Manuel N. Zornoza grew up in Alicante, Spain and, following studies in Madrid (UAX) and London (the AA), relocated to China in 2010 to avoid the economic crisis stifling architectural work in his home country. Over the last eight years, the young architect’s small but thriving studio has built more than a dozen projects, from shops, to factory space conversions, to a traditional Chinese hutong - all in China. But that’s not to say Zornoza’s left his roots behind. He now also maintains a small practice in Madrid, which handles projects in both China and Spain.
This interview was conducted on a bullet train ride from Beijing to Tianjin, where we ventured in search of the recent architecture that has brought so much media attention to this emerging metropolis.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: You received your first degree in Madrid in 2006. That was the year when the Museum of Modern Art in New York organized “On-Site: New Architecture in Spain,” a memorable exhibition that celebrated the most innovative projects both by local and foreign architects in the country. That was the moment when Spanish architecture was at the forefront of the profession and it was celebrated as such. What were your expectations then as a young graduate?
Manuel N. Zornoza: I remember that time perfectly well; that show then traveled to Spain; it celebrated many of the projects built in early 2000s but to put things in perspective we need to go back even further. Perhaps all the way to 1975 when Spain became a democracy and opened up to the world. Then our country’s focus was set on building its infrastructure and public buildings – train stations, airports, congress centers, hospitals, schools, and museums. Many of these projects were imaginatively built by world’s leading architects.
VB: That led to building many major works all over the country, including Seville Expo and Barcelona Olympics that both occurred in 1992. And in 1996 Spain’s leading architect Rafael Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize.
MNZ: There was so much optimism and when I was a student I thought that was normal and that’s how it was going to be for the rest of my career. Then the word crisis did not exist for us. Right after my graduation, I started working at Luis Vidal + Architects who at the time had a partnership with Richard Rogers. By then they already designed Barajas Airport in Madrid and worked on other major infrastructural projects all over Spain. Personally, I worked on airports in Zaragoza and Murcia, and urban design projects; it was exciting.
VB: And then came the 2008 economic crisis.
MNZ: Exactly. It was then that I realized the hard way that architecture is not all about growth and major projects. I enjoyed the last moments of booming architecture in Spain. That year Richard Rogers closed the partnership in Spain and the local architect cut our office in half. At that moment I had to leave. I immediately realized that it was the best time for me to go back to school.
MNZ: I believe that education in Spain is very solid, particularly when it comes to the role of an architect and the technical aspects of architecture. But in London I encountered a much more open approach; there architecture is viewed as a more interconnecting process. So, in Spain I learned how to get buildings built and in London I explored how to interrelate my architecture with a broader spectrum of aspects.
My AA experience was absolutely amazing – every Friday we had famous architects giving lectures at the school. It was fantastic to be able to meet them at the school’s corridor in very informal settings and be able to talk to them in person and ask questions. I was particularly interested in not just how to design a building but how to compose a whole city out of various urban elements, and how to create urban complexity and a new urban vision: one that connects our cities with nature.
I wanted to know what happens outside of buildings’ façades. I wanted to go beyond what I learned in Spain where my focus was primarily on the building itself. In London, my interest shifted from how buildings are designed to how they are shaped by specific conditions, particularly social context.
VB: You opened your practice, LATITUDE in Spain the year you graduated from the AA. Shortly after that you won your first architectural commission in the heart of Beijing. Tell me more about that project and what are you still doing here in China eight years later?
MNZ: [Laughs.] Trying to connect the dots... I met a Chinese couple in Spain before going to London. They worked at a local office and when work dried up they went back to China. We kept in touch. Then I came here to China for the first time as a student during my last semester at the AA. Our professor read that China was planning to build 400 new cities by 2030, so we were all fascinated about this idea – how do you build a new city from scratch? That was very exciting and I felt that I absolutely had to be a part of this development. So together with this Chinese couple we decided to enter a competition, which we won. It was a mixed-use building in the heart of Beijing. Once we received the commission I was invited to come here and we spent about one year working on the project. In the meantime, I started some other independent projects, and eventually, I moved to China.
VB: Are you familiar with an article that came at the time, in which Spanish leading architectural critic Luis Fernandez-Galiano advised young Spanish architects that if they wanted to stay in the profession they had to immigrate to China?
MNZ: Yes, I was very much aware of the situation and I recall this particular publication. I also remember similar ideas expressed by such architects as Eduardo Souto de Moura in Portugal who was advocating for young Portuguese architects to go to Brazil, Africa, or Asia in order to get their professional experience. Yes, I understood right away that I could only start my career in China. I was fresh out of school and I was absolutely sure that I could convince any potential client entrusting me with a project. I could not even imagine why any client would not want to hire me? [Laughs.]
VB: What is the most exciting thing about living in China?
MNZ: I would name the exposure to many exciting possibilities. My experience tells me that the social structure is not rigid here, as it can be in Europe, and people are very approachable. I don’t need to have a particular status to approach a high-rank official or a chairman of a large corporation. People here are very open and they are willing to give me a chance, even if I am young.
VB: What do you want your architecture to be about?
MNZ: I believe my architecture can only be successful if it is built in relation to a specific place. I believe in architecture that emerges from the empathic understanding of the social, climatic, and physical diversity of each territory. And that adds concrete value to specific people. I understand architecture as a process. Every project starts with a conversation with someone who has courage to build something.
VB: Architects live in the future. Where do you see yourself, let’s say, five years from now?
MNZ: Architects in Europe and other parts of the world often complain about the lack of work but the reality is that there is so much work that there will never be enough architects. We just need to be where the action is. Right now, and in the near future, the action is mainly here in China and by extension in Asia. There is high demand in good design; there is so much that we can contribute with. On the other hand, we are currently working in both China and Spain, therefore I spend my time between Beijing, Madrid, and Barcelona. I am where my projects are. Architecture is no longer a local profession and that is the lesson I learned here in China.