An interview with Eva Prats & Ricardo Flores, by Cătălina Frâncu
CĂTĂLINA FRÂNCU: If you were to give a name to your kind of architecture, what would it be? RICARDO FLORES: Maybe
CĂTĂLINA FRÂNCU: If you were to give a name to your kind of architecture, what would it be?
RICARDO FLORES: Maybe something related to time, something that has to do with slow thinking. That would be one: slow thinking. Do you like it?
EVA PRATS: Yes, it works for me. Our architecture is also related to “free space”, the theme for the last Venice Biennale, connected to generosity and how we, as architects, can work towards offering a “bonus”, something that was not programmed in the brief for the project.
F: Another thing that characterizes our architectural approach is our interest in building communities, not only community between neighbours, but also a feeling of community between the people who visit our building. In the case of Sala Beckett, the community exists not only in space, but also in time. This one is of higher complexity, because one has to establish a relationship between elements that left a mark, but are not present anymore.
On the other hand, in Building 111, we were presented with a number of people who have no history together. Thus the central void we designed has the purpose of binding them together through random or intentional encounters; we would say it is a platform of social relationships.
C: This leads me to another question: Can architecture be community making? And to what extent can the materials and the space shape the interpersonal relationships? Furthermore, can architecture have an influence on the introversion and extroversion of people?
I think that if we could say ‘no’ to this question, then we wouldn’t be architects.
P: I think that if we could say ‘no’ to this question, then we wouldn’t be architects. I think that your question has a lot to do with your goals and your proposals when you are designing something, because as an architect you really think that spaces can affect greatly this kind of factors. The size, the materials… I remember one exhibition where I was shocked to discover the work of Rural Studio in the United States. They made an exhibition here in Barcelona twenty five years ago where they showed a beautiful thing: how they designed houses for people in a very poor area around Mississippi River. Those people needed homes and the studio treated this emergency not as merely numbers, but as an emotional emergency. They designed together with students some beautiful houses, and when they finished, they did a post occupancy study. They found that kids were doing better in school because they had a place where they felt happy to study. Virginia Woolf wrote an essay about the woman having A Room of One’s Own. Space and development of a person are related. When you work as an architect, you work with this responsibility. For example, people behave better in a proper space sometimes and they behave more casual when it is meant to be casual. Some old European Museums are trying to make this shift now, to stop proposing such a formal approach to art. You surely notice that the space affects the behaviour.
C: Do you know what materials you to use in order to obtain a certain atmosphere from the beginning, or only later during the project?
P: We are very geometrical thinkers, more abstract. We work on proportion, space and the relationship of the building to the city, and then we make our way towards the interior. I think that material always appears later. In Sala Beckett it wasn’t easy to know how people would relate to the old and ruined walls. We were concerned about what happens when one touches the wall: can it be spoilt? Does it rub off on your clothes? So there are few pieces of beautiful oak wood that you can lean on, that you can really touch and help you to relate to the walls of the building.
We are geometrical thinkers
F: In the case of Building 111, we introduced travertine stone in floors and walls of the common spaces so as to make concrete building more welcoming…
P: The travertine resembles concrete due to the little holes on the surface of both materials (the ones in concrete, coming from casting and the natural ones in the travertine stone). Putting them close to one another makes concrete borrow elegance from the travertine. We are also very concerned with helping people orientate. In Building 111, when you leave the street which is a common place and go inside a building, you have to gradually pass through all the spaces, from public to private, facilitating the meetings between people and on building communities by chance.
C: You spoke about big and small spaces and the relation to the street. I have a question about the Yutes Warehouse. You used bold colours on a quite big building there and the viewer might perceive it as a landmark, in the sense of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the city. How do you relate to the urban scale in your projects?
F: It depends. In the case of Yutes Warehouse, the colour theme and the amount of colour have to do with the view you get from a distance. You can see it from the highway and therefore yes, it becomes a landmark. We also wanted people who go there to work daily to feel joy in seeing their place of work welcoming them with great energy.
P: We wanted to be able to say “hello” from a distance.
F: I think that there is something else to be answered in your question. In Sala Beckett, the sign announces its presence from whatever direction you are coming from, it doesn’t give more importance to one street over the other. Being situated on an urban corner, we had the opportunity to celebrate it.
On the other hand, Building 111, located on the absolute outskirts of the city of Terrassa, in the middle of a pine forest, has almost no neighbours. Therefore, we wanted to make the façade dialogue with the landscape – to say that this building is not one to be found in a city centre. Its reliefs had to do with light and shadow and the way their play can offer an identity to it. The neighbours have named it The Michelin Building; we like that.
P: Another aspect of the building is that it had to be complete from the beginning. Because it is not situated in an already inhabited area, we couldn’t design it in expectation of commerce to fill its ground floor or similar. As we have seen with Villa Olimpica in Barcelona, it takes time for newly build areas to come to life commercially and this aspect is very present there. The commerce will come, but Building 111 is not incomplete without it.
C: You mentioned light when you spoke about Building 111 and since light is very important in your projects, what place do you assign to light in social housing projects versus a public building, and how do you think about it in each situation?
Natural light helps you direct your gaze upwards.
F: Natural light is something that guides our work a lot because we think that it has a big role to play in guiding people. On many occasions we move because we see light; in Sala Beckett, for example, it tells you that there is more to see upstairs. Natural light helps you direct your gaze upwards and at the same time it offers coherence to space.
In Building 111, light is coming in through the staircases – it is thus connected with both ascent and descent. Here it is treated more as an eroding factor that excavated the stone; it goes all the way down into the parking lot.
P: You can also see natural light as a material in itself, one that enriches all the other materials you are using. It’s like the apartment we are in now. Yes, it’s high up in the building, but you would probably choose this one over the one at the first floor, because this one is bathed in light.
F: Another example of light work is Casal Balaguer, in Palma de Mallorca. The project is structured around two big circulation nodes or light points. The building is a former palace that expanded depending on the needs of the family – it was both attractive and confusing due to the amount of interconnected rooms and functions. We decided to use light to help people orientate in space, to offer them the possibility to move intuitively.
C: Regarding Casal Balaguer, what is the process of designing or re-converting a building that had a private function, like a home, with all that comes with that word, into a public building, in terms of physicality, memory, emotions, change, investment and so on?
P: The building is very old, it was an aristocratic house, so it already had all the representative big open spaces that come with this function; it could work well as a museum because of the generosity of the space.
F: One of the key aspects there, I think following what you were asking, was how not to lose this domestic character, because it was interesting that you could still feel that you were entering a private home, a very typical Mallorca home, that has been growing throughout the centuries, now converted into a new cultural centre.
The most challenging was trying not to banish the ghosts and secrets of the family from the building while also making it functional.
C: Where is the limit between useless nostalgia and functional preserving? Because sometimes one might fall into preserving the house as it is, not moving anything, it is just kind of working on restoration. But there is another kind of working, which is working with the elements that you pointed out to. How do you find the balance between these two, where do you draw the line?
So, observing the few things that are given to you: that’s one of the key things to start with.
F: It is difficult to fix the line, because it is subtle and invisible and it is always changing. It is something we can’t identify from the beginning; we do not know where it is.
C: So it’s all about intuition?
P: Yes… for example, Sala Beckett is a fiction today because we have moved everything around; it is an example of accommodating nostalgia and practical matters all at once. And we liked everything that we found there, we drew the different elements remaining inside during three months and we used them all, so it all stayed inside the building. And somehow, at the end, we kind of saw that the memories are still there.
F: In Casal Balaguer there were many precious things…
P: Yes, and we could keep them. We worked with historians who taught us all about its history and it was our duty to make it inheritable for the next user. We also needed to understand how they would use it, what they would need. So we listened to them. They help the building survive and keep transforming. This is one way of showing respect to the building, by offering it all the qualities it needs to keep functioning.
In Sala Beckett, we were surprised with the heights of the rooms. We wanted to work with that because nowadays one does not work with such heights anymore; we are too focused on practicality. The brief of the competition said that the old building could be demolished, but then we thought, if we demolish it: are we going to build 6 meter high floors? Probably not. Today, our focus is much less generous.
F: I think it is about “the right to inherit”; it means giving a second life to the building – and people has to agree that the new program is bound to leave a mark. You have to know that in the competition some people wanted to demolish the building and some to keep it while dividing the height because it was so high that they said ‘Ok, let’s use the six meters to insert some mezzanines’. That is quite practical and logical thinking, but if you think that one of the few qualities that the building was its heights, then doing so, you spoil it. So, observing the few things that are given to you: that’s one of the key things to start with.
C: I’d like to come back to the concept of “nostalgia” for a moment. Do you think that our childhood homes have a heavy impact on our adult lives and wants and, if so, how do you think that the contemporary architect can meet them?
P: I think that the childhood homes certainly have such effects on us.
C: And do you see a difference between when you started your practice and now? In other words, do you think that this concept of home has changed throughout the years?
P: Maybe when you are twenty you don’t think that the past will be that heavy or that strong. But when you are older you notice that…
F: You look more to the past than to the future. But I do not think that you are talking about the home, about the family house precisely, but you were rather talking about a home …
Building 111 facilitates the culture of knowing each other, people look for the company of one another; the building is designed as a village, with the central patio being the town square.
P [to F]: I find it interesting that when talking about home, you talk about public spaces. It shows how complex the concept of home really is.
F: I am more interested in being at home with others than in being at home by myself. I realized that the house used to be a status issue but today it became a necessity and probably that is why the concept has spread into so many different meanings and why at the time being, a house does not mean status anymore but rather a necessity. The house is increasingly being reduced to pure necessity.
C: You mentioned people and the way they relate to space and I cannot help but notice in your project for the MIT competition how your focus on the people transpires from your images. For instance in the collage capturing movement and the way people use space. What role does movement and memory play in the MIT project?
F: The MIT wants to use an old warehouse as an extension for their school. For them, it’s a very old building, as old as it can be, about 100 years old. It was once a train warehouse, so its dimensions are adapted to the elements it used to host. It is very robust and quite dark, because they didn’t need much light inside. It’s an American-scaled building. We wanted to keep this in our project, and on the other hand we had to organize the space for multiple schools: Architecture, Design, Urban Planning and Project Manus. Our challenge was to make this building a community oriented space. It was beautiful for us to think about how to open it up to life and light.
C: Have the American authorities imposed any restrictions on modifying the building?
P: Yes! From the conversations we had it seemed like there were a lot of restrictions from the heritage authority. But the building is big, so I think that they can accept that it needs to be transformed. It is interesting to see what will happen; for sure they will allow transforming it.
F: We needed to understand how they wanted to relate to each other in that space and how the space could accommodate them, so we thought that by moving our own office inside the building itself for a three months period, we could understand the site better.
P: Our proposal was more of an attitude, as you can see in the collage we made. We didn’t offer a design because the data they were giving us was too little to take decisions.
[Flores y Prats didn’t win the competition but their attitude towards the building seems adequate and thoughtful. What impressed me very much at a graphic level was the dimension of the model they used in their collage. It was barely bigger than a plum.]
F: We only visited the building once; it was too little information for us to feel that we had the right to tell the building how it should behave. We didn’t know each other, how could we tell it: “You have to be this way”?
P: It’s good not to know where you are going if you are to work on a project for many years. The outcome has the power of surprising even the architect.
F: But in a competition, you are already asked for the result. This is how competitions are won. But this program was so complex, bringing together so many egos – in the MIT you find the biggest egos in the world – all these schools together… it was going to be very challenging. We thought that it would be a good idea to work with them, to bring together our slow architecture with their fast engineering.
P: We wanted to repeat the experience from Sala Beckett. Before we designed it, we hadn’t worked with a theatre before, this was our first. Our client told us “I like the fact that you don’t know everything about theatres because now I can tell you how a theatre works and you will listen. You know how to restore buildings, so I will listen to you. Together we will make this happen.” These agreements require confidence and time. We wanted to do something similar with the MIT: them telling us how they work, and us telling them how they have to treat the building for the best possible outcome according to their needs. But they don’t work this way and they didn’t trust us.
C: I would like to go back to Building 111 for a second. I know that you work with Post Occupancy studies and I would like to ask you what can an architect learn from these studies. How do you integrate what you learn about the post occupancy development in your practice?
P: We were very interested in understanding how our proposal to share the entrance of the building was received by the inhabitants, if it was intimidating or representative, if they made it their own. And all other aspects they wanted to share their opinion on. So we asked our students from a Master Program we were involved in to take the interviews. We were surprised at the variety they found. In two similar apartments, one on top of the other, we found a single mother and her child in one of them, all very neatly organized with IKEA furniture and just below, in the other apartment, there was a hair salon and the home of the hairdresser, all richly decorated, even with a fountain in the living-room!. It worked. People were appropriating the spaces. One thing we would like to propose for a next housing project is the minimum dimension of the apartments, but being social housing, this comes with the regulations. Nevertheless, we would like the regulations to be more generous.
F: We worked with these dimensions and we tried to make the whole building their home, overcoming the perimeter of the apartment, thus we designed the central courtyard, the storage outside of the apartment, etc. We also thought that it would be a good idea to cut the continuity of the elevator from the parking lot to the apartment and make it so that one has to change elevators in the central patio. The aim was to generate encounters between neighbours, but we heard in the interviews: “Do you know how much I have to walk carrying my groceries from one elevator to another?”
P: Every family is a world and they all have different needs. You also have to be aware that there are families and there are individuals, this is why we varied our apartment design so much. When you talk to people, they talk about all these intangible things – a place to give one confidence, tranquillity, dynamics, etc. – you have to find a way to build these concepts.
C: You always pass through a phase of drawing by hand when approaching a new project and I wonder whether you find it that drawing by hand gives you an advantage in the design process later on, or even regarding the results of the Post Occupancy studies?
F: I absolutely think that it does. Because drawing by hand has to do with following your thinking as we understand it and as we practice it. The hand has a very strong link with your mind, so when you are drawing you are actually thinking; drawing is a way of thinking in fact. And it is also remembering. When you think like this you jump from one thing to another, you don’t just think in one direction, but also backwards and forwards and to the sides. You remember last night and then last year and then something that relates to your childhood and then back again to tomorrow and so on and so forth. All these jumps are very beautiful because they have to do with the everyday uses of spaces. So when you draw by hand it has a lot to do with the uncertain, with the casual, with joy, with gain, with many things that are intangible but you somehow incorporate them in the drawing. Nothing is systematic, three windows are the same but the fourth can change because you got bored and so forth. Everything starts to have more to do with the specific and the experiential this way.
P: I think that one can easily fall in love with new tools; you can see it in the school… But I think that one should use them with caution, above all, to know when to use them. If you are reflecting, I still think that drawing by hand is very intuitive and that the screen is still not sophisticated enough to let you draw intuitively. We will get there, but we haven’t just yet. So we really like this idea of non-linear thought, more erratic, so you get distracted and you can still keep drawing, but you are actually much more concentrated this way.
The computer asks you for dimensions, it is not intuitive, it is asking you things. And when you don’t know where you are going, you draw and the hand does not ask you for anything. It is a kind of a gymnastic which helps your brain, but it doesn’t ask.
C: Regarding the physical aspect of your projects, I learned that you are designing some drawers where you put all the memorabilia of the projects inside. I saw them there and I found them impressive.
F: When some people visit us in our studio, they see all these containers in the corridors and they think that we are moving out, or that we are moving in…
C: What is the story behind this idea?
F: We started this so that we could protect all the models of a project, models that are made by our collaborators with great care, and so we like to keep them. We couldn’t throw them away, because they are memory and it hurts.
So, once a project is finished, we start to think about storage, so we start to design these containers which collect all the physical elements produced during the project, and keep them in order and safe. They become containers of the memories of the project.
C: It’s quite like the Narnia world.
F: It is, in a way. The way you arrange them is a project in itself.
For us it is very beautiful to open the cabinet and remember all the world that was around there, because every project brings together people and you learn about the neighborhood, something about the families, many things, the trips that you have been doing, the hotel where you have been staying etc. All these things are beautiful to remember and in a way they hold together this entire world and this story and when you open them again, if they are well done… We can show you one a bit later…
C: One last question. If you were to give a piece of advice to students or to aspiring architects, what would it be?
P: I would say that, since architecture is a very absorbing and time consuming work that requires much dedication, it is important to find what is important for them and what they like to do. As you are going to put many hours into it, it is good that during your academic years you realize what it is that you want to provide to others when you design something, what your aim is and what you want to offer. When you are aware of this, then you are more into a kind of a mission and you can draw trying to offer something. Because drawing and building is a very long chain of things and it is good that you take something out of it.
F: A practical advice: travel! And look for someone whose work you like and let them teach you.
Photos by Cătălina Frâncu