Past Present Future


about being an architect yesterday, today and beyond

The 2nd episode of ‘Past, Present, Future’ involves 13 internationally-renowned architects from Spain, Portugal, France, and Belgium. The project was curated by Gianpiero Venturini, founder of Itinerant Office, within the cultural agenda of New Generations. The second episode of the project has been kindly supported by Funder35.


This video-interview series was designed with a double objective: firstly, to analyse the selected practices and understand their working methodologies, themes, and approaches, in order to learn by comparison what it means to be an architect in the 21st century. Secondly, as a source of inspiration for the younger generations of architects and architecture students, who are currently confronting the job market, or who have recently started their working career.

Through the 13 interviews, we unveil intimate details about the journeys taken by the architects to get to their current positions, revealing funny anecdotes about their student days, key moments of inspiration, and the reality of setting up a business. The architects discuss the ins and outs of their current practices and the foundations upon which they were built, going on to speculate about the future of the profession and our urban environments, discussing themes such as smart cities, sustainable approaches, and digital infrastructure.

In the following months, we will be rolling out the series of interviews on this page, publishing one interview every two weeks. Stay tuned to find out more!

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 20

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq


GV: What was your first approach to the profession of architecture like? What were the steps that lead to the establishment of your own practice?

OD: I decided to establish myself as an architect immediately after graduating and since then, I have never worked for another architect. In the beginning, I was kind of frightened about what the profession would really be like and unsure about whether I would actually be able to make it as an architect. I was studying in the late seventies and it was an era where everything had broken down in architectural education. My first two years were in Brittany where we were not even taught architecture. Instead, we were learning art, video, photography, and corporal expression. Later, I moved to Paris for the last three to four years of my degree, but we were on strike all the time. That’s why I would always say that I was an autodidact, or that I didn’t actually have an education in architecture. Eventually, I started to do interior design projects by myself in order to learn and understand what the profession was really about. When I graduated, there were not many jobs because of the effects of the oil crisis, so I immediately opened my own office.

Odile Decq © Nicolas Guilbert
Odile Decq in her early days. Image credit: © Nicolas Guilbert

GV: Upon opening your office, how do you recall the ambience as a young architect? How did you obtain your first projects?

OD: Presenting yourself as a young woman architect at the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties, in most European countries, was quite unusual for the client, for the institutions, and even for other architects who would meet us. Most of my memories and anecdotes that I have from that time are just the sheer surprise of other people wondering why I wasn’t working for another male architect or why I wasn’t training in another studio before starting my own practice. It seemed impossible to them that I could establish myself as an independent architect. After finishing my studies in architecture, I did urban planning in a political science school in Paris. Around that time, I started to find some urban planning commissions in a small village in a rural part of France. However, I continued doing small-scale interior design projects, however, it was thanks to this urban planning project that I could really sustain my own practice.

GV: Other than the interior and urban design projects, were there other interests that marked the beginning of your career? What was your main preoccupation?

OD: My main interest was simply to prove that I could become an architect; that I could express myself in a precise way, as well as follow the execution of my own work. When I was starting to consider studying architecture, my father would warn me that it was not a profession for women. One day for lunch, he invited a friend over to our home. This man, who was an architect, asked me why I was interested in architecture. Without thinking too much, I said that I wanted to build a library or perhaps a museum. He was quite surprised, but he remarked to my parents, ‘It is convenient that young women now want to study architecture. They are more pragmatic than us men. They can very efficiently work for us in our offices, designing the cupboards and the kitchens.’ His comment didn’t put me down. Instead, I was actually very happy to be recognised to be pragmatic. I wanted to put that to practice and prove that I could be very good at building on my own.

GV: Where did that initial determination lead you? How did you begin to experiment with your style in that period in the 80s?

OD: I had more opportunities in those years, when the French Government started researching and developing competitions, some of which were dedicated only to young architects. What was great about this period in France was that there were no differences between men and women, and we were all starting to compete with one another. Most professionals who started their office in the 80s worked by doing competitions as an opportunity to build immediately. However, when you start your own office, you have to really experiment in order to find out what you want to do. I was not very decided about what kind of architecture I wanted. The 80s was a time where deconstructivism was very popular but there was also the invasion of postmodernism which had started in the mid-seventies and eventually came to be everywhere. Accordingly, in the beginning, my projects were a mixture between some variety of modernity, some flavour of postmodernism and some flavour of deconstruction.

GV: Do any projects come to mind when you think of that period of time?

OD: The competition that I won in ‘88 for the Banque populaire de l’Ouest (BPO) in Renne was when I realised that I wanted to build with steel structures. This project came at a time where I was already doing small projects with steel structures and experimenting with the precision of steel. At the same time, in the 80s, I would go to London frequently. Although I went for the music, I discovered its architecture; the construction of the Isle of Dogs. I would go to the construction site and observe the new buildings being built by hundreds of architects. I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.

«I built my knowledge in steel construction by visiting the buildings of architects like Rogers, Foster, and Aelsop. Perhaps that’s why when the Banque Populaire was built, everybody in France was shocked. At the time, nobody was doing anything of the sort. To me on the other hand, it was normal.»

GV: Was there ever any particular person, artist or musician that may have inspired you through those years?

OD: I was meeting a lot of people, especially in music and in architecture in the beginning of the 90s. Towards the end of the eighties, we started to make certain peculiar models. They were a sort of three-dimensional paintings that were hanging on the walls of the office where we worked before. Slowly, we started to exhibit them and eventually made a little catalogue which I then brought to Papadakis in London. He was very impressed, and he immediately invited me to attend a symposium he was organising there. It was through these symposiums in the early 90s that I met Rogers and other architects whose projects I had been studying. There, we debated in a closed chamber on certain topics like new modernism, pop architecture, and so on. The symposiums were every six months, and I was always invited. I would go there, and I was nearly the only woman. Even Zaha didn’t come at the time. She started to come maybe the second or third time that I was there. That way, I started to better understand my approach to architecture in France. The BPO was, at the same time, was being published and awarded widely so at the same time, I started to become more internationally-known.

GV: Apart from Papadakis was there anyone else who inspired you at the time?

OD: There is somebody else, Claude Parent, whom I met in ‘84. He was a French architect who was an avant-garde in France in the 60s. At the time, he was meeting the people of Archigram and working with Paul Virilio with whom he did the Oblique Function project. When I started my studies in Rennes in the mid-seventies, they were doing exhibitions all over France. It was always a dream of mine to meet Claude Parent so when I learnt that they were doing an exhibition in Rennes, I went immediately, and I was absolutely fascinated. When I had the chance to finally meet him in the mid-80s, we started to discuss things and eventually became friends. That is, until he died in 2016. He was very important to me, as was Paul Virilio. In the early nineties when I was in Paris, Paul Virilio asked me to conduct a lecture at the École Spéciale in Paris. It was thanks to him that I eventually started to teach there. These were the two main people in France that influenced me at the time.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq


GV: What are some of the areas of interest that drive you today?

OD: Architecture to me has always been an adventure. I don’t always know where I will go precisely. I may have an idea but sometimes, it’s totally imprecise and it might come to me on the way. Architecture to me is much more than ideas. It has to be a place where people can move and live in good conditions.; a place where they can forget the hardships of life. Therefore, it must have a sort of humanistic approach, whatever the project may be, it must have something in addition to the functional programme to always provide people with something more comfortable than the minimum.

Odile Decq © Piero Martinello
Current day wrokspace of Studio Odile Decq. Image credit: © Piero Martinello

GV: Does that influence your office structure? What is your internal organisation like?

OD: My office is a workshop where we work as a team. However, it is constantly evolving all the time. I try to have an organisation but not one that is very strict. I like to find people who enjoy doing a bit of everything, even if it might be something very trivial like doing the photocopies or changing the toilet paper, but at the same time, be able to conceive a project, be interested in the execution of a project or even to go on site. I like when people are able to take that up, and if in the beginning they are unable to, my idea is always to help them to get there. When they don’t want to, they don’t stay much longer. Sometimes I’m travelling and at other times, I’m in Lyon teaching at my school of architecture. Sometimes I work on a project in the office or review them and at other times, I have an art project commissioned by a gallery. There are no days that are the same and that’s what makes it interesting. When there is too much repetition, I discover that I start to be bored.

«Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.»

GV: What type of projects do you develop? Do you find the time to experiment and research?

OD: Although we do both private and public projects, these days we tend to take up more private ones. We don’t really have the time for unsolicited projects. We would obviously like to be more like a research laboratory because we are always re-inventing what it means to be an office. I want people to propose new ideas and new ways of working. I’m opportunistic enough to think that it might benefit the office. At the same time, it’s fun for me, for the clients, and for everybody in the office too. I think that every five, six or even ten years, you have to reinvent yourself. I like to reorganise the space and the hierarchies within the office because I don’t like when people are anchored in their table and start to repeat themselves. Discomfort is good for creation. To be destabilised, to be able to change your space and change your conditions of working, helps you to be more creative. If you disagree with that, you can’t be a creative person.

Odile Decq

Founder of Studio Odile Decq


GV: What aspects, in your opinion, need reformulation for the future of architectural practice?

OD: Education. We need to change education even in schools, so children can understand what architecture is when they are young. Not just by looking at what the architects are doing as a profession but to see what good architecture is. To me, architecture is not just drawing plans. It is much larger than that. It’s a question of culture, of discipline, and it is a way to think about the world and to reorganise the situations we face in order to help people live better. This is what I think the role of an architect is. In the future this may change which is why I always tell my students that you can never become an architect in the same way that I am. I am not an architect in the way that my teachers were.

Rendered image of the project “Twist”. Image credit: © Studio Odile Decq

The profession is evolving so fast. I would love if students today practiced in a different way because we are not in the same era, we are in a more digital and more technical era. In some way, we are more innovative. However, education in schools of architecture today is done in the same way as it was two centuries ago. Young people don’t memorise or concentrate in the same way we did. Neither can they behave the same way. We have to readapt education to them and work with architecture in a new way. We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives. I have no other advice but to tell them to dream and do.

«We don’t need architects to draw plans because the machines can do that better than us. What will remain will be to rethink the organisation of the world, our lives and our societies. I always tell my students that they have the opportunity to dream a century, to dream the time of their lives.»

GV: In spite of this rapid evolution of the profession, do you think there are some concepts that define the future of our practice?

OD: Every keyword or concept that you define today will disappear in the next ten years, so there is no reason to define one. These waves are coming extremely fast. If I go back ten years, everybody was talking about parametric architecture. Now, nobody wants to speak about it, and we are coming back to the ‘white cube’. The white cube is absolutely boring and the parametric was as well. I expect the new generation will reinvent something else, mixed between parametric and white cube. This is why I can’t tell you what the future will be. However, I always find that every project is an opportunity for research. Every project is searching for something new that we didn’t do before. If I am given a project where the programme is the same as an old one, I don’t want to do it. I am always trying to find something new.

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 20

Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros


GV: How would you describe your first contact with the world of architecture?

JH: When I started studying architecture in Madrid in ‘75, I had a completely wrong idea of what it was. It was with that realisation that I decided to continue studying. In my first two months of school, the fascist period in Spain came to an end. My entire undergraduate education took place during the first years of Spanish democracy. There was a kind of optimism in the air, especially in Madrid. It was a very important time and everyone was celebrating the reconstruction of a new society. The School of Architecture was an extremely active place at that time. By the time I graduated, democracy was consolidated and the first projects, commissions and competitions that would go on to reconstruct the whole country were just materialising. We found a variety of opportunities and options to get jobs and commissions, it was quite a privileged situation.

«My entire undergraduate education took place during the first years of Spanish democracy. There was a kind of optimism in the air, especially in Madrid. It was a very important time and everyone was celebrating the reconstruction of a new society.»

GV: What was it like in the university during those years? How did you move on to starting your own practice from there?

JH: As a consequence of the oil crisis in ‘73, at a time that not many projects were being undertaken, there was a generic absence of work in the professional area, so most architects from the previous generations either went into administration or academia. There was a strong and close relationship between the professors from different generations: the big stars of the older generations, but also these younger professors. The environment that they built together was very interesting and optimistic. For a long time, we felt that we had been isolated from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, so naturally, we wanted to discover new people and ideas, so we were reading many architecture magazines and travelling madly. After working in a few offices, I founded Ábalos & Herreros with Iñaki Ábalos, an office that would work for the next twenty years, the same twenty years that it took for the reconstruction of this country.

GV: Who were some of your key influences at the time? Perhaps mention someone who influenced your characteristic style of design.

JH: When I started my professional career, Alejandro de la Sota was perhaps the most influential person in Spain. From him I learnt the importance of simplicity. Not just in design, but simplicity as a concept of permanently renouncing the superfluous aspects of life. I also learnt how to maintain a quiet attitude and be patient. This was because of a piece of advice he gave me very directly: one day, looking at my work, he said. ‘I think you have to be less anxious.’ From that day on, I decided to take that path. A few years later, when I was teaching at the AA, I met Cedric Price. He was really a surprise to me in that he was completely different from the myths that surrounded him instigated by his fans; the idea was that Cedric Price was a ‘non-architect’ or someone who went against the discipline. On the contrary, what I saw was a person who was deeply and incredibly engaged with architecture and the practice. From him I learned the necessity of having a critical approach to everything we do. A few years later, I taught at Columbia University where I met Mark Wigley. From him, I discovered a new way of reading history and looking at unorthodox architects and figures.

2001_Barcelona_Juan Herreros con Cedric Price
Juan Herreros with Cedric Price. Image courtesy of estudio Herreros.

GV: It’s interesting that you mention someone you met in Spain, someone you met in Europe, and someone you met overseas.

JH: I discovered that my way of working was informed heavily in the initial years by the heterodox architects of the U.S. panorama instead of looking only at Europe. Mark really showed me how to use history as an instrument of design, so we had intense conversations about Buckminster Fuller, Cedric Price, Jean Prouvé, and many others, always escaping the topical approach to this singularity, instead very specifically looking for the integration they had in the discipline. I think these three people and topics have been very influential in my way of working today. My whole life today is defined by the overlapping of academic and professional fields. They are never separated or independent. That perhaps came from my school where I discovered that the university itself is a laboratory for discovering the world, especially in Madrid, having always had a direct contact with important political, social, and cultural movements.

GV: Could you mention some of the themes that you were particularly interested in those years?

JH: One was infrastructure, which perhaps defines my position towards the intellectual panorama of architecture at that time during the crisis of postmodernism. The second was completely on the other end of the spectrum: the domestic domain. I was investigating why housing had disappeared from the architectural discussion in the first half of the 20th century. I was interested in how many houses had converted themselves into laboratories of experimentation. Most of the new ideas in architecture are completely off. My question was: why and how could architecture recuperate this? The third idea was about ‘orthodox figures’, perhaps because I saw myself as an orthodox architect, interested in very peripheral fields and looking for references that could really guide my career.

GV: Were there any projects or research initiatives that could perhaps summarise those interests in infrastructure or domesticity?

JH: A project that summarised these fields of interests and in a way closed that period for me was the garbage recycling plant in Madrid. It was a project I designed and developed with Iñaki Ábalos. It was a big, technical and ecological project with the assistance of many advisory experts and external collaborators. It was also the project that helped us formulate many topics that we would work on in the near future such as monumentality, landscape design, and environmental sustainability. This was one of the very first few times a recycling plant was designed by an architect and it was also transformed into a sort of cultural institution with the idea that students could visit this place and understand the city. For me, this project summarises and highlights all those preoccupations that I had before.


Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros


GV: How have these topics of interests evolved over the years? Are they informed in a different way because of new conditions?

JH: During the latter part of my professional and pedagogical life, I was focused on the blurring of precisely these two fields. It was the first time I realised how the ‘professional’ was related to the post-education of the architect and ‘pedagogy’ was related to the definition of the practice. The necessary conversation between theory and practice starts with my teaching project at Columbia University. I opened a series of discussions about the studio culture, questioning what happens to be the most established pedagogical system of design that we accept and understand. We perhaps don’t reflect very deeply about what we mean when we say ‘experimental’, what we mean when we say ‘political’, ‘social’, ‘cultural’, ‘economic’ or ‘technical’. I have been working deeply with the help of some good professionals like Enrique Walker on the re-identification of these fields to understand our embodiment of the pedagogical culture. This is in parallel with another research project that I have called ‘Emerging Practices’, which is founded in Madrid but also in New York, questioning how to be an architect in the 21st century. It is a pedagogical research project dedicated to a generation that is going to work as architects in a completely different way as we did. The break between the instructor and the student has never before been so big. However, we still have the responsibility and the commitment of using the educational environment as the place that defines the future of the profession. I have organised seminars that try to confront and bring together 15 or 20 practices that have less than 10 years of experience with the intention of investigating how these young architects are utilising the education that they have received. For me, now, this is a beloved project in terms of legacy, if I may, in my close to 40 years in education.

«In my generation, we started our professional practice by imitating a model. Now that is impossible. Young architects have to stop and question themselves on what kind of architecture they want to do and what they’re going to do to get it.»

GV: What did you find out from that research? How would you suggest we change the way we teach today’s students?

JH: I have been blurring of the boundaries of my professional practice and my pedagogical activity. That means I use the school as a laboratory for the topics I want to discuss in my office and I use my office as the place to bring and realise what I have experimentally obtained in my teaching practice. At the same time, the projects developed in my office are developed in a very similar way that the students do in school. So, I meet my teams more or less with the same attitude, the same instruments, at the same time schedule as I meet my students and vice versa. I really find that very interesting. Never before has the establishment of young architecture practices been a project in itself. In my generation, we started our professional practice by imitating a model. Now that is impossible. Young architects have to stop and question themselves on what kind of architecture they want to do and what they’re going to do to get it. The only way to answer those questions is to make the establishment of your practice your very first commission. That defines the difference between the interesting architects and those who are just following a convention and perhaps may have a very short path before themselves.

GV: Is there a certain keyword you would use to define your practice?

JH: I’m not very obsessed about looking for this ‘cool’ word that everybody is fighting for to define their practice. I can say that the work we do is quite pragmatic and collaborative, in the real sense of the word, not the fancy. Apart from that, we are absolutely obsessed with simplification. Our process is usually characterised by taking in a lot of information, working with it, having a lot of conversations, all in order to produce something incredibly simple that can be given back to the world. This means that we have our rituals. Our office has its moments that we identify as part of our office culture. Part of our work is constructing this work culture in the physical organisation of the space, in the way the people are sat, or how we have meetings. We have two groups of people: the directors who can really drive a project, and the people who can join those projects as part of the team.  Even in a big project, the new people have smaller projects or tasks that they control on their own. Thereby, the people have to confront themselves, at all times.

GV: Are there any peculiar dynamics that represent the organisation of your practice?

JH: We are not too occupied by meetings but rather with conversations. There are many conversations that happen at the office simultaneously and that’s what allows me to travel a lot instead of being there all the time or being obsessed with control. Jens Richter and I have certain systems in place in order to achieve that. So, what are we? I don’t exactly know but we have a culture, a system, or perhaps an agenda and we are very well-organised. One of our rituals for instance is that one Friday a month, we will all have lunch and every person in the office tells or shows others what he or she is doing. Another one of our habits is that we always ask our team-members to explain our projects to our clients. It is never us, the partners. We sit on the clients’ side of the table and discuss the solutions for the project as collaborators. We are not on the side of the person trying to convince, we are merely the people trying to follow a conversation.

Herreros_Richter ©Pablo G Tribello
Juan Herreros and Jens Richter. Image credit: © Pablo G Tribello

GV: That reminds me of how it has become exceedingly difficult to explain what architects do to the rest of the 99% that are not architects. How can we close the gap between the two?

JH: To explain or transmit to the people how architecture is useful, or why the architect is interested in being a part of others’ lives is a pending subject. I fight all I can to push and urge our institutions to do just that. All the communication means that architectural associations have, all their equipment, tools and ingredients should be focused towards that goal. This is because the architect’s world is quite closed. We have our own magazines, our own schools and lectures. The audiences of our lectures are mostly architects or young architects. You can live a world of architecture without ever getting out.

GV: Have you experimented with opening up that closed bubble that architects exist in?

JH: In contexts like Northern Europe, Norway, or places where public participation is so active you are forced to really learn to perform in a different way. For example, it is absolutely necessary to do away with the obsession of convincing the other of your ideas and substitute it with listening and dialoguing. Perhaps ‘dialogue architecture’ is one of our slogans. That truly defines the future of our profession for me. This ‘dialogue’ has to be founded in the knowledge that people have because opinions about architects that one tends to discover in our everyday lives outside of the discipline are banal and not very well-founded. The impression we project is that we solve technical problems or very specific questions which is quite a flat idea. It is not so easy to find a client that really asks you to do something new or ambitious. Architecture is very ambitious compared to other fields. One of the experiences that became quite important in the last few years is how some extremely influential and seminal projects, like the Mediatheque in Sendai by Toyo Ito or the Ferry Terminal in Yokohama by FOA and many others are being poorly used. Those responsible for these buildings don’t understand the potential that the building has of producing new experiences. Perhaps this can be a new profession for young architects: to curate good buildings. Today, all our living spaces are being used exactly like they were 40 years ago.  Clearly, the imagination that all these projects bring to the table is not being used.

GV: How has your experience as an architect been affected by the new social, cultural, technical, economic conditions? Has it made you rethink your model and system as an architect?

JH: Yes, I had to reinvent my own practice in 2005, close to 15 years ago. I had to establish a new office, exactly the moment when the economic crisis arose in Spain. At that time, I had the serenity to stop and think about what kind of architect I wanted to be and what I could do to get there. It was a time when getting commissions and occupying a site was very difficult. In that sense, the decisions that I took then really marked my vision for the future of my architecture. I run a small office that never exceeds 20 people. We do a few projects at a time usually winning them through competitions. We are not obsessed with growth but rather with the development of projects. That occupies a significant part of our time. We are obsessed with research, mixed with my pedagogical practice, and we try to condense the numerous ideas and topics through discussion. The problem is that the projects that we do are usually done by very big offices that hold a certain prestige for having done multiple such projects. Recently, we won the competition of the Munch Museum in Oslo and we are currently finishing it. The idea that those kinds of buildings have to be designed by incredibly important, muscular offices goes against the model I propose. At the same time, the model I propose is a transition between the offices of the 80s and the offices from 10 to 15 years after me, i.e., small offices with flexible professionals and teams changing every day. It’s wonderful that you now have a cultural and economic situation to do that. I don’t think the crisis we had to suffer in the last few years was only economic. It was also the crisis of models. The model of the working architect was completely dead. We had been fighting to keep it valid. Now I think we have realised that we have to stop fighting to maintain a totally uninteresting prestige. It is in this reinventing that I identify myself more each day.

Juan Herreros

Founder Partner of estudio Herreros


GV: From what you contemplated earlier about the future of architecture, do you have any keywords or key topics that could represent our shared future?

JH: My conclusions after working and teaching for many years and thinking about the new generation are that we need to establish positive and productive connections with the past without any nostalgia. We have to instigate non-prejudiced perceptions of the present. Our obligation as architects is to engage with the present in a positive way and look at the future as something to be built together. In the future I imagine that most commissions will be atypical. Architects will not be given a plot by a client and asked to build. Younger generations will have to deal with situations that a few years ago not were considered very interesting for architects: collaborating with many people and fighting to defend a project. It will also become important to resist our fascination for complexity which is closely linked to today’s consumption culture. My two words for the future of architecture are: ‘simplicity, against the fascination for complexity’, and ‘engagement’. I think architecture has had too comfortable a relation with its context. Projects could always be re-described in some way to make them more interesting. Now, that is no longer possible. We have to pose questions that architecture can answer and add value to imperfect moments. We have to create this engagement to be useful and also to recuperate a place in our society.

«In the future I imagine that most commissions will be atypical. Architects will not be given a plot by a client and asked to build. Younger generations will have to deal with situations that a few years ago not were considered very interesting for architects.»

GV: How do you see our place in society or the role that we might play as architects in society?

JH: The umbrella-term for all these conversations is design. We are not social agents, political agents, or economic forces. We are designers. We may have parallel engagements or interests but designing is the speciality that sets us apart from others. Two of my projects that clearly transmit this feeling are the Munch Museum in Oslo and on the other hand, the Tacubaya Masterplan. Munch Museum is a building that may appear, at first sight, to be a classical project. However, it is really the invention of a new typology, the museum is no longer a mere cemetery of paintings. Instead, it is a social hub. We are redescribing the programme such that no more than 40% of the area of this building is dedicated to showing art. The rest will be education, research facilities, and so on. The other project is Tacubaya, a neighbourhood in Mexico City inhabited by 25,000 people. We are doing a strategic plan for the entire area for the next 25 years. That means that we have to deal with social leaders, markets, the ambulant commerce and all kinds of other instabilities. It is a historical, physical fabric with a somewhat unstable society living there, along with its many problematic situations and values. Our work is to read, redescribe, open and give some light for the future. In the end, what we do is design. You end up creating these amazing situations where people without a significant education, with the right instruments of representation, understand your design. You learn a lot about the city, about the community, and use it to design again, not to give political advice or social solutions, but to design the city better with each iteration, because that is what architects do.

Museo Munch_imagen nocturna©AFL
Munch Musuem at night. Image credit © AFL

GV: How can you design something for the next 25 years, in such an unclear and unstable socio-economic and political situation?

JH: We have totally renounced the idea of making regulations or writing long instructions. We want to actually take the city, redraw it, propose something and discuss it with the local citizens. In these situations, you have to accept that you are not going to be the architect. You are designing, but you are creating the situations, guiding transformations, and consequently drawing them. However, you are not going to be the person who designs buildings. You are designing the future but the future will have buildings, infrastructure, facilities built by other colleagues. It is especially interesting for us as a traditional office of architects that usually designs buildings or applies to competitions. I love it because I see it as a way of opening up spaces for young architects to do things. I enjoy creating platforms where many people can find an opportunity to do something innovative. We are designing situations more than the actual elevation of the buildings, but it is still design work as we will produce drawings that serve as the basis for architecture to happen.

GV: What is your message or suggestion to the younger generation, those who are finishing their studies and starting their careers or practices?

JH: My message for the young generation is not ‘You are the future’, it’s ‘You are the present.’ Never before has the difference between the work of the younger architects and the established ones been so great. Simultaneously, never before has the work of young architects informed the work of the established ones so much. We are looking at the work of the young architects, searching for information, using them and their work to understand the conditions of a present that is perhaps inaccessible to us. It cannot be a linear process wherein the senior architects leave the stage for younger architects to replace. Instead, it would be great to work together with the younger generation and mix our experiences with a fresh capacity and all their flexibility and nomadism. That’s what can really build the best future I can imagine.

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 45

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten


GV: How would you describe your first contact with the world of architecture?

PR: It all began even before starting my studies. I discovered architecture at a very specific moment during the World Fair in Brussels in ‘58 that I visited several times with my father. As a young boy of eight, I was amazed by the buildings that they built, not only the Atomium which is very famous and still exists, but also pavilions like the Poème électronique by Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis, as well as the Scandinavian pavilions that were perhaps poor in their expression but very rich in their human feeling because of the natural materials they used. Later on, I would doubt pursuing art or architecture, but my father supported me and urged me to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier. While studying in school, Hilde and I met each other.

GV: I am aware of the links between art and architecture in your work. Did this influence come from a young age?

HD: I grew up as the oldest in a family of thirteen children. I have six brothers and six sisters. My father, who was a doctor, would receive a lot of brochures about medications in which there would often be a small section about art, architecture or some texts about historical buildings. He would hand me these brochures and eventually I learnt about the likes of Picasso, Paul Klee and Chagall while reading about the kinds of diseases that existed in Egyptian history. My childhood revolved around helping the family with the children, but I had to be very creative all the time because I would always play with them. That came to become something I wanted to continue throughout my life. In high school, I was good at Latin, Greek, mathematics, history and art. So, when the time came to choose a career, it was very difficult for me. I thought architecture could perhaps somehow connect those topics.

«I insisted that my name also be in the name of office. Thus, it became ‘Robbrecht en Daem’. However, we still got faxes that often said ‘Dear Mr. Robbrecht and Mr Daem.’ They wouldn’t expect that ‘Daem’ was a woman.»

GV: Architecture is indeed a profession that brings together many disciplines. Did it turn out to be as you expected?

HD: It turned out to be much more technical than I expected. Moreover, it was really a man’s world. You would only find two or three girls among one hundred and twenty boys. Although we now have the ‘Me too’ movement, at that time you had been better off with your mouth shut. It was quite a heavy life for women. My father would always say so, emphasising that architecture was not for women. However, I wanted to prove him wrong. As of today, there might be more than fifty percent of women studying in architecture schools, but you never see them starting their own practices. They are always in other architects’ offices. Very rarely do we see an office that is known by the name of a woman. In the beginning when I started my practice with Paul, we were called ‘Architecture and Music’. At the time, we were very interested in music and it seemed to us a beautiful name. There was this colleague from school who asked Paul to start an office with him. He didn’t ask me; instead, he directly assumed that Paul was the owner. I took a stand then that I didn’t want my entire professional life to play out in that manner. I decided that the practice must not merely be called ‘Paul Robbrecht’. I insisted that my name also be in the name of office. Thus, it became ‘Robbrecht en Daem’. However, we still got faxes that often said ‘Dear Mr. Robbrecht and Mr Daem.’ They wouldn’t expect that ‘Daem’ was a woman. Even while working, in spite of the fact that I was capable, the architects and clients would always address the work to Paul.

Robbrecht en Daem portrait ©C.Olsson
Robbrecht en Daem in their early years after founding their studio. Image credit: © C.Olsson

GV: How was your experience of education in architecture university?

PR: We were unsatisfied with the level of education at our school, but we had an interesting group of friends in our class. We distanced ourselves from the school but shared knowledge between ourselves, and eventually became autodidacts. We graduated in the mid-70s, but it was a very difficult period owing to the oil crisis of the time. There was very little work and so we ended up travelling a lot. We didn’t have much money, but we travelled to Italy to see its classical architecture. That year, I won two competitions: The Prix de Rome, which at that time, existed in Belgium but currently doesn’t and another that granted me a monetary prize. With that money, we were able to stay in Italy for a while. We stayed in Rome and in Vicenza, the city of Palladio. From the end of 1978 to 1980, we met some people in the context of the Centro Palladio. They were art historians and we still keep in touch to this day. There were other architects there too, and it was a nice period during our lives. It was around this time that we started to do our first projects and that really marked the beginning for us.

GV: Was there anybody you met at that time that may have influenced you?

PR: I was mostly with my group of three or four people and each of us followed his or her own path, but we were like a school of our own. We were constantly exchanging ideas. There’s Marc Devoir, Christian Kieckens, and Marie Jose van Hee who stayed with us all the time. Today she has her own practice established at the end of the space here. We would always support each other since the very beginning. Apart from this, before he began rose to popularity, I began to familiarise myself with the work of Louis Kahn. Back then, nobody was interested in his work but because of the wonderful mix of classicism and modernity in his work, I developed a keen interest. That was very influential to me. Now I don’t have as many heroes, but he was a real discovery for me as a student and a true hero to me. I was able to see Khan’s building in the United States and I even went to Bangladesh to see his parliament building. Sadly though, I never met him in person because he died in ‘74.

GV: What are some of the themes you were interested in at that point of time? Do certain collaborations perhaps come to mind from that period?

PR: Here at the studio, between Hilde, our son who also works here, and I, there has always been a huge interest in contemporary and classical art. We were very lucky to be close to some important artists of our generation and even to collaborate with them. Later on, when I started teaching in an art school, I began talking with sculptors, painters, and filmmakers. This dialogue of architecture and art has always been an underlying theme in our work. In the year ‘87, we were asked to do an exhibition in Amsterdam called Floor for Sculpture, Wall for a Painting, which we eventually designed in the form of a cradle. We always tried to craft a dialogue between ideas in contemporary or conceptual art and then we would move on to something else. We would constantly collaborate with many artists. We designed a square with Juan Muñoz in Barcelona and another one in Antwerp with Christina Iglesias. We also collaborated with Franz West at the time. We truly believe that architecture is a place for gatherings that allow an open dialogue. It has to shelter the exchange of ideas, culture, music and science. Our dream is to make buildings for that.

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten


GV: How did the themes you were interested back then evolve into topics of interest through your projects today?

PR: There were certain big steps that we took, one of them being our concert hall project. Likewise, the pavilions for the Documenta were also significant. Since the mid-90s, we have been dealing with larger projects that entail more square metres. We are more focused on public spaces than on private projects and now almost never do private houses unless it is for friends. We expanded as an office as we grew interested in public buildings and public squares. The Central Library of the University of Ghent is an important project for us because the library was originally a Henry van de Velde masterpiece. It has been eleven years since we started working on the restoration and renovation of the building. However, even though the themes and programmes of the projects may have changed, in the back of our minds, we always maintained what we had learnt from those conversations with the artists we befriended.

043 offices R&D_© Filip Dujardin
Robbrecht en Daem architecten workspace. Image credit: © Filip Dujardin

GV: What would you identify as the current focus of your architectural practice?

HD: At the moment, we do quite large-scale projects. We started forty-five years ago, and we grew slowly with small projects, mostly small residences or offices for specific people. There was always art in what we did then and in what we are doing now. We don’t add art at the end of the project. Now we are working more with developers because there is no more empty land to build private houses. There are a lot more renovation, restoration and integration projects in the city. Perhaps one hundred years ago, the industries were in the city centres. All those industries have now moved out and developers are now looking at these sites to build apartments and big habitat units. Some of them want to bring a good quality of architecture to the city. Additionally, in the city we have people overlooking urban development. There are competitions for architects where might collaborate with developers; a possibility to bring better large-scale architecture. I think this is the current objective of our practice. Apart from housing, industry, offices or culture, we design hospitals and we also always try to work for cultural commissions as it’s much easier to bring art into that kind of projects.

GV: Could you elaborate on a couple of these current projects where you are trying to bring art into?

PR: Our biggest project at the moment is the Flemish Radio & Television Company building in Brussels. We look at it as a cultural building and not an office or a technical place. The primary function of this building is obviously a news studio but it’s interesting to think about what it means to be a space where media is created, or news is broadcasted. For instance, they could organise cultural and sports events as a lot of people would go there to watch football. We wanted this building to touch all aspects of our society, i.e., a building where culture is produced while simultaneously functioning as a reflection of what’s going on in our society. Parallelly, we are busy with other artistic projects. A beautiful project we are currently working on is the house of Rubens, the Flemish painter. We were asked to build two new buildings near his house, the Rubenianum. That includes a research centre library about Rubens and a new hall for exhibitions near his home. Our current work is very mixed-programme. Much of our earlier thoughts are now taking shape in a wider sense in our society.

«What you can feel in your fingers, you give to the mouse and you might be able to draw with it, but the real feeling that you get with the pencil or a pen does not exist anymore.»

GV: What is the office dynamic like within your studio? Perhaps there might be certain dynamics that you could comment on.

HD: We are now between thirty-five and forty-five young people here in the office. They begin immediately after graduating and although they initially expect to stay between six months to a year, what we find is that they are actually staying longer than planned. They end up staying for three to four years, and some even ten. It creates a very good interplay between what we were always working on; the art or philosophy and the knowledge we have. For us, the past, present and future are all linked. You cannot cut one part off from the other. Since I am not involved anymore with all the large projects, it makes me very proud and happy when younger architects come to me and ask me, ‘Hilde, when can I work with you?’ I enjoy giving them basic knowledge on both architecture and life, on how to act when you have a real client and how to treat the user of the architecture. For instance, our son Johannes is also working with us in the office. I hope we can impart our past and present experience onto him because the future really will be defined by him. In the past, when we had our exams, we had to calculate concrete and statics using a machine. It was not electrical. You had to mechanically move something to make cosines and sines. You couldn’t use a calculator, instead, you had to do it all by hand. Now they even use calculators in primary school. They can’t write or count anymore. This is what I’m afraid of. What you can feel in your fingers, you give to the mouse and you might be able to draw with it, but the real feeling that you get with the pencil or a pen does not exist anymore.

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem

Co-founders of Robbrecht en Daem architecten


GV: What are your thoughts about the ever-evolving role of the architect?

PR: We are living in a society that is rapidly changing. Even in our practice, we can easily find dramatic changes. For instance, ten years ago in Belgium, nobody wanted to build high-rise buildings with people living one above the other. Everybody wanted to marry somebody and build a house in the countryside. The entire country came to be populated by these houses and today we no longer have a countryside. Belgium or rather, Flanders has simply become one large suburb. Now I think it’s time for architects to think about totally new ways of living together and to ask the question, ‘What will become of our communities?’ We need to ask ourselves how we can reinvent and stimulate the idea of community in a fast-changing society in the next ten years? Our most important relations are no longer those that are found in a typical home but rather new kinds of relations between people. We need to rethink these relations not only in housing but also in commercial areas and public squares. I believe that architects will play an extremely important role in the evolution of our society as we try to find solutions.

«We need to ask ourselves how we can reinvent and stimulate the idea of community in a fast-changing society in the next ten years? Our most important relations are no longer those that are found in a typical home but rather new kinds of relations between people.»

GV: What are some of the pressing topics of interest for you today?

HD: I would urge all architects, but also the users and especially the politicians to think long-term and not short-term. I’m very pessimistic about the way things are going now. We need to find sustainable ways to slow down the heating of the Earth. Instead, we are being forced to use materials whose production is much more damaging to the planet than cars. If there’s a central theme for me, it would be to remain humble in what I am thinking and to think in the long-term, not to merely think about the end product. Instead, think of how the materials get there and how they are produced. When I travelled to Africa, I saw entire mountains of cell-phone and television waste. The way we manage our waste and think about production of materials is not sustainable. They ask you to use these sun panels which after ten years, stop working. You have to renew them, but nobody has thought of what will happen to the old ones.

Rendered image of Flemish Radio & Television Company building in Brussels. Image credit: © G2 Architectural Graphics

GV: Does that make you more comfortable to handle smaller-scale projects these days?

HD: Yes, in a small project you are connected to the people and you are connected to life. You are connected to real problems by building in nature for human beings. You can begin with small techniques and then slowly scale up. You always learn because you have to begin by looking towards nature; looking for instance for the most beautiful view in an ugly site. When you focus on this, you can work around the incommodities and you can take advantage of the best. That’s my mission for young architects; how to bring in nature or bring in the city; how to protect the space from noise; how to bring in light or protect against light; how to protect your building from the sun. We must build how our grandparents built their houses. My mission now revolves around these little things. If you stay with both your feet on the earth, you will find that it works.

GV: How do you think the profession must evolve in order to close the gap that it has created between society and itself?

PR: Our society is not as quiet as it may seem. I see a fast-changing society in the way people live together insofar as it is no longer the ‘family’ and the ‘house’. We see a much more complex structure of how people are related to each other. We must try to create possibilities for spaces that are open and adaptable to the complex relationships in our community. What is the future model of the house? What can we share? Can we create spaces where we can share? Can we simultaneously give an interesting image to these buildings while considering its ecology and its extreme importance? Building was one of the most important means of expression in the past. Now, we have to be careful with our world and adapt the cities we have built to our current needs. In Ghent, we are in a very specific situation as we live in a historical city. Most of our projects are in very historical sites, so we are constantly questioning how we can bring these historical cities to something we can use now; not just for tourists but also as a place where we can live.

GV: Through your recent projects have you been exploring this concept of community?

PR: Even in the word ‘community’ there is ‘communication’. These two ideas are now recurring themes in our work. We are really reflecting on how it might be possible to not only produce housing but try to create spaces where the feeling of community is really evident. Even in high-rise buildings, we want to suggest spaces where people don’t merely stay inside watching television but have a chance to meet one another. We are also thinking about specific ideas for spaces for elderly people. As society ages, there will be more older people than middle-aged people and eventually you will have a larger population at the opposite ends of the age spectrum. So, we need to think of what kind of spaces are fair for young people and children? Children can’t play on the dangerous roads anymore. Buildings can perhaps act as a protection for them. We are trying to find solutions where children can find and play with each other. Another idea we are thinking of is adapting housing so that people can stay for a very long time. Instead of living in an old age institute, homes can simply be adapted to the elderly as they age. These are the themes that seem most important to us at the moment.

GV: What words of advice do you have for our younger generation of architects?

PR: Be surprised and be open! Look at things you don’t know about and be open to different expressions in art. You have to absorb many things and look into yourself while trying to synthesise this world of impressions. If you can be very open to that, you will find a path you can follow.

    Date of office foundation:



    Madrid, New York City

    Number of employees:

    approx. 10

Andrés Jaque

Founder of Office for Political Innovation


GV: How was your experience during university? Were there any key experiences during or immediately after your education?

AJ: I was trained in Madrid at the ETSAM which sustained, at least while I was there, a certain tension. There was a part of the school that was focused on producing a delicate and refined architecture, paying attention to the materiality, the design, the image, and perhaps not the overall geopolitical context. On the other hand, there was a certain periphery where there were key voices that were part of something else. Towards the end of my training, I was given an award; the Tessenow Stipendiat, which allowed me to do research and live in Germany for two years. I discovered that I was very interested in (Heinrich) Tessenow and I decided to live and work in Dresden to study Hellerau, the gartenstadt that he designed there. I found a very different way of reading architecture. At that time, I was living in a kunsthaus, an evolved squatter location. We were contributing to maintaining the building and were allowed to be there legally.

GV: Did that open you up to new experiences or realisations about the nature of the profession?

AJ: There was a judge staying there who came from the West and was called to be part of the renovation after the reunification of the courts in Eastern Germany. He would talk of architecture in a very different way. Architecture, for him, was in the middle of so many political conflicts. I realised that there was a very different dimension to architecture. Those who cared only about the refinement, were taking a political stance: a very conservative one. There was a whole other domain in which you would understand the very calibration of architectural devices, form, dimensions, materials, was related to other sorts of questions that had to do with property, publicness, with how to distribute gender roles, how to engage with environmental issues. That was crucial for me. Confronting what Tessenow was doing at the beginning of the century, reinventing the society by transforming bodies and through architecture confronting that with the situation of Germany at that time, struggling to deal with the past that was so difficult. I found it fascinating. That fascination with this way of making architecture relevant in society made me realise that when I would start practising, I wanted to explore the political dimension of architecture.

GV: Were there any projects or milestones that, for you, define that initial phase of your professional activity?

AJ: There were two projects that were crucial for me. Those were the first things I did as an architect while thinking of an institution that I could work with – which was the Office for Political Innovation. One was the Plascencia Clergy House, the result of a competition that we won. I was very interested in the situation of the Catholic Church in Europe, which was perhaps a very decaying institution at that time. Even though there was this unified, central message coming from Rome when you looked at the periphery, it was different. The priests living in the countryside, each doing their own thing, were subversive in various ways. It was interesting to look at the building that, in the past, was a minor seminary, a place to train young kids to become priests. It was a propaganda machine, an architectural device that was invented and developed to shape people into a unified behavioural model.

Diocesan Clergy House-Andrés Jaque Architects-03
The Diocesan Clergy House by Andrés Jaque. Image courtesy of Office for Political Innovation.

The people that had left that building for many years, who had practised as independent priests, were coming back when they were old. The building needed to be transformed into an elderly residence for them to come back to. It was fascinating to see the building that produced unified bodies, minds and social actors, became something very different and helped subvert the very project that it was programmed to develop. We did it in a way where everyone could make decisions and transform the way the building would perform, so it would no longer be able to accommodate the centralised, homogenised project of people, rather a community of differences. That was a very relevant conflict of architecture, moving from one of these Foucauldian institutions of control to an ecosystem that could prompt people to behave differently and coexist.

GV: That seems to me a very delicate intervention. How was the project welcomed by the public?

AJ: Although it was a project that took much effort, it resulted in an amazing experiment. It became very controversial in Europe and went on to be exhibited in the Swiss Design museum. In Spain, it opened up a big conflict, I remember we were shortlisted for the FAD awards. The president of the jury went to the building, saw the way priests were behaving and he decided not only to remove us from the shortlists but also from the finalists. Totally outraged, he said, ‘If this is the future of architecture, I’m going to quit, I’m going to step down. This is not elegant enough.’ At the same time, I remember a very funny situation, I was presenting in Lisbon, giving a lecture on this project and many followers of Siza were totally outraged with the colours and the way we were dealing with the programme. I remember one guy was really mad, ‘I don’t even know why we allowed you to speak.’ He said this in front of the audience, ‘You should shut up!’ And then Alvaro Siza himself came and said, ‘I really like this project. I really like the form. The image is very elegant and there is a very sophisticated use of colours.’ It reminded him of his origins when he was very concerned about the making of communities. That was when I could see that a number of others including myself were trying to rethink many of the things that we detected were not working in schools of architecture in Europe. We could see that there was a connection to many of the good practices from the past. Although we perceived a break, there was also a continuity of many things that had been left behind.

GV: Could you mention some references or people who were influential to you in those years?

AJ: In my case when I think of references, there are three very different types of references. One is the type of reference that you confront, another is the type that you connect with and is a part of the equipment and the society that you are part of, and finally the references that are friends on the way who help you emotionally. References are not only people, I consider architectural practices not as something that happens only in the minds of people but also in association with devices, tools, technologies, books, movies and many different agents. In the first category, I was confronting the work of Mies Van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, exploring how they constructed as an architectural narrative. I think a crucial moment was the way we confronted the Barcelona Pavilion, especially its reconstruction as a way of thinking of architecture as something that came from the mind of Mies and was translated directly into stone and velvet, without understanding the participation of pipes, industry, people, plants, ecosystems, mice, cats, silk; things that I consider in the centre of construction of this pavilion. We must not forget that this pavilion was a commercial office to make it possible for the German industry to sell beyond the limits established by the Versailles treaty.

«I was confronting the way architects were reading Mies as kind of a poet that was detached from reality. I was thinking of a mundane way of understanding Mies as a social construction.»

They were trying to do business with Latin America which was growing at that time and Spain was the crucial articulation point that was attracting people to Seville that year. To reconstruct that story and to confront it to say that Mies was not what people thought he was, that he was a social construction, very complex was very political. When he was asked in the U.S., ‘What were your references?’, he said, ‘Political magazines, especially the ones of Walter Lippmann’, who was the father of Pragmatism in the U.S., together with John Dewey. I was confronting the way architects were reading Mies as kind of a poet that was detached from reality. I was thinking of a mundane way of understanding Mies as a social construction. The second confrontation was about architecture being detached from daily life. In this case, I was focused not on doing poetry with marble, but understanding that marble was part of a labour; that there were people behind the manufacturing, that it was an environmental issue, that there were places where marble was extracted from, and that there were long-term economies that were dealing with how long marble lasts. For me, I wanted to understand materials and architectural directions and decisions, not as something that belongs to the world of isolated, personal sensitivities, but more as a component of large conflicts and social constrictions.

GV: What about the other two categories of references?

AJ: In terms of references that were helping as equipment, I think the whole context of STS, the School of Science and Technology, was very important to me. I have been very close to Bruno Latour for a very long time. We collaborated with him, doing Superpowers of Ten at the ZKM in KarlsruheBut that was only one part, I’ve been very close to the context that the STS put together at different moments, from the Centre of Sociology of Innovation in the School of Minds in Paris, and people like Fabián Muniesa, the generation of Albena Yaneva, Noortje Marres, Lucy Kimbell – they were friends for a long time. People like Michael Guggenheim, for instance, and many other people have played a vital role. Not just them, but also the tools they developed, the theory, the vocabulary, the galleries and exhibitions they produced were also crucial. We could present our work and discuss the works of others. And I must say that the context of Madrid and the vibration that came after La Movida – the whole way of celebrating daily life and ordinary languages that grew with Pedro Almodóvar, Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Sigfrido Martín Begué, El Hortelano, the nightlife in Madrid, the ways of speaking, the fashion, the materials, the colours were all very important to me. However, these references are part of a network of a huge amount of people and organisations we have been working with. In New York, we have strong connections with many people like the whole GSAPP in Columbia University, Princeton where I’ve been teaching for many years. Also, the AAD, where I direct now, has a long tradition. A long list of practitioners, such as Moss, the After Belonging Agency, Beatriz Colomina, Laura Kurgan, Kate Orff and their agencies are constituting an ecosystem that we feel very close to.


Andrés Jaque

Founder of Office for Political Innovation


GV: I wouldn’t define the Office for Political Innovation as a traditional architectural practice. How do you position your practice in the contemporary debate?

AJ: We belong to a model of practice that is very different from the ones of the 90s and 2000s in that we are not based on sensitivity or language. Neither are we an office that wants to be a big corporation. If I had to define what our practice is, I would say that it is how to articulate design with research and activism. This is relevant because none of the situations that we intervene in are given to us. Not only do we have to invent the project and find out who the stakeholders are in a given situation, but also find who could support us in gaining a voice there, and in order to do that, we have to do research. We’ve been working, for instance, for a long time, on sex and urbanism because we perceive that there is something happening that is not politically scrutinised. We have been trying to find a way to intervene in the porn industry through architecture, in the way real estate is getting pornified. Moreover, real estate in places like New York, has become a new way of introducing what used to be the ‘offshore economy’ in cities, designed to avoid tax payment. That is becoming a landscape construction which removes toxicity from places like New York but instead moves it to places like Susquehanna. In order to have this capacity for intervention, we have to rely on research that allows various actors to emerge, in order to help us find the gate to gain relevance on those processes. We are working with activists to find ways to empower those who have been pushed to the periphery and become victims along the way.

GV: It looks like you position yourself in the boundary between architecture and other disciplines – which translates into an architect with a different role from the past. Is that so?

AJ: In order to do gain a voice, it’s irrelevant whether we are big or small. It is rather the network of connections that plays a role in understanding what the situation is about, and those networks only come through research. Any of these realities that I am discussing: inequality, real estate becoming a way to empower those that avoid taxes, the sexualisation of daily life, are all things that are happening only through architectural design. Buildings, apartments, interior design, landscape distribution, are all part of that deal. Inequality is not possible without the participation of architecture in it. We need architects to take a position there and to have access there. When we did ‘Superpowers of Ten’, we were trying to create the context in which our practice made sense, we were trying to make space in our discipline to claim that the tiny designer judgements were vital to discuss politics nowadays. That’s what we were trying to do and that’s what our practice is about. We have partnerships with NGOs, experts and even the people that are affected by these realities who call us and say, ‘Why don’t we work together on this?’. This kind of porous, rhizomatic organisation is one that I would consider good for us to be relevant and that’s what we feel comfortable with.

«In order to do gain a voice, it’s irrelevant whether we are big or small. It is rather the network of connections that plays a role in understanding what the situation is about, and those networks only come through research.»

GV: Your practice is an architectural design practice but you are always working along the boundaries with many other disciplines like philosophy, sociology and politics. What exactly is architecture to you now?

AJ: When we think of what architecture is now, it’s not so easy a question to respond to. Of course, we see a building and say ‘that’s architecture’ but we also see an urban distribution and it ends up in an architecture that someone designed and it’s extremely relevant in the way things get together. When we studied Berlusconi, we found that was inventing a type of architecture in order to powerful. However, he was very aware that he needed architecture to be more complex than simply a few bricks on top of others; he would call it polyhedral architecture in the sense that he was articulating bricks with trees, with TV content and with industry. In Milan, he invented a form of architecture that would connect apartments through television to the producers. Thereby, he would bring the marketplace, that was previously in a big building in Milan, inside the apartments. This spatial transformation required intense design and architects like Francesco Ragazzi were part of this line of thinking. He was reinventing architecture itself as a multimedia construction. If we think of the present, architecture is relevant when it unfolds into many different media, so buildings like 432 at Park Avenue, is a building that exists in the way that the tower is constructed but it is also in the legislation that allows LLCs to buy properties and hide who finances it in order to use it for tax evasion. It’s even embedded in the way the landscape of New York functions. When you look through your windows, you see a blue sky in which the colour is maximised by the use of an Austrian excel glass that polarises and intensifies the blue part of the spectrum of light. That in turn is combined with Bloomberg’s policy of removing dioxins from the air by transforming the way heating is fuelled in New York, moving away from carbon towards gas. That meant that Susquehanna’s fracking of Marcellus shale started to fuel the energy of New York. Architecture becomes relevant in all these combinations of design adjustments where politics are embedded. What we’re interested in is to use the same tools to confront the concentration of power in society.

181122 estudio andres jaque
Office for Political Innovation Madrid workspace. Image courtesy of Office for Political Innovation.

GV: Apart from giving a voice to the actors along existing social processes, are you also redefining the typical notion that one tends to have of a ‘client’?

AJ: We don’t consider people we work with as our ‘clients’, we consider them our partners. We get together with them to develop something that has an impact. We’re working with many different people, many different organisations. For example, with TVA21, who focus on the ocean, we are using contemporary art to change the way our societies are engaged with the oceanic realities. We’re looking at the way architecture can be part of that, and the way these spaces or ways of engaging with the ocean can be altered, transformed and discussed; how the architecture of those places can make an impact on the oceanic realities. We’re also working with CockyBoys – a porn studio in New York to think of a way architecture can develop devices that can make it possible for other forms of affection among people that are not responding to the stereotypes or models of ‘perfect bodies’, to be part of networks of affection, of caring, and how porn can help with that through architecture. The way we work is basically getting two people who already are part of a particular context and we ask the question together ‘What is the way architecture can contribute to these ongoing processes?’ Often, we get calls from people to do a project in a more conventional way and then what we do is to amplify the notion of a client. In those cases, we understand that these people want a house, but we tell them that we are also going to work for, for instance, the ocean. We are doing a project on an island now in Corpus Cristi, but we’re considering the whole lagoon where the house is located as crucial because it is a giant ecosystem. Through the house, we can help preserve the trees that make it possible for the island to confront an ocean. The house will actually retain rainwater that could be released in the moments when the trees are being jeopardised by dryness. By doing that, the house becomes an actor that helps the island remain there and therefore, the island continues to play its role in the whole ecosystem of the salty lagoon. Thus, our clients are not only those who are calling us to design their home there, but it’s also about the trees on the island and somehow the whole ecosystem that the island is part of.

GV: Where do you think the disconnect between what we do as designers and the rest of the world comes from?

AJ: Often, architects complain that what we do is not understood by society, but I think that is because those architects are a little bit disconnected, themselves, from society. This is an extremely important question. On the one hand, it’s true that there is a need to develop strategies to bring different realms together and to bridge communication but at the same time, I have the feeling that it’s about architects engaging with what is happening out there. If you look at the front pages of the papers, they are full of architecture: the wall, the borders, the Mediterranean realities, refugees arriving in places and how refugee camps are designed, environmental issues that are being discussed by the way beach houses are being constructed. When we look in detail at all the big issues that are affecting societies at large, architecture is always there. The question is how designers are finding their door to those crucial concerns. I have a feeling that the way to give a voice to gender fluidity, for instance, is in the way we design restrooms. It’s also about the way we understand that construction is always something in transition. Environmental issues, on the other hand, are making us understand that it is necessary that when we design something very small, we evaluate the design decisions by looking at the big picture of the planetary implications of those tiny decisions. These are shifts that are mandatory for our discipline if it wants to engage with society at large. I must say that as a discipline, we’re in the process of doing that but we’re not there yet. Architectural practices are often very much limiting in the scope of what they want to do with society and often are very acritical because we tend to be dependent on commercial strategies that limit our capacity to have a voice of our own. I think those are the aspects which practices need to evolve.

GV:You seem to be suggesting that we need to change the way we view architecture right from the realm of education.

AJ: If I had to advise someone considering becoming an architectural practitioner, I would recall the way John Dewey would talk about pedagogy and I would say it is their own experience as citizens, the one that is already giving them the training of how to become an architect. So, an architect is not something you become by going to the architecture school but by looking at your daily life from an architectural perspective. What happens when you have breakfast? What happened from the place that you left this morning to here? What were the conflicts that you faced during that process or journey? What is the way architecture is part of those conflicts? For me, architecture is in ordinary life, it’s installed there. It’s only when we consider what’s the way design, dimensions, resources, construction are participating in the making of those conflicting realities that architecture becomes relevant for, not only ourselves as private, gentlemen discussing beauty and how much we would enjoy a beautiful concrete wall, but how those things are part of very serious issues in which our societies are being disputed.

Andrés Jaque

Founder of Office for Political Innovation


GV: Are you exploring certain architectural topics that might seem urgent to next generation of architects?

AJ: There are two concepts or architectural matters that are a priority in what I’m trying to do: How to design for ‘inter-scalarity’, in order to do things that can operate at different scales simultaneously. This is important because that’s the that way conflicts that we face arise. They are happening in the way the design of a kitchen is affecting the whole economy of a city or the way resources are used. That’s one challenge because now it’s very difficult in our discipline that things are separated by scales – from industrial design to architectural design to urban design to urban planning to territorial planning. The question of how to develop design practices that could cross and connect things that are happening in different domains is a vital question of our architectural generations, I would say. The second one is how to bring together different technological realms, how would we work simultaneously with social media for instance and, at the same time, design a teapot; how we can connect the design of an object with the design of a social milieu. I think it is extremely important to us as a generation. Those are the issues that I’ve been facing all my life as an architect.

GV: Apart from inter-scalarity and technology, are there more immediate or common themes that you think can define our common future?

AJ: There are two more that I’m very interested in. The first, sex, and the second, the environment. With respect to sex, we are moving from a society that very much embodied sex in interpersonal relationships to a society where sex is expanding in the way we construct our social spaces, the way it travels to the market, and the making of a collective space. We’ve been working with Grindr, with porn, with real estate, and with the segregation of resources and toxicity all of which are parts of such a process. The other current topic is how do we make a transition to a form of society that engages with the environment, losing the hegemony that humans had in the past. I think we’re moving to a non-human society where we must learn how to coexist with new powerful forces like climate change, natural catastrophes, or the way non-human personas are taking over our culture. To make a transition in which some of our values of accountability and politics are still part of that is really difficult. Architecture and urbanity are vital perspectives from which that can be managed. We’ve been looking at how fertility is being managed collectively now, and what is the way in which new human types are being detached from humanity at large, the way screening of genes, recombination of DNA. There are experts in New York who are actually inventing an entirely new human type. In order for architecture to rethink how these new human types will relate to the existing forms of nature, we will have to prepare ourselves to conceptualise it and I think that as a discipline, we are in dire need of occupying a space between these two realities.

“Ocean Space” by Office for Political Innovation. Image courtesy of Office for Political Innovation.

GV: What future research projects and activities are translating these concepts of sex and environment that you’ve mentioned?

AJ: We are developing multiple projects now. We always try to find the right partners to develop our concepts. For instance, we are working with CockyBoys, developing a kind of TV set for them now in a location in New York state in the middle of the countryside. We are also working with Real Madrid, the football club, and we’re thinking of a way for them to construct their trans-territorial network of locations where the public and their constituencies can gain other criticalities, a very exciting project. We’re developing a number of housing projects embodying the idea that the clients of a house are no longer only the people living them, but the house as a mediation between environmental communities at large and humans. We also have a project in Panama to confront this idea of the real state as a device to introduce the offshore economy to cities and we are doing a tower for people living in the city, not as an asset for people to speculate with but rather the possibility for middle-class professionals to stay in the city. We are very happy because we are finding more opportunities as we get better known, our ideas are more widespread, we are gaining the opportunity to call people and have a good reaction from them and then develop projects together with them that could somehow bring our agenda and interest into interventions that could make a change in those realms.

«In order for architecture to rethink how these new human types will relate to the existing forms of nature, we will have to prepare ourselves to conceptualise it and I think that as a discipline, we are in dire need of occupying a space between these two realities.»

GV: What would you say to those that are facing the reality of working in this profession?

AJ: The question of what it is that people like me who are involved in teaching, directing the AAD programme at Columbia, want to tell those that are being trained is a very interesting one. It’s one that I ask myself every day. I’ve found that the best way to address the question is to realise that the people who are starting to be trained as architects and going through the process of studying architecture, already have a lot to say. It’s about finding a context where we can have a conversation, discuss what they’re doing and thinking. I have a feeling that now because of the expansion and grand dimension of platforms like Instagram, ideas are being channelled through aesthetics, and there’s a lot to think about aesthetics now – not in terms of just style, but rather how images are helping us sense things that we would otherwise not perceive critically. For me, the conversation with the new generations is about Instagram and about new conflicts that they have very good insight on. They are somehow evolving our capacities and also challenging the way we practice. These are questions I pose to them, but I know that it is something we have to deal with through conversation, since our generation lacks part of the information that they could react to. I’m very excited to work with the younger generations. I have a feeling when I teach, that I’m the one learning and I think that’s the only way to teach now: to teach those things that you don’t know and get a reaction that somehow makes matters much more complex.

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 10

Ricardo Bak Gordon

Founder of Bak Gordon Arquitectos


GV: Could you briefly describe your beginnings as an architect and what it was like deciding to study architecture?

RBG: When I was in high school, I had a very specific architectural experience while visiting certain modern buildings, one of which is very well-known in Portugal: the Gulbenkian Foundation and the other, a modernist building by one of the architects that made the Gulbenkian Foundation. I remember how these experiences made me see space in a different way. Until then, I was a child who was interested in electrical topics, engines and matters of that kind. From one day to the next, I decided I wanted to do architecture although I had no clue what architecture was about. At that time, I decided to go to the arts high school in Lisbon. It was the only high school in Lisbon for arts, with two or three years before university. The way I used to see life changed drastically. I was suddenly more open to experiments that were different from the usual ones that I was used to seeing. By then, I already had a strong interest in the arts and architecture. When I decided to go to university, I applied to the Lisbon School of Architecture as a first option. However, because of three small decims, I ended up going to Porto School of Architecture whose rating was a little bit lower than the Lisbon one. That turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me because that was the first time that I was leaving home and going to live in another city.

GV: What was school in Porto like? Did you study anywhere else that defined, in a way, your education in architecture?

RBG: The School of Architecture in Porto then, was the best school I could imagine, and it was my first contact with the discipline, the architects, and of course, figures like Fernando Távora and Alvaro Siza. In my practice today, I usually make drawings to investigate architecture. I remember that in my first year of university, our course in drawing was very intense. We used to draw inside the class but also in the city. So, thinking of the city, the voids, the spaces, the buildings and the people allowed me to open my eyes and see the world with more intention because I would actually be designing it. At the end of that year, I came back to Lisbon because it made sense to study in my hometown. The difference was shocking to me. If in Porto they were concerned with places and people, in Lisbon they were very excited about Postmodernism and Constructivism. I started working in a studio in my second year and by my fourth year of university, the Erasmus programme started. I was one of the first Erasmus students in Europe at the time. I did it from Lisbon to Milan. That was my first time living in central Europe. Politecnico Milano, again was very different from the other two schools. I also had the opportunity to research international architecture I was unfamiliar with. I remember seeing figures like Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas coming to Politecnico Milano every single week.

GV: What was it like after graduating? Did you immediately start your own practice, or did you work in other offices?

RBG: Through all this time I continued to work alongside my studies. Towards the last one or two months before I finished, a friend of mine and I applied to a competition for the Head Office of the Architectural Association in Lisbon. We got an honourable mention in that competition and we were very excited because it was the first time that we got to experience the specificity of the discipline. We decided to try doing architecture on our own. Together, we started a very small practice. We did a lot of competitions and also some very small projects. What was important was the enthusiasm that we had in the beginning of our careers. Now I have a very close relationship with young students and I tell them that it is very important to find your enthusiasm and to find where you can get it from. The enthusiasm was so explosive that we kept doing competitions; one after the other, some of them international.

Ricardo Bak Gordon with Mendes da Rocha. Image courtesy of Bak Gordon Arquitectos.

GV: When you think about that period, do any interesting anecdotes come to mind?

RBG: At a certain point, there was a competition for the Spreebogen area in Berlin. It was at a time immediately after the reunification when they were trying to bring the parliament and the life back into the city. There was a huge international competition and we had only just graduated. As part of the competition, we had to deliver a model by post. When we finished making the model, we were so passionate that we got in our car with it and drove all the way to Berlin. It took us two nights, but I think it shows how much we cared about our work and we still do. That was an important moment for us. The first competition we won was the residence of the Portuguese Embassy in Brazil. Imagine you are in Portugal, and the first commission you win is to be built 10,000 kilometres from where you are. It got us very excited but also gave us a lot of responsibility. I travelled immediately to Brazil, to meet people and plan things. One of the most important decisions I took was meeting the person whom I respected most in Brazil; Mendes da Rocha. It was the year ‘95 or ‘96 when I met him for the first time. From then on, we became very good friends and we kept in contact our whole lives. Actually, I’m still working with him and we recently did this huge museum in Lisbon. In our lives, one thing always leads to another.

GV: What are some of the themes that you were interested in the beginning and how has it evolved throughout your career?

RBG: Sometimes I do this exercise to try and find where I found the guts or the will to do architecture and what were the topics that most interested me in all this ‘parkour’. There’s no doubt that in the beginning, when trying to understand what architecture was about, it had everything to do with those schools that I studied in. I remember that the relation between Lisbon and Porto was very important. It had less to do about the fact that they are opposites in a way but rather, with the convictions that you work with in architecture. In Porto, I learnt how to approach a project. It was important to be sensitive to the site. Architecture had to be a project of continuity. You didn’t have to reinvent the world every single morning. I still work very much like that, with a lot of respect for the site that you are working on. I realise how architecture can bring more significance to the place; by being sensitive to the users and the site instead of thinking about the building itself or the building as an object which was very present when I confronted the postmodernism in Lisbon. Those days, I would react against it strongly because I couldn’t find a good enough reason to confront the city in that manner.

«In Porto, I learnt how to approach a project. It was important to be sensitive to the site. Architecture had to be a project of continuity. You didn’t have to reinvent the world every single morning.»

GV: Looking back on those initial years, were there any projects that represented this sensitivity that you are alluding to?

RBG: In my practice, I do not feel the need to create a permanent, complete invention. Instead I try to complement the continuity and dialogue of the place by adding a small element that would be understood in the process of time that is something. That is much more important to me. One of the first projects I did where I would say I expressed the most at the beginning of my career is the house I did in the Algarve. Portugal was suffering during that period, having no urban plans to develop territory and landscape. It was a period after 1974 when a lot of people would migrate into the big cities; either the Portuguese who came from the Portuguese-African countries, as well as those from the countryside into the urban metropolis. Many places became badly organised and there was no order in the urban fabric. That was very difficult to observe; something we later called non-place. In Algarve, something similar was happening: the boom of tourism, with a lot of silly ways of building tourist houses and resorts without any sensitivity to the town and its landscape. I somehow tried to see how I could bring the values that I was reading on the landscape and the constructive territories in the Algarve and how I could bring them into a revision towards the future. I still visit this house and I find that it is important to translate values towards the future instead of inventing something that would cause the place to lose its continuity.


Ricardo Bak Gordon

Founding of Bak Gordon Arquitectos


GV: Can you describe the organisation of the practice and perhaps mention any peculiar characteristics that describe your practice of today?

RBG: We are still a small-scale studio, a ten-architect office. This is something common in Portugal and the south of Europe. In France, perhaps, they have the chance to work on bigger projects and so they have bigger studios. It is interesting because it allows you to work such that you have time to design. You don’t have a predefined answer to any project. Every project becomes a first project somehow. It allows us to pay attention to the site, to use the programme or to add something else on top of that. It allows us to play with the public space, with voids and to eventually bring more meaning to the city, the sites or the areas you are working in. I work very much with my team, I’m not the kind of architect that merely comes up with magnificent ideas. I might design a strategy and immediately I would be with my team and consultants. You cannot do architecture without your technical teams for structure, HVAC and acoustics. We work from the beginning to the end with a lot of consultants. I get together with my team in the office and we go through the different phases of the project and try to discover how we can synthesise the strength of the strategy.

«We work from the beginning to the end with a lot of consultants. I get together with my team in the office and we go through the different phases of the project and try to discover how we can synthesise the strength of the strategy.»

GV: Architects today are not perceived as close to the people and not good at communicating to the rest of the world what architects do. What do you think about this issue and the role of the architect in today’s society?

RBG: I think that architects have been kept from most strategic decisions of the construction world like city-planning and political decisions about development. Architects once played an important role there but now the people that are the decision-makers. They probably think that they cannot easily and quickly make profits by involving architects. We have been pushed to the end of the line and are asked to come to make only beautiful things. If we continue to play that role, we increasingly be kept aside from society. I don’t think that the future will be a place where architects will come to invent something new and innovative. There are a lot of other roles that architects can play.  We will continue to have to live together in denser cities. We will have to support public spaces and accommodate the differences. We will have to have a more sensitive way of constructing and looking at the city and how to support the unpredictability of life and not to be asked to do fantasies. Doing fantasy is something that one does for Carnevale that maybe lasts three days. However, if you do it in architecture, it will last for fifty years. After three days, you will be tired of it, and you will have just given the city an opportunity to be sad.

Bak Gordon Workspace
Ricardo Bak Gordon’s workspace. Image courtesy of Bak Gordon Arquitectos

Ricardo Bak Gordon

Founder of Bak Gordon Arquitectos


GV: What are one or two key concepts that are very relevant today?

RBG: There are a few ideas that we have to continue following, like public space. The word is ‘public’, i.e., to construct a city for everybody. We can never build ignoring our conscience because what we do is public. Another idea is density. We are continually making the city denser. In theory, there is no problem with that but you have to pay attention to the main issues. It can be very interesting because you can bring together more activities and diversity while still operating it in a positive way. Solidarity is another idea. We are all condemned to get together, there’s no other way. We can continue fighting wars and trying to divide people but the future of humanity is one that is together; there’s no other option. In our practice, poetics is another important idea. We are all architects and somebody has got to design the door, regardless of the temperature of the world. There are small, sensitive topics of architecture that we have to continue paying attention to.

«We are all condemned to get together, there’s no other way. We can continue fighting wars and trying to divide people but the future of humanity is one that is together; there’s no other option.»

GV: Similar to its effects in Algarve, a tourism boom is affecting Lisbon and the rest of Portugal in the same way. As architects, what do you think is the challenge to not repeat the same mistakes as before?

RBG: It is very difficult for us to think about architecture in general. The architecture of the Far East is different from that of the South of Europe, even more so in Portugal. What is happening in recent years is a big change in the urban fabric due to tourism. I believe that the future will have a lot of people living in movement or in transit – the new nomadic world will be very much present. I have nothing against that, I think we should prepare our cities for that. We should not however, allow leisure and activities for tourist pleasure to overshadow everyday life in the city. In the waterfront in Lisbon, we used to have the port and its activities. Now it has disappeared and one can only see people jogging. The universities and hospitals were once part of the urban fabric of the city centre. Now they are outside on large campuses along the perimeter of the city. It appears that we are getting rid of real life, the working life of the city. Walking and eating sushi and thinking that life here is just like that. I don’t think the future of humanity will involve too much jogging on the riverfront.

Teatro Romano N.Central Entrada
Rendered image of Teatro Romano. Image courtesy of Bak Gordon Arquitectos.

GV: What is a message you would like to tell the younger generation who are facing the profession today?

RBG: I believe in continuity very much. That means that you simply try to see in the best way you can, in a sensitive way. To look around and see what questions the world is posing to you. Try to be a participant in this process in a sensitive way and not to come up with the ‘ultimate invention’. Probably other people have to come up with these things, like antibiotics which changed the world from an average of a life expectancy of 45 to 75 years. If someone can come up with an invention like that in architecture, it’ll be very welcome, but I don’t think we must all do it. So, for the new generations, I think you have to find enthusiasm in being a part of a process of continuity.

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 25

Fabrizio Barozzi

Co-founder of Barozzi Veiga


GV: Could you describe the initial years of your career and some important points from that period, perhaps getting into why you decided to study architecture and open your practice?

FB: I finished my studies in Venice at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura and then moved to Spain to study in Seville for one year. At the very end of my career, when I was in my fifth year, I decided to work with Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra. Although I spent less than a year there, it was crucial for me in order to move from an academic world into a more real environment of practice. Working there made quite a strong impact on me and I left after having worked a lot in a short and compressed time of around 10 months. Almost immediately after, I entered a competition by myself and funnily enough, won it. So, just a few months later, instead of moving to the U.S. to study, which was my initial idea, I changed plans and joined my partner, Alberto Veiga. Long story short, we decided to move to Barcelona to open our office. We arrived towards the end of 2004 without an apartment or a studio. The idea was to stay in Barcelona for a few months to start work on that first project. Now, it has been almost 15 years since we first moved here.

GV: How would you describe the initial phases?

FB: One important milestone was definitely winning the first competition as it permitted us to establish the office. However, that project eventually started to take a wrong turn because there were no funds. Eventually, a few months later, we decided to close that project. In the first year, we were here in Barcelona and did not have many connections with friends or family who could help easily secure clients. We decided to enter a number of competitions both in Spain and also internationally since we were quite interested in working in different contexts. The first year was quite difficult because we did not have much work. However, at the end of the first year, we won another competition for an auditorium in Águilas in the south of Spain. With that project, we bought ourselves a bit more time to continue working in Barcelona. It was a particularly important point for the studio. A few months later, we won another competition for the Headquarter of Ribera del Duero in Roa; another important project for us. So, after a year and a half, we already had two important projects built that helped us continue with the office. However, I have to stress that the first year was extremely difficult. At the same time, it was remarkably interesting because we started the office with practically nothing in another country. Since we always felt like we were moving ahead in our career, I have good memories of the first year in the studio.

GV: Do you have any anecdotes from that time of setting up your practice?

FB: Since the very beginning, even when I was a child, I wanted to be an architect. I was extremely interested in building. For me, studying architecture was quite an easy and natural decision. I remember the first time I ever had contact with contemporary architecture and started to realise what it was when I saw Villa Malaparte by Adalberto Libera. Libera was born close to my house and so I heard people speaking about him, but I had no idea who he was. I remember being fascinated by this wonderful, incredible building in Capri. In a way it was the first image that I saw, just because of its proximity to the town, which marked my future career and I realised that I wanted to do something similar. When I left the office of Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra, I wanted to work on my own, so I participated in a competition with two friends of mine. For different reasons, they could not participate, and I finished the project at home by myself. I sent the competition entry, and I can’t remember exactly why, but I didn’t tell them that I had submitted the project. I only did the project for fun with no real expectations. A few months later, the president of the jury called my friend and told him that we had won the competition. Surprised, he said, ‘What? Why? Which competition? I didn’t participate in anything.’ In some sense, it was this funny anecdote that permitted me to start the office in a very unusual way.

Fabrizio Barozzi and Alberto Veiga in 2007. Image courtesy of Barozzi Veiga.

GV: How would you describe the particular themes you were interested in investigating at the beginning?

FB: When we started the office, it was very marked by my academic study in Venice. Alberto had studied in Spain, so he had a different background. When we started, our different backgrounds, mine perhaps more humanistic and Alberto’s more technical, complemented quite well for the development of our project. Now in the studio, this approach to working still holds but they especially helped in the first year to help us identify the pure projects in terms of strong concepts and ideas. At the same time, it helped to keep in mind the real construction of what we wanted to do and the technological issue behind the project. I think these two visions have helped us a lot in doing the first projects at the office.

GV: Could you describe any of your early projects that, in a way, translate these concepts?

FB: One of the most important projects is the Headquarter of the Ribera del Duero, because it was one of the first ideas that we were able to realise into a building. It is a building that tries to work in continuity with something that I had in mind since my studies in Venice: this idea of working with context, or working in continuity with something else, thereby becoming part of an urban environment. At the same time, we also tried to work with public space, keeping in mind that the public space should be able to link the building with the city. Simultaneously, the construction was quite important; we decided to work on a special type of stone and construction system. This dichotomy, present since the beginning, is very well-reflected in this project. We started with a very general and rather humanistic idea, but then tried to transform it into an object, into something constructed physically. This was also a project that I would present in my lectures those days because it was really a project that marked a certain methodology of work.

«When we started, our different backgrounds, mine perhaps more humanistic and Alberto’s more technical, complemented quite well for the development of our projects. Now in the studio, this approach to working still holds.»

GV: Are there any references or people that in a way influenced those beginning years?

FB: We were quite an atypical office here in Barcelona because both Alberto and I didn’t study here. When we started, a lot of our friends or other architects, went through university here so they were quite influenced by the professors that taught here and the work of Miralles, Viaplana, etc. We, on the other hand, arrived here without this influence. Since the beginning, we tried to mark our own path, but we were influenced by a lot of different things such as from friends and architects in Italy, but also here in Barcelona. We started to work internationally, so I think that our background is in a way quite fragmented, because there is a collection of influences, but at the same time this collection of influences has permitted us to at least try to create our own path.

Fabrizio Barozzi

Co-founder of Barozzi Veiga


GV: Are your interests of today the same as the beginning or have they evolved through time?

FB: At present, in our work, we are always trying to find an equilibrium between working with the specificity of place and context and creating something that preserves the autonomy of the form as an independent object. This finding of a certain balance between those two opposite concepts comes from our biography and is now the basis for most of our work. Our first projects were perhaps more linked to their contexts, working in continuity with something that was already present. In our more recent projects, they tried to be more autonomous, creating some kind of an ‘absolute object’. This dialectic movement between the two concepts is what explains the evolution of our practice. All the projects we are currently doing are represented by this. For example, the Bündner Kunstmuseum, the museum of Fine Art that we have been finalising in Chur, Switzerland. It is something that came out of the pre-existing building that existed in this area. We tried to work with the identity and character elements of the pre-existing building and transform it into something new, an object that can have its own value and autonomy.

«At present, in our work, we are always trying to find an equilibrium between working with the specificity of place and context and creating something that preserves the autonomy of the form as an independent object.»

GV: How would you define your practice today? And how would you describe how it works today?

FB: We are not interested in creating some kind of continuous language for all our projects. Rather, we try to start from different conditions to create something which is able to link different projects. It is an atelier in which each project is a prototype. Each project is unique and an innovation of something. We don’t want to repeat solutions or construction systems. Instead, the most important thing is perhaps that each project is a bespoke project.

Barozzi Veiga’s workspace. Image courtesy of Barozzi Veiga

GV: The word atelier suggests a way of working, is there a connection to your methodology with the word?

FB: Now we are around 25 persons in the office. The office does not have a strong hierarchy; everyone is more or less at the same level. We try to have everyone in the office work in different sectors: executive projects, and also conceptual projects. We also mix people to establish some kind of continuity between the first concept till the construction. In this way, I say that we are like an atelier. The 25 architects here try to do more or less everything.

GV: Is there anything peculiar in the organisation or workflow in your studio?

FB: In general terms, the organisation of our studio is similar to other studios of our size. We have two partners, several project leaders, each one guiding a different project. Another characteristic of our office is that each project that we do is generally in a different country. In our office we are used to having different people from different countries because of our work in different contexts and that’s something we really value. However, at the same time, it doesn’t make the studio organisation easy. Every project is really a new story starting from scratch. This methodology of work has a consequence in the internal organisation of the studio. When we started our office, we started to work internationally because of competitions. While we enjoyed dealing with the rest of Europe, it wasn’t planned. Now, we work a little more in Barcelona.

GV: How do you organise your time? Do you travel a lot? Do you work here in Barcelona?

FB: One of the most difficult things in our office currently is organising our agenda because of the large number of projects we have spread all over Europe and the U.S.. We are travelling all the time and now, finding time to sit at the office or have a calm moment in order to design is a condition that’s becoming harder to find. However, I do think that it is a normal evolution of the office, that is, starting to have more meetings, finding new approaches to the projects because that has always been the natural way we have found ourselves forced to work in. Personally, I travel every week or so. I would also love to just stay at the office, sit at the table, and think without having meetings but in a certain way, it is an important process in order for things to happen.

GV: Today, it is becoming increasingly hard for architects to communicate to the rest of the society what it is that we do. What do you think about this disconnection?

FB: It is probably true that often, the architect speaks just for the architect. We probably did the same at the beginning of our career. During the last few years, we have started to have a little bit more experience. We discovered the importance of being able to transmit a message to a non-expert people or to clients. Sometimes when the architect tries to transmit a message, they start using stupid metaphors in an attempt to explain themselves and that simply does not work. I think it is important to be serious and professional while trying to help the client understand the importance of certain details, of an urban strategy, all without using these simplistic and all-too-direct metaphors. This is an extremely common practice that will hinder the profession in the future. In our office, we try to be serious and rational while trying to transform the everyday needs of the people we involve.

Fabrizio Barozzi

Co-founder of Barozzi Veiga


GV: What would you speculate about the future of this profession, in the next 5 or 10 years?

FB: One of the main ideas for us is to reflect on an architecture that avoids generic solutions. It is especially important for us to think of an architecture that is able to preserve differences. This idea is linked with our way of work. Preserving the differences between various contexts creates something that works with the uniqueness of the different realities that exist in our world. I find this absolutely crucial. During the last few years, all the cities have started to look similar. You can fly to Seoul, L.A., or to New York, and you start to see a common pattern of the same, ugly projects that are all very generic solutions. They are merely based on technical jargon or generic ideas. I think that we, as architects, have to work against this generality that is starting to control architecture around the world. On the contrary, working with what is really the identity of each small reality is something super important.

«I think that we, as architects, have to work against this generality that is starting to control architecture around the world. On the contrary, working with what is really the identity of each small reality is something super important.»

GV: Regarding your practice, have you ever stopped to think how you would like to plan the next few years as a practice?

FB: Our office is currently in a transition period. Just a few years ago we were a small office. Now, however, we are starting to transform into another scale of office and working on another typology of projects. We need to decide in the next year whether we want to continue in a kind of “atelier” scale or if we want to grow and have more partners with more people working in the office. This probably requires a sort of mental change as well. Alberto and I are thinking a lot about our work for the next year.

Rendered image of Artists Atelier London. Image courtesy of Barozzi Veiga.

GV: What would you say to the new generation of architects: students or those that are starting their own practice?

FB: I find architecture an amazing profession; it’s something I always loved seeing when I was a child. However, it’s quite a difficult profession that comes with many hardships. In order to continue working and to become an architect, I think the one of the most important things is to be optimistic with respect to the future coupled with patience and consistency. Architecture is something that is associated with a long-term results. In order to see a building finish you may have to wait 8 or 10 years. If you are not optimistic it is difficult to work in this beautiful profession.

Stéphane Beel

Founder of Stéphane Beel Architects


GV: Do you recall the very beginning, or perhaps the reasons that led you to decide on studying architecture?

SB: Sometimes, it is quite hard to explain and think of why one decides to start such studies. I have asked myself that question so many times. Maybe it could be the fact that I lived with my parents in a rather big house; a brewery. It was quite spacious, and I liked having the space. Perhaps it was in those grand proportions, where it all began. I would also always want to make things with whatever I could find in order to have the pleasure of making something. Maybe it was this combination of needing to have space even as a child and needing to make something. When you are around sixteen and you think about what you are going to do in the future, even if you choose architecture, you never know what it means. During my studies in Ghent, I was not very convinced of the education. I didn’t like going to school, so we would instead go someplace else to see architecture and daily life. We would go to for instance to Paris to see its architecture. We would visit works like the Villa Savoye. I remember the first exhibition of Marcel Duchamp at the Centre Pompidou that happened when I was in my third year. My friends and I were determined to go. We left very early, at 4.00am, and reached at 7.00am just before the opening, after having had nothing but a small croissant. I was astonished at the exhibits and at the same time, the relation between art and architecture was founded in me.

GV: Did that shape the way you practiced from then on? What were the final years of your education like?

SB: That absurdity and exactness of things that I saw influenced me during my whole period as an architect. In my fourth and fifth year, I introduced myself to exercises where I had to think of construction, had to be realistic, and had to make something outside of the norm. The other exercises given by our teachers were not as interesting to us. Towards our final years, we were not fully satisfied with our situation, so we proposed to make our own school of architecture. We actually designed an architecture school as our final year project. For us, it was a way of thinking about what a good architecture school could be like. We designed a library, ateliers and buildings and so on. I felt that there was a lack of this practice to make with our own hands and to feel the materials and to construct it on their own. Eventually, at a certain moment, I designed and built a dome and it was put on top of the library on the tower by a huge crane. That was my very first beginning with school.

GV: At the beginning of your career, immediately after school, what was your experience of your first project or commission?

SB: After school, I didn’t want to go work in a big studio, I wanted to learn on my own. However, I had to earn money so I got a commission for a small house. I asked my clients if I could build it by myself and they agreed. I wasn’t a mason, but I worked on it and built it myself as the non-specific constructor that I was, building with common materials. Therefore, at that moment, I was working on architecture with my bare hands. It was really an architecture with a big ‘A’ for me. I would work in my work clothes and pour water to make concrete. Eventually, when it was finished, we got an important prize for it, so it really marked the beginning of my career. I felt that I had to be very exact and that I had to do it myself, so I never really trusted anyone else to do my work.

Paul Van Eygen and StÇphane ∏Brigitte Meuwissen
Paul Van Eygen and Stéphane Beel. Image by: Brigitte Meuwissen.

GV: Does that building still exist? Are there other projects from that period that come to mind?

SB: Yes, that building still exists and there are people living in it. You would need a dynamite to destroy it. Thanks to that project, I came to be well-known in Belgium which obviously is quite a small country. Later, I was able to get commissions and develop more, working on my own. I started working with other people; we grew to an office of three and eventually five. At some point I got a commission to build a museum for Roger Raveel, a Flemish painter. He would paint concrete walls but they were not actually walls, rather something more abstract. Since it was commissioned by the Flemish Community, the mayor dealt with me directly. The painter wanted to have his own personal museum, constructed and paid for by the Flemish Community. A friend of his, who was a farmer, jumped to his defence against the mayor. It was impressive to have someone from such a different background step out of his tractor to support him.

GV: Did the studio grow naturally from then onwards?

SB: Eventually, the studio became bigger and we had to organise ourselves. We were invited to do competitions, some of which were international. At a certain point in time, I also became severely ill, so I had to cope both with being ill and the jump to bigger commissions. We were working with several people in the office who helped me to define the project and do the initial planning. However, I always drew, and wanted people who could draw. When you draw, you are not dependent on any device, you can draw anywhere, even on the floor at anytime. Therefore, my pencil is a precious object to me because it makes me independent from everything else. I never wanted to work in a big firm. Most of my friends went to work in studios like OMA. I went several times to Rotterdam to see those offices but I wanted to start my own practice. One of the very first commissions was for a house in a plot of 10,000 square metres, a project in the old yard of a castle. We started quite slowly and worked very hard. Each time we met to work, we would work until 4 o’clock in the morning.

«If you have complications from the city or the client, you have to deal with them. Sometimes you have to look at it from another angle in order to solve it. It could even turn out to be the beginning of the whole project.»

GV: What was your relationship to your first clients from those initial years? Do any anecdotes come to mind?

SB: One of the first things the clients told me was that they didn’t want to have stairs because a staircase in a private house would have been too monumental. They didn’t want to have a house of that sort, rather they wanted a house where they could live comfortably. My way of working was that people had to be convinced, and that you didn’t have to convince them yourself. When the house was designed roughly, I had a meeting with the client and she said, ‘I still have problems with the house, but it is exactly what we want.’ That, to me, is the biggest compliment. You always have to add something as an architect. What you build should neither have too many problems, nor be too perfect. We, as architects, have to serve the clients with what we have learnt, experienced, feel and what we’ve seen, indirectly and directly.

GV: Were there any other themes or defining experiences in the beginning? Perhaps a project that represents certain ideas you were concerned about comes to mind.

SB: Later, we started to work on specific themes. One of the major themes was that it’s important to first have order. Chaos will follow on its own and eventually life will take possession of your building. If you create chaos, you’ll never have order. You have to create a good proportion of the building and the feeling of the space. As an architect, you are dealing with problems, and architects have to solve problems. If you have complications from the city or the client, you have to deal with them. Sometimes you have to look at it from another angle in order to solve it. It could even turn out to be the beginning of the whole project. Being positive about these things has helped me even until today. The truth is that we are lucky to have what we get, even if they may be the biggest of problems. Another important idea is that you have to be able to solve the strict functional things. If you don’t solve that, you are not a good architect. For example, in a project we developed, Villa M, we had to design a house that was 60 metres long. In it, there are certain functions that had to be close together, for example, a kitchen and a dining room. You might put the children on one side and the parents on one side. By making the communal spaces 50 centimetres lower, you can see across the 60-metre building, you can see the open fire burning there and you might feel that you are part of an organisation. You have to give added value to the strict functional aspects and get to the abstract functional aspects. For example, in Villa M, apart from the necessary functions, you also have the abstract functions; when you’re walking in your house, you’re walking on your plot of 10,000 square metres. If you put your house in the corner of the plot, then you never make use of the rest. By making the house 60 metres long, you are using the plot in a new way that you may not be not aware of. It is important to give your clients something they never asked for but are glad to have, anyway.

Stéphane Beel

Founder of Stéphane Beel Architects


GV: How would you describe your studio practice of today?

SB: Now, we are an office of 45 to 50 people. We are currently working on the reorganisation, refurbishment and extension of the Museum of Middle Africa, the biggest museum in the world on Central Africa. We have to deal with the fact that it is a colonial museum. In the beginning we met a group of specialists in Africa. It was a group comprised of specialists in museum design, techniques and construction philosophers. Working together, we all made drawings and I asked everyone to put something forward to have a discussion. It is important to always discuss in this collaborative manner. We even have dinners together because doing so creates another atmosphere. Sometimes we’ll work the whole night long in the restaurant or the hotel lobby just to change the atmosphere. We would make 20 drawings and look at the project from different points of view. We work on urban design in the same way as well.

«For each commission that we get, one project architect is responsible for everything and is in charge of dealing directly with the client. They work on the project from start to finish. That’s how we are organised.»

GV: Are there any peculiar dynamics that represent the organisation or the way your office works?

SB: The people working in my office know that I love encountering coincidences and that you have to cherish them, take them into account and try to look at the positive side. They have read about my early works and my way of working and often they come to me asking to work with me. They know what direction we are working in but, at the same time, they work against it in order to try something new. For each commission that we get, one project architect is responsible for everything and is in charge of dealing directly with the client. They work on the project from start to finish. That’s how we are organised. That’s better for the project and for the architects themselves. They can see the results and so, for the next commission, they know how to build and design better. It is usually flat but sometimes more hierarchical when we add people with more specialisations in different areas. I choose the people insofar as I know them because I respect them and their feelings towards the project.

SB Office
Stéphane Beel’s workspace. Image courtesy of Stéphane Beel Architects.

GV: It has become increasingly difficult for us to explain what architects do to the rest of the 99% that are not architects. How do you see this disconnect?

SB: There has always been a disconnect between architects and their projects for people. Sometimes they admit it, sometimes they reject it. If you do have to convince people of something in architecture, and if they don’t agree, you end up creating communities that are not interesting to live in, ones that are made only by architects. We are supposed to be working with people. We have to understand people and learn from them. They are specialists themselves. You have to learn to be very humble, and make sure that you don’t impose anything. You have to understand the society, by reading and also connecting with the people. If you try to impose anything too big, at a certain point, it will come back to haunt you. There will always be a gap between architects and the people. Perhaps this is because architects think they know people very well. Sometimes I feel that architects are working for other architects, and answering to them instead of the people. You cannot work, as an architect, for other architects. A lot of architects like to build for the magazines, history and culture of architecture.

Stéphane Beel

Founder of Stéphane Beel Architects


GV: What do you speculate about the future of our societies? How do you think architecture needs to evolve in order to adapt to a rapidly-evolving society?

SB: We have to deal with a lot of changes that are happening very rapidly. We are dealing constantly with a higher demand for technology. Technology can help us analyse all that is coming in from all around and we can thereby work more with specialists. But at the same time, we have to look to the city, and simultaneously to global matters. We must think globally and act locally. We must reform our cities but that doesn’t mean that we build only with architecture. For instance, in Antwerp, there is a ring road, and they are talking now about closing it owing to certain issues. I feel like this decision is twenty years too late. They are better off investing in the future by making cars smarter. Maybe in twenty years, we won’t have cars anymore and instead be flying. Maybe we’ll make buildings not with entrances at the bottom, but at the top. Cars in the future will drive all electrical. We have to be aware of all these changes and even more so because they are changing so quickly. Even if this technology is moving fast, we still have to maintain a good feeling of space, proportions light and other qualities. In the same way, you have to use your hands, and not rely solely on technology. You have to be free with your hands, you can still draw. It’s the most primitive and most free way to design. When I was a professor at the University of Ghent and Bruges, I always said to my students, ‘You have to draw and be independent by looking at things differently: look at things upside down and be positive about our future.’

«We have to look to the city, and simultaneously to global matters. We must think globally and act locally. We must reform our cities but that doesn’t mean that we build only with architecture.»

Rendered image. Image courtesy of Stéphane Beel Architects.

GV: Do you have any examples that take these concepts into account?

SB: Hospitals are a good example of this. Technology is rapidly changing the typology of hospitals. In a hospital, you have very technical matters, but you also have a very emotional area for therapeutic purposes. It might seem like a question of dealing with two opposites but they don’t have to be opposites; they can be together. You need the typical hospital functions but simultaneously something like a hotel for wellbeing. They are both in the same place yet totally different. Now, moving forward, we have to design in totally different ways in order to accommodate for scenarios such as these.

Atxu Amann

Co-founder of Temperaturas Extremas Arquitectos


GV: Could you describe the initial years of your career? How did you choose to study this profession? What are the most important moments you remember from those years?

AA: First of all, I didn’t want to be an architect, it was only a possibility. In fact, here in Spain, when we have to decide careers, we have to put in three options. On the day of our registration, I had, in this order: Philosophy, Medicine and Architecture. When I arrived home with this paper, my parents asked me which one of the three I would choose. I said, “Architecture.” When they asked why, I said, “Because it starts with an ‘A’.” This just shows that I really was not obsessed with architecture from a young age. However, I do remember that when I was very young, in school, a group of psychologists made us take a test one day and what’s interesting is that they told me that my test results indicated that I should become an architect. When I asked them why, they responded, “You can’t be with people. You must work alone in a space with nobody around you, because you are quite a conflictive person.” This is relevant because 50 years later, I notice that the profession has changed drastically. Back then, the architect was a man, alone in his office, away from society and their needs. Now we are part of society, as agents of a global world. Perhaps I studied architecture because I liked to be alone but now I am with people all day and everywhere. Since the first day, I can say that this was my home. We were part of less than 10% of women; 14 girls in my class of around 200 to 250 people. I didn’t notice the difference, because it was very common at that time in Spain that women didn’t have access to these kinds of careers. I felt very good during my entire career, so when I finished my studies, I decided to become a teacher.

«Now we are part of society, as agents of a global world. Perhaps I studied architecture because I liked to be alone but now I am with people all day and everywhere. Since the first day, I can say that this was my home.»

GV: From that point when you finished your studies till today, can your career be described through phases or perhaps certain important moments that defined your career?

AA: Yes, when one gets older, they often reflect about their past and you will find points in your personal story or history that are very important for the future. One such moment was when we started Temperaturas Extremas. I met Nicolás when I joined university. Eight months later in June, I told him, “Nicolás, I want to start a studio with you.” That year, we founded our office and participated in our first competition. Needless to say, we got placed last because it was in Japan. Sometimes, when we think about it, we ask ourselves why when we were eighteen, did we suddenly decide to form a group, to work, to hire a space and to participate in an international competition. It was absolutely surrealist. We would keep trying these surrealist competitions, struggling against top architects that are very well known in Spain, a very closed circle. Later, I met Andrés, who is now my husband. It was when I fell in love that I asked him, “Hey, do you want to come work with us?” There were some conflicts, obviously, but in the end, the practice was formed. So, it began thirty years ago out of love, but it was also the need to innovate, to get our ideas out, and to combine different things, and it is still the same now. Now when we work as three friends with a very affectionate connection, which means that we can fight and argue on one day and on another, we do a competition. Back then, we were amateurs who didn’t know anything about the future. Another important moment was after my PhD research. Initially, I studied the industrial design of the 60s but the focus changed from the kitchen to a gender issue. It was the first work here in the department of projects with a focus on gender. Since then, I have been linked to the gender approach in everything: in our competitions, in our teaching, in the Biennale, and everywhere else. These were the most important moments during the trajectory of my career in architecture.

GV: How do you think the teaching environment has changed throughout your entire career? Do you see a different way to approach the students?

AA: I really wish I could be positive in my answer, but things have changed. I doubt that it is moving in a good direction. Bureaucracy has consumed universities and now there are two kinds of teachers. One kind are those who want to be “teaching officials” and want to rise in their career step by step. They don’t have time to practice as professional architects; not just in building, but making films, writing articles, or giving speeches about the city. When I studied, they were usually all men and were all practicing architecture, so what they taught us was how to be an architect through the practice. The second kind of teachers were those for whom theory and research was mixed. While some of them lose touch with their practice, to me, it is very i the same responsibility with the world around us because in the end you are all of them: a teachemportant that teaching, research, and design are absolutely linked and not separated. I haver, an architect and a researcher.

Atxu Amann, Andrés Cánovas and Nicolás Maruri
Atxu Amann, Andrés Cánovas and Nicolás Maruri. Image courtesy of Temperaturas Extremas Arquitectos

GV: How has the interest in the topic of gender evolved through the years in your career since the beginning of your PhD research? Could you also elaborate more on your PhD research and how the discussion of gender has changed from the past and thirty years on?

AA: When I first began, I had a similar format of research to that of this interview: first, the present, to analyse what is happening now; then going into the past to analyse how we have arrived at the present and finally, trying to make a prospective prediction to see what will happen in the future. Now, however, I believe that time is not a question of ‘Past’, ‘Present’, or ‘Future’ but time, as oriental civilisations understood, is the continuity of life. It’s very complex. Gender, on the other hand, is transversal in all my activities. I give many speeches about it and they always call me an activist. That means that I am not just involved in architecture. I work with violence of gender also in dwellings, or even to do away with some terms that remind us of gender, for example, ‘kitchen’. I don’t believe in ‘kitchen’, I don’t believe in ‘family’, I don’t believe in ‘dwelling’. I believe in domestic environments that have broken the walls of the dwelling. Now that the woman has left the dwelling, nobody pays attention to the children or the elderly, and the government is not prepared to do so either. Suddenly, many architecture typologies are growing spontaneously because old people have to be cared for by a team of professionals. The same with babies, because at six months, you have to leave them at home. There is a chaotic system caused due to the two revolutions of the twentieth century: the Information and Technology Revolution and the Women’s Revolution. If we reflect on it, we see that the future is going to be like the past. Women are going to be inside and men are going to be outside. We are not going to live inside and work outside. We are not going to work during the day and sleep at night. From studying gender, I have arrived at the philosophy that duality has been a strategy to control us. I don’t believe in duality. So what should we do now? I dedicate a lot of time with my PhD students to talk about duality as a strategy that must destroy. We work with the city like a domestic city, but also with the domestic space like a public space, with the virtual space like the material one. We don’t believe that the world is divided into women and men. We have 24 genders, like Facebook says, and it is important that we understand that from studying gender. Diversity is what is happening now in all the categories and so architecture cannot be ruled by the norms that depends on dualities: private and public, night and day, free and expensive. Gender has become a way to understand the world, perhaps a more human theory or approach that includes nature, machines and all the possibilities we have here.

GV: Although this approach is very urgent, does it feel that this is an isolated opinion in architecture? What should we do to make this topic and discussion more natural and common?

AA: Working in the university, I feel that I have a responsibility to help others understand these ideas more easily. Unfortunately, it is only when you get older that you really understand the world. It’s horrible because then, suddenly, you die. Now I am trying to fight against time in order to gain knowledge and disperse knowledge, looking for friends of the same thinking to sow some seeds to spread the knowledge more quickly. Moreover, time is accelerated now so you cannot wait and write an article; you have to move. Now, I have 20 PhD students and 200 other-year students. In their future, they will be able to continue developing these ideas. I really think that they are better than us. Students, now, are a different kind of people. Everybody speaks badly of them because they are connected to their phones the whole day but how can you not be connected? Even I am connected. I feel that the world today is divided. This digital break that everybody speaks about is a real break and here at the university, you can actually feel it. There are people who don’t feel the world and people who are in the world. The idea is to very quickly say those ideas and not be worried about it. The younger generation was born into it so they understand it. Just as how I understand the complex history of our times as I was born during Franco’s dictatorship.

GV: Do any interesting stories or anecdotes come to mind when you think of those beginning years?

AA: What’s interesting is that I wasn’t very aware about the gender topic in the beginning. I lived among men, but it was natural. However, I do have another anecdote about our beginnings. We graduated in the year ‘87. Nicolás in May, myself in June and Andrés in September. However, in June, we won a scholarship with the European space programme to go to Darmstadt. We travelled through Germany in a very little car. We had gone to Germany with the aim of creating the first digital programme for architecture. However, it was horrible because we didn’t have any idea about it but we were the first ones who went there. Now people ask us, “Why did you enter a competition in Luxembourg, in Germany?” We have never been afraid. Failure was in our blood. In academia we had a lot of failure so it was no different for our professional careers. Three years later, we entered a competition in the Biennale of Architecture. There were not many computers at the time, but there were photocopiers and printers. We took some building from Mies Van der Rohe, cut them out, put them in a landscape format and presented this to the Biennale. We ended up winning the first prize. We couldn’t believe it but, to us, it was a very important moment. It was the first time that we understand that it was important to copy and to steal from the best. In that project, nothing was originally from us, except the decision to copy this skyscraper and to repeat it 9 times. In a way, we were provoking and working with the future. We became instrumentally advanced and had no problems working with Photoshop. In fact, in our first years, we earned our money working as graphic designers for IFEMA. We would design the magazine for the Spanish Architect. In the end, you are not just building but projecting and designing in other fields. That makes you very free to do anything: a wall, a table, or a building.

Atxu Amann

Co-founder of Temperaturas Extremas Arquitectos


GV: What do you think about the present role of the architect?

AA: I remember a few years ago, the Supersudaka team had a question that was very interesting, ‘What does the G20 have to do with the Venice Biennale?’ At that time, I didn’t know that I would one day become the curator of the biennale. If you were to go to Venice, you would notice that there is architecture that has nothing to do with problems of the society, of the oceans, of plastic, of contamination, of sustainability. The youngest of my four children started studying architecture last year although it wasn’t his preferred choice. He wanted to do a triple major in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in London. Initially, he wanted to be a politician but then decided to study architecture because he thought the best way to become a good politician was with a strong knowledge in art and the capacity to double-up strategies to solve world issues. What is interesting is that in the end, Supersudaka and my son made the same decision. Where we are sitting now is the first postgraduate studio that I created five years ago in which the Complutense University and the Politécnica work together. The teachers here are sociologists, people from audiovisual, philosophy and architectural backgrounds. We don’t have any differences because we understand that in order to speak about architecture, mediation in architecture or communication in architecture, we need to work with other professions. An architect is no longer the professional that decides when he is separated from the reality or the society. He or she needs to work with other professionals in a work that is synergically produced.

«We don’t have any differences because we understand that in order to speak about architecture, mediation in architecture or communication in architecture, we need to work with other professions. An architect is no longer the professional that decides when he is separated from the reality or the society.»

GV: Do you therefore think that architects need to function from ‘within’ the society instead of seeing themselves as separate from it?

AA: There is also a gender approach to this answer. Architects here in the university, used to say, ‘To become an architect, you have to work 24 hours a day. You cannot sleep, you cannot eat, you cannot fall in love.’ So, it was clear that women couldn’t carry out projects, because they had to get pregnant, give milk and take care of the children. Is that really true? Architects are not that important. An architect also has to go to the cinema, to the theatre, to look serious, to write and read. You can be an architect for two hours a day, just like any other profession. The best doctors work for two hours without a problem. It has to do with the introduction of women into the profession. They would always say that we were out of our minds. They were creating a story that was not true. Architects, in the end, are workers for the society, like people that clean the glass, like people who operate machines. You are not as important as you might think. Furthermore, I feel that the ‘starchitects’ are not perceived very well by the rest of the society anymore. The architects I am interested in are those that work for others, for example: Josep Maria Montaner who is a politician in Barcelona now. He works for the community, for politics and for architecture. To be an architect is one part, and it is necessary but it is not the principal one.

Workspace Atxu Amann
Atxu Amann, Andrés Cánovas and Nicolás Maruri at their studio in Madrid. Image courtesy of Temperaturas Extremas Arquitectos.

GV: Could you mention a theme and a project relevant to a theme that is important to you in your current work?

AA: I always say that the Spanish Pavilion, ‘becoming’, has this vector into the future. However, we don’t speak about the future, we speak about it from a different present. The problem now is that the present is multiple. There are presents in which architects build cities for 1 million people without any problem. At the same time, there are students that leave university and will possibly never build anything during their lives. The first thing to remember is that last year’s Spanish Pavilion was the winner, so it was impossible for the Spanish Pavilion to win two times in a row because the Venice Biennale is, after all, a business. Therefore, when I was named the curator, I felt very free to do whatever I wanted. The second thing was that my home is the university, and here at the university, I work with the present, I don’t work with the past and I don’t want to work with the future. I want to work with this present, that is an extended present, that is the one that the students are living. I try to speak about it, to define, just how to name this other present. I thought of this idea to create a collection of terms that could be adjectives that qualify this other architecture and I wrote to many people who I thought were speaking about this issue. They were of very different ages, in the end, there were 54 words. It was a collective process. I didn’t create their words but I set into motion a process in which many agents comprised of not only architects but also sociologists and curators. They selected certain words that defined this other architecture. With these words, we made an open call to all the students in Spain, to submit works about how they feel and look at the world, about the role of the architect and about the present. We chose many projects, many of which are on the internet, in a virtual pavilion and some in the university. When I see the projects, I know them very well and I feel that of course, it is the future, but it is the present we need now. It’s not the future because I don’t know what is going to happen in 5 years, because we are moving extremely fast. In the pavilion there is a project about Mars, there are also projects that speak about the Modulor of Le Corbusier, that speak about time and space, about the things that can change and are things that are temporary. It is possible to research every term in the pavilion, about their architecture today. In the end, although most of the criticism was positive, the worst criticism was that there was too much information, and that it was impossible to understand. It is possible if you have time and can spend two days in the pavilion. You would understand that we are speaking out about architecture and how young architects are working and what they are worried about. In this pavilion, the idea was to build an information layer, no material layer. When the exhibition ends in November, it will be painted in white, and only a garden will remain; a garden created by all the visitors that sow seeds. It is interesting because it wants to speak about the hard material, the empty building, that can be occupied by information and the relationship with nature.

Atxu Amann

Co-founder of Temperaturas Extremas Arquitectos


GV: Similar to what you have done in the pavilion, are there any urgent themes or interests that you find important to talk about in the future of architecture?

AA: The terms in the pavilion are specially classified based on a certain hierarchy done by a student. And the first word that appears there when you enter is ‘critical’, joined to ‘social’ and to ‘political’ and in the corner, you see ‘affirmative’. These are the four words that summarise the spirit of the pavilion because architecture has always criticised others but we have never been critical enough of ourselves. When the ‘critical’ is joined to ‘social’ and ‘political’, it means that architecture and ideology work together. Never have architects or teachers taught us that. They pretend architecture is a neutral activity. There is no neutrality in our world. You might make a home that is 20 square metres for black people to dwell in and at the same time build dwellings that are 1000 square metres. Embedded in there is ideology. When you build cities with timers in their traffic lights, disabled or old people are disadvantaged because they don’t have enough time to cross. Children cannot play in our cities. I don’t have to explain the world to you, because you know it. You must decide your position. I am not merely an architect. I am feminist, I am anti-racist, I am anti-bullfighting, I am atheist, I am pro-abortion. I have other names and all of them are linked to architecture because at the end of the day, architecture speaks about space, time and bodies. That’s the world. So, four words: ‘critical’, ‘social’, ‘political’ but through an ‘affirmative’ view. The view from Donna Dvorak books on Arroway Books, from those women that have created a way to speak about the world from different categories, all working together in a synergic way, but with the idea that there are many possibilities for the world. I’m really tired of these old architects that think that everything has already been done. We are in the final countdown and this is the cause. All of us are going to die, you are going to die first. Give the world the possibility to start again, because there is some spirit in the pavilion from young people that are thinking of ways in which they are going to take care of the planet in a different way than we did. We are absolutely blamed for the disasters that we have created in our cities, from the materials, from the construction, and from everything else. If we are critical and we think of ourselves as political beings, that work in a social way but also in an affirmative way, there is a possibility for the future. If there is, we are not worried about it. If we are going to die, we shouldn’t worry about it. In the little time that we are going to be here, we can put into practice all these projects that create a different way to live.

«I am not merely an architect. I am feminist, I am anti-racist, I am anti-bullfighting, I am atheist, I am pro-abortion. I have other names and all of them are linked to architecture because at the end of the day, architecture speaks about space, time and bodies.»

180524-Biennale-Spain-BECOMING-028_square“becoming”, the Spanish Pavilion curated by Atxu Amann at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. Image courtesy of Temperaturas Extremas.

GV: Since you have a direct connection to younger people that will become architects in the future, what would you suggest to those starting today or aspiring to continue the profession?

AA: I know, because I like numbers, that in 2030, 50% of the careers that are going to exist then are going to be new, we don’t know them. In addition, current children are going to have 8 jobs in their lives. I think it is not relevant how one is going to be an architect, my students can study architecture and afterwards study another thing and then practice another. There is no duality, there is no university and professional world. I study two hours a day and I hope I can do this until I die because there is no division between information and working, I think it is a process, a continuity because everything moves so quickly that you have to get new knowledge. Fortunately, we have the internet, where you can learn every day, but you can also learn from the happenings on the street, from old people. So, Architecture may not be relevant, I think it is a good decision to study architecture but the idea is how to mix hybrid activities altogether.

    Date of office foundation:



    Madrid, Berlin

    Number of employees:

    approx. 25 – 35

Enrique Sobejano

Co-founder of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos


GV: Where did the urge to study architecture come from for you? How do you see the beginnings of your career now?

ES: The beginning is always something that you interpret differently over time. When you are starting something new, you are simply not aware. To the famous question ‘When did you decide to become an architect?’, I cannot place a specific day in time. I think it has to do with or our backgrounds, if I may speak on behalf of Fuensanta. We had no family connections to architecture at all. The family background was nevertheless very important. I come from a family where my father is a Doctor of Philosophy, my grandfather a Director of a museum in a little town in Southern Spain, and my uncle a literature professor in the US. There may have been a strong connection to culture but when I was eighteen years old, that was not necessarily the point. The point was that, like many children, I was always interested in making things. Perhaps that is not something everyone can do because there are many jobs in which you do things, but you don’t make things in the sense of imparting physical presence to ideas. In any case, the decision came somewhat late. I was supposed to decide if I was going to study Science, Arts or Architecture and somehow, in an impulse, I decided on Architecture.

«The EUROPAN in ‘95 or ‘96, was the first large-scale social housing project in Sevilla. That was when we slowly began to understand the importance of how a project is related to a place, something that was constantly embedded in what we learnt in school and in the Spanish conception of architecture. It was also what we had learnt during our time in New York with Kenneth Frampton.»

GV: What were those initial years in school like? Does anyone who influenced you come to mind from that period of time?

ES: When In the first years that I would go to school, I was not very aware of what architecture was about. Now I have been teaching for 32 years (first in Spain and then during the last 10 years, in Berlin; my professorship at the Universität der Künste Berlin in Berlin is with first-year students teaching ‘principles of design’) and I can easily tell when students don’t understand something because I was just as clueless when I started out. It was during my second year that we were first made to design, and I couldn’t understand why my professor would keep saying that it was full of errors. Finally, one fine day he came and praised my idea unexpectedly. From that moment on, I understood what architecture was about. In the beginning, one would think it is perhaps about drawing, mathematics or making houses. It took me a while to understand that it was about ideas. Professor Javier Carvajal, was very important to me at the School of Architecture in Madrid during that time. I was quite a good student in the design course, but after graduating I wanted to move to the United States. This was the early 80s, when the School of Madrid and other schools in Spain, had to weigh two types of architectural influences: the Italian, Tendenza, Aldo Rossi with the United States, especially the New York Five; the likes of Peter Eisenmann.

GV: Did that understanding of architecture as a medium for ideas lead to other important milestones, or perhaps to other realisations?

ES: I applied and was granted a scholarship to go to New York to study at Columbia University for two years. Fuensanta and I met there and together, we really started to grow. Although the school was a very prestigious one, living in New York changed the way we understood life. All that we were taught about architecture in Madrid, was suddenly different in New York; it was a different philosophy. For instance, there was Kenneth Frampton who resisted modernity in architecture, but the rest of the professors were obsessed with postmodern architecture, something that was generally rejected in Spain. Eventually I developed a new way of learning how to argue and how to communicate. This was definitely a very important point for me because I understood that architecture, like many things in life, was very much about how to communicate. When I was studying, if you were good at drawing or mathematics, you could become an architect. It was as simple as that. Now, to my students, I insist that it has to do more with speaking, transmitting, presenting with films, emphasising one’s ideas, and convincing people of one’s ideas or whatever pragmatic, social or legal aspects are involved in building.

Fuensanta Nieto and Peter Eisenmann. Image courtesy of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos.

GV: Did you start your practice immediately after the US? What projects did you start off with?

ES: We started our practice in Madrid around the year ‘84 or ‘85 when we came back from the States. We had opened a 25 square metre studio and put up ‘Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos’ on the door but that didn’t mean that we had work. It only meant that we wanted to work. If the first milestone was studying in Madrid, the second, studying in the early 80s in New York, the third and most important one occurred after coming back to Madrid in ‘86: we won a competition and became the editors of the architecture magazine of the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Madrid. Although it was a very interesting period for us, architecture magazines today do not play as much of a role as they did earlier because of new digital media. At that time, there were only two or three important magazines in Spain, El Croquis was just starting, the Arquitectura in Madrid and Quaderns in Barcelona. We were commissioned as the editors for four or five years and became extremely devoted to the magazine. We conceived it in its totality, from the concept to the graphic design. While we raised important topics, what I remember most were the interviews that were especially interesting for us. We decided to go and interview the architects that we found interesting at the time, simply to understand how they explained themselves. We did interviews at that time with James Stirling, Peter Eisenmann, Philip Johnson and most of the interesting Spanish architects.

GV: Do any anecdotes come to mind from those important meetings?

ES: I remember a very special interview with Juan Navarro Baldeweg, who opened our minds to conceive architecture from a very perceptual and aesthetic point of view. We also interviewed Sáenz de Oiza, de la Sota, and so on. We even used the opportunity to visit important buildings. During our first issue which was on Le Corbusier, we went to Paris, spent 10 days with a photographer, and visited buildings like Villa Savoye and Planeix. When we interviewed Navarro Baldeweg, we went to see his buildings and spent the whole day taking photos, and eventually wrote the article. (13:58) Around the same time, we became the sub-directors of the international summer courses in El Escorial . Sáenz de Oiza was the director and he told Fuensanta and I that although he was the director, we could do whatever we liked. He would give the master lecture at the beginning of the course, but we ended up organising everything else. We invited many international architects and Spanish architects and, unlike nowadays where we are used to having all these international connections, we were the first to invite Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas to Madrid, 30 years ago. For us, it became a real way of learning how these architects expressed their ideas; how some architects didn’t know how to express their ideas, but knew how to build or on the other hand, how some architects were simply good at communication. By the year ‘91 or ‘92, we started to build our own projects, obviously doing smaller projects like renovations for friends and small schools as a way of starting out.

GV: As a young architect, did you have exposure to other important experiences that then went on to define your practice?

ES: The magazine and summer course period were important to me because I started very young as a teaching assistant, and that gave me this constant continuous relation with the architecture school. Apart from one year where I taught in Berlin, I have been teaching continuously. Teaching is a way of evolving ourselves as architects. We also did many competitions, not merely as a way to get commissions, rather a way of thinking and working with architecture. We have been doing competitions constantly since ‘91 or ‘92. One of the early competitions that we won at the beginning, was in Vigo, Madrid for a district city hall. Another important one was the EUROPAN in ‘95 or ‘96, which was the first large-scale social housing project in Sevilla. That was when we slowly began to understand the importance of how a project is related to a place, something that was constantly embedded in what we learnt in school and in the Spanish conception of architecture. It was also what we had learnt during our time in New York with Kenneth Frampton. In Sevilla, we had to build social housing with a very low budget along the highway. We were working large-scale and started to work with the idea of prefabrication, repetition and variation, which became our themes.

Enrique Sobejano

Co-founder of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos


GV: How have the themes or your early interests evolved through time? Was defining your path a very conscious process or did it rather just unfold along the way?

ES: It is very clear that one’s way of thinking evolves with time. The connection of architecture to a place is still a key question evolving in our work. Obviously, ‘place’ can be ambiguous as it can refer to topography, but also to culture, memory, history, or social questions. However, it is a specific positioning because there are many other approaches to architecture where ‘place’ is not the central theme. During our professional evolution we didn’t really decide where to go, rather we decided where not to go. It would have been pretentious to say that we only wanted to do, say, cultural buildings or museums. It happened because we decided not to do other things. At one point in the early 90s, we were given the opportunity to build mass housing by a developer. There were two blocks with150 units each. However, when we began to convey our ideas, it came as a shock to the developer. Everything that we would propose would be rejected. We went through those difficult yet familiar phases of saying, ‘We’ll do it but let us maintain that other element.’ Sadly, there was always something they wanted to modify. There was a moment that I realised that if we signed that project, our careers would be over. We decided to say no to that developer, although it felt like giving up your child. This doesn’t mean that our work is always perfect but decisions like these kept us on track and brought us to where we are now.

«In this situation, more than ever, we need to redefine our role and be able to transmit and stress that we, in my point of view, are the only generalists in a whole process of specialists. Flexibility is important because the only way to transmit architecture is to transmit general ideas. Perhaps this is our role.»

GV: How would you define your practice of today? Have you found a perfect organisational model?

FB: That is an unsolved question in architecture. Generally, companies have a protocol of being a medium-sized or a big one. Fuensanta, I, and really our whole generation of architects in Spain, had the incredible fortune of living in the decades where Spain was joining the European Union. There was a lot of public money, competitions, and interest in architecture. However, that way of working may not necessarily be a model for those who from the younger generation. In the same way, the way we were working cannot be compared to the way masters like de la Sota, Sáenz de Oiza, Coderch, worked in the 1960s. In Spain, we are a small office. We have never had more than 15 people. When I explain this to people in Germany, they are always surprised that we were able to build museums with 15 people. In Germany, you would need at least 75 people because the system is different. We have one office in Madrid and one in Berlin, two cities with two very different systems of organisation. What is similar and what connects them deeply is the beginning of a project. Oftentimes we are asked if we designed a project in Madrid or in Berlin, but it doesn’t matter because the beginning of a competition proposal is pure, sheer architecture. Once it becomes a project, however, the way it is executed changes entirely from country to country. In our Germany office, we won 5 or 6 competitions, and so the office grew to become much bigger than I had expected. Therefore, how to organise an office has to do very much with the actual conditions of the place you are in but within a set of self-defined limits.

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos’s Berlin workspace. Image courtesy of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos.

GV: Apart from the place that defines the model of practice, how do you think we communicate the work we do as architects such that society at large can understand it better?

ES: This disconnection between the work we do as architects and society has always been an important topic of discussion. Probably even more so nowadays because of the way in which the profession is evolving. It is also in the way we use the language. Every profession and activity has its own private or secret language, just like doctors do. Architecture is not about having a cryptic language or being a virtuoso in drawing. Rather, it is about how to transmit certain questions to our society. In this sense, we have changed our approach in the last 15-20 years. Although we started with a very strong interest in the quality of the object, we started to transform ourselves into a more open system.

GV: Has this helped evolve your vision of the current role of the architect in society?

ES: The architects of the previous generations were able to control a big part of the construction and development process. Today this is radically changing. The architect is losing the role of controlling the entire process and that is not a complaint. In Central and Northern Europe and perhaps even more so in the United States, it has become commonplace to involve a great number of consultants and engineers in the design process and not merely structural or mechanical engineers like in the past. In Germany, in every project we do, we have 17 engineers, each one with a different speciality, and the project managers all sitting at the same table. In this situation, more than ever, we need to redefine our role and be able to transmit and stress that we, in my point of view, are the only generalists in a whole process of specialists. Flexibility is important because the only way to transmit architecture is to transmit general ideas. Perhaps this is our role. If we specialise in sustainability, in the process of getting a license, or in interior design, then we remain specialists. We need to reclaim generality, which is fundamental in our profession.

Enrique Sobejano

Co-founder of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos


GV: Having been part of the profession for multiple decades, where do you see the profession moving towards?

ES: I believe that the future has to be addressed in terms of our cities, which is a key question in architecture. Although the fast pace of development sometimes leaves us out of the process, architects are absolutely necessary. Looking at cities in Asia and other parts of the world, we must rethink how architecture can find meaning in a process that is not lead by architects anymore. As architects we should get involved in all processes of life that have to do with the question of living, building cities, landscape and the relation with the place. This is something I always recommend to my students. We are not anymore solely those who design buildings. We have to transmit that as designers, the architectural issues and themes are not only our private interests. They are instead questions that greatly influence the way people live. After thirty years of being an architect and having the chance to build, in many cases, what we wanted to build, I have been thinking more and more about what it means to be an architect. What impresses me most is how simple decisions that you make one day with a pen or folding a paper influences, positively or negatively, the lives of people for many, many years. How we are able to transmit the feelings of an atmosphere, of materiality, of light etc. If we do not learn to communicate that, we will be called ‘building agents’.

«…There is a series of projects, apparently different in terms of materiality and ideas, that makes sense when you put them together. This is a way of thinking that we have always been developing. We also see that there are certain ideas that are constantly evolving.»

GV: On reflecting on what it means to be an architect, do certain topics or keywords interest you with respect to where the profession is headed?

ES: I am obviously interested in topics like sustainability. It should be a must; like how a house should have a roof to shelter it from when it rains. It has to be sustainable in its conception. The global question of architecture is another important thing because it touches more on our own way of understanding architecture. When we published our monograph a couple of years ago in Germany, we very consciously named it Memory and Invention. These are not just two terms that sound attractive. ‘Memory’ and ‘invention’ are the balance in which we live as architects. ‘Memory’, which is not often in the debate of architecture anymore, looks at our history. We believe that whatever we create will not make sense until it becomes part of a continuous flow of connections, not in a linear way, but in a continuously related way. Every project is a consequence of multiple circumstances that have to do with places, climates, topography, memories, social matters, and technical matters. The ability or role of the architect lies in connecting these dots and finding the easiest solution in each case. I like that the images that we use in our presentations on the atlas of Aby Warburg in which images that seem apparently disconnected, make sense when put together. I have this constant visual image of our work that can be defined as ‘architecture is no more than establishing relationships among these very different issues’.

Rendered image of KÖNIGSHOF. Image courtesy of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos.

GV: How do you see these relationships between your past projects now?

ES: What I can say about our projects is that every project is a consequence of many different relationships. We have learnt to understand ourselves, over the past years, only when placing together seemingly very different projects in different cities. Because as architects that work in many international competitions, we are perhaps not very deeply connected to these international places. We are architects in Madrid with a few buildings in Madrid in comparison to the many we have been working on all over the world. The projects start to be understood only when placed in this visual atlas, only then do they start to tell us lines of interest that we have developed, probably unconsciously, over the years. With respect to our own projects, I believe they start to make sense only when, over the years, we start to establish connections among them, therefore, I don’t believe there is one project that synthesises all our ideas. However, there is a series of projects, apparently different in terms of materiality and ideas, that makes sense when you put them together. This is a way of thinking that we have always been developing. We also see that there are certain ideas that are constantly evolving.

GV: Is there a project that you are developing now that somehow materially translates these concepts?

ES: One would be the connection to the landscape and nature in a broad sense, how a building can become the landscape in itself. This is something that started with Madinat Al-Zahra – an underground museum in Cordoba becomes an archaeological landscape and is also an agricultural element. From there, all the way to the latest project, about to open in two months, the Arvo Pärt Centre in Estonia, in the middle of a completely different landscape of very large pines in an unspoilt landscape. There, one can see how architecture not only reacts but takes the landscape in as a theme. Throughout the process, we also learnt ways of approaching architecture that we never thought of in the beginning. One would be the roofscapes, how the roof itself becomes a theme. In many cases, these questions were blocked by the modern movement; the roof was not a theme anymore, it was only a flat roof in the work of Le Corbusier, Mies, the Bauhaus. It could be a very interesting flat roof like in Le Corbusier’s roof gardens, but it’s flat. At a certain point, we started to understand, after a project we did in a museum in the city of Halle in Germany, that the roof can become the beginning of a project. They can create a connection to a place and therefore become the section, bringing in natural light and creating the space. Space, natural light, roof and place are part of a very personal language of themes that we deal with. Another theme is thinking of how material makes sense only when connected to an idea. That was the idea we had for the Madinat Al-Zahra project where the landscape had to be made of white concrete because the city was all made of white material. So, we made an analogy to the archaeology of the site. Every line becomes a line of work that we understand only when we take a couple of steps back.

GV: What would you suggest to those that are studying today or starting their own practice?

ES: Teaching and working have always been, for us, synonymous. Even the way we work in the office is not so different from the way I work with my students first in Spain and now in Germany. Having had students for so many years, allowed me to maintain a very broad view. In fact, only last week, I was in an aeroplane and by chance some old guy nearby said to me, ‘I was your student when you started’ and later in the same day in Berlin, I met a young girl of 23, a student of mine. From this guy in his 50s and the 23-year-old girl, I realise that I have really had so many students. I understand this as a way of learning from the students, not only in a very simple way like how I learn from a good idea, but I learn about the way they think and to me that is very interesting. It is not only the way a new generation thinks, it is also a way to see how different people from different backgrounds approach things. My main recommendation is something deeply connected to being an architect and it is to be optimistic. I think it is the only way of dealing with life, which is always difficult. It may seem like everything you learn in school somehow becomes a barrier the day you graduate. So the only way of surpassing this, of having your own convictions and ideas about how to develop yourself, is through optimism. If not, none of these ideas will work. They can only take shape when you keep telling yourself, ‘We are going to make it!’ It is through being optimistic that your work positively changes a way of living for many people, whether you are interested in a very social point of view of housing or in a cultural way of transforming the city or simply working on an interior of a small school. Everything becomes a reward in your life, as long as you’re optimistic. If you’re pessimistic, you’d rather not study architecture.

    Date of office foundation:




    Number of employees:

    approx. 10

Francisco Aires Mateus

Founding partner of Aires Mateus


GV: From your current perspective, how do you view your development of an interest in architecture?

FAM: My interest in architecture was not that immediate. I studied in a famous art school in Lisbon that functioned like a university with people coming in from all over the country. I was studying interior design and architecture. In a way, it was a half-professional course in the sense that we would have workshops in the afternoons and theoretical lessons in the morning. It was actually quite hectic. However, it was a very nice school because one had the ambience of a real arts school. I was undecided between graphic design, interior design and product design and it was only at the end that I chose to become an architect. Needless to say, I am quite happy with that decision. However, the level of education in university was not great. It was the beginning of the 80s in ‘82. In Lisbon, there were major conflicts between certain teachers in order to gain power over the school. I can recall no more than three or four teachers in five years of school. It was a period of the consolidation of postmodernism so a lot of teachers who liked doing things the easy way, immediately saw a formal recipe to do architecture.

«The importance of discussion in architecture was a huge surprise to us. If you don’t discuss it, then your ideas don’t exist and are empty. It’s not merely a fight to state your point of view, rather to exchange perspectives without caring about who wins.»

GV: What was your first exposure to professional practice like? Did you find work easily?

FAM: Gladly, when I finished school, my brother, Manuel, who is one year older than me, had already finished school a year before. He was working at the studio of Gonçalo Byrne so I was able to easily join the studio. That’s where I nailed down my passion in architecture. I really started working on the profession in a very fast-paced manner. I was immediately forced to develop a project and accompany all the construction until the end. That came to be our real school because Gonçalo is an amazing person and an amazing architect. He was very generous in having us there and giving us the opportunity to grow inside his studio. We went from small collaborators to regular collaborators to slowly gaining more importance. When we started to have our first small works, we left and moved out, but not far. We moved just across the street and still had a lot of support from Gonçalo. We didn’t have enough money to buy a big plotter, so large drawings were plotted at his office. On the one hand, we were very lucky and on the other, it was about finding the right connections and establishing the right relations between people which was very profitable.

GV: Are there any references or inspiring people you met that impacted you strongly in those years?

FAM: There was a teacher at the school, whose name is Manuel Tainha. He was a very good architect. What we learnt from him is basically the human values that architecture should reproduce and the values of culture. He was an amazing person. He would come with us to watch movies that talked about human experiences. He talked a lot about subjects in the most diverse aspects like art and music.That helped us connect architecture to life. This was very important to us because this was one of the aspects that Gonçalo Byrne embraced throughout his career. That, along with the extreme attention to detail of a place which thereby means, an extreme attention to the people occupying these places. We still hold these values dearly when we do our work today.

Francisco Aires Mateus’ workspace in Lisbon, Portugal. Image credit © Luca Chiaudano.

GV: Could you briefly describe the first years of becoming independent. Was it easy to find commissions?

FAM: Most architects have a certain ambition to become independent. Not everybody is able to, but I believe the ambition is in us, not only as architects but as human beings in general. At the time when we were working with Gonçalo, we tried to pick up small works. In the beginning, there are no real objectives and it’s all a bit random. You want to have your own projects so you might happily do the refurbishment of your grandmother’s bathroom. When projects start to come regularly, then you think of something bigger. However, it was a very naive phase when we were looking for experiences to try and do our own architecture. We were not trying to be different from what Gonçalo or our inspiring masters did merely for the sake of it. Rather it was with the intention of experiencing the power and the joy of making architecture by ourselves. Naturally, in this process, not everything is conscious. We were able to jump onto the period when lots of money was entering Portugal through the economic community. There were lots of competitions for universities, canteens, and public buildings. We applied to many and won some of them. Rapidly, from having almost no work, we began to have lots of work which we were not able to fully control. We did lots of public buildings, mainly university buildings, but soon after, there was a crisis, the first I had ever encountered. We were able to take advantage of it because we spent almost two years organising our archive looking at it with a very critical eye. We were in a way, doing an x-ray of ourselves. At that point of time, when we had almost no work, we were commissioned for a very small house near Lisbon in Alenquer. After that, things really started to change. It was a turning point of our career.

GV: What influences did you have as a young architect? Were there any instances or anecdotes that come to mind?

FAM: I I’m not sure about the date, perhaps some time in the early 90s or late 80s, I had certain encounters with architecture. Unlike today there were no conferences or workshops. Discussions would most of the time happen within enclosed offices or small groups of friends. Fortunately, Alvaro Siza and Rafael Moneo organised a cycle of conferences called ‘Pequeños encuentros’ which was a replica of what they had done together in the 60s. Through that, we were able to meet a lot of colleagues, Portuguese and Spanish. We all got together for a week and an interesting debate between young and older architects was created. The Portuguese community, were quite embarrassed and ashamed, often talking in low voices. They were almost apologising for the works they were presenting. The Spanish felt completely at home. There was even a rough verbal fight between Luis Mansilla and another old figure in architecture from Barcelona whose name I forget. The importance of discussion in architecture was a huge surprise to us. If you don’t discuss it, then your ideas don’t exist and are empty. It’s not merely a fight to state your point of view, rather to exchange perspectives without caring about who wins.

GV: Apart from architecture, were there any other influences that defined your initial years of practice?

FAM: This was also a time that I was living a second life that began during university: I was a drummer in a pop band. It was very funny because I believe that none of us knew anything about music. I still don’t. As a drummer, my drumset protected me from the public that I was very afraid of. We actually managed to record an album for Polygram which was a very nice editor. We were very interested in the aesthetic aspect and this was during the peak of postmodern culture. You can imagine the world of the first films of Pedro Almodovar and all the exaggerations associated with the postmodern movement. It was incredibly beautiful, apart from architecture of course. We made huge sets for films and had lots of friends who became actors and participated in things. We did lots of concerts, but only in Portugal and Spain. They were full of well-designed graphics which was after all our aim and capacity. It was not at all about the music.

GV: How then did you go from there to understanding architecture and the profession?

FAM: We were in a discovery phase of the profession, so we practically shot in every direction. We were always interested in the anthropological aspect of places. At that time, Siza was a huge inspiration. However, we were also fascinated with new materials. This idea interested us only because it was new and it was obviously a naive approach to the practice, so slowly we started detaching ourselves from this process. We went through a period of crisis during which fortunately, we were commissioned to build a very small house in Alenquer near Lisbon. When we started this house, it was not so small. The whole plot was around 500 square metres, surrounded by a house that was part of the 18th century, and part of the 17th century. During the refurbishment process, the wall started to crack. We took pictures of the half-ruin from above and all of a sudden, we were not looking at a house anymore, instead we were looking at a field surrounded by walls. However, this was also a field of possibilities. We looked at the walls and thought, ‘We should maintain the walls and respond to them,’ so we did. In one volume, we excavated a pool. In the other volume, we put a very small house inside. This was a turning point in our work because we perceived the idea of the ‘limit’.

GV: Did those ideas evolve or influence your practice over the years?

FAM: The ‘limit’ became an endless possibility. In that project, we had the limit of a small house, of ancient walls and the space between the two limits. That was the very identity of this project so what we discovered was that the limit opens up exploration. If you look at Borromini’s drawings, they are quite an inspiration in this sense. There is always a clear independence between the internal space and the external space. The external space usually responds clearly to an external situation whereas the internal space is completely pure and responds only to God, I assume. In this sense, we keep coming back to San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane which is a direct illustration of this idea. Obviously, we aren’t under an illusion that we are Borromini. Rather, he is a very direct inspiration for us. It was there that we started looking at projects in a different way, focusing more on space. What we always try to concentrate on are aspects of memory, which connects people because it is linked directly, space, light, limit, and matter and these are five themes that are present in all our work in a very practical way.

Francisco Aires Mateus

Founding partner of Aires Mateus


GV: How would you define your practice? Are there any working methodologies that are characteristic of your practice?

FAM: What we try to do when we work is something that we also do in the schools in Mendrisio or in Lisbon; that is to always put ourselves in a position of a crisis, in an unstable position which forces us to go further. We like to think of our profession as a research which is like chemistry; you always have to be prepared for an error and go back again. You have to be ready to let go of everything you’ve researched and say, ‘I’m wrong, I have to take a step back.’ This uncertainty is actually what moves us and makes us go further in our research. This means that every project is different reinterpretation or an evolution of the precedent project. This is fundamental for us. That’s why we work here in the studio with so many models. We start each project with very small sketches in sketchbooks which we always have in our pockets. Then we transform them into models that increase in size until they are big enough that you can put your head inside to perceive the space. This is a technique that was already used in the Renaissance. It’s very important that you change scales and that you’re not looking at a miniature model but that you’re inside the project. Perceiving space in this way is vital for us.

«The important thing is that our research, way of working, discussions and decisions are made between the two of us. Manuel and I are always discussing things in studios, during classes and in planes and our research is absolutely common. It is then developed in one studio or the other but this way we gain flexibility and it’s a much more relaxed way to work.»

GV: How do you organise and manage different scales of projects?

FAM: Now, we have a somewhat strange situation because we have two separate studios. This was a decision we made almost twenty years ago when our studio was getting bigger during a period where the economy was weak. Either we had to become a very large architectural company or we had to split into two smaller studios. Since I like to work with less people, we split up. I don’t have a secretary and everybody at the office is an architect or a student of architecture whereas Manuel has a bigger studio and we have gained the capacity to attend to different scales of work in a much richer way. If we have smaller works, I might do it here and if we have larger projects, I would go to Manuel’s studio. The important thing is that our research, way of working, discussions and decisions are made between the two of us. Manuel and I are always discussing things in studios, during classes and in planes and our research is absolutely common. It is then developed in one studio or the other but this way we gain flexibility and it’s a much more relaxed way to work. There are no tensions because if you set aside schedules, vacations, budget problems, money, economics between partners, there’s no problem, only the fun part of it remains, so this has been working very well.

Francisco Aires Mateus’ workspace in Lisbon, Portugal. Image credit © Itinerant Office.

GV: What type of clients do you work with? Are they from public competitions or rather private clients? How would you describe your relationships with the clients?

FAM: Our projects arise almost casually. Some of our work comes from competitions which are all mostly abroad. Manuel and I just agree to not enter the same competition. Right now, we have two big museum projects in Lausanne and another that’s being built for the electrical company in Lisbon. That project started here and passed onto Manuel because the scale was more suitable to his studio. With respect to the type of client, we work with all sorts: from very small private houses to very big museums. If they want to work with us, we want to work with them. Apart from the various types of client and the scale and dimension of the work we do, we have always been doing houses because it’s a very concentrated programme. It’s a very good field for research. It’s unique, in a sense that you’re really building for a person, you have to give it soul. It’s not like a hospital. This is a very rich field of research for us. We do lots of private houses. We also have some larger projects that pay for the studio in order to find a way to balance things.

GV: Today, it is increasingly hard for us architects to communicate to the rest of the society what it is that we do. There is kind of a disconnect between what we do in our profession and what people think we should do or what we are doing.

FAM: I think that the existing gap between architects and the general public is a kind of mystery. I’m not sure why this happens. I assume that there are some factors that contribute to this because society, in general, tends to celebrate people from all professions, not only architects. If anything, I’d say that architecture is one of the most open professions in terms of involving people. You have lots of conferences in architecture in every city in the world. You don’t have so many conferences in music, dance, or painting. We organise these conferences apart from what we actually do which is making buildings or designing cities. The debate may not always be well-understood and we mainly see students of architecture or architects attending but this doesn’t mean that the architects don’t make the effort or make themselves open to the public to explain what architecture is about. Therefore, it remains a kind of a mystery. Perhaps everyone has an opinion because they all live in some type of construction. They may not live in architecture, but certainly in a ‘construction’ and there’s a huge confusion between these two things. I recall the SAAL Operations here in Portugal after the revolution for social housing. There was huge public participation and there was a great air of enthusiasm and faith in the future. The public was called to these sessions to express their opinions and when the architects designed houses for them, they did it their way. I have serious doubts that this can be done today because of this Facebook society where everybody has an opinion. People are convinced that their opinion is very important, no matter what. Everybody thinks they know about everything from oncology to architecture. We have to bring the discussion inside architecture, not outside architecture.

Francisco Aires Mateus

Founding partner of Aires Mateus


GV: Could you introduce some key concepts or urgent matters of today that as architects, we should address and share what you think will happen in the profession in the next few years?

FAM: I have great faith in architecture. It is something that has existed for millenia. It has always been with humanity. I think it will carry on, some aspects will be transformed and others, perhaps not that much. It’s not the digital tools that transform architecture, nor is it the collection of data or such things. There is a big problem these days, and that is speed. We live in a time where everything is fast and furious, made of images that pass by rapidly and everybody is trying to make an icon, or make their mark. In this urgency of creating icons and visible monuments, we tend to forget everything else. Fortunately, there are also lots of people who are looking at the conservation of the environment and our common home, the Earth. Perhaps in these two worlds, we will find some peace. I’m an optimist. I think we will be able to revert this situation. With respect to those in architecture, it is very curious to see lots of projects adding value to pre-existing buildings and respecting nature. If you look at the publication, El Croquis, ten years ago, this was not so evident. In the recent issues, there are a lot of preservation projects. In some way this is a sign of the times. At the same time, you open another publication and see the Eastern world building uncontrollably and destroying huge areas of land. In the middle of all that, I believe architecture will be able to find the right balance.

«This is what is important in architecture because it is made for people, it’s a support for life. Without life, architecture really doesn’t exist. Architecture needs to be occupied, fulfilled, loved, used and it should bring memories together. I think this is the aspect that architects should focus on and it has always been this way.»

GV: When you look at global architectural practice today, what do you think we need to focus on?

FAM: There are certain concepts that are lacking in a lot of architecture. For instance, ideas like memory which brings us to a place, which brings us to people, which brings us to affection. This is what is important in architecture because it is made for people, it’s a support for life. Without life, architecture really doesn’t exist. Architecture needs to be occupied, fulfilled, loved, used and it should bring memories together. I think this is the aspect that architects should focus on and it has always been this way. The problem is that in the past we saw lots of terms ending in ‘-ism’ like ‘postmodernism’; to look at architecture through shape, through philosophy, through rationalism or through a machine way of looking at life. All these failed and only the good projects survived, not because they radiated beauty, but because they were addressed directly to people. The more human a project is, the better. This is not about scale or about time, it was like this for all of the 20th century and even before that. This search for an architecture which can be more human is the way to go. Whether with more technology or with less technology, doesn’t really matter. I don’t care if houses in the future will be 3D printed. I might think it is slightly stupid, but why not? Let’s try and see what comes of that. I think the problem is not in the means, the problem is our mindset. After all, we are artists, so the problem is not in the ‘how’.

Francisco Aires Mateus’ workspace in Lisbon, Portugal. Image credit © Itinerant Office.

GV: Do you have an example of a recent or ongoing project where these concepts can be translated?

FAM: I would like to talk about a very small project. It is a small chapel over the Lake of Como. This is a project that has been ongoing for three years. We keep making models and allowing the design to evolve constantly, either from the material point of view, its colours, or the light. It’s a project we are doing pro-bono that might be built. It is located in a very small village called Palanzo where there is a 15th century chapel with its bell tower and the main church. The territory is marked by these signs and another chapel high up in the mountains. And there was a path going through all these things and a crossway. Our idea was to mark this crossway with a building that recalls the memory of the defence of the barbarians which intended to attack Milan. There is a standing tower which is, although small, completely abandoned and is still there. Our idea is to establish a dialogue between these elements: either the tower or the bell towers of the three chapels. The project should be built by the community’s existing labour force and the place is quite special as there is moment towards the end of the afternoon when there is a strange effect of light: around sunset, there is a mysterious edge of a shadow, a trick of topographical magic, that stands over the line of Palanzo, over the small chapel and also on this chapel. It goes from pale yellow to complete red in about half an hour and it almost doesn’t move and there will be a high window to capture the light into a golden-lit space. I really hope we can realise this project in the near future.

GV: What would you say to those who are facing the profession now; to students of architecture or those who are just starting their own practices?

FAM: There is one very important idea: to always try to do architecture with the things that belongs to architecture. It’s very easy to go online where the Internet can flood our minds with all sorts of images. We should engage the elements that focus on architecture. Another idea is the capacity to resist because this is a marathon. One should never expect fast results as it is a long-term shot, so we have to be patient. It involves a certain amount of suffering but it’s for the greater good. You have to be patient and you have to build things that are solid. You have to give the world ideas and also a part of your soul. The world can only move with ideas. The rest will be formalised in different ways: it can be formalised in a sculpture, painting, or even music. We, as architects, have to transform it into architecture.