Architecture in Ruins


Architecture in Ruins

Making plans for the future as a professional occupation seems at times to demand the architect behave with the single-mindedness of an automaton of optimism with the capacity to be oblivious to the crude realities of the world constantly being magnified in the newspapers: war, genocide, ferocious epidemics, pervasive corruption and cruelty, the resilience of bigotry and racism, the destruction of the earth's environment and the extinction of the species, the list goes on… Besides this litany of common miseries there are also the personal ones: the sickness and death of parents, unexpected accidents, the end of friendships, the fragility of kindness, and a lover's sudden change of heart. In a recent conversation with an architect who himself seems to have been blessed by life with bulletproof optimism, he said: “I don’t believe in death. I operate as if I were immortal. Otherwise, why do anything? For example, it takes ten years for a tree to grow and if I thought I might not be around to sit under its shade, why would I bother planting one?” For those not endowed with such sunny disposition and capacity for glossing over the unpleasant evidence, there is only the option to change the hinge of thought by which we come upon the finality of things, to effect a reversal in the relation of causality between means and ends. With great aphoristic simplicity, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges put it this way: “Every step you take is the goal you seek.”

It might indeed be true that, as far as going on with the job of being alive, we get longer-lasting pleasure from the long process of doing something than from its final results; typically an architect will spend much more time working on a project than enjoying it in its completion or congratulating herself on a job well done. The long and careful process of conceiving a building, coordinating the work of all parties involved, and detailing its parts and following its construction, typically takes a considerable amount time, becoming a form of life-structuring experience.

As future becomes the present, its unfolding can in many ways be surprising and at odds with the best-laid plans. Concerned perhaps about architecture as a phenomenon that transcends the short span of any one person’s life, Aldo Rossi wrote in Scientific Autobiography of the work of building construction as an apparatus for the preservation of energy. The energy in question is the energy of the human work that, in a struggle with nature, manages to make it veer off course to somehow align with our needs and desires. This energy is literally preserved in the fabric of buildings, like someone depositing money in a bank to be withdrawn by future generations. In a moment of sobriety, Rossi anticipates also how things could go wrong, and imagines a cornice dislodged from the top of a wall falling on top of a passerby and killing him with the release of that same energy.

In fact, sponsors and architects of buildings might have precise expectations for the ways in which buildings might be used after they are built, but things sometimes turn out quite different than originally expected. One particularly unfortunate example of this in the history of modern architecture is the ADGB Trade Union School designed by Hannes Meyer in the Bernau suburb of Berlin in 1928. The architect, a committed Marxist, envisioned the project as an experimental exercise in functional architecture. Deprived of self-conscious rhetorical intent, the project aspired to turn the communal experience of its daily use into the only mode of architectural expression for the building. Designed to educate and train members of a workers union on the subjects of trade, industry, management and economics, the building was to be a place of important to the construction of “the new man” in Germany. Unfortunately, in 1933—only three years after its completion—the building was seized by the Nazis who transformed it into a different type of educational facility: it became the place where they would train SS guards to work in the death camps of occupied Poland where the idea of “the new man” went to die: Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka.

If history is nothing but the wreckage of an accumulating pile of inevitable disasters, as Walter Benjamin would have it in his beautiful prose poem Angelus Novus: “A storm blowing from Paradise” that not even an angel can resist, we can count on the ruinous end of things as the fate that nothing will be likely to escape. It is of course our nature and our duty to fight against this, but the fruit of our efforts will only be rewarded in the awareness of its own provisional success and its ultimate futility.

In the story “Ruinas Circulares,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines life from the point of view of the tired consciousness of the immortal man, filled with endless tedium and dulled by the predictabilities of bottomless experience. After thousands of years of existence, the life of the immortal is cauterized by its excess of living: like an overused proverb, its meaning is still somehow present in the mechanical way he goes through the motions of being alive, but he knows too much, as it is inevitable for a man condemned to life inside an endless circular room with no conceivable exit door. The luster of surprise and the brilliance of novelty have become for him an impossibility, and the only happy ending or positive expectation conceivable is the fantasy of a well-meaning death.

The finitude of things, when thinking about architecture, proposes to our consideration the condition of the building in ruins. Today, existing firmly in the jaws of consumerist society, we seem to prefer to tastefully conceal the ruin, whether human or architectural in kind—this explains the popularity of both the nursing home and the wrecking ball. It is nonetheless interesting to contemplate for a moment the condition of the ruin, not only in a literal manner, but also as a particular quality that some buildings may carry with them throughout their existence. Just like the seed of death, already present in the newborn baby, these buildings might carry with them the germ of their own unique form of demise while they are still “alive.” A death unique and personal, as imagined already by Rainer Maria Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the ultimate form of everyone’s final destiny, also somehow ever-present while we are still alive.

Perhaps buildings too can be considered as inadvertently carrying their own form of ruin; taking this fancy a little further, we could even imagine a school of architectural thought for which the measure of architectural quality of a building could be in direct relationship to its potential to become a good ruin. Having to contend with the inevitable fact that things just don’t last that long, or rather—to indulge on Borges again—maybe feeling a bit ambivalently grateful that this is the case, we can also appreciate an architecture capable of dying a beautiful death.

The ruin is also appealing in a world of special effects and fake revetments: it implies a modicum of authenticity suggestive of a reencounter with an aspect of existence that is presently obscured by our intense interest in the alienation of consumption. To even come about, the ruin implies the presence of a distinct hierarchy of parts. Physically speaking, the existence of the ruin implies a skeleton and/or a shell as primary elements of a building—typically, the ones entrusted with the role of resisting the physical demands of gravity on a structure. It is common that the skeleton and the shell delineate a spatial graphic having a primacy of hierarchy over the other elements of the building.

Perhaps the elementary quality of the ruined structure could be aesthetically compared to minimalist works of art or architecture, but it is, at its core, the product of a phenomenon essentially different from the antiseptic impetus towards abstraction that animates minimalism. The physical reductionism behind the ruin is not born out of a desire to separate objects from exigencies of the real to move them towards a world of disembodied ideas. Although the results might sometimes be superficially similar, the minimal object and the ruin are born of realities that are diametrically opposite to each other. The reductive process of the ruin isn’t a self-conscious process, happening instead as the spontaneous resultant of a natural condition of excess. A structure becomes a ruin, not by subtracting itself from the other, but instead by being exposed for too long to too much: too much life, too much history and too much geography. It is with the corrosive exposure to things that the ruin is honed to its particular kind of state, one that is opposed in sign to the reductive minimalism of pure form, color and materiality. The form of abstraction of the ruin as a concept is not preemptive but anticipatory, as it proposes the consideration of the mystery of emptiness to be brought about by the destructive consequences of passing time, even before it has come to pass.

Most importantly, the ruin implies the independence of architecture as it embodies the end of life in an emblematic “last impression” for those perceptive enough to intuit it, although the nature of its significance might be slipping through the fingers of those who think they have captured it. Under the condition of the ruin, the use of architecture becomes opaque in its own past, allowing the work to return to itself as it undermines for good the legitimacy of any naïve functionality-based pretexts.

As it is obvious, these qualities of the ruin are clearest for those structures that have already achieved this final status. They are clear for example, in the broken outline of the Parthenon’s remains summarizing the steep ascent of the south wall of the Acropolis when seen against the sky from the Theater of Dionysius. Something similar happens with the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. There are only two fragments remaining of what once was the massive brick wall that used to support the vault of the Caldarium, located in line with the main axis of symmetry of the building in the middle of the south façade. These fragments of wall rise up like dense contorted towers, and seen from the palestra in the back their profiles are hard to make out with precision, because their surfaces in the sun appear concave and convex at the same time.

The possible usefulness of the ruin as critical tool for design demands from us the anticipatory effort of also foreseeing the potential of its presence in relatively new structures still intact or in good repair. Furthermore, the idea of the ruin seems most interesting to us if considered as conceptual device. Anticipating perhaps the forms destruction might take in the future, the ruin can be used as a form of design leverage operating beyond the physical body of the building to affect instead the objectives of its architectural conception. We imagine such methodology of design yielding a mysteriously analytic work, which in some ways might perhaps share the assembled qualities of collage: a coming together of seemingly disparate parts that have in common, not a diversity of content, but rather a purposeful unevenness that is derived from an instrumentally rarefied logic of assembly.

An example of such kind of work, one in which the premeditated ruin, so to speak, plays an important role, is Sigurd Lewerentz’s Church of Saint Mark in Björkhagen outside of Stockholm, a work completed in 1956. This church, almost entirely constructed in brick, seems culled together from an assorted set of reused fragments that somehow give the impression of having been pulled from other, now lost, structures. The fenestration for example, can best be described as the momentary interruption of walls, while in the amazing solidity of its totality, the different elements seem to relate casually, as if in apparent indifference to each other.

The church seems deceptively aloof to inhabitation, and although upon second examination, it is clear that it works quite well as such, it nonetheless brings to mind images of early Christians inventing the first churches by squatting and making do in under-occupied Roman basilicas. The building is formed of an assembly of clearly differentiated parts that are simply butted against each other without interpenetration, giving somehow the impression of having been built at different times or by different people. This is masterfully done by Lewerentz without a hint of affectation, and embodies a strange informality that gives the church the impression of having been found in a nearby birch forest rather than having been built from scratch. This arrangement also allows the possibility of a modulated use of the church, permitting the celebration of the religious service in such way that it would never feel sparsely attended, regardless of how few of the faithful might be present.

The feeling of the intact ruin, so strong in the Church of Saint Mark, seems suggestive of a time predating our understanding of the world as ripe for objectification and willful exploitation. Although seemingly impervious to a small-minded understanding of comfort, the building offers people something much more valuable, giving presence to a world that perhaps never was and will never really be. A world we can imagine with the envy of what we want but will never have. More than anything, the curious loose ends, the strange assortment of juxtaposed wall and roof geometries, the windows as frameless voids closed by sheets of glass that are coarsely glued on the brick surface of the wall, collectively imply the existence of a time maybe forever lost to the annals of the world, a time in which we were indifferent to private property and the egomaniacal obsession with authorship and, most interestingly, a time in which by apparently letting go of all expectations, we could enter into an embrace with an all-encompassing harmony of everything.

To initially understand the meaning of the ruin, we do have to consider the ruin in its literal self, but upon encountering in modern architectural works the condition of the ruin embodied with the perfection we admire in the Church of Saint Mark, we feel enabled to hypothesize the condition of the ruin as something independent from literal physical decay. The ruin can then become a byword for an a priori self-sufficiency as a precondition for architecture.

Pablo Castro
New York
25 of August 2016

As published in Obra Architects Logic: Selected Projects, 2003 - 2016, Architectural Publisher b, Copenhagen,




'En aquel tiempo yo tenía veinte años
y estaba loco.
Había perdido un país
pero había ganado un sueño.
Y si tenía ese sueño
lo demás no importaba.
Ni trabajar ni rezar
ni estudiar en la madrugada
junto a los perros románticos.
Y el sueño vivía en el vacío de mi espíritu.
Una habitación de madera,
en penumbras,
en uno de los pulmones del trópico…'

Los Perros Románticos
Roberto Bolaño

Interrumpido por la muerte en 1988, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio es el libro inconcluso donde el autor italiano Italo Calvino enumera los principios artísticos que, a su entender deberían guiar la producción cultural del siglo XXI.(1) La Levedad, el 'último principio', con el cual Calvino decide comenzar su argumento, se propone cómo antídoto al peso de la prosa narrativa. El principio de la Levedad se opone a acepciones contundentes, a juicios definitivos y a la grandilocuencia y la pomposidad del estilo. En defensa de la liviandad, Calvino no propone un entregarse de la literatura a las frivolidades hedonistas de la mediática del momento, sino evitar el peso cómo estrategia salvadora de una ética del buen vivir y, si se puede ir más lejos, como desesperado rescate de lo que de humano pueda quedarle a la humanidad.(2)

La estrategia de la Levedad es inmediatamente análoga a la arquitectura, ya que Calvino propone la construcción de un texto como la envolvente de un lugar hueco y casi idéntico a un edificio, un texto poroso y penetrable en el que el lector entraría a ocupar un espacio interpretativo que lo participe activamente de la experiencia del leer.(3)

Calvino cree que el futuro no será uno de aserciones finales o de experiencias concluyentes y pre-digeridas, sino el de un edificio verbal hecho de la materia leve y resistente de la duda constructiva. Así la Levedad se transforma en búsqueda modesta de la verdad en el peso de las cosas. La Levedad de Calvino se puede definir paradójicamente cómo la búsqueda indirecta del peso, a travez de la cuidadosa disposición de su opuesto: lo ligero.(4) Esta estructura leve, al estar cuidadosamente planeada y ejecutada acrecienta por contraste e ironía el impacto del desenlace narrativo. La duda provisoria y al equívoco creador se usan cómo incentivos al lector y herramientas con que cavar los agujeros en la narrativa por los que se abrirá paso el lector. El poeta y el novelista han tenido siempre el deber de intentar decir lo indecible, y Calvino apunta a la continuidad de esa tradición cuando sugiere que con la Levedad, no se refiere él a la ligereza de lo que nunca tuvo peso, sino a aquella que, por el uso virtuoso del lenguaje, se ve liberada de su peso.(5)

Cuando los arquitectos Salvador Reyes y Josefina Larraín hablan del diseño de su Casa Itzimná, ubicada en el homónimo barrio de la ciudad de Mérida en Yucatán, hablan, quizás sin quererlo, de la persecución de un ideal inalcanzable. En su calidad de imposible, este ideal ennoblece a los arquitectos y a su trabajo, aproximando a éste a los ‘fracasos’ grandiosos y perfectos que, por la transcendencia de sus objetivos, quedan al fin por encima de los ‘éxitos’ más terrenalmente banales. Con humildad, los arquitectos no mencionar ideales ni misiones imposibles de ningún tipo, prefiriendo en cambio cualificar discretamente sus objetivos de diseño como ‘lo más posible’, y así proponen una casa de construcción ‘lo más liviana posible’, y apuntan de entrada, a un objetivo que, ya implícito en la idea, está más allá de lo humanamente asequible: la 'ligereza total'.(6)

La casa ocupa un lote en esquina rodeado de un muro perimetral que define a un jardín tropical de grandes árboles centenarios. Construida con una improbablemente esbelta estructura de caño de acero cuadrado soportando paneles de hormigón aireado que quedan revocados estuco impermeable, la casa se une íntimamente al jardín a travez de grandes paneles de vidrio corredizo que se extienden de suelo a techo. Los árboles echan sombras sobre la superficie de los vidrios haciéndolos debatirse en fragmentos de reflejo y transparencia que se superponen a los interiores de la casa. En estos juegos de reflejos se siente clara la presencia de Robert Smithson, quien viajaría por Yucatán en 1969 cargado de espejos que dispondría por todas partes para transformar, con la duda abstracta, los lugares en ’no-lugares’.

Casa y jardín se unen como las manos entrelazadas de los amantes y el jardín penetra en la casa por todas partes haciendo difícil la determinación clara de los confines del edificio. Totalmente rodeada por el muro que la separa de la calle, la casa no se percibe inicialmente cómo tal hasta una vez alcanzado su interior. La experiencia ‘normal’ de la mayoría de los edificios: primero encontrarse con el objeto desde afuera y luego entrar en su espacio, queda invertida en La Casa Itzimná, donde lo que primero se encuentra es un espacio interior ahuecándose hacia el jardín y luego, al alcanzar éste último y volverse hacia el edifico ver sólo un superpuesto juego de transparencias y reflejos. La casa se entiende así cómo casa sin fachada, indivisiblemente unida al jardín y, en el mejor de los casos, asible sólo a travez de vistas fragmentarias e incompletas. El arquitecto como artífice de la forma totalizante desaparece o mejor dicho, toma discreto refugio tras el detalle y una cuidada selección de materiales con que asegurar la lealtad del proyecto a la liviandad. Los árboles centenarios del jardín dan a la casa el contenido de sus reflejos y transparencias, transformándola en instrumento óptico en el que incidentalmente, también se puede vivir. Sin su jardín, la casa toda, y su ideal de ligereza resultarían absolutamente absurdos.

El valor simbólico de tal disposición de las cosas es ineludible: éste jardín tropical que envuelve la casa por todas partes propone, por un lado, un retorno al enigma la naturaleza cómo origen de todo conocimiento y verdad, y por el otro, la conciencia de una vida acosada por la certeza de un pasado histórico a la que dan cuerpo los árboles añosos. Estas no son, claro está, verdades ligeras, pero la casa no las promueve explícitamente, sino que sutilmente nos las deja sentir como improntas ‘italocalvinistas' dejadas por un peso removido.

La estructura espacial de la Casa Itzimná se articula en grandes cubos que indistintamente se dedican a diversos usos. Lo espacios se diferencian para ser habitados de día o de noche sin especializarlos formalmente, sino ubicándolos en el terreno de manera coherente. Los espacios de noche centrípetamente dispuestos contra el muro perimetral, y los espacios de día, surcados por la luz, aventurándolos hacia el centro del jardín y rodeándolos de galerías. De ésta manera, se distancia la casa del oportunismo quasi-ergonómico que obsesivamente quiere diseñarlo todo para un uso único y exclusivo, y se propone una casa de organización espacial más bien indiferente y muda pero acoplada al jardín que la llena de significación.

Desde un punto de vista formal se podría malinterpretar la casa cómo ortodoxamente moderna, pero su concepción la separa de toda sujeción subalterna a la causalidad funcionalista de gran parte de la producción del modernismo en América Latina. De igual forma el edificio carece también de la capacidad expresiva autoreferencial que propone un lenguaje arquitectónico pre-concensuado: ni se propone cómo modelo a imitar, ni ofrece soluciones finales a los problemas de diseñar una casa. La idea que anima el proyecto es más simple y poderosa: entregarse, neutra y transparente a la atracción magnética de los viejos árboles del jardín, para empezar a formar parte quizás de una historia y una geografía que la casa nos revela indirectamente.

Ubicada en un terreno en esquina en el barrio residencial de Itzimná, la casa rehusa expresión alguna hacia la calle, asumiendo una actitud introspectiva de dignidad urbana que se debate secretamente entre circunspección exterior y riqueza interior. En su silencio formal, la casa se hace elocuente en el detalle preciso y el rigor material, y así, su actitud va más allá del decoro social, internándose en un territorio equívoco que se me ocurre cómo uno de los pocos en los cuales el arquitecto pueda operar hoy con coherencia civil y dignidad disciplinaria.

A mi entender, la casa retorna a un proyecto de modernidad que, sin ser un experto, me imagino particularmente mejicano y en ése sentido superior a los experimentos más irresponsablemente optimistas de otros países del Nuevo Mundo. Estas otras experiencias han casi siempre ocupado lugares nuevos, territorios carentes de ruinas, y se me antoja ahora que la presencia constante de la ruina en Méjico—así también cómo una la tradición cultural en la que la muerte no se esconde sino que se acepta cómo inseparablemente unida a la vida—daría al modernismo en Méjico su autenticidad y poesía siniguales.(8) Creo que por los mismos motivos por ejemplo, en el caso de la obra de Robert Smithson, Hotel Palenque (1969) o Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969) son más convincentes cómo ’no-lugares’ que Monuments of Passaic New Jersey (1967). Es más fácil aceptar la nada cómo algo cuando se la rodea de algo, mientras que la nada rodeada de nada, bueno... no es nada.

Este supuesto modernismo Mesoamericano—sin duda hoy solamente imaginario—nos propondría la búsqueda de una verdad improbablemente absoluta a travez de una razón cualificada, actividad propuesta cómo única alternativa del bienvivir y sin duda destinada al más rotundo de los fracasos, pero que daría sin embargo posible entido al interregno entre eventos catastróficos que la historia ineludiblemente depara.(9)

Me imagino a la Casa Itzimná cómo precursora de una arquitectura de calculados equívocos y virtuoso dominio de presencias incidentales, las que muchas veces ignoradas, conducen muchas veces al proyecto cómo factor integrador de la realidad. Una arquitectura sugerente de los frutos de la razón cómo frutos frágiles que sólo sobrevivirán si son protegidos y re-alimentados constantemente por la duda constructiva y la libertad creadora. La Casa Itzimná, con sus ideales de ligereza estructural y Levedad conceptual entrelazadas para crear un espacio habitable coherente y ambiguo es un buen ejemplo de una posible racionalidad por ahora sólo imaginaria, pero con la cual podríamos finalmente dar muerte al proyecto criminal del dominio tecnológico del mundo, blandiendo el arma de la arquitectura cómo forma del conocimiento integrador de todas las cosas.

1. Italo Calvino, Lezioni americane. Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, Oscar Mondadori, Milano 1993
2. Theodore Adorno, Negative Dialectics, Rutledge, London and New York, 1973. Una cita menos conocida que en la que afirma que escribir poesía lírica después de Auschwitz no es posible. En ella también identifica Adorno al genocidio industrializado como al punto de no retorno en la deshumanización del hombre.
páginas 362-363:
'But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living--especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living. His mere survival calls for the coldness, the basic principle of bourgeois subjectivity, without which there could have been no Auschwitz; this is the drastic guilt of him who was spared. By way of atonement he will be plagued by dreams such as that he is no longer living at all, that he was sent to the ovens in 1944 and his whole existence since has been imaginary, an emanation of the insane wish of a man killed twenty years earlier.’
2. Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt, The New York Review of Books, New York, 2005
El pasaje más explícito de los muchos con que Malaparte reimagina en Kaputt la caída en lo subhumano de la persona durante la guerra.
página: 266:
'Finally the officer stopped before the boy, stared at him for a long time in silence, then said in a slow tired voice full of boredom: "Listen, I don't want to hurt you. You are a child, and I am not waging war against children. You have fired at my men, but I am not waging war on children. Lieber Gott, I am not the one who invented war." The officer broke off,then went on in a strangely gentle voice: "Listen, I have one glass eye. It is difficult to tell which is the real one. If you can tell me at once, without thinking about it, which of the two is the glass eye, I will let you go free."
"The left eye," replied the boy promptly.
"How did you know?"
"Because it is the one that has something human in it.”
3. Francis Yates, The Art of Memory, Pimlico, London, 1992
La analogía del texto con el espacio arquitectónico es antigua, en el comienzo de su libro Frances Yates cita el De oratore de Cicero para ilustrar cómo la disposición espacial dentro del espacio organizado por la arquitectura se transforma en la clave del arte clásico de la memoria.
páginas 17-18:
‘At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him half the sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor.’
4. Italo Calvino, Ibid
En su primer propuesta, Calvino iguala a la levedad con la reflexión a travez del mito de Perseus y Medusa.
página 2:
'In certi momenti mi sembrava che il mondo stesse diventando tutto di pietra: una lenta pietrificazione più o meno avanzata a seconda delle persone e dei luoghi, ma che non risparmiava nessun aspetto della vita. Era come se nessuno potesse sfuggire allo sguardo inesorabile della Medusa. L’unico eroe capace di tagliare la testa della Medusa è Perseo, che vola coi sandali alati, Perseo che non rivolge il suo sguardo sul volto della Gorgone ma solo sulla sua immagine riflessa nello scudo di bronzo. Ecco che Perseo mi viene in soccorso anche in questo momento, mentre mi sentivo già catturare dalla morsa di pietra, come mi succede ogni volta che tento una rievocazione storico-autobiografica. Meglio lasciare che il mio discorso si componga con le immagini della mitologia. Per tagliare la testa di Medusa senza lasciarsi pietrificare, Perseo si sostiene su ciò che vi è di più leggero, i venti e le nuvole; e spinge il suo sguardo su ciò che può rivelarglisi solo in una visione indiretta, in un’immagine catturata da uno specchio. Subito sento la tentazione di trovare in questo mito un’allegoria del rapporto del poeta col mondo, una lezione del metodo da seguire scrivendo.’ 'En ciertos momentos me parecía que el mundo se iba volviendo de piedra: una lenta petrificación, más o menos avanzada según las personas y los lugares, pero de la que no se salvaba ningún aspecto de la vida. Era como si nadie pudiera esquivar la mirada inexorable de la Medusa. El único héroe capaz de cortar la cabeza de la Medusa es Perseo, que vuela con sus sandalias aladas; Perseo, que no mira el rostro de la Gorgona sino sólo a su imagen reflejada en el escudo de bronce. Y en este momento, cuando empezaba a sentirme atenazado por la piedra, como me sucede cada vez que intento una evocación histórico-autobiográfica, Perseo acude de nuevo en mi ayuda. Más vale dejar que mi explicación se componga de las imágenes de la mitología. Para cortar la cabeza de la Medusa sin quedar petrificado, Perseo se apoya en lo más leve que existe: los vientos y las nubes, y dirige la mirada hacia lo que únicamente puede revelársele en una visión indirecta, en una imagen cautiva en un espejo. Inmediatamente siento la tentación de encontrar en este mito una alegoría de la relación del poeta con el mundo, una lección del método para seguir escribiendo. Pero sé que toda interpretación empobrece el mito y lo ahoga; con los mitos no hay que andar con prisa; es mejor dejar que se depositen en la memoria, detenerse a meditar en cada detalle, razonar sobre lo que nos dicen sin salir de su lenguaje de imágenes. La lección que podemos extraer de un mito reside en la literalidad del relato, no en lo que añadimos nosotros desde fuera.'
5. Italo Calvino, Ibid
página 13:
'Possiamo dire che due vocazioni opposte si contendono il campo della letteratura attraverso i secoli: l’una tende a fare del linguaggio un elemento senza peso, che aleggia sopra le cose come una nube, o meglio un pulviscolo sottile, o meglio ancora come un campo d’impulsi magnetici; l’altra tende a comunicare al linguaggio il peso, lo spessore, la concretezza delle cose, dei corpi, delle sensazioni.’
'It is said that, in the early 1970s, Robert le Ricolais, a University of Pennsylvania professor, presented to the fields of architecture and structural engineering the paradoxical dictum: “Zero weight, infinite span,” as the ultimate goal in structural design. The goal, of course, is impossible, but to seek the impossible, le Ricolais supposed, was to obtain, perhaps, the previously unimagined.’
7. Robert Smithson, Incidents of Mirror-Traveling in Yucatán, 1969, in Jack Flam ed., Robert Smithson: Collected Writings, University of California Press, Berkley 1996
8. Karl Ove Knausgård, La Muerte del Padre, Mi Lucha, Tomo I, Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona 2012
páginas: 10-12
'Y, sin embargo, hay pocas cosas que nos desagraden más que ver a un ser humano capturado en ese mundo muerto, al menos a juzgar por los esfuerzos que hacemos por mantener los cuerpos muertos fuera de nuestra vista. En los hospitales grandes no sólo se guardan escondidos en oportunas salas inaccesibles, sino que también las vías para llegar hasta ellas están ocultas, con ascensores y caminos propios por los sótanos, y aunque por casualidad uno diera con alguno de esos lugares, los cuerpos muertos con los que se encontraría en las camillas están siempre tapados. Para llevárselos del hospital se sacan por una salida especial, en coches con ventanillas tintadas. En el recinto del cementerio hay para ellos una sala especial sin ventanas; durante la ceremonia funeraria están metidos en ataúdes cerrados, hasta que son enterrados o quemados en el horno. Resulta difícil encontrar alguna razón práctica que justifique este procedimiento. Los cuerpos muertos podrían por ejemplo llevarse sin tapar en camillas por los pasillos del hospital, y de allí transportarse en un taxi normal y corriente, sin que eso representara ningún riesgo para nadie…
...Ahora bien, no resulta fácil decir qué es exactamente lo que reprimimos. No puede ser la muerte en sí, pues su presencia en la sociedad es demasiado grande para ello. El número de muertos indicado en los periódicos y mostrados en la televisión a diario varía un poco según las circunstancias, pero de año en año debe de tratarse de un número bastante constante, y como está disperso entre tantos canales, es casi imposible de evitar. Esa muerte, sin embargo, no parece amenazante. Al contrario, es algo que queremos y por lo que pagamos gustosamente para ver. Si añadimos esa enorme cantidad de muertes que produce la ficción, resulta aún más difícil entender el sistema que mantiene ocultos a los muertos. Si la muerte como fenómeno no nos aterra, ¿por qué entonces ese malestar ante los cuerpos muertos? Tiene que significar que existen dos clases de muerte, o que existe una contradicción entre nuestra idea de la muerte y la muerte como es realmente, lo que en el fondo es lo mismo: lo esencial en este contexto es que nuestra idea de la muerte tiene una fijación tan fuerte en nuestra conciencia que no sólo nos estremecemos al ver que la realidad no concuerda con ella, sino que también intentamos ocultarlo por todos los medios.’
9. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, 1940 in Hannah Arendt ed., Illuminations, Schoken Books, New York 1985
páginas: 257-258
‘There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are open wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That we call progress, is this storm.’

Pablo Castro
Nueva York
2 de Agosto 2016

The Natural Man


The Natural Man

OBRA Architects presenta El Hombre Natural en Arquex, el Segundo Congreso Internacional de Arquitectura y Diseño, a tener lugar en el Forum Mayan Hall de la ciudad de Mérida, Méjico el 23 de Octubre de 2015 a la 1PM.

El Hombre Natural
El Hombre Natural invita a considerar el espíritu esencialmente rebelde del hacer arquitectónico, que mayormente con pequeños gestos e iniciativas discretas, trata dificultosamente de cambiar el mundo para mejor. Aunque es sentida en la humildad del proyecto puntual, la malsana ambición de tal empresa y lo poco propicio de los tiempos, enmarcan una trayectoria de trabajo que entre contornos difusos, intentos fallidos y callejones sin salida, opone a la arquitectura y la naturaleza con el odio volátil del amante despechado.

La conferencia es un intento de relatar autobiográficamente la historia del trabajo reciente de Obra Architects, incluyendo obras en los Estados Unidos, América Latina, Europa y China. Sus posibles interpretaciones quedan quizás entre la constante re-elaboración de los procedimientos del quehacer disciplinar y las trampas que tiende la arquitectura como forma de vida. El trabajar así supone una disposición al mismo tiempo interrogante e inclusiva que, enamorada del invisible sendero que marca la arquitectura como disciplina milenaria, se aventura sin embargo fuera de sus confines enredándose a menudo dolorosamente entre los espinosos matorrales de la redefinición disciplinar.

The Natural Man by OBRA Architects will be presented in Mexico at the Arquex Second International Congress of Architecture and Design taking place at The Forum Mayan Hall in the city of Merida on the 23rd of October 2015 at 1PM.

The Natural Man
The Natural Man is an invitation to consider the essentially rebellious spirit of the architectural work which, mostly through small gestures and discrete initiatives, arduously attempts to improve the world. Although felt with the humility of the discrete project, the unhealthy ambition of such an initiative and the unpropitious times frame a professional trajectory that, amongst diffuse edges, failed attempts and dead-end alleys, opposes architecture to nature with the volatile hatred of the rejected lover.

The lecture is an autobiographical attempt to relate the story of Obra Architects' recent work, including works in the United States, Latin America, Europe and China. Their possible interpretations are perhaps to be found amongst the constant reconsideration of the procedures of disciplinary practice and the traps laid by architecture as a form of life. To work this way presupposes a disposition at once interrogating and inclusive that, in love with the invisible path left to us by architecture as ancient discipline, nonetheless ventures out of its confines, frequently finding itself painfully entangled in the thorny bushes of disciplinary redefinition.

23 October 2015
Pablo Castro



The Biography of Space

“On all sides round horror spread wide; the very silence breathed a terror on my soul.”
The Aeneid Virgil, a line quoted by Saint Jerome

A “Unified Theory” in physics is still an elusive objective of science. Newtonian Physics is to some extent adequate for the description of everyday empirical experience, but there are also Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, a physics of the very large, and Quantum Physics, the atomic physics of the very small. Although science still lacks a coherent and universal description of space (and time), it seems important that artists and architects, in order to practice their discipline meaningfully, develop an intuitive, consistent and communicable way of understanding and describing space.

The class will focus on the study of space to assist the students in developing such personal understanding. Because of its mysterious elusiveness, we will look not at space directly in itself, but through the reflective surface -perhaps like Theseus approaching Medusa- of the minds that, through history, have entertained the idea of space, with an emphasis on the thoughts of artists and architects.

We could differentiate between two kinds of space: Natural Space and Artificial Space. Natural Space we will consider space as found, physically unmodified by the activity of persons, and Artificial Space as space that has been abstracted and reinterpreted through human consciousness, either effectively or theoretically, the space of artworks, cities and buildings. This class will attend to only Artificial Space, and particularly two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space, drawings, paintings and photographs. Their two-dimensionality ensures both the artificiality of their essence and the fact that, by necessity, they have already been processed through someone’s consciousness when moving from three to two dimensions, between perception and representation.

With the development of mathematically precise perspective in the XV century, space is first tamed and reliably described. Perspective becomes a descriptive method of space and also, because of its universal applicability, a tool of the conquest of nature and the world, which will from now be framed and in focus.

Perspective brings to the forth crucial concerns in the nature of our understanding of space. We are inevitably dependent on the unreliable nature of the senses for the perception of the phenomena but perspective (in the form of photography for example) allows us to reproduce and indiscriminately deploy a simplified version of the real, a serviceable and universally applicable descriptive system that is both true and false.

Eastern and Western Art have relied on different modes of representing three-dimensional space: the counterpart of the perspectival construction in Asian art is the oblique axonometric or so-called “Chinese Perspective,” a method widely used in Chinese scroll painting that has the advantage of using “real” dimensions and is consequently considered to be “distortion-free,” although it lacks the means to represent the optical phenomena of foreshortening that characterizes vision.

By a consideration of the history of the representation of space on two-dimensional surfaces, and through a number of drawing and model-making exercises, the class will aim to reach an intuitive understanding of space, and to engage the mind in the perplexing and paradoxical distinctions between the perceived and the represented. The class aims to use representations of space not only as vehicle for a deeper understanding of reality, but also as potential design tool as descriptive drawing transcends the role as a representer of reality to become an agent in its manipulation, venturing into the obscure but fascinating territories that lie between what things are and how they might appear.

A design exercise to last 8 weeks will be given and discussed. The theme will be an interpretation of a scholar’s studio or studiolo. This small building or room appears in paintings by Dürer, Giuliano da Messina and others representing the studiolos of Saint Jerome or Saint Augustin and it is typically shown as a small space in which the saint is seen busy reading the scriptures surrounded by books, hourglasses, writing instruments, lions, jars, scissors and sculls. Although the paintings represent an earlier time, it is hard not to think the artists were presenting us with an idealized vision of the perfect room for a Renaissance man, one in which he could pursue in quiet and isolation the multifarious interests typical of a well-bred person of the times. We imagine these as perhaps the perfect place of study for Leon Battista Alberti or Filippo Brunelleschi, the men who in the XV century systematized perspective as a reliable geometric cage into which to capture beautiful visions of a chaotic world.

The significance of the studioli as a building type in relationship to perspective is clear. A studiolo is interior space as a fixed point from which to project an effort of understanding that encompasses the whole world, not as it is but as it has been seen by others and described in books, drawings, maps, and paintings, a series of ordered and coherent visions of the world which do not register perfectly with reality but that can be used as tools of its conquest. Most artworks depicting studioli show a small space cluttered with objects (as we have described above) that symbolize elements of knowledge of the outside world as the space is separated from the exterior by thick walls which typically have one or two windows. Through these windows sometimes light (of knowledge) streams in, or framed views of the surrounding landscape can be seen, an ordered landscape that makes the room seem as if fenestrated with Dürer’s perspective machines.

The studiolo is of course not an ancient or antiquated conception for an architectural exercise; in 1954, a Renaissance man of our time called Le Corbusier, built for himself a minuscule structure attached to the restaurant L’Étoile d’Mer,in Cap Martin. Known as the Petite Cabanon, it is a building that brings instantaneously to mind the studioli of XVI century paintings.


Poly-perspectival Space
Space as originally described with perspective relies on a number of simplifying assumptions about perception:
1. Perpendiculars to the projection plane meet in a single point (vanishing point) representing the infinite.
2. All parallels meet in a single vanishing point (violation of Euclid's fourth axiom).
3. Fugue points of horizontal planes fall on the horizontal (a straight line).
4. If they form a 45-degree angle with the plane of projection, the distance between its fugue point and the perpendicular's fugue point is equal to the distance between the observer and the point of projection.
5. All dimensions diminish in space, and if the location of the observer is known, they can be calculated from the preceding or following dimensions.

And two fundamental assumptions:
1. We see with a fixed and simple eye.
2. The planar surface through our vision pyramid can pass for an adequate approximation to our optical image.

Two rather bold abstractions from reality (if by "reality" we consider the actual subjective optical impression, the structure of infinite, unchanging and homogeneous (a purely mathematical space) is quite unlike psychophysiological space. Amongst the differences are a plane surface instead of a concave one, one fixed eye instead of two moving ones, and an abstraction of psychological conditioned space and cooperation between vision and the tactile sense.

Is it possible to devise a method of representing space in two dimensions that addresses these discrepancies? The mathematical framework of perspective remains the same until the time of Girard Desargues in the XVII, when it is transformed into what we know as projective geometry. But reacting against the discrepancy between lived experience and mathematical artificiality of perspective, the Impressionists try to dissolve the architecture of solid objects deployed in space into light, removing the solidity of reality to a dissolved world of atomized light. But operating through keen observation, it is Cézanne who is in pursuit of a “new optics,” a way of structuring the artwork on the basis not of as consistent and abstract geometric armature, but on a unique structure defined in rules applicable only on a case by case basis. In the work of Cézanne, depth is achieved not equating space to a homogeneous geometric constant, but by problematizing the traditional perspectival structure through a process of keen observation. In Cézanne’s paintings, space is humanized not by transforming it into a geometric tool for the systematization (and conquering of nature) but conversely by “naturalizing” human vision through clues taken from nature. His work is both sophisticated and primitive, new yet belonging to the classical tradition of the observation and imitation of nature. Nature is taken as a model not in its superficial appearance, but in its coming to being, in the way that it structures the way things come to be and seem to us harmonically inevitable. Cézanne’s aim was not (as he said of the masters of the Renaissance) to create “pictures" [of nature], but to understand, not the image but the way things come to be and thus create a “piece of nature.”

Pablo Castro and Jennifer Lee
Korea National University of Arts



Concept Notes
Traveling is today a dying art, it seems as if no one has the time for it, and besides, the world has become so intent in transforming all places worth visiting into tourist destinations, that there is hardly anywhere one can go without getting disappointed by pre-packed experiences and overcrowded conditions. Almost everywhere one goes whatever normal local life was, seems to have now been replaced by a self-conscious representation of itself, a bad copy of reality trapped in a bad dream of exaggerated features, colors too bright and everything for sale.

Perhaps this process is inevitable and irreversible, and our book project in some way futile, the conditions that rarify the fortunes of the prospective traveler will not be changed by a small publication like the one we have in mind. Yet we take hart by imagining the little book existing in the fringes of the constantly recurring and massive exodus of people that makeup today's global tourist industry. With some good fortune, a few travelers will carry with them a copy of it when coming to Rome.

The book will likely travel in the company of other guides that, more prosaic, comprehensive and pragmatic, can perform the laudable role of helping get our imagined travelers out of the trouble they will certainly fall into after, distracted by the fanciful conceptions proposed by Trespass Rome, find themselves in the urgent need to return to the here and now of prosaic everyday reality.

It won't be of course Trespass Rome that possibly throws our conjectural travelers into any kind of imaginary altered state, it is Rome itself that can, given the chance of a half-open and somewhat-available perceiving soul, unleash on the spirit a fascinating trance-like state of quiet amazement and horror at the accumulated pile of detritus that time constantly leaves behind.

Trespass Rome would not be a guidebook intended to help you find your way but rather one that constantly is putting you at risk of loosing it, perhaps not literally, although at times that might be also desirable, but metaphorically, to always push you towards the labyrinthic and inapproachable depths of reality considered undivided and swallowed whole.

There is perhaps no place in the world where to more vividly experience the vertigo of reality under the dissolving corrosion of time than in Rome, we feel the majority of guidebooks are designed to get you in and out safely and fast of the sites they propose while giving you "the facts" that allow you to appropriate someone else's opinion of what you see. The guidebook we have in mind, will not so much tell you what the truths of the situations you encounter might possibly be as to simply try to expose you to them in such a way as to elicit your emotional and imaginative participation in the events.

Ideally Trespass Rome would serve as the vehicle for an enhanced mode of perception with all senses open to the fascinating and heartbreaking experience of a city encountered as if in slow-motion in the vertiginous depth of its being using the very inadequate equipment of our human eye.

Perhaps implicitly, a guidebook always addresses the issue of property and exclusion in the city, as if always asking the question: who does this place belong to? If we wanted to write a longer work, it would perhaps be desirable to close it by including an appendix with advice on how to pick locks, cut chains and lie to guards in order to gain access to the places typically out of the reach of the usual traveler, but for now our plan is to pursue the more cautious approach of giving instructions on how to obtain entry to restricted sites by calling ahead of time or simply being in the right place at the right time. We do not discourage more devious forms of behavior if they are dimmed necessary in order to achieve success, but we are living it up to the travelers' remorsefulness, talent and taste for mischief to decide how to cheat their way into places from which they might find themselves excluded.

14 April 2013
Pablo Castro and Yoko Hara



Rome and Oblivion
Remembrance is not to be trusted: a memory can bring back either a dream or an event that really occurred. By using a documentary and academic style obscured with the usual gaps that characterize our slippery hold of reality, the writer Jorge Luis Borges would legitimize the fantastic by recounting it with the type of deadpan descriptions we reserve for the factual. An unlikely turn of events regarding time, the physical qualities of familiar objects or the nature of insomnia would be woven into a fabric made of counterfeit encyclopedias in which crucial pages are missing, prologues in which the writer claims that nothing or almost nothing is an invention of the author, or library buildings without beginning or end.

The work of W.G. Sebald, occupied by the minute description of the passage of time and the way it dissolves lives into disappearance, is also based on a similar strategy of legitimizing fantastic content by presenting it in realistic form. The events that occupy his stories never unfold in real time, but are protected from accountability by the imperfections that characterize the hearsay quality of our own memories. It is perhaps exact to say that when we remember something that happened to us in the past, we are experiencing someone else's memories. Memories are always contaminated by emotion, oblivion and melancholy, the non-fiction pretense of Sebald's style is articulated in the stories of diverse witnesses that recount their experiences to the narrator in a variety of situations, but also by the inclusion in the narrative of a series of somewhat taciturn photographic images that in their apparent ordinariness, certify the truth of the events being related. This is of course a very ingenious trick. I can imagine Sebald collecting suggestive images on the basis of which, in a reversed process of creation, a plot will later be devised.

Spending time in Rome with the American Academy's Rome Prize is an experience vividly marked by its own finiteness. The prize is given for a limited period of time and then, whatever it is that one does with one's life afterwards, the gift of time in Rome ends and one returns to New York or San Francisco to pick up where one left off a year ago, or at least to try to. As a Fellow of the American Academy, I think my task will be to remember, to bring back with me a bit of Rome to be inspired by in the future. If that could be the case, how should I now live my time in Rome to make it amenable to the mysterious mechanisms of voluntary and involuntary memory? How do I fight my preemptive war with oblivion to maximize my chances of remembering?

I think I would prefer to remember not with the antiquarian spirit that tries to obsessively separate what really happened from what was merely imagined. I would prefer to remember imaginatively, focusing memory not so much on the object or the situation but instead on its possible significance, in the way in which it can affect my future once Rome has become part of my past.

I can imagine the American Academy Fellows occupied in a daily coming and going through the streets of Rome collecting images as if to assemble a story by Sebald. A fantastic story that could or could not have happened to them but that can perhaps capture a piece of their truth in the imagination. Anguished, they try to find efficient ways to work that allow them to do more, to see more, but are again and again defeated in advance by the obvious inexhaustibility of the city. We all try to move fast, but I have noticed in myself a propensity to quickly forget what I have learned in a hurry, and leaving photography to the tourist, I have resolved to record my experiences in drawing, a comparatively slow and imprecise method.

Drawing can help focus imagination in the detail that will thus become memorable, and I am thinking of the drawings attempted in Rome as anti-snapshots, as tools that, operating in slow-motion, can capture and give staying power to a few places, buildings, landscapes and details.

Perhaps, once I am back in New York, I will study my own drawings in depth and remember this or that Roman experience. But life is short. How many times will I get the chance to do that? Three or four times? Ten times maybe? I feel inclined to think that whatever value these drawings might have, does not reside in the drawings themselves but in the experience of having attempted them. They are just tools for the construction of memories, not valuable in themselves and only useful to help fight the speedy passage of time.

3 April 2013
Pablo Castro



The Invisible Hammer
Scale is the factor that relates different objects according to their size. For designers participating in the creation of objects, from as small as a chair to as large as a city, an intuitive understanding of scale is of paramount importance. Designing could be thought of as the definition of relationships of scale that transcend categorical boundaries. A design imposes a human-made ordering system, a creation of the imagination upon the world of real physical objects.

An artist can have an intuitive sense of scale that makes these relationships of scale seem “easy” or inevitable, but for an architect there is yet a further step: that of relating the created system to the size of our human body and our psychological understanding of size. As Le Corbusier intuited, an artist can afford to paint the wheels of the cannon square to suggest the futility of war, but for an architect all wheels are always round. An architect's rebellion requires a more subtle touch.

Suffering from a cultural trend towards increasing abstraction, architecture is under pressure to decouple from site and specificity of place, aspects which give meaning to the size of the architectural object.

“Computer-aided design” is threatening to make hand drawing a thing of the past, robbing us of the immediate capacity of the hand to convey to the work the wisdom intuitively and ancestrally stored in the body. The capacity of digital drawings to move seamlessly (and often imperceptibly) between different scales undermines a designer’s instinctive understanding of big and small.

Some see in this an opportunity for freedom, a deliberation from the limitations reality places upon us and the things we make. But gravity always wins. Furthermore, without it, architecture would be meaningless. It is said the Hemingway blew his brains off with a shotgun because “his body had betrayed him,” but deliverance from the limitations of the body would also mean impotence since Hemingway couldn’t have written any of his works without the poetic sense of the limitations stored in his body, including its potential demise.

Danger lies not in wanting to be free, that is the most understandable of human desires. The danger lies in believing that freedom is actually an attainable goal. The attractive figure of a person fighting odds with the knowledge that it is both a lost cause and the only way to live, gives way to the arrogant and somewhat stupid image of someone thinking they can actually cheat death.

The sense of scale we seek is not an abstract one but the scale of the familiar, of what we have known but shall redefine anew with every act of design, defamiliarizing it, and seeing it again for the first time. Normally, the object is used mindlessly, as the philosopher would have it when describing the carpenter’s hammer: “ready-at-hand,” an extension of the body that does not call attention to itself unless it breaks or unless we are overtaken by a meditative mood.

The tendency towards abstraction is a manifestation of our desire for order, not a force of evil or an expression of the inhuman. Actually, the appeal of abstraction is the manifestation of the most human of feelings: the fear of death. Every morning in the shower as we plan our day between towel and toothbrush, we determine to “do things well,” imagining that if we are careful and follow the rules, we can cheat misfortune.

A refined sense of scale is a tool of design that mediates between conception and execution, between intelligence and intuition. The abstract contributes a vision that coordinates the different sizes of things into a harmonious whole, while the real informs these sizes with the way things want to be.

Bergson divided our human faculties into intelligence to understand space, the dimension of our bodily life, and intuition to understand time, the dimension of our spiritual life. The miracle of architectural design is that capacity to embody the spiritual into the physical, just as a personality can be expressed in a face.

Perhaps being able to design could mean having the capacity to choose the right tools for the wrong job, the application of the categories of time upon the dimension of space, of measurable objects. This could amount to an attempt to create objects sized to the scale of our emotions.

It might be that a sense of architectural scale is internalized early in life, as when a child learns her mother tongue. If that were true the scale of the domestic might hold the key to a possible theory of architectural quality, a quality that resonates reflexively with a secret intuition, one we have learned in infancy and don’t even know that we have.

We could then speculate that the house of our childhood is the seed of all good architecture, a seed that might grow to become other kinds of structures such as hospitals, schools or office buildings. Perhaps there is here an “I and Thou” passage from the experience of the emotional to the experience of the shared, a vehicle for architecture to become public and intrinsically belong to all.

When a structure reaches a certain size, it becomes threatened by the specter of monumentality. Architects must find ways of infusing any size of building with the intimacy of the domestic. Irregardless of who “owns” the architecture then, the experience of it becomes the vehicle of a subliminal message: architecture belongs to us all.

June 2012
Pablo Castro


2011-2012 Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale for Urbanism\Architecture, Shenzhen Civic Centre, PR China


Will the current ubiquitous environmentalism save our cities and the world? Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it seems like it could. Thursdays and Saturdays it appears rather unlikely. The development of the project for an Ultralight Pavilion in Shenzhen presents to us an opportunity to suspend relative disbelief and attempt an exemplary contribution.

Beyond the quantifiable benefits of “lightness” in architecture as a strategy towards the preservation of scarce resources, the idea of the Ultralight Village appears as a providentially appropriate way to consider the nuances of an interdependence between architecture, the city and the environment.

A work of architecture in the city is traditionally regarded as belonging to one of two types, either a monument or a part of the fabric. The monument of course celebrates momentous events, perpetuates foundational myths or aggrandizes the humanities of celebrated individuals; the fabric is everything else and is supposed to create the context in which the monuments can exist. The monuments are symbols, “exemplary” and artificial moments in the city. Precisely because their role is to perpetuate certain conditions, they are deprived of the possibility of changing—ergo all that stone and bronze. And unchanged, they are confident and certain, the architectural equivalent of an unshakable conviction, or of a faith, they are lifeless. Life is happening elsewhere in the doubt, confusion and chaos that can typically be found in the city’s fabric.

The Ultralight Village of the Shenzhen Biennale is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction both monumental—because anything worth building in a biennale shares a measure of the monumental—and ephemeral. This paradox becomes our guiding principle in the development of this modest work of architecture. This little building can become a salute to the millions of souls living in Shenzhen. Like most other people that live in other gigantic metropolises of the earth, they share a life unfolding amongst the fragments of a larger reality no one understands, and their lives may be sometimes overwhelmed by diffidence and hesitation. This pavilion can be an anti-monument to them, an ephemeral monument for those who do not want to impose their opinion or perpetuate their situation. A pavilion as an ephemeral “monument,” an Oxymoron Pavilion.

The pavilion will be built over a weighted plywood platform and defined by two coiling steel angles of a section of 6cmx6cm, 112 wood structural members of a section of 4cmx4cm and a skin of translucent parachute nylon. At night, interior lights will project shadows of the pavilion’s structure and its visitors over the translucent nylon skin proposing a dynamic “facade” that becomes an announcement of the building’s use. Because the spatial relationship between visitors and interior light sources cannot be predicted or enforced, the conceivably changing size of the projected shadows will create unforeseeable juxtapositions of scale—perhaps the most crucial of considerations in the design of monuments—altering our understanding of the small building and its meaning.

The skeleton of the oxymoron pavilion is made out of two layers of 2cm plywood custom-cut using computer numerically controlled fabrication, a technology that allows both project specificity and eventual mass-production. The pieces are cut with big circular holes to lighten the weight. The dwarfed monumentality of the form and the modesty of the material tooled through advance technology combine to achieve the oxymoronic effect.

The geometry of the structure approximates the structural benefits and material economies of circular structural schemes reducible to tension or compression rings. But the immutable stasis of a circular geometry can, as if contaminated by an awareness of time, be transformed into the spiral’s dynamically changing parameters and theoretical capacity for infinite growth or decline. Compared with the stability of the circle, the spiral suggests a loss of certainty for the future, an Oxymoron Pavilion for the uncertain future of urban life.

The skin of the oxymoron pavilion is made out of a single layer of parachute nylon, a slyghtly translucent fabric that, when back-lit allows faint and diffuse perception of things behind it. The skin works in this project as a retardant agent that slows down the unfolding of experience in order to make it last longer and allowing visitors to move though the space without getting too much information too soon.

October 2011
OBRA Architects

13:100 | Thirteen New York Architects Design for Ordos

Interview conducted by the Architectural League's Gregory Wessner


1. What was your initial reaction to the invitation? Did you ever consider not accepting the commission?

Pablo Castro: We were pleased to receive the invitation of course. We could have been skeptical were it not for the fact that the emailed invitation came from the office of Herzog de Meuron. From our point of view, their involvement lent the possibility with credible legitimacy. Like everybody else we are great admirers of their work. We were quite surprised by the communication, since we do not know them in person, we have no professional or academic affiliation with them, we were actually happy to learn that they even knew that we exist.

It never crossed our mind to reject the invitation. This whole issue of defiance or making some kind of statement by not participating seems to us a strange position to adopt, in this case. In the real world, restrictions and constraints abound. Any practicing architect will tell you from experience that there is never, in truth, any such thing as a perfect project, a perfect client, a perfect site, etc. Of course there are great clients, great sites, etc. but it is rare that projects have everything, and any architect who has serious ambitions knows one has to consciously and purposefully thrive on the challenge of overcoming such imperfect conditions, it is part of the thrill of working in a project. It should also be noted that Ordos 100 is part of a larger whole, an entire city district will be constructed including cultural and community institutions and also multi-family housing, we feel the entire picture is not clearly visible here and the project may have been perceived as hopelessly elitist by some critics when in reality it is not. So we feel it is too simplistic to fault the commission without knowing the larger whole in which it is inserted. For our part, we would rather respond with a project that attempts to propose an improvement on the given conditions, in the most optimistic manner possible, as long as architectural integrity is not compromised. You know, one of the points in our eight principles of Architettura Povera proposed at RISD in 2004 was: "To be a good architect you have to be gullible."

2. How aware were you of Ai Weiwei's work when you accepted the commission? To what extent do you think we need to see the Ordos 100 project in the context of his work thus far?

PC: We were aware of Weiwei's work, his participation in the project provided for us additional reassurance that we could take this thing seriously and it wasn't just some kind of "Fairytale". Something we really enjoyed about the experience of participating in the project was the opportunity to get to know him personally, we are grateful for that.

There is no doubt somehow this project needs to be seen in the context of Weiwei's work, but I think that because it is architecture it also transcends the context of his body of artwork somehow. Architecture is a team effort and the final results have the indeterminacy that comes with daily inhabitation. Having said that, you have to think that without Weiwei you and I would not be having this conversation and the League would not be having this show.

3. Describe how you dealt with designing a private residence for an abstract client.

PC: Abstraction would not be that much of a problem since you could focus on some kind of essence of the human experience that would give a residential project the poetic charge of an universality, but what was asked of the architects at Ordos was not to design a residence for an abstract client but something a bit different, something harder I think: each of the architects was asked to create a house as if it were for themselves.

I have to say that your question seems to imply that a house conceived without a definite client in mind is somehow less legitimate, we feel tempted to challenge such a suggestion. What percentage of the houses that get designed in the world do you think are designed with a specific client in mind? In any event, I think it is more difficult to design for oneself than it is to design for anybody else, or even for "nobody", put in such a situation, and assuming the honesty of the effort, the designer finds there is nowhere to run, nobody to blame, has to take full responsibility.

I think good architecture fares well the changing of hands, what is truly essential about the contribution that architecture can make to a human life, either at the scale of the building or the scale of the city is of benefit to anyone. The notion that a house needs to be tailor-fitted to someone's every desire and preconception we see as a functionalist atavism, a little bit like ergonomics, it has to do with the intention of using the object instead of living in the space with all the open-ended implications with which life resists over-planning. I think it misses the point of the best that architecture can offer which lies more in line with the vitality of the unexpected, of the yet unknown.

4. To what extent were you designing with Chinese construction techniques and standards in mind? How is this reflected in your design?

PC: There is nothing particularly Chinese about the mode of construction proposed for our project. We will build our house with load bearing clay brick walls, perhaps the oldest building technique on the planet, but in order to transpose the experience of it from sensibilia to intelligibilia we are abstracting the expression of its tectonics by finishing the brick with cobalt blue cement stucco on the exterior and white plaster on the interior. I suppose the fabrication of the curved glass windows in our project will make use of Chinese techniques, they will be manufactured by an airplane cockpit factory, the Xi'An Airplane Industry Group

5. Please describe what is architecturally at stake in your project? What were you after architecturally?

PC: We hope that what our intentions for the project do not exhaust its possible meaning, maybe in the end the most valuable contributions of the project may not have much to do with what we thought we were doing while designing. I guess we can talk about three different moments of architectural intention we went through while working on the design of the project.

a) The first one has to do with the indivisibility of inside and outside. The two most talked about things in the discussions leading up to the project were first: what kind of urban space will result from this aggregation of individual designs? and second: who are we designing this for?

Our idea of indivisibility has to do with the first issue and in it we have tried to elevate this concern from the level of received disciplinary preconception to that of design concept by boiling down the problem to its most basic architectural manifestation. At this most elemental level the urban and the architectural are bonded together on the material surface of their skin which makes them each other's context of existence. It is commonly thought that the urban is the place of appearance of architecture, but it can be argued that it is actually the other way around since it is possible to conceive of buildings without the urban -suburban buildings are the obvious example- but it is not conceivable to think of the urban without buildings. In that sense our project tries to uncover the germ of the urban in architecture itself, specifically in the walls differentiating interior from exterior and yet linking them as inseparable on the curvature of the house. These walls can be read as defining the rooms through a radial sequence of courtyards or, instead, as defining the house's courtyards through a radial sequence of rooms. This reversibility is confirmed conceptually at the level of the actual experience of the wall, when while perceiving its convexity we can't help but also understand its concavity and the space it contains beyond.

b) The second moment of design intention we called: "captured distance" and became the name of our project. The idea originally came from a compositional technique used in ancient Chinese painting, seen in the example of Court Ladies Preparing Silk, attributed to Song Huizong (1101-1125). This technique relies on the arrangement over the surface of the picture of human faces that, directing their gaze in different directions organize the space of the image endowing it with its characteristic subtle depth. The facades of the proposed project "look" at each other across the empty courtyards "magnetizing" the distance between them. The face is of course the locus of the paradoxical ambiguity of self, both speculating agent and object of its on speculation, a paradox that is metaphorically replayed in architecture's matter and form.

c) Finally there are two kinds of spaces in the house: some are of polyhedral geometry—the inside of the "faces" mentioned before—and others of curved geometry, defining a range that spans between a type of "infinitesimal determinacy" at one end and a "perceptual indeterminacy" at the other. These two types of spaces articulate the daily cycle of inhabitation of the house, with the polyhedral spaces serving as the night spaces—bedrooms—and the curved spaces as the day ones. In this way, you see, the freedom from the control or reason that comes with sleep and dream, calls for the sense of spatial reassurance that can be felt in the polyhedral spaces where we could imagine ourselves waking up and wondering "where am I?", while during the day we imagined one being able afford the indeterminacy of a feeling of open-endedness within curved spaces which invite daydreaming on the changing chiaroscuro of daylight skipping over the smooth surfaces of white plaster and the partial concealment of their extension.

6. How do you feel about your participation in the project now that the design phase is over?

PC: Good and maybe a bit anxious to see the Chinese "Design institute" take our project into the design documentation phase while we can only watch. It is not very clear to us how much will we be able to control documentation and construction and that is a source of concern. We have tried to prepare for this by proposing a design of uncomplicated construction, from the architectural point of view, that hasn't been a problem since we don't see our work as demonstration of the circumstantial capabilities of advanced building or design technology, our work is not didactic in that way.

7. What do you think of the site plan and the cumulative effect of the Ordos 100 architectural interventions?

PC: I think this aspect of the project is getting so much attention because it transcends the development project in its more usual form. It is good to keep in mind that the project was conceived by a conceptual artist, so on the realm of experience you have the creation of a piece of a new city, with its places for people to live, its public buildings, its common spaces, etc. and also from the business point of view, a development project, but from the point of view of the ideal model being used to go about this development, we encounter a completely different idea, we feel this is something that is being overlooked. In the sometimes anxious world of the upstart architect instead this is clear; I think it appears as an original model for urban development indeed, one, we have to admit, not without risk for the developer. You can imagine: 100 ambitious young architects from all over the world, some of them without even a single built building to their name are invited to participate and given almost total artistic freedom! You would have to either be a total architectural fraud or have water running through your veins to decline such an opportunity! Just think of the contrast between this situation and the usual development project, where the architect is presented with a design recipe for real estate success that will regulate every aspect of the project.

This brings us to another aspect to consider, that of the freedom given to the designers. There is only freedom when there is not absolute determination, when there is an element of uncertainty regarding the final results. It is needless to say that this is not the known world of the real estate developer. This element of indeterminacy multiplied by 100 shatters the preconceptions with which to measure the forecast for architectural results in Ordos and provides a myriad of changing points of views for an architectural under-standing of the place. You know the Master Plan by Fake Design has also been criticized, and it is certainly very different to anything we could have proposed, but I think that is precisely the point. While the Master Plan design seems to us a bit laconic in its articulation of public space and apparently strangely stuck somewhere between the urban and the sub-urban, it should really be considered as an armature of opportunity for the juxtaposition of a diversity of points of view, an urban holder of dissent and difference of opinion. After the somewhat unsettling show of synchronized obedience that was the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, I am tempted to think that there is nothing that China could use more of now than freedom, dissent and multiplicity of opinion, no?

8. Can you imagine an equivalent development/situation to the Ordos 100 in the US? Why, how, or why not?

PC: Since the French Revolution, freedom and multiplicity of opinion have been a model potentially applicable to the entire planet. Could you imagine the repercussions of such a project in the US? What if some of our most preeminent artists became the organizing lead in some of the American residential developments? Can you imagine Bruce Naumann, Dan Graham and Chris Burden spearheading their housing projects and enlisting architects from the world over to conceive them and actually execute them? Does that not sound much more promising than one more split-ranch suburban development mangling the countryside or another Trump monstrosity defacing downtown with yet one more display of mind-boggling banality and horrid taste?

9. Please describe how you think the sheer size of the Ordos undertaking impacts the role and the position of the architect.

PC: I think the multiplicity of voices proposed imposes a limitation on the role of the architect. We have used the reduction of breadth as an opportunity to explore depth. From the point of view of the architect as as craftsman and creator, the project proposes a field of action limited to the individual plots. This is truly a exquisite corpse project, but you know, "a roll of the dice will never abolish chance."

10. Describe your dream commission.

PC: In Salambo, Flaubert talks about Carthage's obsession with the bottom line as the reason for its inability to aspire to real greatness, say, as in the example of Rome. Since you are asking about a commission and not simply a project, I think we should consider here what the architect is looking for in the client who is commissioning the work. As many young firms, I suppose, we are looking for that client that would want to take a risk on relatively untried talent, in order to get something new and unique. The ideal commission is synonymous with a truly ambitious client, a Roman instead of a Carthaginian.

New York, 2 September 2008
Pablo Castro



The city faces a complex difficult future. Vast worldwide human exodus and the consequent emergence of infrastructure inadequacies including the difficulties of supplying sufficient fresh water to satisfy the needs of a growing population, the inadequate disposal of wildly escalating volumes of waste and the irreversible depletion of natural resources, loom large as daunting challenges to urban survival. Today we have a renewed consciousness of the importance of these issues, and they figure amongst the most important urban design issues upon which hinges the possibility of a viable urban future, an alternative to an impending age of massive extinction of animal species and horrifying human suffering.

"Intelligent design", as the form of design that addresses issues of environmental preservation and the considered management of scarce resources is called in the jargon of today, has always existed. Architecture has always been involved with the creation of spaces that perform functional tasks while elating and inspiring through the ingenious management of scarce resources.

Environmental "sustainability" in design, far from a revolutionary development, doesn't necessarily transform the practice of architecture into anything essentially new, but it brings to the forefront of the discussion issues that should have never been neglected. It is almost scandalous that the consideration of these issues are now being talked about as some kind of new design frontier, suggesting that before our time design was more wasteful and less "intelligent". The question of "intelligent" design, is indeed a question of "more" and "less", a quantitative rather than a qualitative question, technical issues converging to the more complex process of architectural and urban design, regardless of how crucial and important their consideration may circumstantially become, do not in themselves add anything to our conception of the essence of architecture.

Any technical consideration, such as an effort towards an environmental "sustainability", can become the vehicle of poetry in architecture. As a matter of fact, technical considerations often become the main source of architectural poetry by fostering a dramatic conflict between desire for architectural freedom and limited availability of resources. The felicitous resolution of such conflict is the golden standard of architectural quality and beauty, and to be achieved requires the adoption of a holistic approach towards design. Once objectives for technical performance have been established and quantitative benchmarks adopted, design should step away from the analytical and seek the synthetic, aspiring to an understanding of reality that includes simultaneous consideration of its multiplicity though direct intuition.

The context in which the drama of architecture as the physical manifestation of our efforts for survival has physically changed, and yet the media of architecture remains always embodied by the same stuff: space; light; geometry; proportion; color; texture; and sound.

Respect and preservation for the natural environment is architecturally necessary and yet not sufficient, the mission of architecture remains that of inspiring, elating, enchanting and mystifying. This long held utopian ideal aspires to do this not as an exceptional moment in a sea of sameness and sad mediocrity, but actually to propagate itself and pervade all things, to become not the exclusive prerogative of the few but the accomplished right of the many. Not to celebrate the fantastic in honor of the exceptional but, much more ambitiously, to provide a window into the spiritual depth of the quotidian, an experience of architecture that can potentially be available to everyone.

New York, 20 May 2008
Pablo Castro

BQ Magazine Issue No. 25, 19 June 2008

Interview conducted by BQ Magazine with Pablo Castro from OBRA Architects to accompany the installation of BEIJING TRIPOD as part of BLANK 2008


What have been busy with lately?

Pablo Castro: We have been working on an ongoing project for the densification of cities through a high-rise building type that we developed with the engineering offices of Werner Sobek in New York: the Tripod Skyscraper. This is, by the way, the inspiration for our contribution to BLANK 2008. This is a project originally commissioned by the History Channel for their cycle on the future of American cities, specifically Washington D.C., and it envisions an urban future where 50% of the area of the city has been given to urban eco-parks, the city has been rid of cars, and its density of inhabitation increased to about twice that of current Hong Kong. The building braces itself laterally with two diagonal legs, creating urban density through height of construction and avoiding obstruction of light and views through the use of very slender proportions, heights of 500 meters tall with footprints of only 20 meters square.
We are also approaching completion of construction in our Centrifugal Villa, a 1000 square-meter residence in New York, and we are designing the Villa of Captured Distance in Inner Mongolia as part of ORDOS 100, a project including 100 architects from around the world curated by Ai Weiwei and Herzog de Meuron. We are also about to start work on a new residence in the jungles of Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula on the Pacific coast and also on a mixed-use apartment-hotel in the Palermo district in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Other current projects include a residence for a carpenter in New York, a residence for an astronomer in Maine and a non-denominational church and community center in Connecticut.

What is your life like working in NYC?

PC: New York is of course a great place to be, there are currently shows featuring: Colbert, the Whitney Biennial, Jasper Jones and Cai Guo-Qiang. A Godard retrospective is coming to Film Forum next week. Architects and artists from around the world come to live in New York and we form our design teams drawing from a pool with the most diverse international background and experience, this is something very exiting about the city for us. And yet this place that we love and that used to be be a great manufacturing town has to a large extent become a city of bankers, boutiques and beauty spas, so... we find ourselves dreaming of a city as a great place where still one can make things, and make plans to open an OBRA Architects affiliate in Beijing.

In your opinion, what type of artist or architect are you?

PC: I think our work is at odds with the idea of stylistic schools. Architects can be compared to farm animals (with apologies to both architects and farm animals). We show a propensity to gather-up in herds and move in the same direction thinking we are simply obeying the zeitgeist. A little weary of that inclination, at OBRA we try to belong to no clubs, endorse no commonly held theories and, more than anything else remain vigilant to avoid the infection of our work by fashion or a pre-packaged style. Cross fertilization and positive influence may possibly be desirable sometimes, but we feel we'll get bored if we try to work on two separate projects that are too much alike, we figure the ennui should be much worse if the model of this repetition either conceptual or formal is not even one of our own projects, but belongs to some fashionable architectural idea of the moment.

Could you describe your project in this year’s Blank?

PC: Two six-meter-tall steel tripod constructions stand across each other in the gallery. These define a geometry in space that is both precise and in constant change, as the body moves between and around them, entering and circling about the charged distance captured in-between.

What is your view on "Art for (to serve) the people"?

PC: Art exposes the things hidden, alighting everyday life and rescuing people from boredom and suicide. Latin American architect and engineer Eladio Dieste used to say that when people are separated from art or surrounded by ugly buildings they develop malign tumors, become seriously ill, and eventually die. If he was right, Art and Architecture may be our best hope for immortality.

What is your view on "Life is the source of Art"?

PC: Life may be the source of Art and also of everything else, no? We have no way of knowing if what goes unperceived actually exists, without human life there is no consciousness and no perception, only nothingness. The question may also be a mute point and considered an example of what Henri Bergson called a "badly formulated question," an attempt to dissect and analyze things that are inseparable, the indivisible antinomy of life and its other (Art). Life is engagement and participation, art is contemplation and expression.

What is the single most important environmental event in your memory?

PC: I am not really sure about what you mean by "important environmental event." A memorable one in my life was perhaps the uproar of the bolder-turning deluge of a seasonal river coming down its course for the first time in summer, this was up in the Andes mountains and I was about 6 years old. My grandfather dragged me out of bed at 3 AM and we both ran to the edge of the river to watch the surge go by. I can also clearly remember the penumbral mystery of the nordic white nights or the regularity of the daily arrival of torrential tropical rain every afternoon between 6 and 7 in the islands off the coast to the south of Brasil. If what you mean is an event produced by humans that had a memorable environmental impact, what comes to mind is the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings a few blocks away from our studio in Chinatown. Suspended in the air of the neighborhood, the acrid mix of dust and smoke lingered in our noses and throats for months.

When did the New Yorkers become aware of and act on global environment? What did they do?

PC: Who knows what New Yorkers are aware of? The issue of the preservation of the natural environment is fashionable now, in a certain sense it is a bit tedious since, in architecture, it is being used as a smoke screen to hide a lack of architectural ideas. But committment to the preservation of the environment should be a given, a minimum standard. Perhaps this is at least a turn for the better as far as what we can reasonably expect from what is known as "public opinion." It is possible that a lot of people have become conscious of the deterioration of the environment and its effects on climate change because the issue has been adopted by the media and incontrovertible scientific facts about climate change are being widely disseminated. Another factor may be that, since the Bush administration has consistently derided issues of environment protection and they are now at an all time low in prestige and credibility, a lot of people in the United States are now embracing the view that the environment is important. Paradoxically, maybe nobody has done more for the protection of the environment than what the Bush administration did by declaring itself against it.

Did environmental concern alter your present way of life?

PC: I grew up in a remote area of Argentina in close contact with the natural environment, one of my grandfathers owned a vineyard and the other had an orchard oasis in the middle of the desert that was only reachable by driving for hours on a dry river. I have always been disturbed by the destruction of the environment and tried to offer my humble contribution to preservation in whatever way possible, the only difference is that in the past that behavior was considered odd and now it seems to be everybody's obsession. I suppose it is a good thing, no?

How does your work take part in something as real and as urgent as protecting the environment?

PC: We like to think of our work as completing what it encounters in the places we work. Our designs we don't see as objects to be inserted onto a site with the implication of unaltered universal applicability but actually as an attempt to balanced the existing with the proposed. We think this attempt to have the design transcend the proposed object and become immanence of architecture+site is even suggested by the names of our projects: Aqueduct Housing; Nine Square Sky; Villa of Multiple Horizons or the Villa of Captured Distance. We work hard to make our projects perform intelligently in the environment and regularly collaborate with some of the best climate engineers in the world such as Transsolar Climate Engineering and Arup New York.

Could you describe an ideal world in the future?

PC: I don't know if an "ideal" future is worth thinking about, maybe it should involve no pain and even no death, no? That ideal reminds me a little of Brave New World, I don't know what the limits of "progress" should be, maybe beauty can only exist in a context of suffering.

May 2008, New York + Beijing


History Channel's City of the Future Design and Engineering Challenge presented in Union Station, DC


Commuting in the city of the FUTURE will be a thing of the past. Most people with administrative or creative jobs will work from home or from shared neighborhood business CENTERS. Because of the increasing robotization of manual labor, most jobs will either be administrative or CREATIVE. Blue collars will fade to white.

Urban traffic, always undesirable, will become mostly unnecessary. People will move about not out of need but out of DESIRE. City planners of the future will seize this opportunity, and push the remaining city travel and transport of goods underground, and the city will return to the PEDESTRIAN. Paradoxically, the emergence of virtual spaces of work will enable the creation of real space in the city, the end of the war between the city and the automobile.

Designed and built for pedestrians the city of the future will naturally articulate into clusters of unique and distinct neighborhoods, identifiable CENTERS OF URBAN LIFE, administration and even energy production. The city of the future will be POLYCENTRIC, articulating into numerous distinctive neighborhoods of WALKABLE size. Climate change imperatives will call for the densification of these centers and residential SUPERTOWERS. New environmental technologies will make them sustainable and architecture will make them enjoyable. This densification of the polycentric Washington DC will free up vast tracks of suburban land for the creation of new urban BIOPARKS and URBAN FARMS.

Washington DC will be the first major world capital to actually reduce the impact of its footprint on the earth, a revolution not less important and inspiring than the democratic one symbolically embodied by the city itself.

Reconciliation with nature will come with the acceptance of the limits between the artificial and the natural and their effective separation.

The survival of our human establishments in the world hinges not only on stopping development of suburban areas, thus protecting the forest and the farm, but also rolling it back. The city must be densified and a regulatory framework need be put in place in order to save the planet from ourselves.

If inhabited areas are rolled back, we would not only create space for the return of the forest and the jungle, but also transform our urban lifestyles. We envision a future in which movement may be desirable but not necessary, telecommunications would allow the concentration of all non-physical work in areas near the home, making commuting a thing of the past.

The proposed densification comes with the challenge of not just a preserved quality of living, but actually an improved one. The desire of contact with nature will be satisfied by the urban presence of the garden, and the densification proposed will hinge on the development of new materials and means of construction, including the possibilities of achieving more efficient structural designs, mullion-less leak-free glass and translucent structural construction materials that support / allow light in / create energy / etc. Technology will allow a densification amounting to better quality of life.

Changes in communication and availability of business tools will allow versatile small entrepreneurs to compete successfully by offering quality and difference instead of quantity and homogeneity.

In the future we will have realized that, in order to survive, we have to acknowledge the distinction between the works of man and nature. This will mean that natural propensities will not be anymore regarded as desirable or necessary, and that as the population of the earth increases and resources become increasingly scarce, we will have to implement regulatory legislation on a global scale in order to survive.

Cities and their current impetus of sprawling expansion, together with the lifestyles they demand and propitiate, are one of the main threats to the survival of the natural environment and consequently of humanity. A radical transformation will be needed to turn things around, and the laissez faire attitude currently dominating the contemporary cities' mode of redevelopment and expansion will have to be reconsidered if we are to turn around processes that already seem frighteningly irreversible.

The city is the locus of possible transformation that could redirect human history to a potentially brighter relationship with the natural environment. In the particular case of Washington DC, this transformation shall be effected not in acknowledgement of natural propensities but in exercising a willful change towards a harmonious relationship between human civilization and the world.

DC, the least economically necessary of cities in the US, was created to give the young Americsan democracy a capital, a city as a physical, inhabitable representation of the revolutionary ideas on the basis of which the country was founded. Today, it is tempting to think that we are besieged by an ecological crisis created by our (naturalistic) evolutionary understanding of phenomena that are actually cultural not unlike the once world-shaking idea of freedom, equality and fraternity. A new revolutionary perspective is required, one that limits our own field of actions in order for the rest of the world to exist. Quite literally, in the case of the cities, we must establish frontiers between the natural and the artificial, and pull back our cities in order for all the rest to also be.

This should be done by establishing distinctions between the URBAN, the RURAL, and the WILD, and by defining clear limitations on the possible transgressions of those limits. The challenge from the point of view of the city will be to effect a drastic densification while also increasing the quality of life.

return to an agrarian past
the "urban village" of the future
pedestrian polycenters with 15-minute walking radius

connective centers
breaking the urban expanse down into manageable chunks
the urban underground
new WATER strategy

individualized motorized transport
shared IMT stations
reduced cars

ethnic diversity
economic diversity
programmatic diversity
to deal with growing population, to redirect isolation and promote diversity

overlapping circles, within the walkable work distance

residential supertowers
combined mixed-use residential with commercial
narrow section
light + air
inventive heat recovery facades
gradual extinction of low density areas
gradual greening of the URBAN PARKS
with population INCREASE and DENSIFICATION, employing gradual means of returning public space to the people

smart facade
underground zone


Union Station, 15 January 2008
OBRA Architects


Opening introduction of lecture given at the Museum of Modern Art, Celeste Bartos Theater, on Friday, February 23, 2007


Thank you for coming tonight.

As we sat down to discuss a possible subject for this lecture, I received an email from a friend I had not seen for 10 years. We had been classmates during first year of architecture school, but after that he had transfered to another school and we had only seen each other very sporadically. He had eventually graduated and has been practicing architecture since. He happened to see our work published somewhere and decided to write with a question. His question was: "How do you design?"

Maybe it was that at the time of our closest friendship we were still students and such a question would have been the most logical thing in the world, or perhaps that, being far away, I am a convenient target for a potentially embarrassing question, but I thought it at once peculiar and sweet that an architect with 10 years of experience would ask something like that to a peer. Given that, and for lack of another subject to discuss tonight during this conversation, we though we could propose my friend's question as the theme for discussion. Who knows? Maybe we'll learn something and I can email him in the morning with the answer he is awaiting.

In our work we enjoy the presence of simple prismatic forms, minimal detailing and practicality of use, in other words the bedrocks of orthodox modernism. This seems simple enough to deal with, but we feel a bit uneasy (and to be honest with you a little bit bored too) at surrendering to that simplicity. We can't help but feel that, to this simple arithmetic of design, we must factor in an element of relative obscurity.

This does not mean a desire to complicate things unnecessarily since we remain committed to utmost simplicity, but rather an acknowledgment of the fact that there is something to reality that insists on defying our efforts to effectively deal with it in a rational way. Since this is difficult for me to explain I thought I could resort to an expert to do it for me, and if you allow me I would like to read a short piece entitled Abuse of Conscience by the French writer Jean Tardieu. Since unfortunately I don't read French, I came across this via one of the "dispensable" chapters in Cortazar's Hopscotch (152), and my translation here is a secondhand one, this has gone from French to Spanish and then from Spanish to English, so please be kind:

"This house where I live resembles my own in every possible way: the arrangement of the rooms, the smell of the vestibule, furniture, the inclined light of the morning, diffused at noon, sly in the evening; everything is the same, including the paths and trees of the garden, that old rusted door and the cobblestones of the courtyard. Also the hours and the minutes of the time that passes are similar to the hours and the minutes of my life. As they swirl around me, I say to my self: ‘They really seem like them. How much do they resemble the real hours I live in this moment!’ Personally, even though I have removed from my house all reflective surfaces, when even then, the unavoidable glass of a window insists in returning my reflection, I see in it somebody that resembles me. Yes, he truly looks like me, I recognize him! But it should not be presumed that it is me! Come on! Everything is fake here. When they have returned to me my house and my life, then will I find my true face."

We see Tardieu here regarding the house not simply as where we live, but more like what we live, a stage for the perplexity at the enigma of time and its slow destruction of our physical self.

But the question for us is: does this king of consideration fit within the field of incumbency of our discipline today? By accepting to consider this kind of thing, are we relinquishing or undermining the experimental freedoms afforded by a limitation to the programmatic and the technological only?

Clement Greenberg sees a straight line of development from Manet to Pollock, one of the gradual and relentless abandonment of representation in favor of finding the true being of things in themselves. That still sounds good to us, but troubled about this we have consulted Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Allan Bois' Formless, there, resting on Georges Bataille they discuss Manet's loosening of the grip of representation not as a renunciation but actually as a displacement of its traditional role. Representation is weakened and open to interpretation, it becomes enigmatic, poetic and disturbing.

Once, perusing through the footnotes of Umberto Eco's Open Work (specifically the chapter on the "Analysis of Poetic Language") we came across mention of three different modes of expression: descriptive expression, emotive expression and (what he calls) confused expression. The two first ones seem straightforward enough, but the last one interested us since it is said to produce a "philosophical perplexity" through a "grammatical aberration". It has been said that expression in architecture today relies on a coherence of form, a keeping one's self to the rationality of an architectural language, it is tempting to surrender to an iconoclastic impulse and embrace an idea of "grammatical aberration" as a spark towards philosophical perplexity to produce a work that thanks to its representational "weakness" opens itself up to multiple interpretations.

So then here we propose to review together 10 possible points of design aberration, a sort of Guide to Architectural Perplexity:

1. Literal Translation
2. Big Room
3. Meta-architecture
4. Centrifugal Space
5. Curved Space
6. Deliberate Incompleteness
7. Direct Correspondence
8. Laconic Articulation
9. Zim Zum (light+space)
10. Radical Pragmatism
11. Loose Objects (Bonus Point)

New York, 23 February 2007
Pablo Castro


Interview conducted by Vladimir Belogolovsky with Pablo Castro from OBRA Architects during the installation of the winning project BEATFUSE! at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York, published in ARX Magazine, Moscow, October 2006


Your project seems to be something like a miniature planetary model with a variety of climatic and experiential zones. How did this idea originate?

Pablo Castro: BEATFUSE! was inspired by the way the DJs mix their music. It accentuates the fact that we are all unique individuals and move to different beats. The project is a celebration of a momentary fusion of our diversity. That's why all the shells here are slightly different and they are intersected in a variety of ways. The project serves as a venue for the annual music festival Warm Up, which is organized by P.S.1. This event attracts up to seven[ty] thousand people every summer. And the people who come here represent a cross section of a very diverse population in New York. It is based on [the] New York tradition of a block party and it is an opportunity to celebrate New York's vitality as a multicultural city. So we felt that it was the most interesting aspect to be celebrated through the design. We wanted to create a container or a backdrop for this party and present the party in itself as a work of art. Since it gets very hot in summers here in New York we thought it would be very important to address in our work the issue of a climatic condition. This event has become a true public institution for civic enjoyment and being architecture students that we are, we immediately recognized here a parallel with one of the oldest architectural institutions for civic enjoyment - the Roman baths in classical antiquity. There is the same basic idea - the party takes place in the heat. Curiously enough the museum's courtyard is divided into three zones which presented an interesting match with three main zones defining the Roman baths: tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room) and finally frigidarium (cold room). So we chose to express the space through the use of interconnected spheres that are lined in three different ways to produce three temperature zones.

Based on the history of this competition what type of questions did you ask yourselves when you started working on the project? What did you want to avoid and what were your goals?

PC: The first question that we asked ourselves was more practical - how can we realize our ideas and fit into the available budget? It was a challenge, but also an opportunity to express our thoughts based on the ideas of the Italian art movement called Arte Povera. It is about a notion that various limitations of choices are not detrimental to the quality of the project, but can be used as an advantage. Disciplined focusing on limited resources and choosing the right materials became the soul of the project. If you don't have too many choices you have to make the right ones. The things that we wanted to avoid were to use forms that are seen more sculptural than architectural. In fact, one of the remarks of the organizers of the competition was: "We don't want a work of art; we want a work of architecture." In other words the idea was not to design an object but a space for potential to be inhabited. Because of the budget limitations we made a conscientious effort to spread the material very thin and make it perform in a very precise manner to take advantage of the inherited qualities of various materials.

What kind of innovations - technical or conceptual - are you proposing here?

PC: To us everything became an innovation. For example, we were working together with our engineers Robert Silman Associates on the design of the arches and domes. They told us that it would be a very long, elaborate and ultimately a very expensive process to determine the right materials and their precise thicknesses. And that first we would have to design everything ourselves intuitively - through trial and error and experimentation. So these limited choices forced us to make very precise decisions and selects all materials and forms because they can perform in a certain way. Many of the choices we made were done not purely for stylistic reasons and not simply because we were told what would work best for our engineers, but through very close analyses and studies of certain qualities and performance of different materials that we personally explored. We admire what German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys said: "By producing art we lend our conscience to the things of the world. So they become our conscience." That's what we are trying to do - we try to lend our conscience to all materials here and we feel very responsible for this project. An object is chosen because it can perform in a certain way and because we are looking for a certain performance. Forms are generated by particular circumstances and therefore become unique.

How did you react to the news that you won the competition?

PC: We were very happy. The jury was very supportive and enthusiastic during the presentation. Towards the end Terrence Riley, the jury member said: "Now is the time for a tough question. How are you going to produce this project for $70,000?" So Jennifer said: "Well, over the years that we were doing architecture we haven't made a lot of money, but we made a lot of friends. So we guarantee you that we can get it done." And that was exactly the way it came out. A lot of our friends came through and a lot of our people were inspired by the P.S. 1 message and what P.S. 1 and MoMA stand for. So a lot of people were very eager to participate and through realizing this project we made a lot of new friends. A lot of people donated their labor, time, materials and expertise. And because of it we also worked very, very hard. Right after winning the competition we started [a] fundraising campaign. We would spend a lot of time on the phone and every night we would send five or six FedEx packages with materials about the project. It was very effective. We had raised additionally about as much as the museum gave us for the project.

What do you think is the real budget here if a lot of the materials and labor were donated?

PC: There are certain things here that you can't really quantify. I believe that when architecture has a soul it has power of being inspiring. For example, the contractors tell me that they never know where they are going to go next and what kind of project they are going to work on, but this is something that is very unique and they really want to prolong it and are willing to put extra effort. The party that everybody anticipates is already happening at the level of construction. There is a great sense of comradeship and this experience is very dear to us and it is a lot more than just learning professionally.

When did you start construction and how long did it take to build this project?

PC: We didn't start soon enough! Overall duration of construction was going to be about three months. When our friend Terry Chance, a Brooklyn contractor who moved to Minneapolis, found out that we [were] selected for the competition he said "Don't you want me to do a mockup for you?" So he did a few mockups in 1/3 scale which we presented in the photographs. When we won the competition he offered to help us again to build the actual domes. It was actually a lot cheaper to build it in Minneapolis than in New York. Also the father of his office manager happened to have a huge track and helped us to transform all the pieces to New York. Three of our architects spent a month in Minneapolis figuring out and supervising the fabrication of all the wood parts and pieces that needed to be built there. We bought the lattice for the domes and they [were] produced by using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling.

This project is not very large but fairly complex. How many people are involved in helping you get it built?

PC: We have about ten people in our office, about fifteen volunteers for the duration of construction, ten people working for contractor Terry Chance in Minneapolis, six people at two CNC milling shops in Minneapolis, three people in Upstate New York, two project managers from Sciame construction, six [union carpenters]. Also I have to mention the P.S. 1 shop and group of people are very helpful. So it is a very big group of people.

You said: "Architecture is a living thing, a strange mirror that can bring us back to our own forgotten condition." Can you elaborate on this?

PC: Well, it has to do with the inhabitability of architecture. Architecture needs to become something that contains other things, to be a backdrop for life to take place in it and not overwhelm life with a form that can obliterate all the possibilities and to be open for something unexpected and undetermined. So we try to find a kind of void in architecture that would allow for a potential to transform people's lives. We relate architecture to a living thing because it is in a continuous state of transformation and it has to remain open to it and allow for that transformation. Also there is an issue of transformation in time. For example stone and wood don't have responsibility to transform themselves into stone and wood, but human beings have to transform themselves into human beings as they grow up in a certain way. Our being is not a given. So we feel responsible to create something more than just material by lending our conscience to the things of the world that don't have conscience. In other words we try to give a certain tension and direction to materials to become something. In a way it is framework to something that has a potential to happen within it. So it can be the most important thing because that's where everything happens and it needs to be designed in a very subtle and receptive way.

Do you think architecture is similar to telling stories?

PC: Yes, but in a very different way. In modern art there has been a kind of relinquishing of the narrative and a fixed perspective because it determines a certain particular reading. So modern art tends to present itself free of a particular meaning and allow[s] the viewer to bring their own interpretation into the work. The idea is that the art is incomplete and it is only complete by the viewer. For example, such objects that have no artistic pretence as a mirror that reflects the viewer in a group of other figures or a handrail, attached to a wall that you can lean on or involve the viewer. The opportunity for narrative is there, but it is not defined with the beginning, middle and end that proscribe a certain meaning. It is a narrative but open-ended.

Your work is distinguished by the idea of movement through space while experiencing such phenomena as light, sound, smell and touch. How do you try to personify your architecture? Is it important to find something unique and your own in architecture?

PC: Well, to find something unique is the most important thing. We have been inspired greatly by the work of Steven Holl and his attention to light and nature of materials. We both were fortunate to work for him and naturally admire his philosophy. But we also have a different cultural background. I come from Latin America where the relation of the things with the world is a lot less mediated. For example, I had a very personal experience with such elemental things as mud, sky because I spent a lot of time in the country. That's part of my upbringing. We're always exploring the quality of experience. We are interested in how objects and materials acquire a certain personality.

June 2006, New York

BEATFUSE! 2006 PS1 MoMA Young Architects Program Winner

Opened to the public June 22, 2006



BEATFUSE! will be constructed as a structure of pervasive interiority, a context to be entered and experienced from within rather than observed from without as object.

WarmUp has developed into an anticipated annual ritual celebration of the city's cosmopolitan culture without losing its soul of neighborhood block party. The summer WarmUp event is filled to capacity with New Yorkers, most of whom are not originally from New York; a quick review of the artists featured in the Greater New York 2005 show AT PS1 reveals that only 13 of 146 included in the exhibition catalog were born in New York. Most of the New York population actually come from somewhere else, looking for something they deem important for their lives, they are seekers. They may or may not find a version of what they seek, but they always contribute the uniqueness of their individuality, their ONENESS to the multifarious culture of the city.

WarmUp is the recurrent moment in the city's annual cycle when this multiplicity converges in one place at one time in one great big happening. Everyone becomes an artist. Each unique voice blends together into a whole for a few moments every summer Saturday without losing its individuality, like two dissimilar songs seamlessly eased into each other by a DJ's masterful beatmatch.

The creation of a space with interiority, a background to the figure of the WarmUp crowds, requires precise architectural operations. To evoke a sense of interior space the proposed structure extends to the boundaries of the site, and matter is spread thin to achieve the most with the least. When we refer to the creation of such space we refer to the physical, but also to what it means to manipulate the things of the world. In keeping with Joseph Beuys’ claim that we could become the revolution by fusing life with art, we aspire to effectively lend a consciousness to the matter enlisted in our construction.

BEATFUSE! is the winning project of the 2006 Young Architects Program organized annually by PS1 Contemporary Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art as the site of their popular Warm Up series. Every Saturday of the summer, the hottest block party in New York City takes place here, an anticipated yearly ritual celebrating music, art and architecture, along with the cosmopolitan diversity of the city’s population. Just like diverse tunes fused seamlessly by the expert maneuvers of the Warm Up DJ’s, thousands of different New Yorkers join in a moment of togetherness without losing their individuality.

The space is partially covered with 10 concertina shells manufactured and assembled in a workshop and later deployed on site. We refer to these shells as concertina, since in their accordion-like capacity to fold into a relatively small size for transportation they resemble concertina devices such as pantographs, household shower mirrors and folding gates. They are modeled and manufactured digitally using a CNC router to achieve their dynamic curved form. By virtue of the thickness of the material proposed these structures would seem unlikely to span the 20 to 30-foot distances required, but by forcing the pieces into curves and connecting them into an irregular grid, we can elicit the emergence of a tension that allows them to adequately reach further than that.

The concertina are covered with a skin of polypropylene mesh scales. They allow wind and rain to move through them without excessively taxing the structure with lateral or lifting loads while providing soft penumbral shade. The inexpensive material has been chosen because it is rigid enough to return to its original position after the wind dies down and yet flexible enough to seamlessly adjust to the curved surfaces of the concertina while overlapping in ways that generate gently nuanced patterns of moiré texture. Through testing and sampling, the project team chose an extruded netting product which elicited similar effects of shadow and moiré as early schematic study models. A simple industrial product of plastic mesh is transformed into a dazzling interiorized canopy via simple connections and repeated forms.

Each concertina shell is unique, but they fuse into each other to create a realm that spans the entire courtyard and creates multiple places of distinctive mood and atmosphere. Each component is different, assembled at varying heights, positions and angles. Nonetheless, all connections are conceptually the same. One single idea runs through the entire project and materializes in the steel brackets which adjust to the conditions of each connection, allowing the wood beams to connect to each other, to the ground, and the concrete courtyard walls, which could not be permanently altered for this temporary installation. All brackets are lasercut out of 1/4” steel and then bent and welded. Each component of the construction–the arch, the bracket, or the concertina shell–is repeated many times. But each instance is distinct and unique, either having a different radius, a different angle, or different proportions. Repetition here avoids monotony and begets uniqueness.

The rich versatility of the qualities of wood and its expressive potential are employed throughout the project. In spite of the modest proportions of the section employed to construct the concertina, the structures are able to span up to 30 feet. The bolted connections force the wood into an unnatural form, eliciting a tensile strength to emanate from its fiber's substance.

This delicate construction requires a rigid frame to dampen undesired vibrations from propagating about the shells and threatening them with destruction. This armature is constructed in very heavy and dense sections of two layers of CNC-routed reconstituted wood panels which have been epoxied and then bolted together on site to define the arches.

The pools are constructed in layers of rigid foam and CDX plywood that are then coated and epoxied for waterproofing. They are conceived as inverted boats, that is, boats that can contain rather than exclude the water. The pool construction system was invented to be easily assembled from CNC-milled parts onsite to build an economical temporary environment that both cooled the shaded areas and provided seating for both shade-seekers and sunbathers.

Water misters, a favorite of WarmUp DJs, are provided throughout the project at six different locations. The misters play an important role in lowering the temperature of the surrounding air. They are protected under three-foot diameter steel mesh hemispheres that resemble giant kitchen strainers. Inside each strainer is a light fixture, which, when turned on the mist will solidify the light beams into constantly changing formless shapes, a phenomena similar to that of light siphoned out into nebulous space by clouds caught atop the Empire State Building on a stormy night.

The WarmUp crowds are an aesthetic experience and therefore their presence must be prolonged. We hope to encourage visitors to stay longer by offering climatic comfort and variety through architecture. Inspired by the original social space of the Roman baths, the tripartite layout of the courtyards have been developed into three distinct temperate environments.

The sandbox gallery is designated as the Caldarium. It has little to no shade, an array of radial chaise lounges for sunbathing and a large soaking pool. The barbecue grill is located here. To enhance the bathing experience, we have produced PS1/MoMA matte black rubber ducks that will float on the pools for ambiance (currently available at the MoMA Design Store).

In the large triangular gallery, as shade lowers the temperature of the ground by deflecting radiation, as pools and misters cool the air by evaporation, and as the concertina shells bring the soothing breeze down to people, the overall effect can lower the temperature by as much as five degrees. This space called the Tepidarium is appropriate for conversation, eating, drinking and impromptu dancing.

Finally, for those who may feel they have already had enough of summer, the small gallery is configured as a Frigidarium. To that end, the walls are lined with inexpensive foil bubble reflective insulation which is also used for the scales of the concertina in this room. Every Saturday morning for the duration of WarmUp, blocks of ice are arranged at the bottom of the wall to create an ice bench.

This project transforms an outdoor concrete-walled courtyard gallery into a playful and dynamic space through the inventive use of common materials and standard building components while utilizing the speed and efficiency of current technologies of prefabrication and production. Entirely digitally fabricated using CNC milled wood and laser-cut steel from emailed 3D files in a completely paperless process, the project was designed in 6 weeks' time and constructed in less than 12 weeks.

The year 2006 marks the ninth summer that PS1 has hosted a combined architectural installation and music series in its outdoor galleries. Inherent in the challenge of this project are constraints of not only budget but time, with competition proposals prepared within six weeks and construction taking place in less than twelve weeks. While such demands in the past have led to solutions tending towards a more sculptural nature, the intent of the constructed gallery installation BEATFUSE! aims to envelop the inhabitant, pushing the experience towards an interiority that suggests a bridge between the realm of art and that of architecture.

New York, March 2006

OBRA Architects

Seoul Performing Arts Center on Nodeul Island


We experience music as an inhabitable three-dimensional continuous fabric. Built as an interweaving of melodic lines, we enter it through an immersion in its progression of harmonies which leads us decisively from one recognizable place to another.

Not unlike architecture, music is inhabited as an unfolding of time and is made intelligible by the memory of where we have been and the expectation of where we may be going. Both such journeys are experienced as a crossing of the threshold between the behind and the beyond of the void we inhabit, in music as dissonance, in architecture as chiaroscuro.

The city that builds an Opera House and a Concert Hall builds a celebration of the cultural achievements of its population. Current plans for the development of Seoul extending 15 years into the future envision the gradual definition of four urban quarters of clear individual character and particular flavor: the Axis of Ecology and Reunification; the Axis of World Culture; the Axis of Modern Culture and the Axis of Pop Culture while the Hangang river, cutting through the city center, is identified as the locus of a further urban aspiration: The Seoul Cultural Belt. It befits plans for Nodeul Island to envision its inevitable transformation into an important space for the people of Seoul both as cultural landmark and public place of urban quality and civic enjoyment.

A chiaroscuro from naked sunlight to the thickest leafy shade connecting the two extremes of Nodeul Island is proposed as a landscape of dissonance between the "Primitive" and the "Modern," between diminishing luxuriance and increasing cultivation. At the quieter deeply shaded end of the island, amongst trees, rocks, animals and natural phenomena, sits the Amphitheater of Intuition, dedicated to young people and the adventurous spirit of improvisation and experimentation. Amidst freedom from tradition and a commitment to constant renewal, music can retain its primeval link to the supernatural. All the way at the other end of the island under the sunny sky and the angular shadows of the Opera House and Concert Hall buildings the Reflection Square will define a realm in a context of cultural consensus as common property unfolding in the production of educated works in a dialogue of conscious creation.

Dirt from the building construction excavation is used to form the landscape of the island and to create berms to each side of the street. The road is redesigned to create vehicular drop-off points for pedestrians to each of the newly created parks on both sides of the island through new access ramps and to provide entry to parking, theater drop-off points and service access all underground. This arrangement ensures the urban quality of the island as a public place with no vehicular traffic, while taking advantage of the existing island shore below flood level, transforming it into spacious underground facilities with little excavation expense.

Kim Jong-ho's 1861 map of Seoul emphasizes natural and topographic features, in their rendition they seem to evoke subtle changes in personal mood and lived experience. The many streams depicted in the map weave together a multiplicity of topographic conditions, while a certain recurrence of character seems to hold it all together as if nursed by an inner disquiet, not unlike the shifting naturalistic harmonies of an Impressionistic composition. The paths of human movement through the chiaroscuro of Nodeul Island mediate in an similar manner the disparate conditions of inhabitation of forest, urban square and building interior. The architectural counterpart of these paths through the landscape stream over them as diaphanous long thin buildings resting on arcades and fusing themselves into the denser masses of the Opera House and the Concert Hall. These buildings house administrative areas, musicians? studios and individual rehearsal spaces, classrooms, cafeterias and other facilities where employees can work on the day-to-day tasks that would benefit from natural sunlight, cross ventilation and rewarding views of the river and the city beyond. They define courtyard spaces that create meaningful gradations of openness between exterior and interior while under the arcades visitors can stroll, linger or gather protected from the rain or excessive sun exposure. In the evenings the thin buildings broadcast to the whole city their luminous embrace of Nodeul Island.

The large buildings of the Concert Hall and the Opera House aspire to an almost musical integration of form and content. As meaning in music resides in a coherence that lends a sense of inevitability to the ideas, these buildings seek to find expression in an identity between form and content, between issues of acoustical conditioning, audience movement, the creation of public space in the city and the shapes and materials which incarnate them. Both the Concert Hall and the Opera House enunciate the importance of the entry lobby as a public urban space almost exterior in nature by virtue of its size and configuration. As such, these entry spaces are crucially articulated in the continuum of space experienced, ranging from exposure to raw natural elements at the far end of the island to the comfort of a seat amongst the audience in the Concert Hall or the Opera House.

The Concert Hall is conceived as a large portal opening to both sides of the city across each shore of the Hangang and thus conveying its openness to all. Upon entry through the large blackened steel and glass enclosures to both sides, the audience encounters the vast open space of the entry lobby sheltered by the curving belly of the auditorium's floor suspended overhead. The ceiling will be lit from the lobby's floor, acting as an expansive iridescent reflective surface encompassing the entire room. Each of the short ends of the space is defined by the vertical structural piers that support the auditorium above; through them the audience will mount stairs and elevators to ascend while enjoying progressively higher views of the river and city outside. In between the piers on the lobby level, the ticket booth, coat-check, cafe and other support facilities will be found.

Inside the auditorium, the floor descends in a bowl-like shape creating the vineyard seating layout within a room of about 17,000 cubic meters, ideal for the reverberation time desired of approximately 2 seconds. The roof is composed of shells which in their convexity reflect sound without concentrated echo, while the two long side walls contain cavities for audience circulation, mechanical distribution and stage and house lighting. The auditorium is also equipped with large double glass windows with frosted interior layers and black-out equipment in between, if so desired during matinee performances, sunlight can be allowed in perhaps to more faithfully reproduce period instrument performances under the conditions of pre-electricity concert halls. The walls and ceiling of the auditorium will be finished in plaster colored the kingfisher green "secret color" of Koryo celadon wares and polished to their same subtle opalescence; the floors and stage side walls will be damask-stained wood.

Acoustically, the hall assumes a shoebox form incorporating a dynamic vineyard seating arrangement. The strong parallel walls will help promote lateral reflections as will the upstands to the seating blocks. The ceiling form will help promote sound diffusion and mixing and will be enhanced with surface texture as required to meet the acoustical requirements. If amplification is used in the room, for performances such as Jazz or Classical Guitar, the room can incorporate variable sound absorbing banners that could descend from the roof void to cover 90% of the wall area. These will be deployed incrementally as necessary for the type of performance.

The Opera House is configured as a vertical multi-ring horseshoe space allowing proximity to the stage and clear sight-lines to the entire audience and including a 18 meter wide stage equipped with hydraulic lifts, a back stage with turn table, a total of four side stages and high fly tower. The entry lobby opens to Reflection Square on one side while perched at the island's edge overlooking the city on the other. The multiple ramps that access the many balcony levels in the house develop in the interior, the theme of the thin buildings that characterize the design of the island and lend the space a kinetic quality of spectacle with the audience coming and going to and fro the house during seating and intermission.

The interior walls of the house are entirely finished in a lattice of damask stained wood panels that can be open for the adjustment of acoustic conditions through the installation of either absorbent or reflective material. The large stage apron and blank wall panels to each side will promote the early sound reflections that guarantee the broadcasting of the voices to the highest seats. Acoustic requirements and structural resolution coincide in the configuration of the large cantilevered convex concrete shell roof finished in white plaster and surrounded by a double enclosure of frosted glass containing mechanical distribution, stage and house lighting and black-out system. As in the Auditorium, natural light can be allowed in at suitable moments during the performance or during intermission. The curved chalky surface of the plaster ceiling would then reflect sunlight in the reversed manner it reflects sound from the stage. During evening functions the house lights contained in the double glass enclosure transform the ceiling into a giant plaster chandelier which, a lighthouse to the river, announces across the city a performance underway.

The Opera House, shares its facilities with a proposed "House of Change", a small theater for 400 to 600 people. Located on the top of the building, The House of Change will be equipped with the latest stage technology and will be dedicated to electronic music and all forms of avant-garde performing arts. The Seoul Night Cafe located in its lobby will enjoy a commanding view of the city’s night skyline.
July 2005, Pablo Castro, OBRA Architects



After many years spent contemplating architecture, we remain unsure of exactly what we seek. Perhaps we suffer from lack of theoretical conviction, a kind of rational paralysis settles on us when reaching for definitive answers to the most important architectural questions. And yet we feel fine about it. Actually, being at a loss seems an invaluable asset when navigating the murky waters of early design process, with doubt acting as good counsel when ideas are in flux, progress remains erratic, and outcome uncertain.

When navigating in darkness, instruments are of vital importance, and the right tools are essential to reach places we haven’t been to before.

Meaning in architecture seems to rely on possibility rather than fact, as long as there remains unexpected potential for inhabitation and mode of construction, projects remain alive. If potential is concretized and exhausted, interest fades. That seems to make sense, since design deals with what is not yet, with what has a potential to be.

Our body, as the locus of perception, is always partially unavailable to our experience of life. Architecture seems similarly limited, and to be known, demands exploration of behind and beyond, unfolding in time. This essential void is what we inhabit, and its existence allows all else to be. The tool of design is three-dimensional representation, and to be accurate, it must bear semblance to the essential qualities of the architectural void.

Singular perspective views, digital or otherwise, afford a static account of space. To capture characteristic sequential quality of architectural experience, we propose a combined use of scale models and drawings. These drawings can be considered "incorrect" from the point of view of projective geometry, since they rely less on convergence and more on layering, transparency and shadow to suggest space. Digitized and lasercut in wood, and then printed as layers of color, these drawings remain a hybrid of abstraction and matter, allowing continuous commerce with the limitations and personalities of things. The models provide a spatial experience and can approximate intended materials, and are photographed to approximate actual light conditions and atmospheric effects, but bear limitations on the understanding of void due to their relative size.

These methods of representation can be developed into perhaps a more precise tool than static perspectives, or animations, since they do not rely on mathematical surrogates of reality and allow a similar subjectivity at play in the actual experience of space to have a role as shifting perspectives, displaced experiences of colored light, and emotionally distorted impressions to define image.

Woodcut, the oldest form of mechanically reproduced artwork, constitutes a layered method in keeping with our experience of deep space, and affords an awareness of the difficulties that matter imposes on making, sometimes too easily streamlined by technology.

Like perception, these models and images are not meant to be seen in isolation, but as defining meaningful sequences that convey the fiction of an inhabitation that could be.

New York, October 2005
Pablo Castro and Jennifer Lee

Interview with Jon Brunberg, Visual Artist, Stockholm, Sweden


Jon Brunberg: What inspired you to take on the challenge of this particular competition to design the memorial complex on Salvokop Hill?

Pablo Castro: Besides the desire to involve our work in the worthy cause of honoring those who fought against oppression, we were most interested by the nature of the challenge at the heart of the project, namely that of turning memory into built form. Built memory of a kind that can introduce some friction into the process of forgetting, a most understandable process considering the horrific nature of events here being memorialized. We saw, in the intention of creating a memorial structure and recounting the past events in the spatial narrative of a museum, a basic optimistic attitude we felt compelled to endorse. Engaging in this kind of project means confining the events in question to a definitive past, one that has been overcome and is "remembered" from the vantage point of a new shared situation.

JB: I find the buildings' beehive-like forms to be quite unusual, from my limited horizon I should add. What was the idea behind the use of that formal element in the design?

PC: There is a tradition belonging to some African communities of burying the remains of important deceased community members inside the trunk of old baobab trees found in the vicinity. Given their imposing presence in the landscape and vital significance (baobab trees provide for humans and animals in many different ways) and the fact that they live for thousands of years, the ritual provides the deceased with a form of "eternal" life. We felt this tradition provided a fitting and unique model for remembering the martyrs of Apartheid, and we designed the memorial to be a 30 meter height brick hollowed-out tree trunk in the shape of a baobab. In its void the sun projects a circling parade of the ghostly likeness of the martyrs' faces acid-etched on the glass windows inserted on the walls of the structure.

JB: What material would be used for the facade of the buildings?

PC: The exterior of all the structures in the project is to be finished in handmade brick. We envisioned the same red dirt of Salvokop Hill to be used as the raw material from which the bricks are to be baked, effecting a literal integration of site and building. This would of course require considerable amounts of labor, but given the relatively high rates of unemployment endemic in some neighboring communities and considering the scale of the project, we regarded this as an opportunity to initiate local residents in a new trade and foster an early emotional bond of interdependence between buildings and people.

JB: The section drawing published at UIA's website shows the museum, if I understand it correctly. Is the memorial also included in the main building?

PC: The memorial stands separately at the end of the spiraling path that defines the ascent to the hill and approach to the structures. It is set at the top of the hill as a "lone tree" surrounded by the proposed "Garden of Remembrance" and facing the museum at the other side of the vast "Gathering Space". The museum in turn is configured as four tree trunks fused together, as if four trees growing in close proximity to each other had in time fused into one.

JB: What solution for the memorial did you propose? One of the stills on your website depicts portraits projected onto the walls in one of the main halls and I assume that it shows the memorial rather than a museum exhibition.

PC: The proposed solution considers the basic quality of memory as a factor of lives spent, as a kind of detritus of the experience of passing time, the dimension of our human awareness. The memorial is built around two different concepts, the first one regarding space and mass, the mysterious aura of presence that characterizes all life and is most moving when conveyed through the expressions of the human face. Here we rely upon the mass of the brick "baobab" and the luminous portraits in constant motion through the space. The second one has to do with time, and relies on the "powering" of the memorial through sunlight and its movement, evoking a new connection to old rituals of cosmic rhythm and, of course, a "materialization" of the passing of time.

JB: What is the function of the freestanding building on the model?

PC: There are three separate structures proposed for the hill, the memorial on top, the museum flanking it and the administrative facilities at the bottom. If you would like to receive additional documentation on the project, we would be happy to provide it.

JB: You also designed a war memorial in San Jose. What is in your opinion the challenge with designing memorials that relates to conflict?

PC: The Freedom Park project occupies a special place in the body of our work, maybe not so much because of the inherent significance of its proposed content (which it has), but perhaps because it best aligns with the expression of a dimension that is basic to all of our work. This is the aspect that is hardest to capture in words, maybe even it has something to do with the impulse people have to build memorials or, if we can be allowed to go a little bit further, to commission Architecture and expect to get something that transcends simple construction. In the case of memorials or museums, a more secular interpretation of a program fulfilling similar functions, it is easier to find acceptance for the introduction into the project of considerations relating aspects of existence that are perhaps obscure and mysterious to most people in our times and therefore regarded as eccentric and dispensable when discussing most projects.

On the other hand, we do share an ambivalence about memorials, monuments and museums, to the extent that they can be seen as an effort to materialize and fix conditions of privilege and power. In that sense, we have tried to disassociate our work from traditional monumentalizing architectural strategies. Choosing instead to focus on fostering a relationship between the built work and found (natural) processes and presences, and also to define the forms as enmeshed in a process of spatial and temporal development in which we have to invest our bodies to comprehend. Curved interpenetrating forms which cannot be exhausted when perceived from stationary points of view and require constant repositioning in three dimensions. These forms are typically equipped with sweeping ramps that enlist visitors as part of the work itself and transcend perspectival experience stretching perception to incorporate changing sound, touch, and muscular exertion.

JB: How do you, in the design process, deal with and take into consideration the strong emotional forces that I assume must inevitably be a part of these kinds of projects?

PC: We can perhaps consider that if well understood, all architectural projects should elicit the same kind of emotional forces you mention in relationship to the particular type of project we are discussing here. Architecture has the ability to convey the immanence of lived experience because it proposes as its subject matter the possibility of alternative modes of inhabiting a hollow object and also because its experience must by necessity unfold in time. It then becomes particularly suited to be considered as a metaphor for memory. It is perhaps difficult to say how to address the emotional component of a work that is supposed to touch people's lives, and we rely on an intuitive process that unfolds in a dialectic of trial and error until we "know" that what we have is good.

In his work Marcel Proust made a clear distinction between memoire voluntaire and memoire involuntaire, the former responds to intellectual promptings and retains no real trace of the past experience, presenting the past as irreparably beyond the rescuing efforts of the intelligence. The latter discovers the past as "unmistakably present in some material object, though we have no idea which one it is."

11 October 2005 Interview with Jon Brunberg, Visual Artist, Stockholm, Sweden

The Polynational War Memorial web site: ... more about freedom park


Introduction to OBRA ARCHITECTS Monograph, AADCU Book Series of Contemporary Architects Studio Report in the United States, China Architecture and Building Press


Architecture is not a thing. Subject to perpetual transformation, architecture exists in time and lacks the completeness characteristic of things. The city, as architecture's "natural" milieu, expands its unfinished quality to the entire space of human existence. Architecture may be instead what allows for things to be. Appealing to our attention upon the background of reality, things demand to be held by a void. Architecture's essential emptiness provides the void in which we perceive the things that are. Architecture may have originally developed as a second thought, not meant for its own sake, it may have grownout of the desire for emptiness needed to support all other things. This we can sense in the architecture by subtraction of ancient cave buildings. Lacking the simple constant presence of things but providing the condition of their being, we can think of architecture not as an object but instead as a subject, the one human creation that most accurately resembles ourselves. This intuition was present in Louis Kahn's desire: "I want to give the wall a consciousness."

If there is a consciousness of architecture, perhaps architecture differs from construction in similar measure to how we differ from animals, by virtue of a self-awareness that confronts us with the precariousness of being. Construction is the discipline through which we master all building techniques. These techniques are applied to the resolution of pragmatic problems, and construction exists for the resolution of those problems: it finds its reason for being in them and is, because of this, unaware of itself. Architecture is presented with the resolution of its own set of tasks, and its value will be commensurate to the importance of the tasks undertaken. But in trying to satisfy, it will transcend the tasks themselves, creating meaning and in this way becoming its own reason for being. We can say that it stands mediating between us and the world, and by doing so it speaks to us about our lives with a unique ineffable voice.

Animals, plants and even rocks and minerals, in their dormant vitality, enjoy an existence that is given. A swallow endures no responsibility for being itself; aware neither of past or future, its existence unfolds in the perpetual certainty of the present. Those with consciousness enjoy no such privilege; their being is always incomplete and granted only through the constant effort to become. Consciously or not, every lived moment is an investment made towards the creation of tomorrow. Albert Camus described this condition in The Rebel by affirming that "Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is." Such refusal, the desire to become, is a promise made to ourselves, a promise that we can only fulfill in time.

The essence of time is its own passing, Henri Bergson writes in Matter and Memory that all of our past is potentially available to our remembrance. This seems paradoxical, since at any time we only have access to a limited number of memories. But were we to be constantly aware of the past in its entirety, we would have to endure constant confrontation with all of our guilt, regrets and perhaps even an inability to fall asleep.

Aware of having hopelessly forgotten many things, we are sometimes suddenly able to remember, while dreaming or during moments of penetrating reverie, what we thought irretrievably forgotten, or even what we were never even fully aware we knew.

But time is always now, the not-yet's and no-longer's do not exist except inside consciousness, where they find a field propitious to their peculiar being. The passing of time coincides with the form of consciousness, and we could advance the equation:

Architecture = consciousness = time

The relationship between passing time and architecture is reciprocal, not only does time provide a realm for architecture to be, but architecture also endows time with spatial intelligibility. In his short story "Funes el Memorioso," Borges tells us of a young man who, after falling from a horse and momentarily losing consciousness, finds himself entrapped by perfect perception and an inability to forget. Unable to ignore unnecessary details to be able to generalize, he cannot think. He commits his time to an attempt at harnessing the overwhelming reveries into a private language. Resolving to reduce each lived day in his past to approximately 70,000 memories, he assigns numbers to each of them, but soon, he surrenders the plan realizing it would consume more time than he has left in his life. Past experience constitutes a layering upon which our lives are made meaningful, but Funes understands that memories do not suffice, and that to become meaningful they demand an organizing armature, an architecture.

If forgetting is a defense mechanism, then to reach deep into the pocket of memory we must relinquish rational control and give in to reverie as we give in to sleep after a hard day of work. Early in the design of an architectural project, ideas are in flux, progress remains erratic and possible outcome uncertain. Forms seem too diffuse and unstable to be effectively handled by efforts of the intelligence. But the project does not wait and encourages a way forward that puts action in the place of thinking, action then is freed from thinking, and enters a realm similar to that of dream, both rationally incomprehensible and liberating. It is at such moments that the projects undergo decisive transformations, assuming lives of their own. Becoming increasingly independent from our conscious desires and original hopes, they begin to incarnate the future.

Works of architecture are always in progress, their becoming extending beyond the time of their construction. As the results of a process with no end in sight, we can choose to think of their development as co-substantial with their being and therefore, paradoxically, always finished. For the same reasons, architecture, aware of itself, is faced with the impossibility of stylistic consistency. The accumulated sequence of past moments lies in the memory of architecture, and as one moment precedes the next, each lends a unique layer of meaning to every project. The changing milieu resulting from this condition suggests that an architecture that repeats itself without substantial change must be either dead or inhuman.

Meaning as accumulated time emanates from site and project brief as aural emissions suggesting the consistent structure of things of the world but never congealing as concrete form. In the same way we expect the face of everyone we know to include a nose and a mouth, but we cannot assume that their personalities will be identical. The moment of incarnation of each project presents both a vista into a continual unfolding-vulnerable to the encounters with things of the world-and a unique manner of coming to be.

Architecture's void and its willingness to clarify life by interposing itself between us and the world are both dependent on a crucial quality of space, its depth. Because they constitute our point of view of the world, our bodies remain unknown to ourselves; they remain only partially included in the field of what we perceive. Because of this, we are typically surprised by our own appearance when we first see ourselves in film or hear our voice on tape, and we fail to recognize ourselves.

The body of architecture is similarly limited, either present as an exterior or as an interior, and in both cases partially unavailable as depth, a "beyond" or a "behind," only knowable through a movement of endless investigation.

The design process tries to capture this indeterminable nature of reality and envision the repercussions of possible interventions. Here, physical models provide the best approximation to the mystery of the changing experience of depth. Digital renderings and animations are based on precisely known geometric relationships projected on a flat surface and, although useful for other purposes, fail to provide a reliable approximation of the real by virtue of lacking both depth and indeterminacy.

The paradoxical life of architecture is a void made present by a body that cannot be totally apprehended. Losing itself to the pursuit of objects, it becomes indirectly present as a layering of time. This strange quality gives architecture the ability to suggest the universal in the immediacy of the familiar and concrete. De-familiarized, the things of the world are handed back to us free of the obscuring varnish of accumulated habit, and we can then see them for the first time. In Art as Technique Viktor Shklovsky advocates an "increase [in] the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged."

De-familiarizing or the act of "making difficult" critically depends on the observance of limits. The de-familiarization of architectural form must, by necessity, stop at the threshold of the unrecognizable. Beyond that point we enter the realm of fantasy, reality disappears and de-familiarization becomes pointless. An arrested strangeness can only become demiurgic by relying on the precise measure of its application: too little and the trivial remains as such, too much and the strange becomes idiosyncratic. The significance of the resulting phenomenon relies on the inexplicable similarity between the familiar and the strange.

Rediscovering strangeness in architecture is like making the world anew, turning it into mirror or speculum, where we see ourselves and wonder at the rediscovery. Describing the way reflection straddles consciousness and the world, Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in The Phenomenology of Perception: "Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world's basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire." Architecture is the spatial vehicle of this speculation. It presents us with a vista of our life and reminds us of our own existence as we proceed to forget it, while becoming, in our image, the incarnation of an idea.

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 13 February 2005

Pablo Castro

"Eladio Dieste's Latin American Modernity"

Paper presented as part of the VIIIth International DOCOMOMO Conference held in September 2004 at Columbia University, New York


Like many of those familiar with the work of Eladio Dieste (1917-2000), I was first drawn to it by its uncompromising originality and by the freedom of its form (fig.1). Upon closer examination it became clear that these apparently free forms had been created through a disciplined submission to rigorous design parameters. This paradox was heightened by the fact that all of these novel structures are built in brick, one of the oldest and perhaps most common building materials throughout the world.

Brick is indeed a common material particularly in Latin America, and brick construction techniques are familiar to most native laborers. Made with clay, water and heat, brick is abundantly available in Uruguay, an agrarian country of fertile plains with few mineral resources where the necessity of import renders steel and cement very costly. Reinterpreted using contemporary structural theory and construction methods, brick became for Dieste the basic unit of a wholly original and efficient structural shell system.

But perhaps from a Latin American point of view, the most startling paradox upon first encounter with this work is that it is an authentic home grown phenomenon, rooted as it is in the availability of contextual materials and local labor. One refers here to an endemic complex of inferiority affecting Latin American societies when considering aspects of scientific and technical development. There are numerous reasons for this, but a conspicuous symptom is the pervasive notion that what is needed has already been developed elsewhere and should be promptly found and uncritically adopted. Such is the norm not only to allow for the solution of the practical problem in question, but also because processing the latest (de punta) imported technology provides the element of social distinction that enables a rise above the local, supposedly uncultured masses.

In contrast, Dieste’s work assumes a rare position: one that, without ignoring technological development occurring elsewhere, seeks to enlist the richness of direct contact with local reality, with artisans and laborers, with local resources and traditional techniques (fig.2). The objective here is not to revert to primitive forms of production or lifestyles, but to develop a veritable alternative sense of modernity, one in which the criteria to measure success is not ruled by the market’s quantified understanding of gain and loss, but by the potential to achieve human happiness.

Analytically related to early concrete shell structures, Dieste’s work in brick combined the advantages of abundant availability and an able workforce with the benefit of longer possible spans and smaller supports due to the material’s lighter specific gravity. Brick is also easier to shape into curves than concrete and exhibits advantageous environmental properties that allow interior humidity control. When a brick vault is laid onto formwork, more than 90% of the material is already hard; thus, brick vaults can be unmolded faster with significant impact on speed and efficiency of construction.

An avant-garde of the south
In 1946 as a young engineer, Dieste collaborated with the Catalonian architect Antoní Bonet to design and build the Berlinghieri House in Punta Ballena, on the Uruguayan Atlantic coast (fig.3). After working for Le Corbusier in Paris in 1936, Bonet moved to Argentina in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War. In Buenos Aires, Bonet helped to organize the Grupo Austral with the intent of mobilizing public opinion in favor of the Modern Movement’s basic tenets and of critically re-evaluating the production of the local architectural establishment which they accused of mechanical professionalism and lack of utopian inspiration. Bonet first proposed to roof the Berlinghieri House with a series of thin concrete vaults similar to the Freyssinet system vaults featured in many of Le Corbusier’s projects since Maisons Monol (1920).

Bonet had worked on an early version of Maison Jaoul while at Le Corbusier’s studio. Instead of the brick vaults of the final built house, early drawings show an undulating hollow slab apparently proposed as reinforced concrete. Although Dieste had experience with concrete shells, he had never worked with brick vaults before. He proposed to use brick in place of concrete due to its lighter weight. Bonet seems to have opposed the idea initially, but later consented.

In 1934 as a young man, Dieste met Joaquin Torres-García (1874-1949), an artist with connections in the European avant-garde who had befriended Dieste’s family upon returning to Uruguay (fig.4). Torres-García had spent 43 years living and working in New York and Europe, and while abroad had studied in Barcelona and assisted Gaudí in the work of the Sagrada Familia and the renovation of the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca. He met both Theo Van Doesburg and Mondrian who were to figure prominently in the development of his theory of Arte Constructivo. Back in Uruguay he initiated the Taller Torres García, and in February 1935 he wrote his manifesto, La Escuela del Sur, the founding statement for Constructivismo Universal intended as a holistic credo of all the arts and crafts of the [Latin] Americas:

"...School of the South; because in reality our north is the South. There can be no north for us, but in opposition to our South. So now we set the map up side down, and have a precise idea of our position...The ships, when they leave to go north, go down, not up as before. Because north is now down. And sunrise, when facing our South, shall be to our left...instead of exchanging what is ours for what is not (an unforgivable snobbism), we must make what is not ours part of our own substance...¡down with simulation, down with theatre, down with what lacks meaning, or has no logical reason for being, because the time for rehearsals has passed! Today is time for very concrete and defined things. In synthesis: we want to build with art (which is to say: with knowledge) and with our own materials. And here I give the word "art" its highest assertion: of building well, of well making with the rules... We can now see that, our need to create an art, as it has always been everywhere, coalesces in a decorative expression. But here decoration will not be embellishment; will be art, of unquestionable social function. That is to say, an art with authentic roots: real." [De Torres C., El Taller Torres-García, The School of the South and its Legacy, University of Texas Press, 1992.]

This determination to create an art both anchored in the material and human resources of the region yet anti-colonialist in its social dimension seems to have profoundly influenced Dieste.

Torres-García introduced Dieste to the work of Antoní Gaudí. Like Dieste, Gaudí was a devout Catholic, and both men seem to have shared a similar moral position vis-a-vis the integrity of the work of architecture. Gaudí’s lifelong search for an "original" synthesis of Roman-Gothic and Islamic tradition can be compared with the rigor of Dieste’s concept of Cosmic Economy, which he defined as "being in agreement with the profound order of things." Gaudí’s formal manipulations that sought to overcome structural inconsistencies of the Gothic cathedral also achieved the manipulation of light, a role traditionally performed in Islamic architecture by applied ornamentation. It is interesting to note that Gaudí’s favorite building system was that of the Catalonian vault or voltes de maó de pla, the indigenous vaulting system consisting of several layers of thin brick or rajoles held together with plaster mortar.

A clear predecessor of Dieste’s work is the Crypt of the Güell Colony in Santa Coloma de Cervello (1908-1914). Shaped into hyperbolic paraboloids and ruled surfaces, roof, walls and columns became a new synthesis of improved structural performance, light modulation and acoustic control. Gaudí resolved a complex problem of structural analysis through empirical methods using a 1:10 scale funicular model, to insure development of only compression stresses throughout the structure.

Self-supporting vaults
Dieste developed two types of vaulted roof structures: the self-supporting vault (bóveda autoportante) and the Gaussian vault (bóveda Gausa). The self-supporting vault (fig.5) can be described as a barrel shell of catenary cross-section which by virtue of its geometry allows only uniform compressible stresses in the cross direction (vault action) and, because of its rigidity and height, is capable of resisting bending stresses (beam action). Depending on the size and span of the vault, beam action is sometimes supplemented with post-stressed reinforcing.

Economical and efficient in their rational use of material, traditional barrel shells work as whole units, requiring the completion of an entire unit of formwork corresponding to each vault. This formwork cannot be reused until the cast vault is hardened, significantly reducing the overall economy of the project. While under construction, self-supporting vaults are supported at their valleys with light scaffolding. The already-laid brick vaults support themselves through vault action while the work of post-stressing continues above them. At the same time, formwork can be slid along to shape adjacent portions of the same vault, greatly increasing the speed of construction and reducing the cost of formwork. After the post-stressing is complete, the scaffolding is removed and the structure develops beam action.

At the bus station in Salto (1974) in northern Uruguay, travelers and machines are sheltered under a series of self-supporting vaults that cantilever 39 feet to each side and rest on a single row of central columns.

Gaussian vaults
The Self-supporting vault with its catenary section is designed to resist only compression stresses when developing vault action. In order to span longer lengths, the Gaussian vault was developed based on this same principle (fig.6). For long spans, risks to structural stability depend not on the ability of the vault to support dead weight, but rather on the development of flexion stresses due to uneven loads and on buckling due to a vault’s thin section. The rigidity of the vault and the key to its structural success is the varying height of the series of catenary curves which undulate from zero at the end supports to their maximum at the keystone. This gradual height variation is itself a catenary trajectory when considered in cross section. Dieste’s invention thus defines a double curvature shell surface similar in rigidity to that of hyperbolic paraboloid shells.

In contrast to concrete structural shells which must cure completely before vault framework can be removed and reused, Gaussian vaults require only that the joint mortar between bricks—roughly 2% of the vault material—semi-harden before the formwork can be dismantled. This allows hardening times as short as three hours for spans of up to 45 feet and 14 hours for spans up to 150 feet, enabling a continuous rhythm of work. When formwork is removed, the joints in the vaults have not totally hardened and are actually semi-articulations. At this stage in the construction process the vault’s elasticity component is lower than it will be when totally hardened. Each time the formwork is removed, the sequence thereby effects a load test under the most unfavorable conditions (fig.7).

The original bidding competition for the design and construction of the Julio Herrera & Obes Warehouse (1979) situated by the docks in the port of Montevideo called for the demolition of an existing original structure and the construction of a 42,000 square foot storage facility. The firm of Dieste & Montañéz SA won the competition by proposing to retain the brick masonry walls of the original structure, reinforce them against wind and build a new roof using a Gaussian vault roof system. The new "south-light" shells span a distance of 164 feet with a total thickness of approximately 4.75 inches, of which 4 inches are comprised of the thickness of hollow brick. The total cost of construction including new fenestration, concrete floor and painted interior finish was the equivalent of approximately US $120,000 (1979).

The Church of Atlántida (1959-60)
In 1952 Dieste received a commission to build a small church near the resort city of Atlántida 40 km from Montevideo (fig.8). The church vicinity is home to a humble population of construction workers, farmers and maids employed by a nearby resort. Work was begun in 1958 and completed in 1960 for the equivalent of 3 US$ per square foot.

Dieste, a builder of pragmatic structures, was not regarded by his clients (nor by himself) as an architect. Nonetheless, it was precisely the rigor inherent to the practice of building utilitarian structures—along with a devout Christian’s knowledge of the liturgy and ceremonial traditions of the Catholic Church—that enabled him to achieve this vision.

The numerical equation characterizing the vault surface is so complex that Dieste described its structural analysis as "mathematically inapproachable." Although it was impossible to predict the exact behavior of the structure in mathematical terms, Dieste knew that maximum stresses affecting the vault did not exceed 220 psi and that the vault capacity to resist buckling exceeded 590 psi. Vault stresses are transmitted to the tension rods through beams running atop each of the side walls. These beams, absorbed into the vault fabric and cantilevered on the exterior as coping, become integral to both roof and wall, a detail exemplifying the sophisticated simplicity Dieste was able to achieve (fig.9). Absence of auxiliary "transitional" elements preserves simple expression and allows interplay of the whole to transcend the sum of its parts. Here, a minimal margin of error in construction of the wall becomes critical since the vaults rest directly atop and the point of contact between the two remains exposed.

Improvised resistance
In the Latin America of the early 60’s, proprietary steel-stressing technology was nonexistent, and consequently Dieste developed his own prestressing method using loops of steel cable laid across tops or valleys of vaults (fig.10). Loops were embedded in the mortar at vault ends and then pinched or pulled at the middle with a jack to achieve the desired tension. Mechanical jacks with the necessary configuration could not be found, so using a common truck jack, Dieste built an equipo de postensado. He refers to the less technical considerations that guided design of this tool:

"In the equipo de postensado the flanges of the two "U" sections have been clipped to adapt its form to the moments. Here the intention was more instinctively expressive than a simple rational response to the need for resistance. I can affirm that when assembled and in use, the equipment has the quality of abstract sculpture." [Eladio Dieste, "La conciencia de la forma," in Antonio Jiménez Torrecillas, ed., Eladio Dieste 1943-1996 (exhibition catalogue), Junta de Andalucía: Sevilla, 2001.]

This instinctive will to express that is intrinsic to resistive mechanical parts shaped as stress diagrams is also borne of a different variety of resistance: that which Torres García so eloquently conveys in his map and which is latent in the equipo de postensado, its heart improvised from a common truck jack. In Dieste’s work this resistance is manifest in alternative possibilities for industrial development, methods rooted in indigenous conditions which are not only respected but transformed into a constructive presence. In Dieste and in his work, this resistance becomes an unwavering and relentless will to re-analyze and re-invent.

New York, New York, 28 September 2004

Pablo Castro

Eight Points of Architettura Povera

Lecture given on the occasion of a solo exhibit of work by OBRA Architects at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island


The term "Architettura Povera" is transposed from the famous description of "Arte Povera" made by Germano Celant when writing about a group of young artists working in Italy in the late sixties. The group, more than working under the protective conceptual umbrella of any defined manifesto, shared a disposition of disdain towards preconceived artistic principles. They were not only weary of theoretical frameworks to define the art, but also of any defined artistic language, which was viewed by them as more of an impediment to become intimate with the things of the world than an aid, in that sense. They tended to use the simplest materials found in nature, for example, metal, dirt, water, rivers, land, snow, fire, glass, air, stone, leaves, newspaper, and also, light, weight, electricity, measurement, stress, people, time, smell, and horses.

The materials were invariably left uncovered and relied on the specificity of their material substance for their effect. Rather than an exhaustive review of the works of Arte Povera, we recall these artists for their willingness to attempt an erasure of distinction between doing art and living. We would like to offer a consideration of Arte Povera in relationship to architecture to provide a kind of sympathetic lens through which to look at our recent work. The term "povera" or "poor" coincides with a desire to avoid material gloss and to get as close as possible to the elemental being of the matter involved, but in this consideration and as employed by Celant has more to do more with a self-imposed limitation of choices and assumptions. Or, as Gide would have it, "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better."

We would like to provide eight principles, albeit somewhat un-Arte Povera to suggest such an ordering, and therefore we propose eight PROVISIONAL principles underlying the work.

1. We are doomed from the start.

"To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail." Beckett

We work to achieve certain mysterious moments of rare correspondence between an initial act of intuition and what would seem to be a real "ideal object" with a unique presence. Naturally, this kind of work is perpetually besieged by doubt. One aspect of the distinction between architecture and everyday lived reality that would be befitting to an Architettura Povera would be a treatment of the sense of time, analogous to the way we experience it in reality. How do you work in architecture with an idea of time that is different from the time of clocks and watches, the time of minutes and seconds, time chopped up and quantified, with rather time as it is felt, this chronological space that we're in and we can't escape from? It is both a reassuring and a terrifying predicament. For example, in the case of the project of the Freedom Park Memorial, how do we achieve that sense of time about which Spinoza proclaimed, "We know and feel that we are eternal." How do you do something like that in architecture? From the outset we are doomed to failure.

2. To be honest with you, we always do the same thing.

We aspire to extend the intentions of our work from project to project, constantly looking for the possibility to address the same problems, leaving behind any orthodox notion of regionalism or site specificity. It is precisely because we always try to do the same thing that projects are very different from each other. The infinite variety of the nature of things is responsible for the difference between them. We might try to reinvent the wheel, but we always are trying to make the same wheel, it just comes out differently with each effort.

3. We are unable to ever finish anything.

If one behaves as human beings typically do, with an objective in mind, one wants to get somewhere, arrive at something, achieve certain goals. Then all things become objectified, everything becomes related to those goals, and time is flattened. But, as we've pointed at in our first principle, we have very slim chances of success anyway, so why not simply postpone the idea of achieving anything? Why not scrap all objectives? Or even better, why not make the effort of trying to do whatever there is to be done the objective in and of itself? As Borges said it, much more beautifully: "Every step you take is the goal you seek." So the work is never finished, or even better, it is always complete. Then the objective and the work of pursuit itself become one and the same; action and life become one, the work never finished, and reality infinite. Time is simply filled with a sequence of things that one does to perfect the work, forward and back, coinciding with the duration of natural lives.

4. Make sure to only talk about food and drink.

Kierkegaard said about his hero Socrates, that he always talked exclusively about food and drink, but really he was talking about the infinite, while the others spent all of the time talking about the infinite in the loudest voices, while they really were only talking about food and drink. We believe that there is a deep sense of practicality that pervades the best architecture and that, well understood, summons that vertigo of the infinite much better than anything else. The infinite, as we know, can be infinitely large or infinitely small, and as such it is present in everything. Nothing converges to the essence of architecture as the potential clarified by the inhabitation it may suggest.

5. Our designs will be bettered by others.

One important aspect of a "povera" outlook is an interest for the living things of the world. The artists became interested in animals, plants, and even in the apparently dormant vitality of rocks and minerals, and of course in themselves and others. In that light a project must be left "open" to that vitality which then will have an opportunity to manifest itself by changing the architecture in both reversible and irreversible ways as time passes. When such openness is of a reversible nature, it may simply have to do with appropriately staging the potential of inhabitation. In the case of irreversible change, it has more to do with growth as analogous to biological growth, that is, not by "fragments," which beget monstrosity and deformity, but rather by "moments" in a process of continuous transformation.

6. Maybe it is good not to be understood.

The Povera artist chooses the hard life of living amongst things, aspiring everyday to travel the distance that separates our knowledge from the essence of things. This is a trip undertaken in solitude. Every thing which exists, once known, can perform a function of communication; it has the potential to be conceptually understood and also bears with it the potential to become a sign. That sign is one more obstacle in the search for the true knowledge of things; that sign is one more enemy in the effort to attain an understanding of essences. In the 1930s, Ortega y Gasset spoke of the megaphone and the radio as the new enemies of man. Unrecognizable things-obscurity-point our consciousness in unknown directions, expanding the horizon of experience away from the familiar. Or, as Germano Celant, considering the alternative, put it, "Moving within linguistic systems to remain language translates into a form of cultural kleptomania that stifles the vitality of real daily life."

7. If you want to do good architecture you have to be gullible.

St. Augustine said, "Faith is believing what you do not see; the reward of faith is to see what you believe." It is well known that the worst enemies of faith are the same as the worst enemies of art: skepticism and relativism. Skepticism suspects that nothing is true; relativism claims that everything can be true. They are both false. The belief in the effective existence of the object of perception or imagination is an aspect of their essence and the foundation of everything for us.

8. If you can't come up with anything, you are probably thinking too much.

Embodiments of energy and the vital essence of all things were cornerstones of the works of Arte Povera, centering on an interest for the lives of animals and their existence directed by instinct as non-conceptual yet marvelous adaptation to vital problems. Intuition as a method of essential inquiry is related to the idea of instinct. Thought deals with things that have already happened, things executed and completed. If I move my arm, and I think about it, I break it up into moments of that movement. Intuition, instead, happens simultaneously with the moment lived, and thus it is aware of processes in their very unfolding.

"Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." André Gide (1869-1951)

"To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail..."
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). "Three Dialogues," by Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit, p. 21, in Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin, Prentice-Hall (1965).

"Yet it is not possible that we should remember that we existed before our body, for our body can bear no trace of such existence, neither can eternity be defined in terms of time, or have any relation to time. But, notwithstanding, we feel and know that we are eternal."
Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), "Part V, On the Power of the Understanding, or of Human Freedom," in Ethics, trans. by R.H.M. Elwes (1883), MTSU Philosophy WebWorks Hypertext Edition, 1997.

"Every step you take is the goal you seek."
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. by Andrew Hurley, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 504-507. For the original Spanish version, La rosa de Paracelso, see Borges, Obras Completas, Tomo III, Emecé, 1996, pp. 387-390.

"Faith is believing what you do not see; the reward of faith is to see what you believe."
Saint Augustine (354-430), Sermons, 43, 1.

9 April 2004

© 2000-2012 OBRA Architects Pablo Castro Jennifer Lee