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The Value of Heritage

Iñaki Ábalos

Plácido González: For a long time, heritage was a very constrained idea, implicitly conveying that of resistance against change. Now we propose to shift the focus and show heritage as a creative practice that is embedded in contemporary architecture. The first question would refer to this: what do you consider to be the greatest potential of heritage for the production of architecture today? Iñaki Ábalos: I would refer first to where the production of contemporary architecture is now, comparing it with two kind of paintings: still life paintings, and self-portrait paintings. If something has changed in the last decade in the world of academia and in the world of practice, it is the way we have moved from the self-portrait to the still life. The way the media treated architecture and the star-architect system was everything about the extraordinary; the bizarre; the production of objects that could surprise everyone. The only way to bring a piece of architecture to the cover of a magazine was to become very bizarre, to produce almost an impossible architecture that could immediately awake the interests of the people, and particularly of those who are not experts. This has created a generation of architects repeating themselves with the same gestures; no matter wherever they were working at, whatever was the program, the context, the scale, the culture etcetera: this is what I called self-portraits. The idea of the still life, as an analogy between the world of paintings and architecture, means that architects are trying now to put everything together and work with the disciplines that were once divided by modernist Taylorism: landscape, architecture, urban design, urban planning and other related practices. Taken to real life, students in different schools lived together, but they never merged these disciplines nor were able to understand the potential of interconnecting them. For this reason, I think that working with the organic and the inorganic; joining the scale of the landscape with the fabric of architecture; and trying to optimize the result in terms of quality of the public space and of the interior space has become more and more an issue. Another important question is how new technologies are helping us understand the relationship among these apparently different ways to treat the territory and the city. With this I am not referring necessarily to parametricism, which is still the prevailing image that comes to mind when we talk about new technologies in architecture: I think thermodynamics offer much more interesting and rich opportunities beyond parametricism because they show interaction, which is everything: it is about dynamism, about how one thing goes from here to there passing through different states. This is a key point to understand where we are now: we are very much focusing on interactions and much less on self-portraits; and on the translation of this idea to practice and to academia. Secondly, we need to refer to the recovery of methodologies that were almost forgotten in the discipline. Among them, a key one is to behave as a documentalist. The idea of documental work is incredibly interesting for us, and has become more and more important in the world of contemporary artistic practices, among them literature writing: Emmanuel Carrère’s novel, Limonov, is a good example. But if you think about cinema, we would have the films of Wim Wenders, or Werner Herzog with his Cave of Forgotten Dreams about the Chauvet cave. Bruno Latour’s work in the field of ideas is also quite important to understand and contextualize what the concept of documentalism can mean. Obviously, and referring to architecture, we have a hero of modernism like Cedric Price, or who I consider to be his heir in many aspects, which is Rem Koolhaas. They both are perfect examples of how documentalism now stays at the core of new approaches to design. The next question is: what to document? In our tradition, documentation has been performed focusing mostly on two topics: context and program. The documentation of the context was a very rudimentary, almost simplistic approach: maybe formal, maybe atmospheric as Álvaro Siza sitting at the café in a European square, wandering with his pencil in a poetical way; we all know and love those sketches. Beyond this, I think the concept of material culture has become absolutely relevant for anyone trying to document whatever has a trajectory in time. A concept that comes from archaeology; it relies on techniques that allow you, using very few, minimal key facts - a piece of ceramics, a bone, two or three stones at the foundations of a building - to reconstruct the everyday life of a civilization thousands of years ago. We cannot achieve such precision, but the idea of approaching the context and the places where we act through the study of the material culture means a huge difference in the way we treat tradition and modernity. In light of this, the recurrent idea, which was so frequent in the past, of an architect haphazardly buying some postcards in a foreign context and using some local three-cm ornamental patterns to enlarge them and making them become the floor plan of a 200-m-high skyscraper turns to be immediately ridiculous and almost insulting for the local people living in this context. Instead, material culture focuses in matter; material culture is pure materialism, it means conceptually and ontologically to believe that matter and our behavior are closely related. The things are at hand: this table, these glasses, this watch, this paper, in a way limit the way we can think, or the things we can think about. So this is materialism strictly. In this panorama of what do “documentalism” and material culture mean, we find again the contribution from thermodynamics to refer to the question of program: for many years we thought that analysis and synthesis were two discrete moments, impossible to connect at all but through purely poetic ways. I remember Aldo Rossi and Giorgio Grassi treating these topics from a structuralist perspective, in a very serious way, but yet unable to connect these two moments. Thermodynamics may provide us the key, for example in the way we think about phase-change materials; those which in certain conditions dissipate enormous amounts of energy at the same time they crystallize, interacting with the context in a very different way. Taken to our discussion, the material culture of a place is a boiling system where we would find the climate, the culture, the economy, the ecology, their evolution in time; up to a point where they crystallize and create a new state where all this information is embedded. Therefore, heritage is important to the contemporary production of architecture, because there is no project, no design that does not respond to some kind of heritage: it can be intellectual, physical, historic, typological, material; or put them all together. Going to the painting example, thinking in terms of still life, you cannot forget all these things, you cannot avoid these notions. It does not matter if you are working with a preexisting building or an empty plot, for the relevant elements of the material culture are already there, in a very similar state, and this is the point. This is what makes me understand that heritage is no longer a marginal aspect in the activity of the architects, but can be more and more relevant to understand the connections with history, with material culture, and to what extent our practice in the present is constructing the material culture of our time. P.G.: Another very interesting idea that you mentioned is that of the references. I would like to go into those that build up the conceptual framework of your projects, and particularly those coming from modernism, and how maybe the most interesting chapter of the conflictive relationship between modernity and tradition is how modernity has become also a tradition itself. You have written and spoken in lectures and texts about the possible continuity of the modern project, beyond its Post-Modernism depiction as a wasteful, non-environmentally friendly stage of the history of architecture. In what sense do you consider your production is continuing the grounds and values of the modern project today? I.Á.: Modernism is really relevant as part of our tradition in the context in which we grew up and part of our system of thinking. That is very clear. On the one hand, I agree that in many cases, modernity has demonstrated a negative outcome in terms of environmental and societal terms: there were many failures in the utopic approach of the first modernists, which are now obvious to everyone. And on the other hand, we cannot forget that modernity is the only tradition we have to confront the new scales, the new programs, the new speed of construction, the new infrastructural impact of architecture and urban planning in the territory today. Maybe the Inca civilization, or the Romans, could serve as a highly poetic reference for the extent of today’s challenges, but basically, the formation that modernity gives us is the only operative one that we have. So in this sense, this tradition cannot be deemed as completely positive nor completely negative: whoever chooses one over the other is really blind to the most common sense and concept of reality. This is one thing. I have always exemplified the use of material culture with the lenses of our discipline through the direct study of two representative spaces for living: the house and the palace, compared in two different peak moments, representative of their development in terms of modernity. In academic terms and from our experience teaching in different schools, this information becomes astonishingly important, giving you a whole dimension of how the material culture evolves, but also what remains from it; about how, for example, the thermodynamic issues that relate to climate have been solved in different stages of evolution. Attention to the two residential typologies of the house and the palace thus informs us about the simplest ideas that will always be useful; that have resulted from a huge experience of trial and error, creating the most efficient responses and model forms of organization with the most basic resources, almost without economic means. An important conclusion that we extract from this also applies for the relationship between modernity and tradition: we have become “orphans” of these relationships; we can only use their experience in terms of acknowledging the intelligence of the responses and admitting the impossibility of continuing with any of them. So, you learn from the experience, but you cannot use it in direct terms. This can be interpreted either as a disgrace or as a blessing, and I would be for the last option: I think it is a fantastic opportunity for a new architecture, able to construct a new idea of architecture learning from these experiences, incorporating our means, our technologies, and our capacities today to create new responses. For example, the scale of the old, traditional houses in Seville cannot be of great interest to the urban densities of China or even of Spain itself today, due to the speed of production in a global context, but they are still relevant. At the same time, we are conscious that bringing the glass prisms of modernism to the south of Spain cannot be useful anymore, but on the other hand, they are undeniably beautiful, and we may acknowledge that they were created with the purpose to understand the new possibilities of a relationship between the interior and the landscape, for instance. So, in a way, we can admire them, we can understand them, and then the question stands in front of us: what can we do out of them? How can we create the house, the palace of today? This is, in my opinion, the most important question that needs to be addressed in relationship with the material culture and these two traditions. For me, they are equivalent and they are dialectic; they fight, and the fight is really productive, but not in terms of manipulating their contradictions directly. They stay there, but you have to rethink everything. P.G.: Does this idea of being “orphaned” become more intense when practicing in a context like China? What are the tools, in which sense does the approach differ depending on the context? I.Á.: My mind always comes to China when talking about scale and speed. I do not know the exact proportion of square meters under construction in China and the rest of the world, but I think it may be very close to 50%. This has attracted us to work in this culture, because of its historic relevance: there was a moment when Europe played a leading role, then America, and later East Asia, in particular China. Therefore, it is a natural consequence that the best architecture has been produced first in Europe, later in the United States and in Latin America, and now it is the time for relevant architects in China. We have a great interest in working under so many different conditions compared to what the modernists found when they elaborated their theories. It is an excellent place to see, experiment and test if these ideas about material culture and their related methodologies can become relevant; if the idea of thermodynamics can help to construct a new way to think about architecture and the discipline in general terms; and ultimately, to contribute to the natural, final aim of architecture, which is a social service to create better conditions of life. That is very clear. So for us it is a great opportunity to be understanding and to be contributing and collaborating in this hyper project which is the new China: a much more interesting context than any other nowadays. Referring to your question, I do not feel that we are behaving in a different way. Obviously the scales are different, but the methodology that I referred before comes partly from academia; partly from our intellectual interest in different aspects of reality; and partly from our experience in practice in Spain, Latin America and China. So in different proportions, these contexts have contributed to give precision and clarify these ideas; which three years ago were still under development. Maybe back then we lacked the possibility to develop a more systematic intellectual construction with them. I think this is a relevant aspect, but not contradictory, nor completely surprising, which results from the obvious acknowledgement about how the scale of the programs and the production speeds are changing. P.G.: This relates to the estrangement from the past about which David Lowenthal spoke when he said that the past is a foreign country, no matter if it is the past of your own city or your own family. I understand this as a symptom of change, from the Universalist approach of modernism to the current sensitivity towards a place as a key enabling the ubiquitous presence of globalization. I think about it when seeing, for example, the renovation that you have recently completed in Wuhan of a historic building from the 1920s, and the ways through which the interpretation of historic architecture can avoid to fall into nostalgia. This is important in China as well as internationally, due to the role that heritage plays in the production of a collective identity, and which is frequently producing idealized visions of the past that once defined should never be touched. This could be confronted to current discussions in Europe around the idea of “frugality”, which you depicted years ago in your text “Bartleby, the architect” and his “I would rather not do it” motto, as part of a creative attitude. I would like to know if such an idea is still valid as a reference when dealing with a heritage project here in China. I.Á.: Before going to Wuhan, you know that we had the opportunity to renovate another industrial building years ago for the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona, with a similar scale and almost identical situation. It was in fact the first industrial building built in the Eixample, the city extension of Barcelona designed by Cerdá in the second half of the 19th Century, which responded to an idea of combining non-polluting industries, such as printing companies, with the residential environment of the blocks. Both the projects in Barcelona and in Wuhan tell us many interesting things. The first one, that I have learnt these years after being more and more involved in projects of rehabilitation of both at architectural and urban scales, is to seriously question the idea of not touching and intervening in the patrimony, which as I was a student I considered the smartest approach. With this, I refer to the use of techniques to render interventions invisible, freezing the fabric in time, which was characteristic of the Italian school those days, acting like doctors that denied any kind of creativity. I think that this is the most wrong approach ever, the most banal in terms of cultural construction. I prefer those historicists of the 19th Century who recreated, and who by recreating, were enjoying their creativity contributing with beautiful eclecticism to the built environment that you can enjoy in so many cities of Europe today. Having said that, the idea of intervening in a historic building has different values in different contexts, and so it is the case in China. It is important to understand that whatever you do will be a moment in the course of culture and of the discipline, as well as its relationship with time and entropy. So it will reflect how at a certain moment, we act according to what is more relevant, incorporating the social and cultural and political considerations that we may find in history and projecting them into the future. For example, in the Tàpies Foundation in Barcelona, the building had experienced a previous hyper Post-Modernist intervention, designed by a good architect indeed. I always recall that when I was a student I visited this intervention in the Tàpies Foundation because I thought it was a very interesting work, and I liked it. Then when I returned 25 years later to work on the same building, I could not believe how much the architect had been doing the right thing in that moment. But at the same time, it was clear that what had been done back then was completely not valid three decades later; it was a masquerade, exactly the opposite to what the building demanded today. Tàpies’ idea was to respond to the wisdom and the idea of the place, recovering the atmosphere of the printing industry that was originally there. So what we had to do was basically clean the house, take out all the stuff that was completely unused and give the character back to the beautiful structure, which was basically an American loft transferred to Barcelona, exposing its cast iron elements, recovering the skylights with beautiful natural light that had been closed off, recovering the original thick wood pavement, changing completely the colors, everything. So, the atmosphere changed radically. It was great because Tàpies had the opportunity to see the result before he passed away, and in the opening day he told us: “I am so grateful, I have been waiting twenty-five years to see this building as it is now”, which is the best compliment we have ever received from a client. And then we move to Wuhan, which used to be a religious bookshop and publishing company in the former British Concession. After those years, it was almost destroyed: every room was subdivided and occupied by different families, so now it is incredible to compare what we saw the first day we arrived to the site, and what we have there now. Initially, it was impossible to know the name of the architect, but through the government we identified an architect from that time who used a similar repertoire in the city to whom the building could be attributed, and with that hypothesis we started to establish analogies, and so on. We had to document what we had, so we could take decisions through these assumptions, which despite not being hundred percent clear, nevertheless seemed to be the most reasonable. Honestly at the beginning, considering the extent of the damages and the plans for the building to become an art gallery with a bookshop, we thought that we would be less restrained than in Barcelona; that we would have the opportunity to design a kind of more open interior, applying a more modernist category to understand the space. But the position of the client was radical: they really wanted to recreate, in the literal sense of the term, a history that was almost invisible in the physical reality of the building. And they made incredible research on, for example, interior design: 99% of the building was damaged, but there they could find a frame of a door which was probably original because it was well decorated, or one stick left from a fragment of a railing...and from these elements, the whole appearance could be recreated anew. We also had the purpose to reconstruct the load-bearing walls, which was a difficult task because of accessibility requirements like elevators, fire regulation elements like an additional stair, etc. It was a difficult combination of factors, but they were making a great work following the idea of recovering a bookshop, which helps you think of the extent of the challenge, about many the similarities through which the project attempted to go back to the origins, but at the same time, to incorporate main exceptions like for example, the kind of books that would be brought back to the building: no longer religious books, but books of art. I am happy with the results because it is a service for the community, and after years of destruction of the patrimony in China, I think this question needs to be addressed with extreme care. Besides some decorative intrusions with which I do not agree, but which were reduced to a minimal extent, this is what they were doing: a very dedicated attempt to give a valid response through a systematic research of what the building looked like originally, and furthermore, considering the role that it plays in the community. In a way, these two projects enable to understand the powers currently brought into play in the construction of the city. You have to understand what they mean and elaborate them; not only from a structural perspective, but particularly in its cultural context. If you want to contribute you have to understand what is interesting for architecture, and how to push for it and make it real. But comparing the two interventions, despite being very different, at the same time I think they are making a very similar service to the society. Edited version of an interview by professor Plácido González, Executive Editor of Built Heritage, published on the journal’s website in August 2018


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