A lot of things are said about Smiljan Radic. Some say that he belongs to an architecture that borders on the sculptural. It is also said that both his aesthetic and his silence is admired by his peers. It is also said that he is so hermetic that he doesn’t even have a website to promote his work. All these things are said about the 52 years old Chilean architect, before he starts his talk "more or less a year," at the Puerto de Ideas Festival in Valparaíso (Chile), where he reviews his latest projects.
"Saying something -and saying something else- has always seemed impossible or very difficult for me. I always collect things from everywhere. And that's what I do. There isn’t much more to it than that: there is little invention. In spite of everything, one has to end up talking, saying things. And today we are going to talk about what I could and could not do in the past year", he says at the beginning of his talk at the Cousiño Palace in Valparaíso.
For the past five years, he has worked on two projects located in the Biobío Region. The first is the Regional Theater, in Concepción, which finished its heavy work stage, and is now in the stage of being wrapped in a Teflon membrane: it will be lit on the inside as if it were a paper lamp.
"The idea is to be able to eliminate the feeling of an institution. If one can eliminate the feeling that a theater is an institution, and if it is thought of instead as a kind of artifact that is placed in the city, which should be easy to enter, the artifact itself becomes a kind of spectacle", says Radic before a room full of architecture students.
The spectator will not have to enter a dark room to feel that he is inside a theater. The same building will provoke the sensation beforehand through the mantle that veils it and that indicates that something is hidden inside.
The project, says Radic, is not only designed to supply exclusively the Biobío Region. "It was always conceived as a national theater. We believed - and have been trying to insist - that the expectation is not regional, but national. This has to do with the scale, and the resistance of the materials", he says.
Ten kilometers away, in San Pedro de la Paz, Radic projected a civic center of 14 thousand square meters for the residents of the Boca Sur slum. "It will have multipurpose rooms, also a kind of weird amphitheater, a big wall of 100 meters with graffiti art, a soccer field and a beach for children" he explains. "It is designed with everything necessary to resist time, in this neighborhood, one of the most stigmatized in Chile," he says about the center that has been under construction for 10 years.
Radic tells us that he usually works with his wife, the sculptress Marcela Correa, in a myriad of projects: houses, restaurants, pavilions. In his first projects, as a direct or indirect consequence, heavy elements appear, like rocks, juxtaposed with light elements, granted by the vernacular zones where he likes to build.
"Nature is no longer something that has to be maintained, but something that you have to start talking one-on-one with. No longer taking it as something that needs to be redeemed, but something that must be taken care of, and to have a dialogue with," he explains while showing a series of projects he did with Christian Kerez in a workshop at the University of Zurich.
Radic clarifies, that he likes to condescend more what he does by using the word construction instead of the word architecture.
"It is strange to think that there is evidence of thoughts. Architecture is thought through what is built or constructed. Not otherwise. The rest is pure thought. Something that in very special circumstances attracts me. And this is key in the explanation of this conference. By accepting this premise, the thing should -in some way- demonstrate thought. But we know that this is impossible because things do not speak. That is why one must use words. But I personally prefer to encourage the youngest -the ones who interest me the most, and the ones I have the least contact with it in reality- field trips, visits to see if everything we are told about constructions -which is only thing that interests me- is something true, that what they are talking about is true. In this sense I like the word construction more than the word architecture", shares Radic.
But why the word construction? "Because it is more open and allows different disciplines or different trades to be integrated into this word. A sculptor can build, a child can build, a settler can build, a bourgeois poet can like to build. There are many examples of construction, and many alterations, and many people who can build. And that makes the word definitely more open. For architecture, however, a specialist is needed. That is good and bad".
The problem with architecture, he says, is that sometimes everything fits inside it. It is a kind of cardboard box, full of tools, that is sometimes pierced.
He says: "Architecture, in my view as a word, is a kind of open cardboard box and inside there are instruments from everywhere, that one can grab and use. You can put things inside this box and use them to build other kinds of things. And oftentimes this box gets deformed. And that's what I don’t want. Things -or instruments- get scattered by a kind of field that’s a little diffuse, a little constrained, which is the uninteresting thing about architecture. I'm just concerned with reassembling the box. That's what I do. As much as possible, an intellectually austere, constrained box, with a discourse based on the construction of a trade, or what I have tried to believe is a profession, mainly so as not to get bored with it too soon".
Radic says that this month he is launching a book about his work, "Obra gruesa", which reviews 80 works projected between 1995 and 2015. Acclaimed designs such as the "House for the right-angled poem", a tribute to the architect Le Corbusier, that he built next to the sculptor Marcela Correa (his wife) in the mountain range of the Maule Region. And also Nave: the building at the center of Santiago that was renovated to add a series of cultural halls.
"Between 50 and 60 years old, for some architects, the profession begins to transform into an activity, a kind of performance, and often they lose direction. Construction gets diluted in a world of ideas and additional activities. I don’t like that. I prefer to continue in construction. Maybe that's why the book "Obra gruesa" has taken two years, despite the fact that it is only about how buildings are produced and not about the constructions themselves," he concludes.
This is the extended version of an article published on Monday, November 13 in the Chilean newspaper Las Últimas Noticias (LUN), by Ignacio Molina (@Molinaski). Molina works as a journalist at LUN and collaborates on the VICE Mexico website. He has written articles for El Mercurio, Paula, Paniko and Quimera.