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Preserving and Transforming: Architecture as Memory

Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos

Preserving and Transforming: Architecture as Memory
By Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos -

The following texts are a reworked and updated collection of fundamental ideas that have accompanied us throughout our career. They are thoughts that converge on a common theme: the role of memory as the underlying force that shapes our projects.

Architecture involves the transformation of a pre-existing place, intertwining with history, culture, topography, climate, in such a way that a building always leaves its mark on the landscape, which is forever altered. However, the design process is also enriched by hidden or forgotten images in our memory; ideas that, at certain moments, suddenly become vivid and clear, unexpectedly signaling the beginning of a new project. Therefore, we cannot interpret reality without thinking about the places we have traveled to, the ones we have read about or heard stories of, the photographs or films we have seen.

The profound meaning of the concept of “building the city” lies in the ability to generate public space. While the public condition of a place is essentially a consequence of the activity of its citizens, the responsibility of the architect is to create the conditions to make it a reality, respecting the memory of the past and ensuring the sustainability of the future. When the projects we have worked on offered us the opportunity to significantly transform the urban context by changing the uses of existing buildings, a symbiosis between architecture, public space and sustainable urban development arises, which constitutes the ultimate reason and goal of our architecture.

Is it not reasonable, then, to conclude that every work of architecture is, essentially, a manifestation of memory?

Arvo Pärt Centre, archivio personale del compositore e centro di musica e informazione, Laulasmaa, Estonia, 2018 © Roland Halbe, courtesy Nieto Sobiejano Arquitectos

1. Design or Relate

Our projects already exist unconsciously in our memory. They emerge unexpectedly, driven by associations of which we are barely aware. We are linked to memories, images and impressions that originated mostly in our childhood and adolescence, altered by new experiences, continually renewed. In the process of every project, at some point, a forgotten memory, an image, a sound, or a recorded phrase, returns: a clue that guides us along a certain path.
We design by choosing, through our subconscious, what still lingers as a sensation of something we perceived at some point: sounds, textures, scents, and sometimes even blurry images that suddenly become unexpectedly clear. Involuntarily, we draw from our direct experiences – the best form of education – and from the database we have received through travels, conversations, readings, films and dreams.

Designing is synonymous with relating; we do nothing but attempt to establish intangible connections between needs, places, forms, materials and concepts that, in an instant, in a fleeting vision, become evident and we desperately try to capture and materialize.

Architecture always arises from a combination of information stored in our memory, rearranged in different ways on each occasion. When we are fortunate, we combine fragments of that memory in evocative, sometimes unexpected ways. The new project then brings us the satisfaction of discovery. And yet, is it not actually a return to something that existed before it became architecture? Is it not more of a memory than an innovation?

Riconversione e ampliamento del Castillo de la Luz, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spagna, 2013 © Roland Halbe, courtesy Nieto Sobiejano Arquitectos

2. Untitled

Architecture can never be completely separated from the meaning it conveys. We can try to deny the metaphorical dimension of buildings by pretending that they represent nothing beyond themselves, that they should not carry other meanings. We can focus solely on the experience, avoiding all narrative intentions. But even so, it is inevitable to associate what we see with other objects or images: every building has the capacity to represent something different from what it is.

Projects originate from ideas that do not precisely correspond to a specific image but resemble many others. We find ourselves trapped by visions we once had, which inevitably resurface in our memory. Our symbolic world is so powerful that it unconsciously shapes everything we design. In this process, we constantly return to symbols we thought we had forgotten. The resurgence of forms, spaces, lights and sounds that we perceived at another time ultimately prevails over our usual analytical approach to projects.

Metaphors are the images through which we understand our surroundings. Every project, even those born from the most abstract concepts, originates consciously or unconsciously in a metaphor.

Conceptual art, Land Art and minimalist artists tried to deny this. Their works were meant to be autonomous, self-referential entities. They refrained from giving titles or only provided descriptive ones. Yet how many works titled Untitled constantly lead us to reconstruct images based on our own experiences? Aluminum boxes as architectural spaces we have dreamed of, text fragments as functional diagrams, neon tubes as peculiar urban structures, geometric marks on the landscape as traces of ancient civilizations, mass-produced steel structures as musical compositions?

Signs inevitably lead us to others in an endless chain of interpretations. Paul Klee named his paintings in a way that deliberately avoided direct associations with the works themselves; they spoke of the artist’s universe, which is not that of the viewer. What a work of visual art, literature, music or architecture suggests is not necessarily what the creator conceived or intended to convey. Every project tells one or more stories. Architecture is inherently narrative, even when the architects who designed it never intended it to be so.

Joanneumsviertel, ampliamento del Joanneum Museum, Graz, Austria, 2011 © Roland Halbe, courtesy Nieto Sobiejano Arquitectos

3. Past Turned Space

Contemporary intervention in existing buildings has always been a subject of controversy, perhaps stemming from the role that modern architecture played from its inception in this matter. Modern architects were viewed as the conscious authors of architectural works, the arbiters of a design process guided by their own will. Being the sole intellectual author of a building was considered incompatible with subsequent alterations to a project previously conceived by someone else, much like it would be questionable for an artist to alter another person’s work in the fields of music, visual arts, literature or cinema. The idea of the tabula rasa, linked to the ex nihilo conception of the project, considered historic monuments as isolated examples, while the remaining structures inherited from past times were simply meant to be replaced.

This meant that extensions or transformations of existing buildings, such as Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre in Paris or Gunnar Asplund’s Gothenburg City Hall, were rare exceptions in the early decades of the 20th century. However, over time, criteria and sensibilities surrounding this issue changed. In the second half of the century, historic interventions by architects like Carlo Scarpa or Franco Albini in Italy were examples of transformations of existing buildings, where the mastery of the architects showed new paths. Since then, various – often extreme – options have emerged, ranging from mimetic reproduction in historic buildings to the canonically modern approach of juxtaposing the new with the old.

Both options, although seemingly antithetical, actually refer to the same linguistic conception of the architectural problem, which has turned many contemporary interventions in existing buildings into a simple game of analogies or comparisons, of historicisms or contrasts represented in forms falsely sympathetic or openly aggressive towards the original architecture.

Our attitude towards intervention in existing buildings does not express a dogmatic stance on this matter: we always seek to follow a moderate and patient path, one that strives to understand the problem through the very activity of developing and building the project. This attitude has the capacity to reveal the process in which we are immersed, leading us from the interpretation of pre-existing works towards the creation of something new.

In this sense, we find ourselves in a peculiar illusion: a building seems to reveal the origin of its own transformation, so that designing simply involves deciphering its intrinsic codes. Existing structures provide unexpected clues to how they should be transformed; we merely need to read these hidden instructions that suggest how to expand, open, modify or divide them. Renovating, adapting or expanding a building entails a reinterpretation of the original designer’s intentions, reading the architecture like a palimpsest, the sum of several coexisting texts in which the traces of an earlier inscription, sometimes barely legible, remain perceptible. Similar to books that narrate one story within another and, therefore, continue indefinitely, the transformation of an existing architectural work resembles the inclusion of a new chapter in a text that, by its nature, always remains unfinished. Each new action we undertake is the continuation of a long series of prior decisions and can become the origin of future transformations. We often imagine spaces that the original authors never would have envisioned, and at the same time, we incorporate concepts into our design in an endless story that links contemporary space with historical past. In these circumstances, time operates as both temporality and historical reality. Time fosters a dialogue between the present and the past where each decision acquires meaning, not only spatial and symbolic but also constructive and material. Thus, architecture becomes, as Walter Benjamin defined it: “Past turned space”.

Museo municipale di San Telmo, Donostia-San Sebastián, Spagna, 2011 © Roland Halbe, courtesy Nieto Sobiejano Arquitectos

4. The Window and the Mirror

The projects we find most interesting, and perhaps the most insightful, are those that seem to arise from an attempt to connect anomalies, associations of random and arbitrary facts that are before us and only need an idea to explain them. But since arbitrariness is hardly compatible with the coherence that the practice of architecture demands, we are compelled to establish certain rules, which can sometimes be arbitrary as well, to work within existing or
self-imposed limitations, like with pieces of a puzzle, allowing disparate elements to compose an intelligible portrait. This interpretation of the project as a mosaic, as an addition of fragments to form a unitary whole, questions the existence of a conscious starting point, an original and unique moment. On the other hand, it also recognizes that the key element of the architectural piece paradoxically lies in the ties between unrelated events. The frame that contains one painting within another, and so on, the image that Georges Perec linked to the idea that “each work is the mirror of another”, suggests an architecture conceived as a combinatorial mechanism, a game of multiple reflections, in which our work only acquires meaning when seen as a whole.

The limit of the mirror finds its opposite in the frame of the window, which voluntarily directs our attention to a specific point and distracts us from the rest, generating a gaze that will inevitably determine our way of interpreting a place, a landscape, a city.
From then on, the process unfolds in a series of associations, a system of relationships in which each combination obeys specific rules.

Many of our projects were conceived from images and memories previously stored in our memory, perhaps unconsciously, through impressions received in unexpected circumstances: visiting a distant archeological site; closely examining a work of art; trying to discern the underlying structure in literary texts; deciphering the laws that define the roofs of historic cities; tracing the sequence of spaces in an ancient building; analyzing the hidden geometries in Islamic ornamentation; or simply trying to perceive the spatial, luminous and tactile qualities that can only be experienced through the senses.

The window and the mirror are metaphors that George Steiner linked to the perception of the external (objective) world and thoughts about the internal (subjective) world. Both images, which strangely coincide in the same material, transparent or reflective glass, for us become a representation of limitation and combinatorial analysis, architectural concepts that reflect the specificity and multiplicity that underlie each project. We start from sometimes random points: hidden in the mirror of our mind or perceived through the window that frames our environment. We limit ourselves to establishing connections, creating links derived from interpretations of specific problems, which we cling to when trying to understand the urban structures that define a place, the laws that govern a landscape, the constructive and spatial reasons behind a historic building, the materiality of a temporary installation, or the logical solution to a functional need.

Our works have been conceived independently, at different times. They are the result of variable conditions, places and programs: at first glance, undoubtedly, one pays more attention to what sets them apart than to what can unite them. Only when grouped, like pieces of an imaginary puzzle, do they seem to reveal what unconsciously connects them: fragmentary processes that suggest perhaps fictitious, but not unreal, orders. And yet, precisely because architecture is always the result of an interpretation of multiple and seemingly unrelated circumstances that end up resembling each other, the projects are a mutual reflection, like an unexpected result of an endless hall of mirrors.

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