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Inaki Abalos & Juan Herreros, 2001


The last ten years have been a great time for architecture in Spain. Since the end of the oppressive Franco era, Spanish architects have finally been able to embrace and play with modern European architectural styles. Glancing through the pages of the architecture magazines, El Croquis or Quaderns, it’s easy to see evidence of this flowering.
Within this new generation, Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros are carving out a significant body of work. Their aesthetic has a curious resonance for the American eye, combining Continental minimalism with a fascination for pre-fab materials. Their signature material, a translucent polycarbonate, is commercial, low-brow, and environmentally responsible. Better yet, it lends many of their buildings the otherworldly appearance of luminous white cubes.
Unlike many of their American counterparts, however, Abalos and Herreros work on a wide variety of projects, including public housing, government complexes, and private homes. No matter what the project, they manage to create sensual buildings which reflect a political consciousness as well as a sensitivity to the social role of architecture.
Abalos and Herreros have some very interesting ideas about urban planning, too. In one of their current projects, a recycling plant outside of Madrid, they are creating a park that will accommodate rough-and-tumble activities like dirt-bike racing and skateboarding — pastimes not usually championed in public spaces. They’re also working on a library whose reading room will have the character of an old-fashioned Portuguese cafe, where people can sit around, smoke, and read the newspaper.
After seventeen years as partners, Abalos and Herreros still work across from one another at a simple, unassuming table. They’re irreverent, casual, and smart. In their architectural work they very much embody the European tradition of the boulevardier, an intellectual who flourishes in the social whirl of cosmopolitan life.

PETER: Can you tell me about your recent public housing project?
JUAN: We built a social housing block on the M-30, which was the first highway belt in Madrid. It’s a typical public housing site, in that it’s right on a busy road. But ours is probably the first such project in Spain to look at the highway in an optimistic way. We wanted to appreciate the landscape of activity and movement ...
INAKI: And to consider noise and pollution as the main problems.

PETER: The building is made of these great reflective panels. How did you use the area made by the three huge windows?
INAKI: It functions like a courtyard. The main housing surrounds the windowed area, in a U-shape. The life of the building surrounds this glass gallery. It’s not the house, it’s not the street — it’s a kind of buffer.
JUAN: It’s like a glass house more than a courtyard. It’s a place to escape the chaos, as well as a space that allows the building to perform as a piece of the highway. The glass can be seen from the high speed of a car and can establish a dialogue with all the big vehicles coming through the city.

PETER: Architects like Aldo van Eyck have said that people don’t really like this modernist junk. You know, “We have to make houses that look like they’re from the nineteenth century.” What has the reaction been to your highway project?
JUAN: The people who live there enjoy the feeling of living in a small village with a big glass window and a kind of privileged view of the highway landscape. Perhaps for the conservatives it’s still too far from the idea of a cozy house.

PETER: What about the house you constructed for the Spanish artist, Luis Gordillo?
JUAN: The idea was to construct a very simple, compact volume. Its relationship with the landscape is traditional — when you open the window, you see the landscape. There are no transitional spaces. We wanted to have a similar balance inside as well. It’s constructed with very modern technologies, clean white walls, etc. But at the same time, the windows are placed quite low in the walls, so the daylight shines down on the floor and is reflected back to the ceilings, creating a somewhat dark atmosphere. The volume inside, the way you feel inside, is similar to the way you feel in an old house. We avoided skylights or big, bright windows that would light a whole room in a “contemporary” way. We were not fighting for innovation; we wanted to create a familiar domestic space where people would want to spend long periods of time.

PETER: So you made a new old house.
JUAN: Yes. The owners live and work there, they don’t go to an office in the city. So we built a light box to accommodate the most conventional domestic life.

PETER: And now you’re building a larger house.
JUAN: That one’s quite urban. It’s in the center of the city, on a small site near other houses and some embassies. It’s in a luxury neighborhood with a very romantic park in front.
INAKI: We had no space to create a conventional garden, so we tried to take advantage of the fact that the plot faces south, towards this wonderful park. We thought of the house as a machine to perceive the landscape. We constructed the walls so that they would make a kind of vertical garden.

PETER: What are the exterior walls made of?
JUAN: Plants, a thin layer of moss. This is not a garden that you can sit in; it’s a vertical marsh, a natural landscape going up the building, on to the terrace.

PETER: There’s an amazing swimming pool up there.
JUAN: It’s 25 meters long. They’re pretty serious about swimming.
INAKI: Inside, every floor is different. The main level is organized like a conventional museum, because the guy is a big art collector. There are no corridors, you just go from room to room. The second floor is organized like a little hotel, with different “apartments” for each person who lives there. Each apartment has a view. And the roof is organized as a paradise, as a kind of fantasy, with sound, water, shadow, views, etc.

PETER: I’ll take one.
INAKI: Me too. But it’s not a cheap hotel.

PETER: When you started out, did you both work for big architectural firms?
INAKI: No, that would be unusual in Spain. We started by helping other architects with their presentations for competitions. Then we began to enter competitions too.
We had realized how unsuited we were to work for a boss!

PETER: And you started teaching right away?
INAKI: Yes, we met while we were both teaching Construction Technologies at E.T.S.A. in Madrid. That was from 1985 to 1988. It was an important time in our development as teachers and architects. Through teaching, we figured out how to mix approaches from architecture and civil engineering, and we also started to mix natural and synthetic construction materials.

PETER: You were in school in the period after the Franco era. What was it like to establish yourselves as architects in the modernist tradition after so many years of political hell in Spain?
INAKI: The historic period of “modernism” hadn’t been absorbed into Spanish culture in previous generations, so the aesthetic itself still felt alive. Likewise, even though the philosophy behind modernism seemed outdated in other parts of Europe, here the term was still associated with very progressive ideas. So it was a good starting point for us.    

PETER: What kind of architects were your models?
INAKI: Well, we were taught the tradition of architects like Aldo Rossi, which we loved. But the magazines we read and the things we wanted to do were completely different. We were more involved with the pop music scene and the art scene, than say, studying the enlightenment. We wanted to connect our everyday lives with our culture — with all kinds of activities that were very far from what we were supposed to be interested in as architects.

JUAN: We were also a little different in that we were so focused on what was happening in the States. In Spain it was difficult to find people interested in pragmatic and technological issues, like investigating office buildings or commercial centers. We were interested in American pragmatism.

PETER: What do you mean by American pragmatism?
INAKI: For one thing, American architects are not burdened by a long history; they work in the present. A pragmatic approach deals with current conditions, which is important to us. Also, we like the idea of creating something emotional out of industrial materials. We were influenced by a lot of the office buildings that were built in Los Angeles and New York in the ’50s.

PETER: Were you thinking of buildings like Lever House in New York?
INAKI: Lever House, the Seagram Building, the U.N. Headquarters, Met Life, of course. But we were more interested in what came after. Before the Second World War, all these modernist European architects like Mies van der Rohe, Gropius, and Le Corbusier were constructing important skyscrapers in New York. But after the war, in the space of just five years, countless big offices would be built, and we consider that a really wonderful time.
JUAN: We were thinking more about an attitude than a group of buildings. We’re interested in the relationships between architectural ideas, current materials and technologies, and emerging trends. M.I.T. Press is about to publish our book about the American architectural experience after the Second World War. It will probably be called Architects on Work Space: From Modern Theory to Contemporary Practice.
INAKI: It’s a comparative analysis of this period when the ideals of the modernist architect were finally transformed into real buildings, hundreds of them. We analyze the evolution technically, rather than historically or stylistically. For example, we look at the effects of the evolution of the glass industry, or of air conditioning systems.

PETER: Even though I certainly recognize the pragmatic aspects of your work, I also see strong poetics. I’m thinking of the Spanish architect, Jose Luis Sert.
INAKI: We’re probably more influenced by the Madrid architect, Alejandro de la Sota, who was working during Franco’s era. He completed very few buildings, but he was extremely attentive to the relationship between technology, building, and art. We like the idea of a poetic interpretation of conventionality. Alejandro de la Sota had to look for the poetic conditions within the reality of Franco’s Spain.
JUAN: The only place where we can obtain poetics is in conventional things. The role of the contemporary architect is to produce common buildings, usually in the city. So it’s important to look without prejudice at conventional projects.
INAKI: We try to appreciate what we see every day — even if it seems ugly, we try to find something interesting in everything.

PETER: Did you start working with cheap industrial materials quite early?
INAKI: Yes, and we continue to be obliged to use them. [laughs] The way we see it, an architect doesn’t invent anything. Our main job is to manipulate existing systems.
JUAN: We are not the sort of architects who want to invent every material, detail, or joint from scratch. We try to avoid the nostalgic notion of the heroic architect.

PETER: So which materials have become part of your vocabulary over the years?
INAKI: We use light construction systems, because they are cheap and they fit well with our climate, and they can be used in a direct way. We often use reflective surfaces, because they allow us to create a kind of camouflage. They reflect the color of the day.

PETER: These are the metallic facade plates?
JUAN: They’re actually made of industrial versions of glass, polycarbonates. We like the idea of not quite transparent, manipulated light.

PETER: It seems extraordinary that you used almost the same materials for an exquisite, small project like the house you did for the artist, Luis Gordillo, and your huge recycling plant.
JUAN: Well, that’s an important element in our work: the materials behave differently in the city context, in rural areas, a small historic town, or a quiet contemporary neighborhood. We’re interested in how the same systems and materials can play and create new solutions for each specific situation.

PETER: What’s it like to work in Madrid?
INAKI: We get a lot of energy from the city, especially in areas totally unrelated to architecture. In Madrid there are so many young people work in film, music, and art, for instance. We enjoy circulating ideas. Continuous contact is necessary.

PETER: Who do you see a lot?
INAKI: We see the artists Juan Munoz and Cristina Iglesias a lot, and some young architects like Eduardo Arroyo or Frederico Soriano. Lots of actors, musicians, and filmmakers, most of whom are completely unknown outside of Madrid. We used to see Pedro Almodovar around for years, always in the same place, drinking the same gin and tonic.

PETER: Your schedule is pretty different from the American norm, but I guess it’s typical for Madrid.
INAKI: We begin our days at about 10:00 a.m. We work until lunch, when we break for one-and-a-half or two hours. So at midday we have a lot of time to go shopping, go to exhibitions, go home, or say, go swimming. Because no one works at that hour. When we return to the office though, we really stay and work late, maybe until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. Our office is in the middle of the city, close to home, so we walk everywhere. Every night there are openings and parties. Our nights usually end around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. It’s getting to be exhausting, actually.

PETER: And from an architect’s point of view, what is Madrid like?
JUAN: Well, it’s an open, non-oppressive city. We have great landmarks and are very proud of them, but we focus more on the energy in the air than on the buildings.

PETER: It’s a little like New York that way.
JUAN: Yeah. The personality of Madrid is very much related to the human state, there’s a real human ambience.

PETER: I know there’s been tremendous growth in Madrid and the whole surrounding area in recent years.
INAKI: It’s a paradox. In fact, the population of Madrid is not growing. People’s needs are. I mean, we inherited from the Franco era a complete lack of infrastructure, facilities, and housing. The city has the same number of people living here as it did 15 years ago — it only seems to be growing.

PETER: Looking at the new parts of the city, do you see them as disasters of planning? Are you interested in trying to improve those areas or integrating into these landscapes?
JUAN: Many people regard architects as problem-solvers, like doctors for cities. [laughter] This idea bothers us, because to solve problems you have to step back to the moment when the problem originated. It’s like being ill and concentrating on regaining your usual mediocre health. We prefer to look for opportunites to create something totally new.

PETER: And what about architecture on the coast of Spain? I’m very interested in what’s happened as a result of all the over-building.
INAKI: The coast presents an interesting problem. Of course, everyone wants a little house by the sea. However, because of all the development, the trees, the dunes, and the whole ecological system are now in danger. In 20 years the coast will be destroyed if we don’t take a realistic overview of the situation. On the other hand, tourism accounts for 50 percent of the economy along the coast. So we can’t just sit back and say, “What a pity, it used to be so wonderful and now everything is destroyed.” Instead we must construct contemporary coastal cities, alongside big wonderful natural areas.

PETER: You want to make the beach more urban?
INAKI: Well, there is beautiful land around the coastal military bases. We think those areas should be preserved, untouched by tourism. In the developed areas, we think building should be more concentrated, more densely organized. We like the idea of building high-rises in order to encourage a hybrid natural/artificial landscape.

PETER: There were a lot of high-rises built in the ’50s.
INAKI: But they were severely criticized, and they disappeared quite suddenly. A huge carpet of little private houses replaced them along the entire Mediterranean coastline.

PETER: So you think the seashore should be more of a leisure version of the city?
INAKI: The new neighborhoods already function as extensions of Madrid, which is just a couple of hours away. It’s funny, because the developed coastal areas are always denounced by architectural culture. But when July and August come around, everybody goes, even the critics. We go too. So we think the attitude needs to change.

PETER: What about your town square project?
INAKI: This was a small job in a horrible place just outside Madrid. It was supposed to be a traditional town square, but it was really disarticulated and open. We repaved the surface of the plaza, then unified the space by constructing a little public room that serves as a central destination.
JUAN: The building doesn’t have a formal door. All the panels on the front of the building slide open. You can move all of them to one side, or you can open one, two, or three ... The inside of the panels are covered with a fine screen of cane, a kind of bamboo.
INAKI: So it’s almost an open space. It’s a minimum construction which creates the effect of something both interior and exterior.

PETER: It’s beautiful. How will it be used?
INAKI: It’s just a big room for the town. Young people can use it for a party or for assemblies. It could be used for dance classes, or to screen a film. It’s a shelter from the cold or rain. It’s a non-destination, but also a fixed destination.

PETER: Let’s talk about the waste treatment plant that you completed last year.
INAKI: Well, this is a very special place. It’s in the southeast corner of Madrid, the part of the city where we have our landfills.

PETER: Those great mountains of garbage.
JUAN: Yes, it’s an absolutely artificial topography of garbage and buildings.

PETER: The government wanted to improve the waste treatment system?
INAKI: The problem is that the city is growing rapidly in that direction. So there is strong pressure to reorganize the landscape. But at the same time, the city has to use this area for waste treatment. So the question was how to combine the growth of the city; the natural value of the area, which has special geological features that need to be preserved; and this enormous amount of garbage which gets shipped out there every day.

PETER: It’s a kind of open, Castillian landscape.
INAKI: It’s more La Mancha than Castilla. La Mancha is a hard land where nothing green can grow, very dry and severe.
JUAN: The mission was to create a recycling plant for Madrid’s domestic garbage, and also to organize a new landfill. We put all the little industrial buildings together in a simple volume, a square building that was placed in the slope of the hill — the recycling system is gravitational, so we wanted the building to replicate the industrial process. We used a green roof, and put it on columns. Then we enveloped all the industrial areas, the offices, all the rest of the spaces, with our recycled polycarbonate façade — a translucent shell.

PETER: Unlike most waste treatment centers, your building is actually designed for people to visit.
INAKI: Yes. Because the project was funded with public money, we designed it to accommodate visiting students, children, researchers ...

PETER: And the second phase will be to develop a park around it?
JUAN: The old landfill, which is very close to the new one, is going to be covered and sealed. We want to transform that land into a public urban leisure area.

PETER: It won’t be a traditional park?
JUAN: It can’t be, because there is no water. Also, it’s not solid ground, so you can’t build anything. Trees would have a hard life there. So we want to create an artificial landscape where people can participate in certain sports or urban activities which can’t be accommodated inside the city.

PETER: It’s mostly a system of paths?
JUAN: It’s a collection of speeds more than paths.

PETER: Speeds? Oh, how interesting.
JUAN: Yes, it’s a place where noisy, large-scale, or dangerous activities can take place, like a flight school, motorcross, horse riding ... It’s not related to a neighborhood. It’s for the whole city.

PETER: It’s certainly not the old nineteenth-century park. For many people, leisure doesn’t mean walking in a garden. They want to play with new toys. So it’s a park for new toys.
JUAN: It should attract people of all social classes and ages.

PETER: Where would the money come from?
JUAN: The idea is to recycle the money the plant would make from the methane gas inside the mountain. The methane can be collected and turned into electricity, which can be sold. But the life of the plant is only 25 years. So the park would change gradually over this period, as the money came in.
JUAN: We can’t rely on typical natural resources like trees. It would take 35 years for them to grow enough to impact the park. We’d rather change the topography, or introduce colors with unexpected materials. Maybe use some desert plants, play around with the natural southern landscape.
INAKI: We want the site to function as a laboratory for new green technologies. It makes sense to investigate fresh ways to work with the landscape.

© index magazinegelatin1
Recycling Planet by Luis Asin, 2001
© index magazinetobias
Recycling Plant by Luis Asin, 2001



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