in X, whose name I don’t wish to remember,” where x could be Comala, Macondo, Yotnapatawaa, Santamaría, Región, any other lost place than La Mancha… Much like the filthy rich Yankee who could never understand why the Mexican craftsman wanted to charge much more for ten identical chairs, with a reason such as “who would pay him for the boredom of making all the chairs the same”. I was told this anecdote in the DF and this is what we thought when we were commissioned the 15 houses in Arenys (which, of course, all ended up being different, according to the access that the terrain imposed and the programs which we had to invent). It’s true that if the program doesn’t give rise to the architecture, it does help as a starting point.

But surely there are similarities between all our houses, much like there are between members of the same family. All of them are white (as I mention in the text at the beginning of the book), because there is a single hand behind who thought them up… and because the strategies are always the same: bury yourself (as in San Feliu de Guixols) or stake out the place (as in Goyrans) or both at the same time, (as in Tamariu)… Putting everything in a program in the only container which works (“très difficile, satisfaction à l´esprit,” Le Corbusier would say) as in San Feliu de Codines, under a single slope, or break this slope and make a cascading house (as will happen in the Valldoreix dwelling).

All of them are patio-style houses (without patio) and, as in the Ugalde House, they need this back space to breath and function. The IIT Crown Hall in Mies also has a floor that is so clean… until you discover the multicolored installation plan hidden away in the baseboard. All our housing spaces comply to the letter with this principle of circulation that prioritizes access from the vestibule to the daytime area, the night area, the service area (not matter how many who say that it no longer make sense to refer to them as such) and reconnects them together, avoiding junctions, whose paradigm would be Coderch’s own Catasús House built in the Maresme. In some, the bedrooms are found downstairs (Valldoreix or Tamariu) while they more frequently tend to be located on the upper floors. On the other hand, the houses recognize the terrain over which they sit. In Andratx, the stone containing wall on the former boundry is incorporated into the guest house, and as in Goyrans, the walls literally build the geodetic altitudes. Although this is all a great big lie, because when the back-hoes come in, the terrain is no longer what it once was. Like when an animal or an indigenous tribe is observed, their behavior changes when they feel analyzed by the observer. Or like a photon modifies its trajectory of the electron we want to see, which results in orbital theory, understood as possibilities rather than certainties, no matter who said “God doesn’t roll the dice”.
All the houses appear to be quite closed in to themselves, you might say almost lost in thought, and yet, from the inside, the spaces are extraordinarily open, always enhancing diagonal sightlines in favor of their maximum breadth. The house in Maresme closes into itself so as not to see the immediate surroundings (the bedroom windows open over a pocket in the wall itself, while in others, such as Andratx or Pineda, are a true shop window. A shop window facing the sea, because it closes off the view of the street or the mountains (because things are either open or closed, big or small, always in relation to something else). The shape of the Tamariu dwelling (rectangular) and that of Pineda (triangular) responds to the respective forms of the parcels and the boundary separations imposed by building code, while that of Coma-Ruga is more free, more formalist, because it doesn’t respond to a need or obligation but a self-imposed desire (a Moebius strip will define all the volumetry, without lifting the hand from the paper). It’s good to respect the rules one sets out to work by.

If architecture is “a magnificent play between volumes in light”, what better than expose a white wall to our Mediterranean sun?… One builds a wall and divides the world in two, one “inside” and many “outsides”, light and shadow. And shadows automatically create a difference in temperature that in turn encourages a current of air and provide places to take shelter (the house seen as refuge), according to the time of year. This is because inhabiting is none other than appropriating a place; Domus comes from domesticate, from apprivoiser, as the little prince would say. White walls, open from floor to ceiling and covered by latticework (or extreme and intentional forms to favor or deny a determined view) will define their formal image. In the case of the Maresme house, the latticework will constitute an authentic exercise of origami, completely varying the look of the house; a randomness, depending on whether the slats are open or not.

In many houses we have done the interior decoration, even designing specific furniture, while in others, often for budget restrictions, this was not possible. And so to compensate, we have made around twenty apartments where, using the architecture of others, we have had to play by adapting pre-existing structures to the needs of the new occupants. The dwellings on Calle Aribau and Calle Calatrava seek out light coming through a glass staircase, in one case, and a transparent elevator in another, which run through the vertical space, stitching together the different floors. In the renovation of a former sewing shop in Santa Perpetua, changing the slope of the roof to create a double-height bedroom did not seek out anything but this. The first of the examples has been brought up because it is my house, a dwelling in Barcelona’s Eixample from the 19th century, published in its day, but it lost the interest of the media when objects from far-flung cultures began to arrive, fruit of the infinite amount of traveling that one subscribes to as a way of life. Ethnic doesn’t fly, they told me and from here I would like to denounce the tyranny of sector journals which publish only one image and cloning it over and over again.    The same principle of enhancing diagonal sightlines in our dwellings is the essence of the first project of collective housing built in Toulouse, which I went back to visit, 18 years later for the purpose of this publication, to check how they had kept their freshness over time. These volumes can be found in the projects for the housing complexes in Terrassa, San Carles de la Ràpita, the bid for the 150,000 m2 “Lyon Confluence” –in which we were finalists –, in prefabricated housing prototypes we collaborated in for the reconstruction of Kigali after fratricidal war had bloodied the country, in the lost “Europan” bid in Croatia, a project we later reinterpreted that also failed, in the “Roques Dauradas” in l’Atmella de Mar (to live is to accept repeated defeats) and, why not, in the project under way for 11,500 dwellings in Brazil;  projects in which all, for reasons of space, can not be shown in this monograph, but can be seen at our website.

The rest of the collective housing projects, built within the urban context of Barcelona or neighboring cities, are themselves a catalog of how to interpret building codes and dialogue with pre-existing conditions; exercises that always seek out the possible, something I would define as “the real possible”. In hand-lain brickwork, in off-white plaster, in phenolic board, in white closer brick, in sheets of black Alucobond (as in the Sabadell complex which we will finish by summer) or in little wooden slats; the material doesn’t matter, but its integration into the context does. Buildings need to fold into themselves in this way, fold into the courtyards or gardens created for this effect, and block out the ever more hostile city. The attitude demonstrated by the Riera de Sant Miquel apartments is none other than that Coderch demonstrated in the Tàpies house on Calle Zaragoza. And what can be more neutral than this wooden lattice which, so as not to be seen, doesn’t even let one see the windows? When there is no worthwhile context, as in the case of Calle Segur, the project clearly seeks to distance itself from, so much that it seems to be a lost UFO. In many cases, the dwellings grow upwards or downwards, even lowering the inside level of the block to, in compliance with the habitability programs of the fixed conditions in the building code, generate new floors that allow for the dwelling to develop a little less stifled than the strict limits imposed by the current ordinance. When will they understand that the city is not built only from the Building Code, but also, and above all, from an emotional standpoint?.

A few references and the same old poorly-formulated question   (A letter to the students at the workshop given in Boiano, Italy, in 2007)
On our work as architects

Our fate as architects will be more and more dedicated to working on compact environments. The urban lifestyle is the arena where we develop our talents and for every single-family house we raise, we are build more collective housing, offices, sports complexes, shopping centers or other types of facilities, right in the heart of the city itself, and mostly by giving old buildings a new use… To reduce it down to a simple caricature, we will be building more buildings with a single façade between party walls than those with four sides… Therefore, the question or doubt on whether to “renovate or innovate” has sparked, for many years now, an endless string of debates and workshops, ones which I normally take part in… “Tradition or creation?” I was once asked, as if both terms were opposed to one another; if one had to choose between the two… Daytime or nighttime? Blondes or brunettes? you might ask, until someone cleverest said, daytime, depending on the blonde… And how right they were… Because the only rule is that there are none (but you can’t go on and on about that).

On poorly-formulated questions

On the other hand, renovation is a rather deceptive term, as the prefix re- seems to suggest recovery, a return to a certain past, to a state of things which often never really existed in the first place. In the 80’s, we renovated old residential buildings to convert them into offices to let (it was the fashion at the time, understanding that being fashionable is, in the development world, the most profitable business), while today we are renovating old rundown factories or commercial buildings into trend-setting loft and luxury apartments, right in the city center… The results in either case have no relation whatsoever to the pre-existing structure we had started with…  In any case, we concur with Siza Vieira in what is truly important, as he said when the entire known world had their say on what style ought to be used in rebuilding Lisbon’s Chiado, burnt down in a terrible fire in the summer of ’89. The only thing that mattered to him was that the neighborhood be given a mixed-use space, which it would have had if the cathedral had never burnt down in the first place… The problem with a question with no answer to it is that the answer tends to stem largely from the question itself (often poorly formulated), rather than in the nonexistent answer.

On the Italian condition

And this happens all over the world… The “global village” advocated by MacLuhan is already here, with its wars fought in real-time and the omnipresence of the information society. But this particularly occurs in Italy, where the “presence of the past” (this was the title of one of the first Biennales of Architecture in Venice) is so rich and fruitful but at times so castrating that it has created a nearly crystallized country where nothing new is ever built, with this happening for many years now. Thus magnificent architects are often forced to emigrate, take refuge in teaching, or resort to devoting themselves to the world of design and fashion (and I refer to these same thoughts expressed by the protagonist of the film “Hollywood Babylonia”, the grandson of Italian immigrants who makes circus props for rather cut-rate films, while his grandfathers had raised the most beautiful cathedrals man had ever seen).  When Benvenutto Cellini presented himself as “the greatest goldsmith in the world” and, troublemaker as he was, picked a fight with Miguel Ángel Buonarrotti, the latter replied that if what he had said were really true, that “if he was ‘indeed master of the small-scale’, it was because he had never dared to go large”, in the scale of the real (so if you want to really make it big in basketball, you’re forced to play in the NBA. Any lesser league would be too provincial)…

On why architecture is not being done in nearly every country in the world

Although architecture is not found in every country, one thing is construction and quite another architecture… Perhaps instead we should say that it can be found in very few places, although for rather different reasons… The endemic economic crises that many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America suffer, not to mention the case of political corruption (not always in the same package) clips the architecture’s wings in many countries, except in honorable exceptions.  On the contrary, in a wealthy country such as the United States of America, the amount of insurance required to cover possible lawsuits (I was told, when I was giving classes in Rhode Island, that to strike it rich in the United States you only needed have something to sell or someone to sue) was so much that young architects would be too handicapped to ever start up their professional careers. Around 90% of buildings there, and many other parts of the world, are indeed built without architects. So where in the world can we truly be architects?

On the dichotomy of form and content

In architecture, it also happens that we can completely agree on an idea, but its materialization becomes rather difficult to agree on. However exclusive (so ugly this word that everyone uses nowadays, some to buy and others to sell, but always to stand apart from the rest) … as I was saying, however exclusive your clients feel themselves to be, you have no idea how much they mimic each other in the programs they desire… Just by taking one look at them, you can write their “Dear Santa card” for them… But how different, in the end, will each of their houses be!… Its also enough to see how different, I would even say disparate, the solutions are from the multitude of architects called to take part in international bidding.  If the needs are the same, if the private desires coincide, why are the answers so different? We could talk about the program, but the program doesn’t create the form, as we have seen. We could talk about the place, the building code, the choice of materials, the architect behind the project and decisions taken… The creative process is always a mystery… This is the key. “Think of a dog” I usually say to my students, and while one will think of a chihuahua, another will think of a German shepherd. Both believe they are talking about the same dog, and this is where the misunderstanding begins. This happens in politics for sure, but also in architecture. Making sure what we’re talking about before we start talking about it (“what we mean when we talk about love” said Raymond Carver) usually helps avoid a misunderstanding… This it happens when you hear students talking, as many times what they say (what they wanted to say) does not always coincide with what you see in their projects and they end up confusing the “want” and the “can” and finally the “do”. And they do exactly the opposite of what they had stated they wanted to do, which usually has serious consequences, especially in what is referred to as coherence in the process, the loss of awareness, losing direction.

On change in use

Centuries ago, Greek temples stopped being used for the purpose that they had been created, but today we are still overcome by their serene beauty… One might ask what was truly important, the purpose of providing a place to worship the gods, or staking out territory, or making the light of the setting sun sparkle over the walls, or acting as a lighthouse to sailors or allowing the community to meet indoors (or don’t forget, as Bruno Zevi has said, the Greek temple is “the impenetrable dwelling of the gods.”) Or perhaps to simply move us… Behind its superimposed Baroque façade, the cathedral of Siracusa still maintains the Greek columns of the Doric temple intact, which was the mihrab in the period when the cathedral was a mosque, and the structure when it was a Norman church… This is perhaps because, when all is said and done, there is only one God. Perhaps because there is no better stone for us than the one that others had already cut (and this is what I’m referring to when I mention “reuse” upon beginning this letter).

Face to face with the past… face to face with the future

The past must be dealt with on equal terms with immense respect, but with brave assertions. Either architecture is culture, and thus fruit of a certain context and time, or else it is doomed to failure, a still-born child (which is what happens in the enormous joke called “post modern”, a movement developed between the late 70’s and the 80’s which was more a sad “post mortem” than anything else). In all of this mess, we must keep it clear that our only obligation is to leave the world a little bit better than we found it. The tree that we plant today will give shade to our grandchildren. And it is important for us to feel like links on a chain, part of a tradition that precedes us and survives us. At times, I look at you and see that what is for me simple passing fashions, for you it is the only form of creating architecture, that which is shown to you in today’s journals. You believe that things have always been done this way and this attitude is the result of a lack of perspective and knowledge. But you also must take into account that heritage is not only pre-existing Roman or Greek structures, nor is it the 17th-century Baroque, which here you call “Settecento”. A heritage – and a rather generous one it’s true – has been left from the 20th century and our work will be heritage if it passes through the sieve of time and we are able to bequeath it to our grandchildren. We are building the heritage of our grandchildren. Never forget it.

The price of things

At a certain age, you know that everything has a price (not when you’re young, though). Sometimes you don’t know what you’re paying for. In life, things happen… but someone always ends up paying the price. You believe time is today and infinite, but at a certain age, you know that’s not true. You can always do one thing, but at the cost of many things you cannot do. When you choose, you reject much more than what you have chosen. And then, when you’re ready to buy, the only important thing that you can’t really buy is that thing called time. Later, we (and you) are at least obligated to not lose any more time, from now on. Beyond that, as goes the saying, it would be foolish to confuse value with price. This happened to me on Minorca… years ago, I asked for a few pastries in a bakery which they didn’t want to sell me because, “some regular customers would have to go without”. When I asked the baker why they just didn’t make more in summertime, she told me that she lived just fine on 50 a day… So, I know that I have to work, and that I don’t have much time… And not because I don’t have any, but because others no longer have any left. “Life is short but wide, and that’s why we have to live it across the board” (as architect Gabriel Ruiz Cabrero has said, who was once told this by his father). I happen to like the image of this rushing river we call life, which I would like to share with you today.

Clients…

There is no architecture without clients. But most of all, there is no architecture without architects. The client is not our opposite, but someone who allows us to do our work. Primarily it is a man or woman who comes to need our services to help them solve his or her problems. Using the “opposing” force to our own benefit, which is to say the project, ought to be the slogan of our work. Without a good client, a good project does not exist, but above all, without a good architect, there cannot possibly be a good project. Here lies the importance of the power of seduction in our projects. We might suffer, but the project must not. On the other hand, we can’t blame others for our own incompetence… The lack of money, the client who won’t leave us alone, excessive regulations, we feel constricted, we are clamped down… But a good forward can elude the defensemen following him. If he can’t, it might just be that he isn’t such a good forward after all…

On the force of images

I’m giving you a two-hour conference where, due to the demands of the script (by which I mean the audience), I should simultaneously use three of the six languages I speak. It’s a good thing that the language of the image is universal. This conference deals with some of the intervention work out in the historical context in this, my city, Barcelona. And I’ll show you how the renovation of the L´Illa shopping centre constructs a metaphor of what is an island (through the use of light, water, abundant vegetation, and reflection) or how a 100-m2 light in Pedralbes Centre will bathe all in a soft changeable light to play with the more sophisticated image it aims to have… Or how we transform an old clinic into a lighthouse, superimposing Corten steel skins on the old façade, or how we integrate stucco, metal façades or wooden plank skins into several brick-faced residential buildings in the heart of the city… Or the many office buildings where we have always tried to convince our clients that amount of surface area didn’t matter as much the amount of cubic meters of air there was (a true luxury) and how beautiful houses sell better, like beautiful girls get married earlier (if they want to, of course, don’t take me as sexist). Or how we did the renovation in what today is the Mutua Madrileña headquarters so 110 workers could have natural light in the basement (which was nearly what mattered most to us, as architects primarily ought to solve the problems that were entrusted with for those who actually work there). Things tend to be beautiful, but especially when they are truly so. I’ll show you around thirty buildings, but I could easily show you another thirty and another thirty after that. We have built more than a hundred, nearly 120… an average hovering around 5 a year (it all depends on how we look at the numbers). I can’t imagine Cervantes starting all his novels with “somewhere in La Mancha, whose name I don’t wish to remember” and then changing the reference accordingly to the story to be told. “Once is enough” said Kundera in his “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. And things tend to happen this way. We can not go back and repeat what has already been done (although some clients do keep pestering us to do so). In time, you feel that your language becomes purified, and you no longer have that sense of urgency as you once did, no need to spell it all out in every project; that you know what here isn’t being said will have another opportunity to be said somewhere else. And that even if you have a lot of things left to say, you know that there will still be plenty that will never be said.

Don’t look at what I do …

You asked me for the prints from the conference, a webpage to look up… But here I’m going to express the principles and give away the references. I know that a picture is worth a thousand words (especially for those who can’t read), but in honor of our Mexican guests, I’m going to cite a few words of a master from their country; “Don’t look at what I do, but what I see”, said Barragán, when he was awarded the first ever Pritzker Prize. It was as if this was only way of creating a work of his own, rooted in his tradition, not a reinterpretation of another’s voice. An this is what you must try to do, each one of you.  Although they also said Bach, before composing his own music, would sit down at the piano to warm up  and play the pieces of others until his fingers were warm enough for him to find his own music to compose. And if this is what the prolific Bach did…

The conflict between faith and incredulity

J.A Coderch’s speech, upon being named member of the St. George’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, rather sums it up: “Open your eyes wide and look – it is much simpler than you can imagine”… And this invites us to seek out the one, not the architect, who is… “Behind every building you see, there is someone you can’t see”. “No, It isn’t geniuses we need now. I think geniuses are events, not goals or purposes (…) We need the thousands and thousands of architects who are out there in the world think less about Architecture (in capital letters) and the money available in the cities of the year 2000 (Coderch wrote this in 1961) and more in their profession of being an architect… always basing themselves firmly in dedication, good will, and honor”.  Identical principles and an identical attitude is found in the writings of Eduardo Chillida, the magnificent Basque sculptor… I recommend reading any of his books for this reason. And one who reads these things whilst young ends up believing them. And I would like to share them with you.   On the other hand, Goethe states (which Coderch quotes in the same reference) that “All the times when faith was predominate are brilliant. No matter which way it was represented, the heart is lifted and bears fruit in either the present and the future. On the contrary, in all the times when incredulity stated its sad victory, in whatever manner and even when it appeared to shine for a time in false splendor, with posterity it disappears from view, because there is nobody who likes to bother learning about what has not bore fruit.”

Losing yourself on roads to nowhere

They asked Álvaro Siza if he wasn’t angry with officials in his native land, as being the most internationally renowned Portuguese architect he nevertheless was not commissioned for as many public projects as he deserved (Nemo profeta in patria). To which Siza answered, somewhat laconically, “I don’t have time to be angry”.  I love this answer, this sense of not getting your blood up, this attitude… When you know which path to go down, you don’t have time for such nonsense.

Always different

I had the luck of working for Coderch’s firm, and after that for Enric Miralles. Enric always forced us to do things differently, as the only absolutely vital principle was to “do it differently each time”. Between using disjunctive and copulative conjunctions, the option is always to copulate. “If there’s a beard, it’ll be Peter, if not, Jane”, which isn’t much different from what Einstein used to say… “if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t call what I’m doing research”. In projects and in life (which are no more than mere trips) you don’t know where the port of arrival is… Only by thinking differently can you truly do things differently.

On the individual ways of working…

“When I don’t play for one day, I notice the difference. When I don’t play for a whole week, everybody notices”. If this happened to Rubinstein, why couldn’t it happen to us? Eduardo Chillida said in his memoirs that drawing came so easily to him that to not fall in love with his own drawings, he would tie his right hand behind his back and try to draw with his left hand…this is strength. Don’t confuse the means (drawing) with the end (his sculpture), with the art itself, or the capacity of emotion… De la Sota, another great Spanish architect from the 20th century, said something similar when he proposed drawing the project on his head before passing it to paper, so as not to fall in love with his own pencil marks. Because a painter who wants to paint paints, a musician who wants to compose composes… and a writer who wants to write writes. But an architect has to resort to other more distant disciplines from the constructive process itself to express their ideas before carrying them out. And in this superposition of languages, there are certain things which grate against each other…  Pepe Llinàs, an architect I admire among many others, told me that “after working he was always stuck with the solution which he thought was best, not that which best represented his initial ideal”. Because nobody cares about our personal problems, but they do care about the final results we provide. This is why, in the public critiques of your work when I hear you speak of such and such intentions which I don’t see later reflected in the drawings, I start to worry.  Because I think ideas are like Tarzan’s vines or crutches for a limp, which can be used until they no longer are of use, and because Tarzan swings from vine to vine to go forward. Sticking with the same idea, on the same vine, ends up with us looking at our naval with the result being self-complacency and the worst possible swinging of all. Can you see my point?  Stones are mirrors…“All the fondness you put into stones they give you right back…” I know of no other law.

Playing without a ball

I told you in the critique the other day that things are not always what they seem. Church cupolas from the Romanic to the Baroque are finished in golf leaf or painted sky blue, as the cupola is a metaphor for the canopy of heaven and the sky is blue or golden, depending on what time of day it is. The sky is where the light of the Word comes from, often symbolized by what is filtered by the lantern which is the name of the thing which at times tops off the cupola itself.  I also mentioned that when Le Corbusier built those horns atop his Chandigarh, in addition to building a metaphor to cow horns or the astronomical instrument of the magnificent Jaipur observatory, he was building an inverted cupola. Once inside, we are left to ourselves in direct contact with heaven, as we are on the rooftop terrace of the Tourette, or as seen in another way, the inclined façade of his Firminy youth center which keeps us covered us without covering us. As one person might be silent to tell us something, or say its opposite, because opposites indeed touch each other. And at times, it is more intelligent to turn things around and play without a ball.

The mystery

García Lorca, the poet vilely assassinated in the Spanish Civil War, once said “I know that I’m a poet, by the grace of God or the devil I don’t know, but I know that I’m a poet. And not from writing poetry, but for knowing how to recognize a good poem”. This gives me shivers down my spine because you and I might never be the architects we want or would like to be one day, but we will be, we can be architects as long as we know how to recognize good architecture. “Verde que te quiero verde, verde viento, verde mar” On the other hand, Albert Einstein also said, in his search for the equation that would unify gravitational and electromagnetic forces and aside from his famous “God doesn’t roll the dice”, that “the most beautiful thing that man can feel is the mysterious side of life. There is the true birthplace of art and science”. If, as Auden said “a rose is but a rose”, perhaps he who smells it knows more that he who rips its petals off to analyze them under the microscope. This mystery – this fragrance – is what I’d like to share with you today and what has moved me most in writing this letter to you. Without any spirit to lecture anybody.

Boiano, August 2007
Leisure and Business

If a place to live is a basic need, not just for all humans but all living things, making a living is as well. The Romans spoke of otium and nec-otium, defining work as the denial of leisure (when leisure was truly imperative). Not in vain, the Bible see work as a curse for having tasted the forbidden fruit. In any case, curse or not, this second chapter groups together all non-residential projects: offices, commercial space, public service buildings, factories, restaurants, clinics and other facilities.

For many of the great developers in the city, we are a firm specializing in office projects. But this is not true. And it’s not because we are more like a studio than an office (although this would be only due to the fact that we never officiate, but study them in profundity, trying to turn problems around and escape from common places). Aside from what we are not, we don’t even consider ourselves as specialists in anything. But things are the way they are, and due to or as a result of this fame, we have carried out thorough renovations on buildings which now house two ministries of the Generalitat (the autonomous government of Catalonia), the headquarters of Prosegur and that of Inmobiliaria Colonial, several buildings for lease where flexibility was the key as the final occupant were unknown, and lately the headquarters for Mutua Madrileña, both in Barcelona and Madrid.

All of them reflect the need to dialogue with history, a dialogue which ought to be face-to-face and the deepest possible, always with the only rule of leaving things a bit better than we found them; this, and a desire to give meaning to things beyond the first contingency. In some cases the pre-existing conditions are so powerful, like having to insert a Gothic courtyard into the former warehouse of a well-known brand of tires right as project was about to begin, forcing the expression of the entire complex encircling it, while in other cases, the crux of the matter is to understand the city as a roll of fabric and find our way to insert our piece. Thus, keeping two top floors out of sight in a former furniture warehouse for “Muebles Tarragona” will be of utmost importance while we open the corner to the city, as if we had cut one of Cerdà’s city blocks with a giant knife (only by making building more transparent do we architects help create a more transparent society).

But in other cases, such as the renovation of the building at Diagonal 409, this circumstance will never arise. The facades can not be affected because the entire project centers on the inside with the creation of this courtyard (changing m2 of badly distributed surface area for m3 of light… If “music is air that sings, architecture is air that we live in”, which is always a good option.)  However many clients there are not so receptive to be able to understand this concept, so much more merit should go to all the clients wise enough to make sure their project ends up in the right place. In the case of the Inmobiliaria Colonial headquarters with more than 19,600 m2, the most important factors are what is not seen, the way that the floors for the former trading floor had to transform into five floors of underground parking, without causing the building alongside it, which had no basement at all, to come crashing down. And above all, arrangement, clarification; because at times it is better to play without the ball than overplay, erase before adding on, take the patient off all pills rather than prescribe a new medication (Ruskin advised architects that if they could, avoid building.

The headquarters for Mutua Madrileña on Paseo de la Castellana is a separate case altogether, because after carrying out the thorough renovation of the building which today is its headquarters in Barcelona next to Plaza Catalunya, we were asked to renovate the ground floor devoted to customer service at its main headquarters in Madrid. The metaphor of bringing the Mediterranean to Paseo de la Castellana, with its waves which can get choppy and the design of all the specific furnishings, even the construction of a gangway to unite the two buildings and centralize the entrances, is perhaps one of our crowning achievements. Because, on the margin of the formal component, as architects we are obliged to solve problems and in this case, they were resolved.

If, in fact, the final occupant is unknown, flexibility is key; when the target is a specific company, knowing how to understand its spirit and reflect it ends up being of capital importance. Thus the reception furnishings in Mutua with the reinterpretation of the MM as symbol, those of Prosegur, reproducing in steel the gothic arches of the patio, or the project for ABI in the Torre Mapfre, all could only have been designed for the occasion.

We do not show here the integral renovation of the building on Calle Vergara 3, nor that on Calle Girona 67, both in Barcelona, which were carried out in collaboration with a former associate before the creation of “Octavio Mestre y Asociados” in 1991, nor the 30,000 bid for the headquarters of CIRSA in Terrassa, in the end successful, where translucent alabaster floor rises up to shape a building which was like a land survey, a background for the presidential building, nor any of the many projects which might be worthwhile showing: the headquarters for Astratech in L´Hospitalet, where a floor was flooded in water so the cubicles – meeting halls and offices –  had their access via gangways among a forest of larch trees (a metaphor for the company’s Nordic background). Nor will the latest failed bids for several buildings from the past year be shown: that of 15 floors in Cornellà, that on the outskirts of Girona with 6,000 m2 facing all directions where the floors would have been superimposed in complete freedom to generate soft, delicate shapes, nor that of nearly an entire block in Barcelona’s 22@ district, a bid which we were finalists, neck-in-neck, and where the ball, like in the film “Match Point”, ended up falling on the other side of the net and in the end, the project fell through. But the reason for making bids is to experiment. And perhaps this is why we have lost more than one.  Nor shall we show the latest commission, the renovation of a UNESCO heritage site which we are finalizing for the headquarters for an important foundation, which our client prefers for the moment to remain anonymous.

We will indeed show the thorough renovations in the “L´Illa Diagonal” and “Pedralbes Centre” shopping centers, attained through winning their respective bids. Here we have set out to construct a metaphor for what an island is (illa in Catalan has two meanings: island and city block), or redefine a center, in the case of “Pedralbes Centre”, seen to be antiquated. On the basis of the play of light and reflections, we also  line the walls in black, to further underscore if necessary what truly a shopping center brings to the table, the act of shopping itself. We also include our first ever shop, the first “Virgin Megastore” in Spain, and our latest work: a bid to define the franchise image for the “Punto Blanco” underwear line, which we have already done in more than 15 shops throughout Spain. A restaurant with airs of a cantina, the renovation of a youth hostel in Coma-Ruga, (taken up again after a ten-year stoppage, after we asked them not to obligate us to restart the old project), and, to complete the monograph, the new Aresa Clinic, still under construction and the only unfinished work we display.

The monograph presents 40 constructed works of the more than 130 completed up to now, less than a third of the nearly five hundred projects I have carried out since I finished my studies, now nearly 25 years ago. And despite the fact that some of the projects never done are more brilliant and are surely the seeds of other works which are explained here, these are not shown, due to the reality of having been built far outweighs what is solely on paper. Because one can hang posters when you can’t buy artwork, and artwork when you can’t obtain the original painting (barber’s bowl, helmet, halo, this is the order, Sancho). This happens in life and happens in your work. What is important when going through the work is “nel mezzo dil camino de la vita”, as Dante would say, that one can see a certain unity in the group and material, in order to have at least created other books with all those other projects. This in turn does not undo the merit of the projects being shown here, like football teams which have to have two squads of equal ability if they want to have the best for several competitions.

On the other hand, we have always made sure that a project not only keeps its freshness to withstand urban development procedures (how complicated does everything get with so many useless regulations) or its execution phase (how many projects which on paper seem so fantastic fail horribly when you see them built), but also gains in materiality. What is important is not just drawing well (the value of the artist is a given), but building good buildings. Buildings that excite which is none other than what this monograph would like to share with you today.