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THE PROJECT OF PRACTICE

THE PROJECT OF PRACTICE

The title of the conference, “El proyecto de la práctica” [The Project of Practice], intends to convey that the construction of our practice is in itself a project that towers over all the other projects that we develop in the studio. Let’s say that we consider very seriously the redefinition of our professional role in light of certain phenomena that are challenging traditional practices. Although we understand that our discipline pulls along with it more than 4,000 years of history—a rich baggage that we cannot ignore—that does not prevent us from being permanently obligated to revise our way of being architects, to live and exercise our profession in a useful and necessary manner, according to the times in which we operate.

This presentation revolves around the description of five figures that contradict the mythology of the ideal project or commission. In a way, I intend to demonstrate that there are possible projects that are also interesting and very appropriate, precisely because some seemingly fundamental element of good practice has been removed, and that in its impurity lies the capacity to become an emergent practice, able to question established guidelines—supposedly indisputable—but whose reinvention would not be futile, even if it is only for experimental interest to see where it leads us. Along the way, we will see how these five architects to whom I will refer need to develop new skills to assuage those certainties that fade before our eyes.

The first case shows the architect as a designer of prototypes: an architect that is in no need of drawing every last detail, because production itself may be understood as a design process.
Accompanying this description is the case of a little industrialized house, a research project in which the building of the prototype at the warehouse is carried out with practically no construction plans, because the first condition to develop it is to accept the limitations of the existing machinery, available knowledge—in some cases amazing, in others limited—economic problems, transportation, and so on.

Garoza House is planned for a couple who builds a cottage in the country—in a very beautiful but inhospitable place—as an extension of their home in the city, as a fragment of their daily life, moved 100 km away, without becoming another house. Once the vision of Adam and Eve and the earthly punishment—the house in the countryside or at the beach as a prize in the face of the punishment of working and living in the unpleasant city—is abolished, this very simple project emerges, in the form of something that is more terrace than house, and settles in a place without transforming it. The building system is based on dividing the entire volume into three-dimensional fragments—and I am making an effort not to use the word “modules”—that are independently built and assembled in a warehouse, where they are inspected before being loaded onto trucks and taken to the place in question. There, we just had to create a small clearing in order to install the house with the help of a crane in one workday. This action, of installing an industrial object in a landscape, we believe is interesting for what it questions: the refusal to drive foundations into a terrain, the obsession with transforming nature where it sits, to plow the land, to terrace a garden, to plant…That is why I am not talking about construction, but “installation,” borrowing the term from the art world, referring to something light, with a poetic ephemeral sense, even if it’s permanent. And also, because it refers to the idea of installation as appropriation, as valorization of a landscape through contrast: an industrial object that sits in a natural environment giving it maximum value, treating it with the utmost respect, but, at the same time, not mimicking it.

In this process, there were a series of situations that were great learning experiences. One of these situations is the aforementioned disappearance of the drawing, which we substituted with the “making”—the live production [fig. 2]. In fact, we had to do the drawings afterward just to register the prototype and be able to publish it. It would have been nice to collect the drawings of the process, drawn by hand on whatever cardboard or boxes were in the warehouse, mostly scribbled by the workers to be sure they were understanding what was asked of them. These meetings with them were not about verification, but to make decisions, design, and, in a way, to allow the development of the object amidst instantaneous conditions that, however, ended up being generic enough, enabling us to talk about a prototype, about a system. Another conclusion was the need to differentiate prefabrication from industrialization: we have no interest in building another house identical to the previous one, or putting it in a catalog for its endless reproduction, but to design new buildings with the same system. We understand that contemporary industry allows products to be very different from each other, being very similar in their technical essence, because constructive concurrence can turn them into routine for those who design and manufacture them, moving away from the modern model that tells us that industrialization implies mass production. Thus, the architect that designs prototypes understands that the disappearance of the project, in its orthodox form of a collection of plans to be corrected a hundred times throughout the work, allows the invention of other ways of making decisions.

The second case refers to commissions that come fragmented, something that generates strong rejection from colleagues who consider the project is a whole and must be complete. This loss
of absolute control of the object is now a reality and we can conclude that, to the extent that we accept and learn to play with this condition, we will be able to access very attractive experimental
environments, and maybe a world of valuable opportunities for young architects. The office tower in Panama that I want to use to illustrate this case is a project in which the distance, our abilities,
trust in the experience, and the excellent harmony with our local partners, led us to take charge, exclusively, of the massing, the office plan, and the facade.

The questions that the design wants to answer are very concrete. The first one consists of connecting the building to the ground level. In Panama, the first ten floors of the city’s towers are for parking, leaving the cars in view, which produces a characteristic estrangement because a considerable distance from any form of life at the ground level is added to the lack of commercial activities on the street. In our case, and as a consequence of an outsider perspective that is amazed that such a situation is so consolidated, these floors are treated, for the first time, in a way that lowers the facade of the offices to the street level, in front of the cars and, from there, redefines the commercial type of office building. The second question echoes the problem generated by the
monumental presence of huge towers that condemns companies that seek a small office to live invisibly on a few floors of an anodyne skyscraper, because the market does not offer the product
they need. For this reason, we offer a typological invention that consists of stacking buildings using a terraced section where each has its own lobby, exterior space, and representative capacity, so
that a company can have a kind of exclusive building, but inside a bigger structure. The third question is about the image of the tower. It is impossible to count the stories of the building from the outside, making it an enigmatic and objectual presence in the noisy landscape of large developments that surround it—something that we believe is the basis of the commercial success of the project, unable to compete with its neighbors that are twice as high. The conclusion is that from apparently impure work, in which the architect—with bounded responsibility—accepts being part of a team, it is possible to open a discussion space on disciplinary matters of the greatest importance today and, if in the end it turns out that it makes sense for the tower to appear on a credit card of the company that owns the building, it is because architecture has a power of communication that we have not yet been able to explore.

If in the case of the Panama tower we were talking about not having total control, the third case refers to the acceptance of leaving power in other hands, which is not the same. This is a frequent
complaint of professionals that long for the times when their mandates weren’t questioned. This is very evident when the architect has to work as a mediator in front of a public, social, political, or media reaction, and especially when the arguments put on the table are not strictly architectural, but associated to collective imaginaries or desires or to identities that are seen as in danger. These
situations, which we now encompass within the generic spectrum of citizen participation, are increasingly frequent and we understand that they form a more democratic and social system of  decision making, but until very recently they were considered a nuisance.

The design of the Edvard Munch museum in Oslo, in the vicinity of the opera house by Snøhetta, was the result of a very fierce and ambitious international competition that we were very fortunate to win in mid-2009. Our proposal consisted of a vertical museum with a rigid core that we called “static” museum—a stack of galleries of diverse formats—wrapped by spaces for gathering and circulation that we called “dynamic” museum, which connects to the lobby that functions as a covered plaza—an indoor public space with a lookout point that crowns the building. Going upwards, visitors read the strata of the city and reconstruct its history, relating it to Munch’s work, but they also discover that the building harbors other in-house premises that show that the museum is not only a repository for artwork, but an active organism, a condenser of urban life.

The idea of the vertical museum was difficult to accept for a portion of the public that was very attached to Oslo’s tradition as a city of buildings with modest volumes and, very soon, we were involved in a participatory process that demanded our willingness to listen, to dialogue, and to understand the doubts of the different groups. The first thing we had to learn was that it was not about convincing, but about answering the questions we were asked. Our trust in drawing as an instrument of communication led us to make a collection of graphic documents to support
our conversations and, if necessary, make the relevant design decisions. By making this effort to explain our building, to communicate it and give it meaning, these drawings helped us to better
understand the city and also the strengths and weaknesses of our proposal. This knowledge was crucial to keep reflecting on the project despite, or due to, a situation of exposure that was really an invitation to keep questioning, to keep making design decisions.

You have to admire a society in which Aftenposten, the country’s highest circulation newspaper, publishes a word search puzzle assuming that its readers know the name of the architects that will design the Munch Museum; a society that two years later will organize, through social media, a demonstration to ask the city council for the construction of the museum—without considering the architects at all—because it is the citizens of Oslo that ask their politicians to stop arguing, since the museum had already been accepted by the civil agents through dialogue and has become a collective desire [fig. 8]. This is the beautiful end to a story that has changed the way we approach our profession and that for the duration of the process—it will open in 2020—has structured our evolution as a studio, the incorporation of Jens Richter as a partner, and the elaboration of our statement, Dialogue Architecture, presented at the 2012 Venice Biennale.1

The fourth case is about the architect that cannot or does not need to visit their site for any reason, something that finds special accommodation in global practices exercised from afar.

We were invited by the city of Gwangju in South Korea to build a little meeting space on the nondescript widening of the sidewalk of an urban corner as part of a program of pocket-sized public spaces with which the city wanted to redraw the medieval wall razed decades ago by urban growth. After brief research on the history of a place without a history, we discovered that a few meters away was the Nokdu bookstore where meetings of activists, mostly university students, were held during the bloody week of May in1980, which signals the beginning of the democratization process in South Korea. These demonstrations, some of you might remember, were extremely bloody. We took this argument to recreate the idea of the meeting, never again clandestine, as a celebration that the taking of the streets by citizens, although crushed by a fascist regime, was the seed of the confident use of public space that is now possible 24 hours a day.

In order to achieve this, we needed to build the conditions of domesticity resembling those of a living room, which means having light, warmth, and information with which to establish a device to interact with nature and to summon other sensitive and poetic matters that are not exactly those of the Vitruvian architecture, centered on protection and permanence. We posed this idea of domesticity taking some references, like the text “A Home is Not a House” by Reyner Banham, where he says that the American house has consisted historically of a thermal floor slab—that in our Spanish versions has been erroneously translated as “técnico” [technical floor]—and a fireplace: everything else is a lightweight cabin.2 What is burned or blown away with the wind is the wrapping, the expendable, but what stays is the house because the house is that thermal floor slab and that fireplace. So, we built a floor and a warm and luminous lamp that runs between the trees that were already there in 1980, and that form the lightweight cabin [fig. 9]. In this case, again, we did not do constructive details. We explained our idea the best we could to some young Korean architects, called D’espacio Architects, that were hired to develop the project, carry out tests, and build it. We went to Korea three times: once to receive the commission and sign the contract, another to present the project to our clients and local architects, and another for the opening. We did not have much control in the traditional sense of the word, but we kept a constant practical and intellectual tension with what was being done despite being a project carried out via e-mail. This forced us to eliminate superfluous conditions, to be very radical in areas related to the material and production. Our local colleagues did it exceptionally well and understood the game perfectly; what we were doing was not a project with discriminate phases—schematic design, design development, working drawings, construction survey, and so on—but designing and making decisions while they were building.

I will finish with the fifth character, which is the one who assumes that the complexity of today’s design and construction process no longer accepts one single head that advances like an icebreaking ship with the help of others that lend subsidiary knowledge.

The Bogota Convention Center is a recently finished, 70,000-meter-square work that was the result of a fierce international competition in three phases, for which we organized—with the invaluable collaboration of Colombian architect Daniel Bermúdez—a very strong team of experts with whom we sat from the very first day, before drawing even a single line. More than fifty
specialists are in the diagram of participating agents, but the interesting thing is that architects are no longer at the top of the pyramid, but in a more tangential position because our clients,
consultants, and service installation companies generate situations, intersections, or relationships in which we sometimes participate and sometimes don’t [fig. 10]. Today it is necessary to know
how to be a protagonist, but it is also necessary to know how to step back within this dynamic in which the contemporary project, with all its complexity, no longer allows us to play the repeated
role of orchestra director or film director—metaphors that were used to define our work for decades, but now sound somewhat ridiculous. Right now, frankly, it would be better to be a good
DJ, a good instant mixer of sounds that grasps the contingency of the moment as work material and understands that what is pertinent today, may not be tomorrow. This off-center position of
the architect, who no longer has a system of infallible answers, is related to the fact that available information is the same for all professionals. And if the appropriate answer were also the same,
where is the project as speculative and experimental terrain? If everyone has access to the best consultants, the same references, and works with the same digital tools, it is the specific, creative, critical, and unexpected coding and reorganization of the same data in different ways that constitutes the essence of the project today. That is the contemporary project. To elaborate that synthesis, it is neither necessary nor possible to be the repository of all knowledge, but to maintain an attentive and reflexive attitude to take and manipulate what other specialists contribute.

In our meetings with the project’s team of experts, very interesting things arose. One of them was that Bogota’s climate should allow us to dispense with air conditioners and to propose a natural ventilation system. However, slowly moving the necessary air volume to naturally temper a space with a four-thousand-person capacity required hollowed slabs of great depth. Having at the same
table those responsible for the structural design, the Spanish BAC, allowed us to conclude that these thicknesses could help us eliminate columns from the spaces and increase flexibility. In the same conversation, from another corner, we discussed the efficiency of acoustic protectors as the air chamber increases its volume. The conclusion is a section of strange thicknesses that is a holistic synthesis of design, structural, and installation decisions that required us to draw very complex plans, where the spatial benefits are not easy to read but, once the project’s own code is understood—as one who learns to read sheet music—we discovered that we are discussing architecture, and not only technical side matters or awkward additions to the project. Another conclusion that came from these meetings is an interesting typological shift. In talks about operational logistics, there were concerns that there would not be enough conferences for all the convention centers being built around the city to be sustainable, especially in times of financial crisis when companies significantly reduce their expenses. The decision then is to open the center to other formats,  hose diversity depends on the imagination of those responsible, given that a conference hall with an inclined floor and a simple stage has very limited uses. The architectural proposal turns out to be to design flat floors and not to focus facilities toward just one stage. In sum, it is about building isotropic rooms, in terms of accessibility and evacuation, lighting, acoustics, equipment, and so on. In this way, it is possible to hold a film festival, the world judo championship, a fair, a big banquet, a conference, and much more. This led to reflection on the name of the building and the design of its graphic image. For this, we had the contributions of Norberto Chaves and Joaquín Gallego, who explained that if the range of formats is expanded, we cannot continue to talk about a “convention center.” Hence, Ágora Bogotá, the name with which the building is now known.

The five architects presented here are the same architect. And there may be many more coexisting inside the body of any committed and critical colleague who thinks that the design of their practice is their main project and, as such, includes conscious decisions about their intellectual content, self-imposed restrictions, and pragmatic decisions about what to do and how to do it. Dialogue is the backbone of all of these different ways of being an architect and all those you can create and add to the list.

And speaking of dialogue, we always like to close our conferences by showing an image of our team, because we are convinced that there is no future without considering ours as a collective practice. Our collaborators, and those of many studios that ask this question, are no longer like those apprentices that religiously cleaned up sketches that their boss would bring in on a notebook. Today, many architects do not make sketches; they do not project outside their studio because, although they live far away, they are permanently connected and present. Neither are they interested in having submissive collaborators. Some years ago, we stopped to think, with Jens Richter, about what we were doing, and what we wanted to do. In order to give shape to our project we changed the name and the physical location and organized our studio in a way that would reflect our plan exactly: a collaborative practice in which everybody, from the youngest to the most experienced, would participate on a common project while forming part of our office. Soon we understood it was not about dusting off that old-fashioned mythology of teamwork from the sixties, filled with tedious meetings, a lot of coffee, and little activity. Going back to the statement of this conference, teamwork has to be designed. The rules of the game must be established, and its restrictions, so that it’s not a system of dissolution of responsibilities but the exact opposite: a demanding organizational system in which some people ask questions of the others to challenge
projects and make them walk a tightrope. Many of the things that I have said come precisely from the capacity we have been able to instill in these people to be critical of the work that we do.

Frequently, we get together and tell each other what we’re working on. From these conversations come decisions, changes, and new ideas that would hardly emerge from a pyramidal work scheme. To listen and to ask yourself the question that others have asked, and to listen to yourself answering that question is essential. And it is the same if this question comes from a partner, a
collaborator, a client, a student, or a journalist. This is the basis for our work methodology.

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