Founded in 2000 by Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa, Ensamble Studio represents that rare and highly sought-after ideal of 21st century architecture: a firm whose work is as intellectually rigorous as it is visceral and viral, with work that is equally at home in both the 2010 Venice Biennale and on the popular website Viralnova. In this interview - the first installment in his column for ArchDaily "City of Ideas" - Vladimir Belogolovsky visits the studio's founders at their unconventional home, the Hemeroscopium House in Madrid, to talk about their experimental approach to design and their conception of the city of the future.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with a question that you would want to ask yourselves.
Antón García-Abril: What moves you?
Débora Mesa: What is architecture for you?
VB: Antón, what is architecture for you?
AGA: Architecture is a primary need and it materializes culture and time. It expresses human spirit and desires, and conglomerates all these into a spatial condition. It is an amazing transformation of human attitude toward living.
VB: Débora, what moves you?
DM: I don’t think I was aware of what architecture was for a long time. It was intuition and admiration that drove me to it and that is exactly what keeps me moving. It is challenging, fun and you never feel you have learned enough. It keeps you moving and going forward...
AGA: We want to share what is good to us with other people. Look around this house. Imagine if you had this inside a tower in the center of a big city! We love it here and we want to imagine it in another context where it could be used by many people.
VB: Why do you think it is a good idea to stack houses like yours into a tower of villas in the sky?
AGA: Well, as architects we are always thinking about how to propose an idea of a good model for living – beautiful spaces, comfort, health… These are positive attitudes, right? There are people who can afford many wonderful things. That’s fantastic. But we want to provide models for good living for those who don’t have it. Somebody has to push in this direction through new urban models or technological development or through fantasies.
This summer we proposed such a tower of villas. It is called the Plot Tower, a vertical stack of plots that is developed as a fragment of the city more than a building. No one has solicited us. We need to do this ourselves. We are really anxious for coming up with new fantasies and developing new ways for making them real. We don’t have a client yet, but we will, for sure. We are confident! We are architects; we need to create new kinds of worlds and share them with people.
VB: It is an amazing idea. And what is fascinating about this tower is that even if it is built, it will always remain unfinished, right?
AGA: Well, that is the leitmotif of our urban vision. It all started when we were asked by a client to design a 150-apartment tower in Milan. We were not prepared to analyze desires of 150 families because we, as architects, cannot provide our best service unless we are totally engaged with the user. The best solution is always customized solution. So instead, let’s provide 150 frames. Let’s invite other architects and customize 150 different worlds. People should have their freedom. I don’t want to live in a generic house, why should they? No architect should impose a particular vision of how people have to live. That’s old school.
VB: Tell me about your models here. I've never seen anything like it.
AGA: We always start with the models. They are part of our creative process. They are not just beautiful objects. No, no. They are quick, rough, robust, structural, cheap, not afraid of outdoors, and amazingly beautiful models. There is an element of elevated beauty there because they are the inherited part of our creative process. We do them ourselves, Débora and I. Of course, we get help, but this is what we do. This is where the spark is. Then, there is a lot of hard work – to describe, represent, measure, engineer, etc. But making models is the only thing that we cannot delegate.
VB: What words would you use to describe your architecture?
AGA: Passionate, fearless, poetic; architecture that makes an impact.
DM: Incomplete, nonstandard, provocative…
We do not understand when people show indifference toward architecture. We believe people should react to buildings and spaces, and engage them more directly. The reason we design architecture as unfinished frameworks, as in the case of the Plot Tower, is that we are trying to push people to assume the responsibility of completing them, to think about what kind of ideal house they would like to live in or what kind of working space would they feel more comfortable in. Why can’t everyone have his or her ideal house? The ideal house is the unfinished house, when home evolves with the residents. And our focus is on how we can make these choices affordable, not exclusive.
VB: You are using standard elements to produce nonstandard results.
AGA: That’s the concept of standardization. You use standard parts and it is each particular assembly that becomes unique. The new generation, the generation of our students, will not accept standard solutions. We need an entirely different city. They will not accept the city constructed by the greed of the financial markets without considering people and contaminated with pollution and socially insensitive places.
VB: I like one of your quotes. You said: “We like to find beauty in corners less explored and we get bored of the actions which do not involve some boldness and risk.” Could you elaborate on that? What is the intention of your work?
AGA: Architects are often interested in the surface and not in the guts. The question is – where do we fish and search for beauty? The projects we have been working on for some time now follow two different directions: urban systems and nature.
The Plot Tower or this house, Hemeroscopium House, are the result of developing systems of standard parts that allow us to create flexible and unprecedented solutions for urban contexts. Our Truffle House is the result of manipulating nature. The Truffle House is a clear manifesto about our understanding of beauty. It is a piece of nature built with earth full of air. We built this house by excavating a whole in the ground and then by putting together everything from soil, branches, leaves, animal bones, and whatever else that could be found on the site. Then we poured reinforced concrete all around it. After the form was consolidated, we cleaned it, cut it open, removed all the stuff from the core… All this revealed the most beautiful space within. We had engineered the process but we, of course, did not have a plan for how it would look like. What we had was action!
We don’t like pastoral representations of nature or domesticated beauty. We understand that nature is brutal and can kill you. We love that kind of beauty - of the brutality of the wilderness. That effects our aesthetics. When we look into the systems, fabrication, and logic, we try to bring to our work hybrid scales of a house, infrastructure, city, and landscape. We put all of them together, OK? They all become our superstructures. So we work on creating this hybrid of the best of infrastructure, architecture, and nature put together in a new typology. That’s our understanding of beauty.
DM: We aim at finding a balance between what we need to control and what we do not need to control. In this balance, other forces come into active play: our cultivated structures physically need the landscape they are cast in and our systems, whatever typology they assume, need other architectures and agents to be functional. We thoroughly design the process (or the system) and allow for different degrees of uncertainty and freedom to significantly affect the result.
VB: You often use elements of extreme weight. Such was the case with your Martemar House in Malaga and this house. How did these ideas come about?
AGA: We are using weight in an obscene way by revealing the essence of how our spaces are created. We want to celebrate the solidity and enormous weight of the elements we are working with.
DM: The truth is that we started working with heavy materials by coincidence. One of our first projects was in Santiago de Compostela, which is a historical city and it was natural for us to want to work with stone. So we were faced with a dilemma – either we were going to use standard stone products that we could choose in showrooms or we were going to a local stone quarry to try to understand the material and how it works. Because the stone as a material has its own aspirations. It does not want to be decorative. It wants to be structural. That became our approach. Then we visited a huge precast concrete factory where we happened to come across a cemetery of beams that were discarded due to some flaws in the production. So our first thought was – can we use these beams, that no one wants, anyway?
VB: So these concrete beams we are now seating under, were discovered by you in this factory and utilized in this house?
AGA: These particular beams are standard beams engineered for typical bridges, highway construction, aqueducts, etc. By the way, these things are very cheap.
VB: What are the dimensions of these things here in this house?
AGA: All the beams and aqueducts here range from 22 to 25 meters long and weight 40 to 50 tons each. The elevated aqueduct that we use as a floating swimming pool, sticking out of our bedroom upstairs doubles that weight when filled with water.
DM: The whole choreography from prefabrication to transportation and assembly had to be very carefully thought through. We had to map the routes for these large elements to come here from the factory. But then the construction on site was fast. We hired a special 500-ton crane at 6 thousand dollars a day and in seven days, we were topping out. But despite the monumentality and weight of the structure, in the end, it was a cheap house. The structure cost around 250 thousand dollars and the entire house including finishes twice that amount.
What is most remarkable about this house is the meaning it brings to our work since it was built. It has become our testing ground. It continues to help us to imagine other projects on other possible scales.
VB: You are working with ready-made elements. Is it accurate to say that you are not interested in inventing your own forms and shapes in architecture, and developing your distinctive stylistic language?
AGA: In terms of developing our distinctive forms and the language, not at all. We are not interested in that. We are interested in spaces and concepts.
DM: And the technologies that build them.
AGA: What move us are the spaces, not the forms. The search for unique forms is a project that leads to an end in itself, whereas the search for unique spaces is a project that is continuous and alive. For example, I love Hadid’s work, but her project was finished 15 years ago. Her work is redundant now. We know it. Because her language was already developed then. But in case of Mies, the architect dies, but his project continues. We are still using his language and exploring his spatial ideas. His formal language is very basic and it was developed early on, but his project is still unfinished. Our Plot Tower project is Miesean in its origin. We have different elements, but the principles are his. We are now working with Mies. He is our collaborator.
DM: We are not trying to come up with a unique tower. We are interested in designing an architectural and urban system that can result in multiple products. We want to be practical and pragmatic about our work and develop many different possibilities with very few elements. We are not working with beams and aqueducts. Our beam is like Mies’s green Alpine marble. It is just one of the colors on our palette. We are working with ideas of openness and flexibilities of both spaces and programs. And we want our ideas to be used by others, not just us. We want our project to be explored and carried on by others, if they are willing to do so. Our project does not end with our buildings.
AGA: We work in the visions of Mies and Le Corbusier. What we are not accepting from Le Corbusier is his urban model where the car was going to be the ultimate link between the city and the suburbs. Today we know that the car is obsolete as an organizational device. We haven’t quite discovered what will be the next vision, but we are searching for it.
VB: Could you talk about your very striking façade of the General Society of Authors and Publishers Central Office in Santiago de Compostela?
AGA: The idea was to create a portico street, a galleria, which is a classical typology. But we wanted to get away from such direct precedent by employing structural innovation. Specifically, by stacking irregular ashlars in such a way that they would not evoke columns and lintels, bases and capitals. Because in the end, those are just formalities. We were building simply our understanding of what a galleria could be. In this project, we dismantled all historical catalogs of familiar fundamental elements of architecture. But what we expressed was the rhythm, the scale, the order, the character, and the flavor of that space.
VB: The idea was to challenge the authors with reproaching their familiar territories and exploring new possibilities in their work, right?
AGA: You can read it that way. In terms of material, we went to a quarry and selected the pieces we wanted from the spare material available. If you go to a quarry, you’ll find that they only use a small percentage of the stone they excavate. The rest is in a dump. It is a huge dumpster. The granite itself has zero value. What costs money is its handling, cutting, shipping, etc. The granite costs nothing. All Galicia is granite. There are mountains of it. So when I went to the quarry for the first time, I said jokingly to the owner, “How much would you pay us to take all these pieces out?” Of course, when I told him what the use of the stone would be, he came up with the price [Laughs.] But in the end, what we were charged was just for the labor.
VB: How did you design the wall of ashlars along the galleria?
AGA: What’s a design? A design is something that you draw on a piece of paper and then implement it. We did the opposite. First, we put together the whole wall of ashlars that we found in the quarry. We tested different ideas. And only after that we designed where all the selected pieces were going to go.
DM: Basically, we moved to the quarry for four months. Besides the architects, we were the contractors of the building and in order to make the stone wall happen the way we intended we first had to convince the experienced quarrymen that we were fully committed to prove our ideas. We initially suggested to make a small mock up of a section of the wall to study joints and maneuvers and ended up building the whole wall. In the beginning, the quarry owner was complaining every five minutes. On the last day, he felt so proud that he wanted to keep the wall for himself.
VB: How are all these pieces held together?
AGA: By gravity. How do you provide gravity? By adding weight. It is as simple as that.
VB: Just like the Egyptian obelisk? There is nothing that prevents these individual stones from falling?
AGA: This nothing is called gravity… Architecture is getting thinner and thinner. To hold it together we need very sophisticated mechanisms. But we can get rid of almost everything by using just gravity. When you have these multi-ton ashlars and boulders they stick very well.
VB: Do you treat your projects as various chapters of the same story or are you trying to start new stories with new projects?
AGA: Well, we are open to start new stories, but so far, we only found two. And I think it is a lot. Mies had one. Le Corbusier had four or five typological projects. Our first project is here. We are in it. This house is a construct of prefabricated exposed concrete infrastructural elements. This can be developed into a variety of scales and possibilities. And the other direction is the Truffle House.
VB: What is the most exciting project are you currently working on?
AGA: Architectural practices, traditionally, have been service-oriented firms. But we try to diversify and also produce our own projects. We don’t want to simply wait for a commission. We want to be able to offer a useful product. We are now developing ultralight beams for individual house construction. We are producing these beams in Madrid and shipping them to Boston where we already built our first house. We are doing it from here for three reasons. First, because here we have the people, technology, and the craftsmanship. Second, because it is cheaper. And third, and the most important reason, is that we want to demonstrate, as a case study, that the radius of action for prefabrication can be global. Usually, prefabrication is local and is done within 500-mile range, but we want to reinvent it by opening a new industry called Ultralight International Prefab.
DM: We have always been our best clients! And this has worked quite well on the domestic scale. When we were willing to develop an idea but had no client, we were not stopped by that. Now we are designing amazing high-rise projects, and we cannot wait to find opportunities to build them.
AGA: This is the case of the Plot Tower. It is a very exciting project and an ongoing project. We really believe in it. It is the kind of project that could be an absolute success but could also fail. If a project does not take a risk, it is a project that is not worth pursuing... We don’t really like it. [Laughs.] And imagine if it works!
DM: It will.
VLADIMIR BELOGOLOVSKY is the founder of the New York-based non-profit Curatorial Project. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York, he has written five books, including Conversations with Architects in the Age of Celebrity (DOM, 2015), Harry Seidler: LIFEWORK (Rizzoli, 2014), and Soviet Modernism: 1955-1985 (TATLIN, 2010). Among his numerous exhibitions: Anthony Ames: Object-Type Landscapes at Casa Curutchet, La Plata, Argentina (2015); Colombia: Transformed (American Tour, 2013-15); Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture (world tour since 2012); and Chess Game for Russian Pavilion at the 11th Venice Architecture Biennale (2008). Belogolovsky is the American correspondent for Berlin-based architectural journal SPEECH and he has lectured at universities and museums in more than 20 countries.
Belogolovsky’s new column, City of Ideas will introduce Archdaily’s readers to his latest and ongoing conversations with the most innovative architects from around the world. These intimate discussions will be a part of the curator’s upcoming exhibition with the same title to premier at the University of Sydney in June 2016. The City of Ideas exhibition will then travel to venues around the world to explore ever-evolving content and design.