As one half of the Madrid-based duo Abalos & Herreros, Inaki Abalos has designed some of the most adventurously subtle buildings of the last decade. Incorporating ecological concerns and relentlessly modern machinery, his buildings, as well as his research and writing, are a sustained examination of the relation between processes of modernization and architecture, with particular attention given to the skyscraper. Abalos’ buildings propose architecture as a form of dynamic life support, a technology that enables the life cycles of its contents and their continuing evolution. In his new firm, in partnership with Renata Sentkiewicz, Abalos continues to advance these lines of inquiry. He discusses with Volume the radical functionality of his buildings and the elegance of pragmatism.
MA: In digital media, content management can be understood as a set of processes and technologies that support the evolutionary cycle of information. Many, if not all, of your buildings have specific kind of functionality to them, a life or a life cycle, you might say. Could you talk a little about what it means to build architecture that fundamentally deals with function, for instance in buildings like the recycling plant you designed in the Valdemingomez area of Madrid?
IA: Industrial buildings are radically functional. We won the recycling plant competition because we treated recycling as a system of thematic and functional layers that could imply a variety of uses. This has a lot to do with the issue of content management. In the recycling plant we understood that the site had a unique splendor, and we wanted to extract its beauty as a theme and contrast it with the industrial aspect of our intervention. We included recreational and cultural programs as means to maximize the contrast between natural and artificial, and produced a hybrid building that plays with that distinction.
MA: Sanford Kwinter described your projects as a ‘piece of social equipment’. Could you talk about what it means for an architect to be rooted in an intangible phenomenon such as social effects?
IA: The idea of social equipment can be understood as a metaphor to describe how the technological and the social correspond or influence each other in their advance ments. For instance, I’ve always understood that there was a relation between the production of prototypical modern skyscrapers, like Mies’ Seagram Building, and the development of bureaucracy. As the production of information changed, the need for a new type of building grew in response to this change in how information was produced and the type of office space needed to carry out the processing of that information.
MA: In your work, how does social performance shape the design of a building? For example, in the recent Tour de La Chapelle, how did the extreme variety of programs – cultural and academic programs, corporate offices, retail, residential and sports facilities – effect the form?
IA: The question of program as an activator and transformative agent in the building is an interesting one. The structure of the Tour de La Chapelle changes as it ascends, so its programs are not the typical arrangement of commercial on the ground floor, with specialized spaces above. Instead, program becomesa kind of vertical path for the university’s public to an elevated classroom and lounge. The idea is to create a young and international center: a hybrid of an academic campus and commercial office space that is public and vertical. The program is capable of integrating different groups of people (young students and professionals) in a space that is incredibly accessible.
Yet mixing use and program does not always need to be linked to the physical aspect of the building. The construction of buildings that physically express the differentiation of programs has no technical justification, but I’m very interested in this contemporary expressionism, not for its technical aspect, but for the programmatic approach that it offers because it lets us play freely with the architectural function and the content of the building while worrying less about the compositional aspect.
MA: You’ve said that a tower should be a city in itself. What cities would you compare your buildings to?
IA: Skyscrapers are a kind of imaginary city. I’d compare the skyscraper to some type of archipelago, like the city of Venice or the city-states on the plains of Germany. I love this analogy because these cities are located within a natural system that allows for the creation of some sort of hybrid between natural and artificial. The natural entity in Venice is the lagoon, and in Germany, the plains.
MA: Contemporary content management systems, such as internet sites like YouTube, promote the production of content by their users rather than by a single authoritative entity. What do you think the architect’s future role will be in the organization of the the content of a building?
IA: The architect’s job is to creatively transform a series of chaotic ideas, suggestions, data and materials into a coherent system. It’s important to organize these abstract and intangible elements into something that’s memorable because simply having access to so much information could become insignificant if, as architects, we’re incapable of making that transformation.
There are a number of tools changing the way architecture is produced. The possibilities introduced by phenomena such as YouTube are quite serious because they threaten the maintenance of separate fields and promote the integration of different disciplines. I’m very interested in how the profession adapts and integrates these new tendencies, since they could potentially maximize the capabilities of collaboration and technologies.
AGdR: How would you define your approach to technology and technique, and how do they influence the construction and performance of a building?
IA: I’m interested in the combination of high and low techniques applied simultaneously. Those architects only interested in high technology and techniques have an affinity for the design of the object. In particular, an
This is the result of my psychological disposition; I can’t design every little corner or doorknob. I like to work with what is necessary and no more. I like my work to come together from the rest of the project’s factors. Just thinking about designing everything and being in absolute control of the entire project mentally exhausts me. There must be an appreciable margin left for the user to intervene. I prefer raw, even ugly spaces to designed ones. These contain much more grace, more humor and more possibilities than projects that specify every little thing. I’d commit suicide if I had to live in an over-designed interior!
AGdR: What is the relationship between natural and artificial in your work, and how does it relate to the radical functionality of your buildings?
IA: We’ve never maintained a simple relationship with nature in our work. Instead we prefer a dialectical tension. I’m not talking about putting a polycarbonate panel against a green wall – it’s slightly more complex than that. I don’t believe organic shapes are the means through which we come to understand our relation to nature and I’m also not interested in making a picturesque view from the window. Instead, we treat natural and artificial as multiple layers of a complex system rich enough to allow us to negotiate with its varied parts.
The relationship to nature is rooted in the social elements of our projects. It’s not limited to the realm of objects, but rather involves the social and intangible qualities we try to incorporate in our buildings. The complex forms of sociality that architecture can engender and their relation to nature are far more appealing.
MA: At this point in your career you’ve successfully completed a great variety of buildings of different programs and typologies. How do you manage your own ideas, agendas and concepts? How do you implement what you’ve learned from previous projects in your current designs?
IA: I practice a rather unorthodox methodology of working with a limited number of themes and materials. It is much more efficient and productive to work with four, five or at most six themes to which you persistently
MA: You describe your design as pragmatic. How does that approach affect the process of designing a building?
IA: I’ve maintained an affinity for pragmatism for two reasons: I like to maintain a close relationship to the contemporary technological world and I believe in the elegance of simplicity. Scientifically speaking, elegant solutions are those that solve the most complex problems with the utmost simplicity. One can be pragmatic by creating projects that are simple and elegant. This is especially the case in Spain: a country with limited resources, but a great demand for buildings.
1. La Chapelle Tower