María Langarita (1979) and Víctor Navarro founded the studio that bears their names in 2005, which in just over a decade has developed a handful of projects that have won international recognition for their innovation, efficiency and imaginative capacity. Medialab-Prado in Madrid, the Cerro Juli Auditorium in Arequipa (Peru) and the Red Bull Music Academy are some examples of how their theoretical research on the bust and pelt of architecture has been put into practice.
– Your In Movement proposal was a prize-winner at the recent Europan awards. Can it be considered as an urban deconstruction proposal for Barcelona?
María Langarita: It was intended more as an urban re-identification project. It’s located in a newly-developed area of Barcelona, La Marina del Prat Vermell, where it is planned to have a considerable residential segment, particularly social housing, which was a requirement of the competition.
Barcelona has a very paradigmatic relationship with its buildings and this is one of its big tourist attractions, but on the other hand we noticed that the method of creating certain public buildings had ended up causing a lack of connection between the city and the natural surroundings in which it sits. We proposed an operation that would take advantage of the opportunity of each new building, especially public ones, to reveal the terrain on which the city is settled.
Thus the urban operations associated with building allow us to reveal that this part of the city was settled on top of allotments, which was once La Marina del Prat Vermell before the city started growing. A little urban operation such as this one, which could be transferred to other parts of the city that are built on stonier land or on the sites of former woodlands, could help to reveal this former space that existed long before the city was ever raised.
Europan is a Europe-wide competition for architects under the age of 40 who come up with proposals in response to the demands raised by a series of cities that take part in the event. The competition calls for a definition at a preliminary project level of ideas for the city, and then the city decides whether to implement them or not. In this case, we’re very excited and confident that we will be able to develop this project together with Barcelona City Council.
– Is this proposal aligned with your conviction about the need to re-consider architecture and cities in a different way?
M.L. One of the general criteria of the Europan competition was to reconsider cities from the perspective of accessibility and flexibility. We have a conceptual core that we have developed in various projects which, in very general terms, consists of dividing architecture into its softer and harder parts. This is what we call the bust and pelt.
The harder parts are those that endure better over time, as well as referring to those that allow less intervention. On the other hand, there are other parts such as wood or textiles, for example, that allow more intensive intervention from people and are present from the beginning of the city’s history. We want to ensure that the architecture we propose contains these softer, more elastic parts.
Thus our project for the Europan competition proposed a building structure that was not 100% compacted but which, based on trays with the hard part of the concrete and the structural loads and installations, would maintain a distance between floors of around 7 to 9 metres. This would allow construction using other techniques such as wooden walls to take place within them, meaning that while you would have your initial home now, within a couple of years you could create two more rooms without having to resort to a construction company.
In a more globalised Western urban context we are witnessing progressive regulatory saturation, the exhaustive control of almost everything, which leads to an apparent absence of space for freedom of movement or citizen intervention, at both a social and a more individual level. Any operation that comes along to release areas of greater freedom in intervention is very important, not just because human creativity is uncontrollable and uncontainable, but because it allows for small processes of re-appropriation, a reconnection of the bonds that citizens feel with their city.
These affective networks are essentially those that allow the captive energy of cities to be preserved for longer, and for them to be more sustainable in the long term. That’s why these small spaces for re-appropriation and reconnection are so important, not just from a narrative or poetic point of view but in terms of sustainability.
-Are they like those little urban acupuncture interventions that Jaime Lerner referred to a few years ago?
M.L. In that case, Lerner was talking primarily about interventions by the public sector, and today the private sector is also able to intervene in this respect. It is in these kinds of operations that are closer to politics than aesthetics that we’re interested in collaborating with, making a contribution to what appears in the city. Today we’re seeing a lot of phenomena in which these actions are developed in public spaces, but not in buildings.
– Staying on the topic of urban reflection, I believe your participation in the Urbanism/Architecture Biennale in Shenzhen was also based on this topic. What was the experience like?
M.L. Every time we take part in an event of this type, we see it as an opportunity to continue researching. In this case, we gave some thought and made a little analysis of the workspace in Shenzhen based on the information we were able to find on the internet. Once again we made a distinction between the bust and the pelt, what was able to be substituted and what was not. The pelt was formed by elements that could disappear or be moved if the company changed sites, such as paper, workers’ plants, clothes hangers and lamps. Then we thought: what would happen if we tried to construct an image of a workspace using just these softer elements?
That gave rise to the Embodied Project, a kind of plant orgy in which there is no longer a classic roof fitted with lights but an aluminium slat technology to reflect the light which completely occupied the upper layer. It was great fun working there for a month and creating this new space.
– You’ve spoken on occasions about fragility and desertification when referring to the impact of the crisis on architecture. Is this scenario changing?
M.L. When talking about fragility in the context of the crisis, we were referring more to this sudden slowdown in ‘harder’ building, in major projects, has really brought to light other more ephemeral types of architecture. These are the kinds of actions more typical of this softer architecture, which are even associated with interior decoration, but in which almost all the great architects have got involved in at some point or another, from Palladio through to Miralles and Le Corbusier.
This softer kind of architecture has always been there but it has been more hidden in times of great energy, growth and major operations with huge budgets. Like ours, the projects along these lines of many other practices are now coming to the fore. This is our positive interpretation of the crisis, but we don’t believe that soft architecture is better than hard architecture. It’s just a description of the situation according to our own interpretation.
– Is there no antagonism between bust and pelt then?
M.L. They are not antagonistic models but complementary ones. What we are championing with our research and our projects is that both consistencies are always present in architecture. The thing is that at certain times in history we have described architecture from its more mineral aspects. The coexistence of the two consistencies is intrinsic in architectural practice. Architecture is a discipline which, like others, works in the long term from a cultural perspective, although it responds to current requirements and realities. It will be studied and interpreted once again in two to three hundred years’ time and this means that it is freed from criteria such as economic efficiency, which has more of an impact in the short term.
The most enduring architecture works to laws that surpass crises and human lifespans. Architecture travels through time and what we build today will be interpreted again by other humans two or three centuries from now.
– Does, or should, a better kind of architecture always emerge from emergencies or need?
M.L. As any analysis of architecture shows, it contains components that have more of an impact in the long term, so it is difficult to know whether what we are doing now is better or worse than before. This is something that will need to be interpreted in the future. The crisis that we have experienced has forced us to leave long-term considerations about architecture aside for a while, but it is something that continues to be present in the theory of the discipline.
To the extent that architecture is capable of including connections with the present, the past and even speculations about the future, and of overcoming the short-term – which is where it is constrained or trapped – it can only improve, because its interpretations proliferate and it becomes more ambiguous.
The Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, for example, was built as a hospital, then it was a prison, then a barracks, and now today it is a contemporary art centre, but who knows whether 100 years from now it might not have a completely different interpretation and purpose. It may well be that the architecture we see now in this context of crisis will not be interpreted in the future in the same tone. Architecture in itself is not life, but it is touched by life.
– Is environmental awareness a fundamental concern in your projects?
M.L. Yes, it’s a fundamental concept which has become very strongly established in our generation. Sustainability makes sense when we evaluate architecture in the long term. Quite simply, it’s about considering that right now there are certain people with certain needs, but 300 years from now there will be other people with different needs.
But this approach is equally valid for animals. There are some ecological systems that we need to take into consideration when we’re planning today. And then there are certain gadgets that facilitate energy control in the home or offices, for example, yet this is just one aspect of sustainability. There is another aspect which we believe is of equal importance, and that is beauty.
To the extent whereby beauty appears as a parameter in a design process, people develop and affective relationship with objects and promote their maintenance. In the same way, there is something in certain forms of architecture that people are willing to conserve because they like it. As soon as people stop inhabiting a space or having an affective relationship with it, the architecture invested in the construction of that space starts to diminish. In other words, the dimension of beauty also has an influence on sustainability.
– Ordinariness is a fundamental factor in many of your projects. Is this an element that you notice is lacking in modern-day architecture?
M.L. Perhaps the excessive standardisation of what I was talking about earlier has meant that many spaces have become alien and it is difficult to feel close to them. Right from when we first started out we have been convinced that architecture cannot be preserved on its own. It can only be preserved if people feel a sense of unity with it, a relationship of affection.
In this respect, the channels and resources of ordinariness are fundamental for this affection to operate, because other elements such as archives or academia are effective at getting certain people to recognise certain values in architecture, and put all their efforts into preserving them from a more cultural perspective, which is also extremely important, but the very fact of ordinariness increases this spectrum and the more love people feel for something, the more affection, the better it will be preserved.
This vision of objects can apply equally to architecture and smaller objects or our ecosystem as a whole.
– How important is innovation and research in your work?
M.L. We always try to work in a context of innovation; always challenging ourselves with new questions and trying to answer them in a different way, accumulating different experiences. On an economic level, you might say that we operate on an anti-scale level, because we try never to repeat the same solution. But in some way this is our fuel, this is what keeps us striving to a very high level of excellence. For us this is vital; it’s probably ruinous, but it’s vital nonetheless!
– What do tenders represent in your working dynamics?
M.L. Tenders are an incredible gateway because they let a practice that perhaps only has a very short track record or not much business experience to tackle projects on a big scale. However, we have found our private clients, with our small and medium-sized projects, are really complicit with our work in terms of innovation. They understand it, they can see it, and they get caught up in it.
– What projects are you currently involved in?
M.L. We’re working on various housing projects, a few tenders and a Europan project which for us is very important as it’s the first time we’ll be doing collective social housing in a political context that we’re really very excited about. We’re also still doing research, working on a couple of books… the truth is, we’re working flat out!