In this second episode of GSAPP Conversations, Amale Andraos speaks with Spanish architect and GSAPP Professor Juan Herreros about the relationship between teaching and practicing architecture, and how he has carefully designed a particular way of working globally. Herreros, who co-founded Abalos&Herreros in 1984 and currently leads estudio Herreros, offers insight into how working sensitively in foreign settings also helps to develop a robust local practice, and how he is bringing new models of emerging practices to his students in GSAPP’s Advanced Architecture Studios.
GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.
GSAPP Conversations #2: Juan Herreros in Conversation with Amale Andraos
Amale Andraos: Today I'm speaking with Juan Herreros, who directs the Advanced Architecture Studios here at Columbia GSAPP. In addition to your full teaching schedule you're busy with estudio Herreros, an architectural office in Madrid that is currently building major projects in Casablanca, Bogota, Madrid, and elsewhere. You've built this incredible new practice, even coming out of another influential practice, Ábalos&Herreros, whose work is now archived at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, and which was recently rediscovered through younger practices which curated its material in 2014 and 2015: OFFICE, SO-IL, amongst others.
So it is in this spirit of practice that I wanted to talk about new forms of practices today. I know it's a question that you've been really interested in and redefining, both through your own work and your own practice, but also through your seminars here at the School and more recently the Transfer Dialogues that you've established here - really trying to redefine creative practices for architecture. Can you say a few words about how you're trying to reshape that conversation?
Juan Herreros: I have to say that my new practice has been established for ten years now, and curiously that’s the time I have been teaching at Columbia. It means that I have to de-contextualize my teaching practice from Madrid to Columbia, even if I have been teaching in many other schools before. And to have this coincide with my new practice means that perhaps Columbia has been the laboratory of these conditions that I needed to answer my other question of how to establish, or what practice is established in Spain – just at the moment that the economical crisis was starting. And Columbia was also the laboratory from the far to see my own context. So it's a kind of practical decision.
Andraos: So I guess Columbia allowed you maybe to take a distance vis-a-vis your practice in Madrid and to kind of reconceptualize it. And I know we've had discussions about this – at that time, about ten years ago, the big model was “global practice”. But I think you took a very critical approach where you invested more in-depth into certain places that you understood. And I remember you were going to Panama, and you really spent a lot of time in Colombia, and we spent time together in Rio, and you have an extensive knowledge.
So you really designed how you engaged with this question of global practice. And I'm curious to hear more about an architect who's designing that engagement rather than someone who is on the receiving end of just taking anything that comes.
Herreros: Yes. Ten years ago when I came to Columbia [University] and I established my new practice, this idea of the global architectural practice was quite directly related to the idea of “export architecture”. But because I was establishing in my new practice, I felt that I was like a young architect trying to invent something, and I started my seminars about emerging practice. Of course I was not an emerging architect, but I was trying to invent something that perhaps could be useful also for other people who were just starting from scratch.
And at that moment, one of my first decisions was that it should be a kind of global practice, not exactly engaged with the idea of exporting what we do in our big offices. And that's because I went to these countries where it is not usual for architects to go to look for opportunities and they have very well-defined contexts, very local in a certain way. And even though it isn’t usual for them to have foreigners practicing there as architects, I tried to demonstrate that there was a possibility of coming with a new attitude to these places, read the context, and give back to the people a new description of what they are, that they could identify better than what you can see when you're a local. And I think the success of our office in these last years has been precisely because in every project we have done outside, nobody is seeing a Spanish architecture, but a kind of reflection of what they are that they don't see anymore and they recognize now.
Andraos: That's really interesting because in a way I think this approach offers a sort of third way or an answer between the either/or, and the super-local. We've seen a lot of really fantastic emerging practices such as vPPR in London, who are really working incredibly locally, engaging the city, looking at housing, and defining a new way to be inventive and a new mode that is not a competition mode. But at the same time – I had this conversation yesterday actually with Bernard Tschumi, and he was saying, "Well, I see myself as a smaller practice who does very large projects." And he did it through competitions. That's becoming more difficult, the model of being a global practice that does competitions everywhere and then sort of lands somewhere.
And yours is a sort of third way, where you are not here, not there, but you spend enough time that you're really, really engaging the context of a certain place. But at the same time you operate as an outsider reading that context, and then you're working relationally between cities. But it's a very interesting model where I think you've made a choice, you're neither just here nor just there.
Herreros: Yes, you are right. I think it's related to the idea of small offices who are flexible and can dedicate some time and some resources to understand local aspects. Perhaps big corporations can't dedicate that time and that effort to sensibilize themselves to a very particular context, especially if the commission is not that big and perhaps is problematic or complicated. If it is not this clean thing, you know, “design an airport”.
And that is important because I think that for all these practices that you are mentioning, perhaps they don't have the horizon for designing airports. So there is a new type of practice, a new global practice run by small offices who can have this close and intimate relation with the context, where they can train, finally, the relation with their own context. So those practices coming back home, they have developed some muscles also to do the most sensible local practice. So I think that today, the most sophisticated local practice that we can do in our own cities or countries is because we have gone around the world trying to do that in contexts that are not ours.
Andraos: And you're bringing that level of questioning actually to the advanced studios. You've done that through the Transfer Dialogues where you've invited emerging practices from around the world to try to almost demonstrate or bring a certain knowledge to students that are about to graduate to redefine practice, no longer just as the idea of an expanded field, but rather showing that it is an architectural practice and today there is so much invention that is both needed and possible to engage building at all scales.
And I know you're working on a symposium for the fall that is looking at these questions. Do you want to give us sneak preview?
Herreros: Yes. Basically what I have done here in the last years is to bring my own questions to the School and use the School as the instrument to try to find a way of answering them. First of all, it's a question of the culture of studio as teaching format, especially in my case coming from a public, huge school [ETSAM-Madrid] where the studio is not possible in the same way, but this discussion between the both models for me is very important.
Second is the practice because in the end the students want to know how to establish a practice. And I think we have to stop that question and say, "No. The question is not how to establish. The question is why establish, for what, and what is the design of the practice you want to start?"
So the practice is a design itself – it's a project. And of course we are architects and we want to do architectural practices. So the idea with the emerging practice sometimes is related to how to escape from the conventional practice to invent other jobs.
I understand that architects always do projects. Anything we do, anything we are asked to do, we do a project. But those projects shouldn't be so broad in terms of trying to transform everything into projects because we are architects and we want to design and we want to build things. And I think that the practices that the emerging architects have to start have to be focused in that way.
And it's possible. It's not that it's impossible and it's a nightmare or not. It's possible. The question is to invent it in the right way.
Andraos: That really became very clear in the Spanish Pavilion at the last Venice Biennale curated by Aravena. And so it was interesting for me to see the form of engagement that the Spanish pavilion sort of put forth, which was not the architect as planner or the architect as a kind of advocate. It was really working through the building, and recycling, and taking the building as the object, and questions of preservation. It was both very focused, but with a very important impact in terms of having practices in Spain really rethinking how they could intervene in terms of architecture in this context of crisis.
Herreros: Yes. For me it was also a surprise. I tell you that perhaps because I am quite engaged in this context. I need to go to Venice to see from the outside all these small works done by young and not-so-young architects intervening existing buildings, working with very inventive construction systems, creating commissions where nobody had asked them to do anything, offering design for free, like an added-value to a vulgar question – it was incredible.
And that is the reason why we commented about doing a symposium bringing some young talents from around the world who are now trying to answer this question about how to be an architect today if all we have to work with is the refuse of the industrial city. And at the Spanish pavilion at the Biennale, for me the most interesting part was that everything was built with nothing: with very, very cheap materials, old materials that had not been thought to be used in that way, a lot of invention, and a lot of fresh air – you know? And I think that at our conference in the fall we'll have some of these people here.
Andraos: Okay. Well, hopefully we can touch base again as a result. But I know that your leadership and spirit is transpiring through the studios right now. And this level of invention to rethink forms of practice in terms of not only being an architect, but in terms of architecture is really starting to bubble up in exciting ways. So thank you, Juan.
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