"Transdisciplinarity Is Essential to Architecture": An Interview with Office Vão

"Transdisciplinarity Is Essential to Architecture": An Interview with Office Vão

Vão is a transdisciplinary architecture office based in São Paulo, Brazil, created in 2013 by Anna Juni, Enk te Winkel, and Gustavo Delonero. The office operates in a territory between fields, exploring multiple subjects and scales ranging from art installations to residential architecture, as well as cultural, commercial, and corporate facilities, seeking to dissolve or push the boundaries between disciplines to enhance architectural thinking and practice.

Recently we had the opportunity to talk with the team partners about some of the topics that shape the firm's approach and also look deeper into some of the group's best-known projects. You can read the interview below.

Subsolanus | LIGA, Espacio para arquitectura, Mexico City, 2016. Photo © Luis GallardoHeadquarters for a Block Factory | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Rafaela NettoHouse s/d nº01 | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Pedro KokLastro - process of assembly | Deslocal Exhibition, Olhão Barra Funda, 2019. Photo © Marina Lima+ 16

Romullo Baratto (ArchDaily): On the office's website, there is a description of the word vão in the context of architecture. Could you comment a little about this choice of name?

Vão Arquitetura: As usual to all births, deciding on a name was not a quick task, but rather a process of intense conversation between the creators. In our case, the name didn't precede birth because the office had already been operating in an embryonic stage for some time until the urge to name the work became more pressing.

Since the very beginning, all of us agreed on two points: 1) that the work should not be represented by a proper noun; 2) that the term should be somehow connected to the universe of architecture but not exclusively, given that transdisciplinarity and the relationship with the plastic arts were already being discussed at that time.

Vão. Photo © Javier Augustin Rojas
Vão. Photo © Javier Augustin Rojas

After a lot of reflection, random searches in the dictionary, and taking notes, the word vão (lit. gap, span, vain) appeared. We didn't immediately embrace it, but as the days went by, its many interpretations started to excite us. In architecture, a span is a structural achievement in distance between supports, or still, a construction hiatus within a building.

Vão is the in-between; a place of possibilities, found in São Paulo's most important spaces: MASP, MUBE, FAU-USP, CCSP, and even SESC Pompeia.

Furthermore, vão is an inflection of the verb go (they go), which stands for our desire to build a collective path. The word can also relate to the expression in vain, used to describe a failure, something that was not achieved as planned. Abandoning projects due to circumstances beyond our control is quite common in the architectural practice, but for us, in vain actually means a valuable experiment that, although not realized in the present, will most likely manifest itself again, in one way or another, in the future.

Now, seven years after the choice of name and the foundation of the office, during the exhibition Infinito Vão - 90 Years of Brazilian Architecture, first held in Portugal and now hosted by Sesc 24 de Maio, Guilherme Wisnik writes the famous verses of Gilberto Gil in Drão: “O verdadeiro amor é vão / Estende-se, infinito / Imenso monolito / Nossa arquitetura” (True love is an empty space / It extends into infinity / An immense monolith / The architecture of us).

RB: Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the office and the collaborations you do with other artists?

VA: Vão is very small, and one thing we always talk about is the desire to not grow excessively, to the point of losing the intimate relationship with the design process.

We are opposed to automated solutions: the whole production is very thought out, tested, and discussed by all of us. That's why we like partnerships with colleagues and friends who eventually join as co-authors of specific projects.

Collaborations with artists also fit into this inter-space. Sometimes it is difficult to explain our role because we are not assistants, the people who assemble the work. Usually, artists come to us following a commission from a gallery, museum, or biennale. Then, based on the place and some preliminary ideas, we proceed, as always, to the trials and exchanges fostered by debates; until we reach the spatial, conceptual, and technical solutions. Every work of art, as in an architectural project, has a unique process, and the way we operate also varies according to the artist's process. Depending on the situation, we use drawings, mockups, virtual models, or 1:1 scale prototypes.

O que vemos, o que nos olha [lit. what we see, what looks at us] | SESC 24 de Maio, 12th Architecture Biennale in São Paulo, 2019. Photo © André Scarpa
O que vemos, o que nos olha [lit. what we see, what looks at us] | SESC 24 de Maio, 12th Architecture Biennale in São Paulo, 2019. Photo © André Scarpa

Before forming Vão, we had already been assistants to Héctor Zamora and Cinthia Marcelle, and later on, we extended our experience to other artists, such as Lais Myhrra, Sara Ramo, and Marilá Dardot, some of the regular partnerships.

Chão de Caça work progress (57th Venice Biennale), by artist Cinthia Marcelle, 2017. Photo © Vão
Chão de Caça work progress (57th Venice Biennale), by artist Cinthia Marcelle, 2017. Photo © Vão

At one point, we started to feel inclined to venture into our own installation works, through calls for tenders, such as the Subsolanus project, or following an invitation from curators, such as the pieces O que vemos, o que nos olha (lit. what we see, what looks at us) and Lastro (lit. ballast). Nevertheless, we continue to practice collaborations with other artists because we believe in the power of this exchange for everyone.

RB: You work with both architectural projects and art installations, and there seem to be many similarities and overlaps between the two fields. How do they complement or instigate each other?

VA: The influence of contemporary art in our work is not merely a matter of aesthetics or language. The basic principle it has taught us is to surrender to the concept of our works, to be open to interpretation, raising questions through different processes, other ways of thinking outside the scope of our background.

On one occasion, during an interview, Roberto Burle Marx said that he hated the idea that landscape designers should only learn about plants, that it was fundamental to understand Miró, Picasso, Léger, Delaunay, among others. He was telling us about the importance of not restraining, about learning to observe, absorb, interpret, and transcend.

The three of us have almost a routine habit of sharing our personal interests and research. We talk a lot about architecture, but not just that. Our conversations revolve around music, cinema, theater, and, of course, arts; we discuss articles, the daily news, and we naturally build a poetic and political archive that forms this universe we call vão.

We strongly believe that there are no boundaries between creative expressions, or at least not as limited as one might think.

RB: One of the office's most popular projects is the Headquarters for a Block Factory, built with the very concrete blocks produced by that factory. It has 75 square meters of usable floor area, but what stands out is the area occupied by walls, also 75m2. Could you tell us a little about this project and the decisions made regarding the space and materials?

VA: The Headquarters of a Block Factory is a great example of welcoming new approaches through contact with the arts. The factory had just opened in the city of Avaré and, because of our other projects out there, the owners decided to contact us.

We presented a project with traditional building techniques using exposed blocks, to which the clients responded: "Thank you very much, we love it, but we don't have enough budget, we don't want to invest in a rented property and we don't want to wait for the construction time. We will buy a container".

Headquarters for a Block Factory | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Rafaela Netto
Headquarters for a Block Factory | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Rafaela Netto

Although disappointed with the meeting, we did not give up or give in to the incoherence of designing the headquarters of a block manufacturer with containers. After a while of meditating on the problems that they had brought up, we came up with the idea of building without mortar, or any other binding agent, by increasing the thickness of the walls (transformed into real defense walls) so that the building could be stable using only gravity. 

We made a few prototypes of bonding patterns (arrangement of blocks in different directions to ensure the stability of the walls) until we arrived at two configurations: a thickness of 0.6m for longitudinal walls and 1.2m for transverse walls.

Headquarters for a Block Factory construction process | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Vão
Headquarters for a Block Factory construction process | Avaré, 2016. Photo © Vão

This way, the building could be quickly assembled and the construction could be complete within 30 days, also allowing almost 100% of the material to be reused in the event of relocation. So we presented the new project, they liked it and decided to go ahead with this version.

If it weren't for the obstacles of schedule and budget, we would probably have built a good, yet conventional, concrete block project, without the structural ingenuity that prompted the Headquarters for a Block Factory to be one of the office's most popular projects. And maybe, had it not been for our contact with the plastic arts, we would never have looked at the blocks from this different perspective.

RB: Despite its material simplicity, the artwork Lastro, developed for the exhibition Deslocal, shows enormous strength as it explores issues like time, stability, and disorder. Are these topics also part of the architectural design process? How?

VA: The word Lastro itself has several meanings. It can be the heavy substance (stone, metal, or water) placed in tanks at the bottom of a ship's hull to provide stability, the set of sandbags carried by balloons to control buoyancy, or, in economics, the quantity of gold that defines the value of paper money. All this is part of the interpretation of the piece, on which we try not investing too much time to avoid creating restraints, and consequently annihilating, beforehand, any other portrayals that may emerge - which interest us very much.

Lastro | Deslocal Exhibition, Olhão Barra Funda, 2019. Photo © Julia Thompson
Lastro | Deslocal Exhibition, Olhão Barra Funda, 2019. Photo © Julia Thompson

Anyway, Lastro is an installation composed of very simple materials. Two sloped wooden rafters supported by large ice blocks compose a system of beams, pulleys, and hooks made of bent rebars. As the wind blew and the sun melted the ice blocks on the roof of the Olhão gallery, the gadget began to dance, trying to find ways to keep standing.

The project evidently addresses several architectural and constructive issues but, Lastro relates very much to an architecture in which we believe, and that we strive to practice, where the value is not defined by materials, but by its spatial "performance."

Lastro - process of assembly | Deslocal Exhibition, Olhão Barra Funda, 2019. Photo © Marina Lima
Lastro - process of assembly | Deslocal Exhibition, Olhão Barra Funda, 2019. Photo © Marina Lima

It also refers to the deconstruction of a feeling of omnipotence (a word for which there is no antonym). We knew the system would break down at some point, but how long it would take was totally out of our control - the piece was assembled without preliminary testing, shortly before the opening of the exhibition for a single weekend.

As far as our design process, what people normally see as a flaw or mistake is something we highly value because there is no inventiveness without mistakes.

RB: Architecture offices and collectives nowadays are increasingly turning to other fields of work, not necessarily abandoning the architectural design process, but rather expanding it. Do you think this transdisciplinarity is an aspect specific to this era, or do you see this as normal - or even essential - for the future of architecture?

VA: First of all, it is worth pointing out that the practice of architectural design is already transdisciplinary by nature. Every project naturally requires us to constantly learn about the most varied subjects. However, it's very important to understand the difference between holistic architecture and an architect's sense of omnipotence. To design, one must practice the humility of hesitation.

Architects have always and very often worked within other fields such as industrial design, painting, sculpture, illustration, writing, among others, so definitely, this is not a specific trait of any period in time.

Perhaps it is different nowadays because these experiments are no longer considered to be complementary. In other words, practices that used to be conducted parallel to the work of the architecture offices now become part of the craft itself. Rather like the difference between multidisciplinarity - in which different practices coexist alongside each other - and transdisciplinarity - in which there is no hierarchy between the practices, that eventually become intertwined.

Therefore, we are fully convinced that transdisciplinarity is essential to architecture because it is the curiosity about the world that keeps it alive, while the act of specializing kills it.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Young Practices. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Baratto, Romullo. ""Transdisciplinarity Is Essential to Architecture": An Interview with Office Vão" ["A transdisciplinaridade é essencial à arquitetura": entrevista com Vão] 15 Dec 2020. ArchDaily. (Trans. Duduch, Tarsila) Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/953062/transdisciplinarity-is-essential-to-architecture-an-interview-with-office-vao> ISSN 0719-8884

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