Interview with Iñaki Ábalos and Renata Sentkiewicz by Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture
The intersections between heritage and contemporary architecture constitute one of the most prolific fields of study in our time. Particularly after intense debates like the introduction of contemporary architecture in historic environments, which crystallized in the 2005 Vienna Memorandum, and Rem Koolhaas’ warning in 2014 against how ‘preservation is overcoming us’, it is necessary to study the spaces where the symbiosis between the past and the future is offering new opportunities to rethink both disciplines.
The recent work by Inaki Abalos and Renata Sentkiewicz illustrates the richness of this discussion. Founders of the office AS+, based in Madrid, they have played a key role for the internationalization of Spanish architecture in the recent years, applying their conception about material culture as a fundamental key for interpretation and design in varied contexts like Europe, the Americas and China. This search is based in a solid academic background: Professor at the School of Architecture of Madrid Polytechnic University, Iñaki Ábalos served as Chair of the Department of Architecture in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) between 2013 and 2016. A Visiting Critic in Harvard GSD, Renata Sentkiewicz holds with Iñaki Ábalos a long track of research on design, landscape and thermodynamics that they have consistently applied in their practice since it was founded in 2006.
This conversation offers an insight to their approach to heritage, memory and recreation, based in concepts like documentalism and metaphors like still life painting and self-portraits, which appear as useful tools for their contemporary definition of today’s heritage through the practice of architecture. With such references, the dialogue will focus in two cases of intervention in the historical heritage, such as the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona (Spain), and the Art Gallery in Wuhan (China). Both illustrate the analogies in the approach to different contests through the lenses of material culture, as an indispensable tool to face the global challenges of heritage and contemporary architecture today.
Shanghai, July 8, 2018
You have been already introduced to the focus of the Built Heritage journal and our intention to open the limits of what we understand for heritage today. For a long time, heritage was a very constrained idea, implicitly conveying that of resistance against change. Now we propose to shift the focus and show heritage as a creative practice that is embedded in contemporary architecture. The first question would refer to this: What do you consider to be the greatest potential of heritage for the production of architecture today?
Maybe this a long response. I would refer first to where the production of contemporary architecture is now, comparing it with two kind of paintings: still life paintings, and self-portrait paintings. If something has changed in the last decade in the world of academia and in the world of practice, it is the way we have moved from the self-portrait to the still life. The way the media treated architecture and the star-architect system was everything about the extraordinary; the bizarre; the production of objects that could surprise everyone. The only way to bring a piece of architecture to the cover of a magazine was to become very bizarre, to produce almost an impossible architecture that could immediately awake the interests of the people, and particularly of those who are not experts. This has created a generation of architects repeating themselves with the same gestures; no matter wherever they were working at, whatever was the program, the context, the scale, the culture etcetera: This is what I called self-portraits.
The idea of the still life, as an analogy between the world of paintings and architecture, means that architects are trying now to put everything together and work with the disciplines that were once divided by modernist Taylorism: landscape, architecture, urban design, urban planning and other related practices. Taken to real life, students in different schools lived together, but they never merged these disciplines nor were able to understand the potential of interconnecting them. For this reason, I think that working with the organic and the inorganic; joining the scale of the landscape with the fabric of architecture; and trying to optimize the result in terms of quality of the public space and of the interior space has become more and more an issue.
Another important question is how new technologies are helping us understand the relationship among these apparently different ways to treat the territory and the city. With this I am not referring necessarily to parametricism, which is still the prevailing image that comes to mind when we talk about new technologies in architecture: I think thermodynamics offer much more interesting and rich opportunities beyond parametricism because they show interaction, which is everything: It is about dynamism, about how one thing goes from here to there passing through different states. This is a key point to understand where we are now: We are very much focusing on interactions and much less on self-portraits; and on the translation of this idea to practice and to academia.
Carrere, Emmanuel. 2011. Limonov. Paris: P.O.L
Secondly, we need to refer to the recovery of methodologies that were almost forgotten in the discipline. Among them, a key one is to behave as a documentalist. The idea of documental work is incredibly interesting for us, and has become more and more important in the world of contemporary artistic practices, among them literature writing: Emmanuel Carrere’s novel, Limonov, is a good example. But if you think about cinema, we would have the films of Wim Wenders, or Werner Herzog with his Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Grotto of Lascaux … Bruno Latour’s work in the field of ideas is also quite important to understand and contextualize what the concept of documentalism can mean. Obviously, and referring to architecture, we have a hero of modernism like Cedric Price, or who I consider to be his heir in many aspects, which is Rem Koolhaas. They both are perfect examples of how documentalism now stays at the core of new approaches to design.The next question is: what to document? In our tradition, documentation has been performed focusing mostly on two topics: context and program. The documentation of the context was a very rudimentary, almost simplistic approach: maybe formal, maybe atmospheric as Álvaro Siza sitting at the café in a European square, wandering with his pencil in a poetical way: we all know and love those sketches. Beyond this, I think the concept of material culture has become absolutely relevant for anyone trying to document whatever has a trajectory in time. A concept that comes from archaeology; it relies on techniques that allow you, using very few, minimal key facts -a piece of ceramics, a bone, two or three stones at the foundations of a building- to reconstruct the everyday life of a civilization thousands of years ago.
We cannot achieve such precision, but the idea of approaching the context and the places where we act through the study of the material culture, means a huge difference in the way we treat tradition and modernity. In light of this, the recurrent idea, which was so frequent in the past, of an architect haphazardly buying some postcards in a foreign context and using some local three-centimeter ornamental patterns to enlarge them and making them become the floor plan of a 200-meter high skyscraper turns to be immediately ridiculous and almost insulting for the local people living in this context. Instead, material culture focuses in matter; material culture is pure materialism, it means conceptually, ontologically, to believe that matter and our behavior are closely related. The things are at hand: this table, these glasses, this watch, this paper, in a way limit the way we can think, or the things we can think about. So this is materialism strictly.
In this panorama of what does “documentalism” and material culture mean, we find again the contribution from thermodynamics to refer to the question of program: for many years we thought that analysis and synthesis were two discrete moments, impossible to connect at all but through purely poetic ways. I remember Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi treating these topics from a structuralist perspective, in a very serious way, but yet unable to connect these two moments. Thermodynamics may provide us the key, for example in the way we think about phase-change materials; those which in certain conditions dissipate enormous amounts of energy at the same time they crystallize, interacting with the context in a very different way. Taken to our discussion, the material culture of a place is a boiling system where we would find the climate, the culture, the economy, the ecology, their evolution in time; up to a point where they crystallize and create a new state where all this information is embedded.
Therefore, heritage is important to the contemporary production of architecture, because there is no project, no design, that doesn't respond to some kind of heritage: it can be intellectual, physical, historic, typological, material; or put them all together. Going to the painting example, thinking in terms of still life, you cannot forget all these things, you cannot avoid these notions. It doesn't matter if you are working with a preexisting building or an empty plot, for the relevant elements of the material culture are already there, in a very similar state, and this is the point. This is what makes me understand that heritage is no longer a marginal aspect in the activity of the architects, but can be more and more relevant to understand the connections with history, with material culture, and to what extent our practice in the present is constructing the material culture of our time.
This reminds me of the conversation that we had with Peter Eisenman, in which he showed his contempt for material culture with the display of a very powerful set of ideas, despising almost the need of architecture to touch reality at all. This has been his approach to architecture for many years, but even though with this contempt, when he presented one of his latest projects, the Pinerba Condominium in the inner city of Milan, he referred consistently to the tripartite architectural typology of the Milanese palazzo, to its composition, to the stone details and so on. Maybe that was one confirmation of the power of material culture beyond any attempt to deny it: there is no production without experience; there is no creativity without memory.
Another very interesting idea that you mentioned is that of the references. I would like to go into those that build up the conceptual framework of your projects, and particularly those coming from modernism, and how maybe the most interesting chapter of the conflictive relationship between modernity and tradition is how modernity has become also a tradition itself. You have written and spoken in lectures and texts about the possible continuity of the modern project, beyond its postmodern depiction as a wasteful, non-environmentally friendly stage of the history of architecture. In what sense do you consider your production is continuing the grounds and values of the modern project today?
Modernism is really relevant as part of our tradition in the context in which we grew up and part of our system of thinking. That is very clear. On the one hand, I agree that in many cases, modernity has demonstrated a negative outcome in terms of environmental and societal terms: there were many failures in the utopic approach of the first modernists, which are now obvious to everyone. And on the other hand, we cannot forget that modernity is the only tradition we have to confront the new scales, the new programs, the new speed of construction, the new infrastructural impact of architecture and urban planning in the territory today. Maybe the Inca civilization, or the Romans, could serve as a highly poetic reference for the extent of today’s challenges, but basically, the formation that modernity gives us is the only operative one that we have. So in this sense, this tradition cannot be deemed as completely positive nor completely negative: whoever chooses one over the other is really blind to the most common sense and concept of reality. This is one thing.
I have always exemplified the use of material culture with the lenses of our discipline through the direct study of two representative spaces for living: the house and the palace, compared in two different peak moments, representative of their development in terms of modernity. In academic terms and from our experience teaching in different schools, this information becomes astonishingly important, giving you a whole dimension of how the material culture evolves, but also what remains from it; about how for example the thermodynamic issues that relate to climate have been solved in different stages of evolution. Attention to the two residential typologies of the house and the palace thus informs us about the simplest ideas that will always be useful; that have resulted from a huge experience of trial and error, creating the most efficient responses and model forms of organization with the most basic resources, almost without economic means.
An important conclusion that we extract from this also applies for the relationship between modernity and tradition; that is, that we have become ‘orphans’ of these relationships: we can only use their experience in terms of acknowledging the intelligence of the responses and admitting the impossibility of continuing with any of them. So you learn from the experience, but you cannot use it in direct terms. This can be interpreted either as a disgrace or as a blessing, and I would be for the last option: I think it is a fantastic opportunity for a new architecture, able to construct a new idea of architecture learning from these experiences, incorporating our means, our technologies, and our capacities today to create new responses.
For example, the scale of the old, traditional houses in Seville cannot be of great interest to the urban densities of China or even of Spain itself today, due to the speed of production in a global context, but they are still relevant. At the same time, we are conscious that bringing the glass prisms of modernism to the south of Spain cannot be useful anymore, but on the other hand, they are undeniably beautiful, and we may acknowledge that they were created with the purpose to understand the new possibilities of a relationship between the interior and the landscape, for instance. So in a way, we can admire them, we can understand them, and then the question stands in front of us: what can we do out of them? How can we create the house, the palace of today? This is, in my opinion, the most important question that needs to be addressed in relationship with the material culture and these two traditions. For me, they are equivalent and they are dialectic; they fight, and the fight is really productive, but not in terms of manipulating their contradictions directly. They stay there, but you have to rethink everything.
Does this idea of being ‘orphaned’ become more intense when practicing in a context like China? What are the tools, in which sense does the approach differs depending on the context?
My mind always comes to China when talking about scale and speed. I don't know the exact proportion of square meters under construction in China and the rest of the world, but I think it may be very close to 50%. This has attracted us to work in this culture, because of its historic relevance: there was a moment when Europe played a leading role, then America, and later East Asia, in particular China. Therefore, it is a natural consequence that the best architecture has been produced first in Europe, later in the United States and in Latin America, and now it is the time for relevant architects in China.
We have a great interest in working under so much different conditions compared to what the modernists found when they elaborated their theories. It is an excellent place to see, experiment and test if these ideas about material culture and their related methodologies can become relevant; if the idea of thermodynamics can help to construct a new way to think about architecture and the discipline in general terms; and ultimately, to contribute to the natural, final aim of architecture, which is a social service to create better conditions of life. That's very clear. So for us it is a great opportunity to be understanding and to be contributing and collaborating in this hyper project which is the new China: a much more interesting context than any other nowadays.
Referring to your question, I don't feel that we are behaving in a different way. Obviously the scales are different, but the methodology that I referred before comes partly from academia; partly from our intellectual interest in different aspects of reality; and partly from our experience in practice in Spain, Latin America and China. So in different proportions, these contexts have contributed to give precision and clarify these ideas; which three years ago were still under development. Maybe back then we lacked the possibility to develop a more systematic intellectual construction with them. I think this is a relevant aspect, but not contradictory, nor completely surprising, which results from the obvious acknowledgement about how the scale of the programs and the production speeds are changing.
Shanghai, China. Source:Plácido González.
Material culture gained relevance for us when we started to work in international projects. Take for example in Latin America, where despite they share Spanish as a language, the context is somehow similar, but not exactly the same in the end. You have to develop a deeper insight to find similarities and differences and slowly create this dialogue, this way to get closer to the territory and to the place through the study of material culture. Having built this method from the experience in developing projects abroad, now we proceed to use it also in the places that we supposedly know, in order to discover, to know them, to understand them, just before starting to think about the project. At that first moment there would be no sketch, there would be nothing yet, but to let ourselves to have some time and distance to develop this conversation about the place.
Related to this idea, we noticed the huge impact that the tools of material culture have in architectural education. We have been teaching in different architecture schools, in many international contexts, with students coming from different places and cultural backgrounds. And we would ask them to work with more or less the same method I have described in their hometown, or in the city they have spent more time if they have the experience of living abroad. Initially they would think they know everything from those places, but unless they enter into the system, and begin to analyze this house-palace relationship, then they would start to understand why, for example, Seville became the biggest medieval city in Europe, the reasons for its richness, the different economic cycles…this approach immediately gives you a set of different scales, in order to make interpretations of every stone, every brick of the city. And it is impressive to see when we conduct the exit interviews at the end of the year, how all the students would agree to say that through this method they were able to learn more about their own cities than in their whole life. And most amazing is when you would start to apply that approach to other places, no matter if it is your hometown in Europe or if it is China.
This relates to the estrangement from the past about which David Lowenthal spoke when he said that the past is a foreign country, no matter if it is the past of your own city or your own family. I understand this as a symptom of change, from the universalist approach of modernism to the current sensitivity towards a place as a key enabling the ubiquitous presence of globalization. I think about it when seeing, for example, the renovation that you have recently completed in Wuhan of a historic building from the 1920, and the ways through which the interpretation of historic architecture can avoid to fall into nostalgia. This is important in China as well as internationally, due to the role that heritage plays in the production of a collective identity, and which is frequently producing idealized visions of the past, that once defined should never be touched. This could be confronted to current discussions in Europe around the idea of ‘frugality’, which you depicted years ago in your text ‘Bartleby, the architect’ and his ‘I would rather not do it’ motto, as part of a creative attitude. I would like to know if such an idea is still valid as a reference when dealing with a heritage project here in China.
Before going to Wuhan, you know that we had the opportunity to renovate another industrial building years ago for the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona, with a similar scale and almost identical situation. It was in fact the first industrial building built in the Eixample, the city extension of Barcelona designed by Cerdá in the second half of the 19th century, which responded to an idea of combining non-polluting industries, such as printing companies, with the residential environment of the blocks.
Tàpies Foundation, Barcelona. Exterior view.
Tàpies Foundation, Barcelona. View of the interior.
Both the projects in Barcelona and in Wuhan tell us many interesting things. The first one that I have learnt these years after being more and more involved in projects of rehabilitation of both at architectural and urban scales, is to seriously question the idea of not touching and intervening the patrimony, which as I was a student I considered the smartest approach. With this, I refer to the use of techniques to render interventions invisible, freezing the fabric in time, which was characteristic of the Italian school those days, acting like doctors that denied any kind of creativity. I think that this is the most wrong approach ever, the most banal in terms of cultural construction. I prefer those historicists of the 19th century who recreated, and who by recreating, were enjoying their creativity contributing with beautiful eclecticism to the built environment that you can enjoy in so many cities of Europe today.
Having said that, the idea of intervening in a historic building has different values in different contexts, and so it is the case in China. It is important to understand that whatever you do will be a moment in the course of culture and of the discipline, as well as its relationship with time and entropy. So it will reflect how at a certain moment, we act according to what is more relevant, incorporating the social and cultural and political considerations that we may find in history and projecting them into the future.
For example, in the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona, the building had experienced a previous hyper post-modernist intervention, designed by a good architect indeed. I always recall that when I was a student I visited this post-modernist intervention in the Tàpies foundation because I thought it was a very interesting work, and I liked it. Then when I returned twenty-five years later to work on the same building, I couldn't believe how much the architect had been doing the right thing in that moment. But at the same time, it was clear that what had been done back then was completely not valid three decades later; it was a masquerade, exactly the opposite to what the building demanded today. Tàpies’ idea was to respond to the wisdom and the idea of the place, recovering the atmosphere of the printing industry that was originally there. So what we had to do was basically to clean the house, to take out all the stuff that was completely unused and to give the character back to the beautiful structure, which was basically an American loft transferred to Barcelona, exposing its cast iron elements, recovering the skylights with beautiful natural light that
had been closed off, recovering the original thick wood pavement, changing completely the colors, everything. So the atmosphere changed radically. It was great because Tàpies had the opportunity to see the result before he passed away, and in the opening day he told us: ‘I'm so grateful, I have been twenty-five years waiting to see this building as it is now’, which is the best compliment we have ever received from a client.
And then we move to Wuhan, which used to be a religious bookshop and publishing company in the former British Concession. After the years, it was almost destroyed: every room was subdivided and occupied by different families, so now it is incredible to compare what we saw the first day we arrived to the site, and what we have now there. Initially it was impossible to know the name of the architect, but through the government we identified an architect from that time who used a similar repertoire in the city to whom the building could be attributed, and with that hypothesis started to establish analogies, and so on. We had to document what we had, and so we could take decisions through these assumptions, which despite not being hundred percent clear, nevertheless seemed to be the most reasonable.
Wuhan Art Gallery, Wuhan. View of the rooftop.
Source: Ábalos+Sentkiewicz / Atelier L+
Wuhan Art Gallery, Wuhan. View of the interior.
Source: Ábalos+Sentkiewicz / Atelier L+
Honestly at the beginning, considering the extent of the damages and the plans for the building to become an art gallery with a bookshop, we thought that we would be less restrained than in Barcelona; that we would have the opportunity to design a kind of more open interior, applying a more modernist category to understand the space. But the position of the client was radical: they really wanted to recreate, in the literal sense of the term, a history that was almost invisible in the physical reality of the building. And they made incredible research on, for example, interior design: 99% of the building was damaged, but there they could find a frame of a door which was probably original because it was well decorated, or one stick left from a fragment of a railing...and from these elements, the whole appearance could be recreated anew. We also had the purpose to reconstruct the load-bearing walls, which was a difficult task because of accessibility requirements like elevators, fire regulation elements like an additional stair, etcetera.
It was a difficult combination of factors, but they were making a great work following the idea of recovering a bookshop, which helps you think of the extent of the challenge, about many the similarities through which the project attempted to go back to the origins, but at the same time, to incorporate main exceptions like for example, the kind of books that would be brought back to the building: no longer religious books, but books of art. I am happy with the results because it is a service for the community, and after years of destruction of the patrimony in China, I think this question needs to be addressed with extreme care. Besides some decorative intrusions with which I don’t agree, but which were reduced to a minimal extent, this is what they were doing: a very dedicated attempt to give a valid response through a systematic research of what the building looked like originally, and furthermore, considering the role that it plays in the community. In a way, these two projects enable to understand the powers currently brought into play in the construction of the city. You have to understand what they mean and to elaborate them; not only from a structural perspective, but particularly in its
cultural context. If you want to contribute you have to understand what is interesting for architecture, and how to push for it and make it real. But comparing the two interventions, despite being very different, at the same time I think they are making a very similar service to the society.
Yes, I agree there is a shift from the way that you described your work at the Tàpies Foundation, which was more like an unveiling action, to the intervention in Wuhan which deals with a very important issue right now in historic environments which is recreation. This idea was heavily criticized for a long time in architectural practice, but it has become quite a hot topic in the heritage debate right now, particularly in China. How to re-create, not with a nostalgic approach but with a creative approach in order not to be trapped by the past, I think that is one of the most important lessons that we could extract from this.
I would like to some ideas about recreation. I think what Iñaki mentioned is very important, which is the new use for the building. Because when you recreate, that also goes for the social meaning of the place, how to make the building alive, make it a part of the place, of the neighborhood, and build upon any other relations that existed before. And not to make it as a museum to look out, not to make it like a monument, but how to recreate it and at the same time make it work nowadays, making it become our own material culture, and not that of the past. In both cases in Barcelona and Wuhan, we not only establish this relationship with the past, but also adding a plus through other elements that incorporate another layer: in the case of Wuhan is the roof space, as a perfect observation deck in the city; whereas in Barcelona would be the new openings to the patio, with a new space giving a vision to the inner part of the block that before was just perceived from the outside.
This once more shows the influence of the culture: thirty years ago in Barcelona, in the first postmodern intervention for the Tàpies Foundation, they didn't want to show the interior life of the building because it was too promiscuous, and now after our intervention you can use the building, seeing through it, using it as a periscope to watch the two courtyards. Last but not least and most importantly, we would need to distinguish the different needs that buildings or urban pieces have: it is not the same recreate an eclectic, beautifully ornamented small pavilion, and a factory full of turbines. And I think this is being achieved with great success in China in relationship with its enormous industrial heritage: it is becoming more and more relevant in the sense of how these spaces were lived, incorporating very contemporary issues that contribute to create a rich urban landscape that ultimately increases the quality of life of the people. I think this is can be the great contribution of this time.
(Transcript by Feiran Huang，proofread by Placido Gonzalez.)
Tow translations of Ábalos's books have been published by Tongji University Press.
1. Essays on Thermodynamics: Architecture and Beauty
Authors: Iñaki Ábalos，Renata Snetkiewicz，Lluis Ortega
translated by Jianjia Zhou
Abstract: A compendium of essays and projects, that creates a projective document, able to set up new scenarios for the Architecture of the next decade.
Buy: click here
2. The Good Life : A Guided Visit to the Houses of Modernity
Author: Iñaki Ábalos
translated by Chang Su
Abstract: What is the role of architecture if not to realize a shared vision of the “good life,” a vision that in the age of architectural modernism shaped—and was shaped by—a range of ideas about the home?
With The Good Life, Iñaki Ábalos serves as our guide for a tour of seven iconic twentieth-century homes that represent various concepts for living. Some of the homes were actually built, while others were merely planned, painted, or created as part of a film set. We see Mies van der Rohe’s House with Three Patios, Martin Heidegger’s cabin in the Black Forest, Picasso’s Villa La Californie in Cannes, and the New York loft that Andy Warhol called The Factory. From the ultramodern geometric houses and gardens in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, we travel to the famed hobby-kit house in Buster Keaton’s One Week and on to the sunny swimming pool and home in David Hockney’s painting A Bigger Splash. Ábalos guides readers through the key philosophical precepts that likely guided the creation of these homes, making insightful points about the relationship between ideas about a particular modern way of living and approaches to architecture and design. What he concludes is that modernism marks less a coherent triumph of positivism, as is often assumed, than a loose celebration of the radical pluralism of the twentieth century.
A fascinating work by one of Spain’s most prominent architects, The Good Life presents a powerful picture of the concerns that guided the course of architectural modernism.