A friend once said that if Enric Miralles was alive, we would most probably be witnessing “the Le Corbusier of our time”. Despite the great Architect is no longer with us, he made sure he left behind the most adequate and professional person to take the office (and his name) even further. Benedetta Tagliabue is one of the few worldwide famous and successful women architects. Her works either with or without Miralles always brings in an innovative approach and spacial synthesis in order to evoke cultural awareness. Talking with Benedetta, we were amazed by her ability and persistence to successfully serve the user, regardless of the scale of the project.
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Nota Tsekoura What is your favorite place in the world and how often do you visit?
Benedetta Tagliabue I very much enjoy the feeling of discovery. When I visit Asia, China and Taiwan, I always discover new places and I am really happy about it. I do have places which I love, like Venice, where I feel closer to. For all the years I lived there, this city taught me a lot and each time I return I discover new things. Of course, there are so many other places that I always learn a lot from when I visit such as New York, San Francisco and Istanbul for instance. Istanbul in particular is a city that could easily be compared to Rome, the last one being one of the most incredible cities in my opinion.
NT Exploring your overall work, we observe a very vivid use of colours and materials. What is the importance of colour and material in your projects and the impact they may have to a larger scale environment? What is the nature of their combination and how are they complimenting each other?
BT I think colour was a surprise that we kept finding with Enric Miralles when working together. In the very beginning we where working with very fine drawings, solely with lines; it was a practically transparent architecture, where everything could have been used, that is any material and any color.
As we progressed, we realised that color is something that architects are usually afraid of. In fact, it could actually provide a fantastic possibility of introducing more life into what we do.
The same thing happened with materials. We started using simple materials and Enric was always explaining why he was building a project in iron, a project in wood or a project in concrete. Discovering each material individually, helped us to later combine our observations in a way that leaded to a certain result, together with the possibility of working with several things at the same time. Thinking of our projects Santa Caterina or the Scottish parliament for example, they both have wood, iron and concrete both in their structure as well as in their finishes. In the Scottish parliament we started working with marble and stone, which was quite risky, since the use of such materials entails a luxurious environment, often hard to handle in architecture. However, we gradually developed really good techniques working with collages that at the moment we work a lot with, using materials from everyday life where different combinations of colours and materials can be found.
Mercat de Santa Caterina | photos: Alex Gaultier
Mercat de Santa Caterina | photos: Alex Gaultier
NT Apart from the structural as well as formal importance, the social aspect is quite evident in your projects. The Santa Caterina market for instance, is a place that connects different aspects of the city. It is a building that you can explore equally by zooming in as much as by zooming out; it seems to speak a different language when you approaching than when you are moving away from it. What are the main relations or analogies between these two approaches?
BT From the very beginning of working with Enric the main drawing would be to insert the project into the landscape. However, on that instance we were choosing such a large area of the surrounding that you almost couldn't see the project; and then the next drawing would be a little bigger than the first one and the following one a little bigger than the previous one and so on... This sequence of drawings supported the idea that one should not forget the surroundings and that the context will be influencing the building as much as the building will be influencing the surroundings.
We have been working with fantastic photographers in a more experimental way. In the case of the Alicante building for example, the images weren't about the building itself but about the action of capturing the perimeter of the building; walking next to it and overlooking on the other side, you see how the building is influencing that other side even if you observe it from a different angle. Different kind of observations provide different information on a building's interactive behaviour. For example if we take shadows as one of them, check at someone's chosen path within the building on a very hot day; he follows those shadows. On the other hand, the ants across the field see the building in whole different perspective!
I think that in a way we always try to privilege multiple observation points.
When designing a project, one of the comments that Enric used to make was “Oh my God, I hate this because it looks as if we are doing this just for one photograph”. This is important because different parts of a building are supposed to be interesting from several different points of view. This equally applies to people that have different needs and a different capacity of doing things. In the photographic series I was talking about earlier, one was captured reading the letters and signs of the building. If you are mainly obsessed with literature or signs, then the signs are what you are looking for in a building. Its all about perception, which I believe it interests us the most, that is not for the uniqueness of the building itself but the inumerous forms that a building can take before the eyes of any human or non-human life.
NT We strongly believe that you find something interesting in any material, but maybe there is one material that you enjoy working with more than others?
BT Lately we are very much into natural materials and we never seize to discover a little more about them.As you can see in our newer projects, we are attracted by the properties of wood, bamboo, or laminated bamboo that is a very beautiful natural material, which could easily become part of architecture rather than just a piece of some furniture.
NT What about materiality and traditional artisans? How interdependent are materials and scale? In the Spanish pavilion in Shanghai you used elements usually linked with very small scales however, you managed to successfully apply it to a much larger scale.
BT This was a kind of an exercise for us. We were interested in the way we could have used a tool on a different scale. How could we use a seemingly weak material that is mainly used in the countryside and in really small scales, treat it by hand and imagine its use in a much bigger scale.In a way the idea that helped us very much was that every building, no matter how big it is, the finishes are done by hands. Take concrete for example that at the end it has to be polished by hand. That means that you can measure a building by “the hand”; and the same applies for other types of materials where you always have the hands of the people involved. It was very clear that without “hands” we wouldn’t have had such a great result on the Spanish pavilion. So it was very much about making obvious that hands of people are so fundamental in developing an architectural idea, from the making of the model of the pavilion at the office to the construction of the final thing in 1:1 scale.
Spanish pavilion | photo:JongOh Kim
Spanish pavilion | photo:JongOh Kim
NT So when we actually take the scale of a single person and then bring it to the world, you are kind of making it obvious that architecture exists so that people can connect with it.
BT You are right, but you know what? We usually find it difficult to fully understand what a project is all about and now that you are telling me this, it is like I understand more of that all at once! Because some of the subjects that interests me a lot lately is getting engaged with projects that their inhabitants really feel like home. Due to the fact that I travel a lot, I can now appreciate the importance of creating spaces that eliminate distance and bring in a kind of domesticity. So, what you are telling me is really interesting because in this way we can start thinking about a concept in a small scale where everybody can get attached to and later apply it to a bigger scale.
The outcome will be that these people will continue to feel like home.
NT Thinking on how urban space should feel domestic, do you support architectural or other urban gestures by non architects? Urban transformations by people that live in the city, like street artists for instance, as the most obvious example, but extended it to much more complicated gestures that could bring a different ID to the city?
BT When we designed the Parc dels Colors in Mollet del Vallès back in 1991 there existed the idea of graffiti, which was something really fantastic at the time. We actually studied graffiti in order to introduce it, in our way, into parts of our architecture for example on these big floating walls or pergolas that we were inserting in the park. Following that, we also did a piazza, which I think we never published, in Nou Barris in Barcelona. It was in 2003 when we opened this little piazza, which was instantly “invaded” by graffiti artists. At that point we asked our photographer friend to visit the place and take some pictures; after his visit at the park he was thrilled by the fact that we once used the art of graffiti to incorporate it to our design, whereas now graffiti artists use our urban arrangement as a background to communicate their art.
In the same lines was a housing project we did in Figueras, where we questioned the idea of big opening windows in order to think of it more as shopping windows. This approach was a consequence to the idea that every individual should be able to introduce his way of using space. So in that case the house became a platform where people were making a personal statement in several different ways; some put curtains, others filled it with objects, others with flowers and so on. At the end, these interventions are transforming the facilities closer to the individuality of the people who live there.
Piazza Nou Barris
NT Now let's take the situation in Europe. Mainly focusing on the case of the European Mediterranean countries, having in mind that you are an Italian based in Spain, what are the challenges that architecture is facing as a result to the current sociopolitical situation? In what way do you think that it could change (or not) things and how could this affect our professions identity?
BT I am not sure, things are definitely not looking promising at the moment. I came in Barcelona at a time of an extreme architectural growth. Back then I met with many great architects which were really elegant, well educated, able to construct amazing architecture within a small budget. I really think that the architects here in Barcelona were fantastic. And I say “were” because now the actual economical situation is forcing a generation to disappear. However, I remember that when Spain or Italy where in a bad economical shape and the country was not growing, there was more space for experimental work, something that usually was developed in universities or in different closed academic environments. This experimental work is often extremely important because you can eventually apply it in real projects.
The great quality of the projects that took place during the growth in Spain, and especially in Barcelona, was generally due to the fact that academic circles and universities were doing a lot of theoretical and experimental work prior to that growth.
Barajas Social House Block | photos: Lluc Miralles
NT Do you remember if architecture was the profession that you always wanted to follow since you were little or did you want to become something else?
BT Back then I was very confused, more of an utopist I would say, this I can remember. I was a daydreamer, always dreaming of a possible future. One of my dreams was to make an idealistic city. I was dreaming of a better world where everybody was collaborating to build their own buildings, but I couldn't imagine that I would become an architect.
NT What is the source of your inspiration? Is there something that you remember inspiring you a lot?
BT I think that we all live to have different sources of inspiration. However, when you attend to a new project's presentation it always seems to me that there is some common ground with both the people and the leading desire behind each project. So apart from this being a source of inspiration, I can see a formation of a trend that eventually gives its place to inspiration. Moreover, the people who are working at the office are a huge source of inspiration to each other only by creating things so I really believe that inspiration is all about accepting.
NT Do you have a mentor or a person that you could say that inspired you a lot? I can speculate that Enric Miralles will be the answer...
BT I think Enric is the answer, he was really becoming part of my life back then and still feels part of it. Enric was always surrounded by different kinds of mentors himself, from artists to random people that he could have found attractive. A remarkable point of view of his was that he wasn't supportive of just one main idea or a manifesto that he would apply to every project of his but he rather believed that the importance lies with everything that appear to be essential to the human beings. Nonetheless, nature was what we always kept in mind in order to perform a continuous progress.
NT Of course nature could become a mentor as well...
Learn more about Benedetta Tagliabue