Over the past quarter-century, EMBT has emerged as one of the most influential practices in Spain, remaining as thought-provoking under the sole direction of Benedetta Tagliabue as it was before the tragic death of her inspirational husband and co-founder Enric Miralles. In this installment of his “City of Ideas” column, Vladimir Belogolovsky visits Tagliabue at the firm's studio in Barcelona to talk about the role of experimentation and curiosity in their work.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Before we start, I would like to compliment you on the space here at your studio. It is absolutely fantastic to feel such creative drive here, and I am particularly fascinated with the very simple light fixtures with cords stapled to walls, each expressing its own character and its distinctive signature. I wonder how consciously all these features are done here. Or is it a true laboratory and tomorrow the studio might look slightly different?
Benedetta Tagliabue: It is sort of conscious, but also many things are here because we are constantly running out of space. Most importantly, we want to work in a kind of space that inspires us. So we are in the old city… We found this abandoned building in the early 90s with many layers of history, which reminds me of Venice where I lived before meeting Enric [Miralles]. Yet, from the beginning, it was clear to us that this was going to be a forward-looking, experimental place. And everyone who comes here can see the type of work we are producing. We particularly champion a hand-made approach – building models, making collages. You see and feel what it is like here!
VB: You were born in Italy, received your education there, but you’ve been living and practicing in Spain for many years. Under what circumstances did you move here? And would you describe yourself more as Italian architect or Spanish?
BT: [Laughs.] Well, I was always a kind of wanderer, ever since I was a child… First, because I like it. I remember how my parents sent me to spend some time at a house of their friend. I was always happy to discover new places, new worlds. Whenever I am on a trip, I am so happy! I studied in Switzerland, Venice, then New York for my final thesis where I met John Hejduk at Cooper Union. That was in 1987.
VB: So did you meet Miralles in New York?
BT: Yes, he was teaching at the time at Columbia University. But we became friends ever since meeting in Venice a couple of years earlier where I was writing for a magazine and I first met him when I interviewed him for that magazine. He was fantastic and clearly since then became the biggest influence on my work.
VB: Could you talk about his influence on you and how do you define the studio’s direction today – is it a development of what he started or is something new has been emerging?
BT: I think something new is being developed from the seeds that he has planted. Enric is very important and always will be. He was my teacher, my mentor, my inspiration, and also inspiration for all the people who work here today. But to be really faithful to Enric I always had a very strong desire to continue experimenting. In other words, if you get stuck and simply recycle what we were doing before that is not going to be what he was doing. He was constantly going forward… Constantly! He was so fast. There was constantly a crisis around him. Constantly bringing new ideas, abandoning the old ones, changing directions.
Maybe I am not as fast as he was, but I am also a kind of person who needs to keep experimenting, finding new materials and new ways of doing things.
VB: And as you said, he was constantly changing directions, which would be hard on his clients, I imagine…
BT: Oh, wow… You have no idea! That was very complicated. Deadlines, not unlimited budgets. But Enric was very charming and he was very convincing every time when he was arguing that the last version was not on the level that it could be and that the new scheme is much better.
VB: What words did he use to convince his clients? What were his arguments?
BT: The words did not matter. It was his eyes. [Laughs.] He had a power to convince you that he was right. Still, it was hard and I had to play my role trying to bring his fantastic ideas into the world of reality. It was not easy.
VB: He was a kind of person that had to have a partner, right?
BT: Absolutely. And he always had a partner, always. In fact, in the very beginning, I did not want to be his partner, as he was just coming out of his marriage and partnership with Carme Pinós. But it was impossible… Because he needed a partner! He needed to share his ideas, trips, everything in life.
VB: Could you talk about the Enric Miralles Foundation and its mission?
BT: The mission of the Foundation is to remember Enric. But not in a nostalgic way. Not about diligently preserving every sketch that he left, and so on. We want to keep up his spirit of experimentation – exploring different ideas, materials, and new ways of doing architecture. That is the best kind of heritage, I think. It is not easy, as we are changing many things. But he remains at the center of what we do here.
The Foundation is also a learning center. Even when Enric was alive, we started accepting Erasmus students here, so the office has been working as a kind of school for a long time. Before we had a lot of workshops, but this year we are starting a postgraduate one-semester course for a very small class of eight or nine students. The topics we are exploring are very much related to our projects in the office. So the students experiment with what is not always possible to do in real life, but at the same time, they know that there is relevance to what they do. Our assignments are real; they could be applied to real projects. We also organize public talks, and English is the main language of communication here.
There is also an exhibition space. Right now, we are showing Enric’s early drawings and models that later this year will be exhibited in Shanghai.
VB: In your lectures, you said that you would like to achieve new, unpredictable results and distinctive characters in your work. How would you define the intention of your work?
BT: [Laughs.] The intention of my work is to do something that helps people.
VB: Helps in what way?
BT: Helps seeing everything differently… Helps making people comfortable, feel familiar. Then there is this thing called beauty. We strive for achieving beautiful spaces. That’s what we do.
VB: Well, the space here feels very comfortable and it is undeniably beautiful.
BT: Thank you.
VB: Last year you joined the Pritzker Prize jury; it is customary for the jury to travel together to see the most extraordinary architecture around the world. I wonder what is it that you personally pay attention to when you visit buildings by other architects?
BT: In a way, you develop a sense of immediateness. I respond to buildings and spaces that either feel right or not, that are designed well or not. And visiting places is fantastic because you not only analyze them with your mind, but you experience them with your eyes. Physical presence is always more concrete. And we are visiting places together, so we are constantly sharing our feelings. Also many of the jury members are not professional architects, which always brings many interesting aspects about architecture. And not just architecture as design, but also as a social tool.
VB: In one of your talks, you compared the design of a roof for your Spanish Pavilion at Shanghai 2010 Expo to a dress. What was the main inspiration for that project?
BT: Well, the idea was to come up with something very dynamic, open, transparent… Something that would have a very light feeling, light texture. We were also investigating Spanish crafts and how artisans are working, especially we were interested in hand weaving, something that has been disappearing here but is still very much alive in China. The idea was to express all these findings architecturally.
We went around Spain to see how different artisans or students were working with their hands. Then we experimented on different possibilities and developed one particular prototype for the roof element made of wicker, the kind of wood used for basket weaving. Then in China, the artisans shop where we worked at needed only to follow our prototype.
VB: You develop your ideas by making models. Could you talk about this way of working?
BT: For us making models is to continue the tradition of making things with your hands. We also like to solve issues three-dimensionally and work directly with different materials and textures. We like building things slowly, layer by layer, and we like using different people, so you see many traces and many hands involved. Maybe we are old-fashioned, but we would like to maintain this way of working.
VB: What would you say is common in all of your buildings?
BT: First, we always try to integrate our projects into the site and the surroundings. Second, we tend to bring nature into our work.
VB: One of your lectures was called “Displacements.” What other words would you choose to describe your architecture?
BT: Well, displacements is something that comes to mind first, because with all the travels we tend to bring back here many things and ideas, and put them together in new ways. Fragments is another word; fragments that we bring from other places and plant seeds that constantly bear fruits in the form of many interesting ideas. And then, of course, we strive for the right balance between global and personal.
VB: Your work is very organic and complex formally and geometrically. Where does this complexity come from? Where do you get your inspirations from? How do you begin?
BT: We begin very much with what we find. And maybe others have minds that see everything as abstractions, but I see everything as complexity. And that’s why our buildings reflect that complex vision. We often begin with making collages because they really help to understand the complexity of the world and discover something new and different. When I say collages, I mean photos and objects from the site, from the brief… And trying to put them together… Sounds easy… [Laughs.]
VB: Well, let’s take, for example, your Santa Caterina Market here in Barcelona. What would be the collage for that? Would you start from fruits and vegetables or the facades of the buildings around, or the existing structure, or something else?
BT: Yes. With the market, it was the collage of the city, the skyline of the city, the existing market’s interior. And yes, we did include fruits and vegetables as well. And it was this collage that gave a particular direction and final geometry.
VB: You never pick up a pencil to draw an architectural form from the beginning, right?
BT: I don’t like that and I wouldn’t know how. It would be meaningless to me.
VB: Explaining your Scottish Parliament building, you said that you started your design with the landscape. Is that a typical way for you to start a project? What was the main idea behind that project?
BT: The Parliament project was a very complicated completion that we started with Enric. In the beginning, we explored many ideas in relation to Scotland. We were talking a lot about whisky, for example, or going into the pit and connecting people of Scotland with its land and nature. And, of course, the Parliament’s site has a fantastic landscape surrounded by the palace, the castle, the old city of Edinburgh and by beautiful mountains. All these forces were very important to us. It was hard to find a symbolic representation of the Parliament in such a complex place, but also we did not want to find such a symbolic representation. We studied other examples of Parliaments and we did not want to repeat in our project ideas such as hierarchy, central organization, symmetry, autonomy of the main elements such as the Senate or House of Representatives. That approach led to a very complex, non-hierarchical, and very organic geometry with distinctive elements such as the Debating Chamber or the Main Hall.
VB: Enric once said: “I don’t think of my buildings as things I have built… That’s why my sketches are important. They have a kind of independence, a set of rules. The buildings then are interpretations.” What do you think he meant? It seems like he separated his sketches and buildings maybe because he saw his sketches as the work in progress, whereas the finished buildings represented one particular interpretation out of many…
BT: I am not familiar with this particular quote. Enric was always surprising. But reflecting on it now, I think it is quite beautiful because, in a way, he was working and reworking so much that perhaps at the very end, the result, the final building was insufficient for him. It could never represent the real complexity that was revealed during the process, in his sketches. Also he liked looking at his buildings as if they were decomposing and becoming new sketches… He never liked saying, “This is it, I found the form.” No. He was all about celebrating the never-settling complexity of the design and building process.
But at the same time, he never celebrated his sketches. He did not treasure them. For example, he never did a book on his sketches. It was only at the very end of his life that he started asking us to conserve his sketches, not before. And I think the main idea for preserving these sketches was to help others to understand better what he was trying to do.
VB: Is there one quintessential manifesto-like building or project that you have done in the past that haunts you in all of your projects or do you feel absolutely free with each new project?
BT: Yes, I would like to think that we are free, but we have developed our approach and language that we use. I would say that our manifesto project is our own house here in Barcelona. For quite some time we didn’t want to publish it because we thought it was a house just for us, very private and particular to our way of life, not architectural, not especially designed, and so on. But then we realized that many of our ideas first originated in this house, so we ended up publishing it many times and it became a kind of public demonstration of our ideas.
For example, Utrecht City Hall, which is inserted into the existing fabric of a complex of several historical buildings to reveal their layered history, would not be possible without exploring such ideas first in our house. And another house we did soon after ours, called La Clota House, also in Barcelona, to us was like, “Oh, we don’t need any drawings, we just need to transfer this model there.” That’s how we felt, at least. Or Santa Caterina Market. It was not like our house at all. But the approach was quite similar.
VB: You opened your second office in Shanghai in 2010. Could you talk about your experience of working in China?
BT: Well, I developed a great passion for China even though objectively, its cities are quite hostile, very complicated, and not particularly beautiful. But at the same time I felt that throughout its history China was and remains very central. And it is a place where so many ideas have originated. So there is a very strong sense of history and at the same time the place is very dynamic in its current development. I was fortunate to win the Spanish Pavilion competition in Shanghai and then I had an opportunity to stay there and work on other projects. Of course, working there is not easy… But I am constantly learning. So far, we won a few competitions and built very small projects – a park and a few interiors. And our museum dedicated to the work of artist Zhang Da Qian is under construction in Neijiang, in Sichuan Province. Unfortunately, if you want to build in China you have to give up control of supervising construction. So we finished the project and we are now being informed from time to time about the building’s progress.
VB: Many times when you describe your work, you use the word beautiful. How do you define beauty in architecture?
BT: Well, this is maybe only because I have a limited vocabulary. [Laughs.]
VB: So you tend to use the word beautiful rather than finding another appropriate term?
BT: [Laughs.] Beauty doesn’t need words. It is fantastic. It makes you feel at home, at peace, and comfortable. Beauty is also something that’s exciting, and it pushes you to a different kind of thinking. Fantastic is another word I use a lot and this is something that is beautiful for me – something that is about fantasy and imagining beyond what is present or visible.
VB: What is the most fantastic project that you are working on these days?
BT: We are now working on a fantastic project in France. It is the Clichy-Montfermeil Metro Station in a very complex part of Paris, the Clichy-sous-bois neighborhood that had violent riots in 2005. The main idea, just like in all of our projects, is to make people feel that the place belongs to them. I want to build a kind of architecture that would make people feel at home. It is very challenging, of course, and I always like working on such challenging projects.
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 column, City of Ideas introduces 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.