Arquitectura Viva
Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Paredes Pedrosa: Composition and Context

Francesco Dal Co

With its tectonic tone and contextual tuning, the architecture of Ángela García de Paredes and Ignacio García Pedrosa has a voice of its own in the contemporary panorama. However, their work cannot be understood without its background: that of modern architecture in Spain.

Francesco Dal Co: You both studied at the Madrid School of Architecture, during what years?

Ángela García de Paredes: Yes, we started in 1975, a crucial year in Spain. Franco died in November, so the School was closed until January. We met because our last names went together on the class list. We were destined by alphabetical order.

FDC: What were the most interesting experiences during this period and what teachers influenced you the most?

Ignacio García Pedrosa: We were lucky to be students when three critical professors were still teaching: Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza, Javier Carvajal, and Antonio Fernández Alba. Three personalities that created around them three parallel schools within the ETSAM, so anyone who studied in their departments followed that branch throughout. Ángela and I coincided at Oiza’s course, with many other classmates with whom we have stayed friends.

AGP: Besides he gave us class himself, and directed my graduation project. Before him, Antonio Fernández Alba, who taught Composition Elements, was also a big influence. He was a crucial figure for me. First because of the theoretical reflection he added to projects (he gave long theory lessons of over an hour, without images, incomprehensible to me then, but that now come back to me all the time), and secondly because many exercises were about architectures of the past.

IGP: We did a very comprehensive study on the Alhambra, not only of the drawings, but a research on the relationship between the volumes and the interiors. This generates a very specific form of approximation to architecture: through the drawing and sizing of the spaces, very important in an architect’s training.

AGP: I would add that Fernández Alba, curiously very attentive to modernity, instilled in us the need to learn about the architecture of the past, and Oiza awoke our interest in the context of the project: the place, the people that live there, its function… Always relating it to literature and poetry. The continuous relationship with other disciplines was the most important thing in Oiza.

FDC:Did these professors also show examples of contemporary architecture?

IGP:Oiza mostly. But rather than showing examples of architecture of that time, he talked about modern architects: Wright, Le Corbusier… He understood that learning about architecture involved knowing what the modern masters had proposed.

FDC: Did they by any chance talk about the great Spanish architects of the 1930s?

IGP: It was rather an outward gaze. The introspective view began later when Rafael Moneo joined the School, and he rescued Spanish tradition without setting aside what was happening in the world.

AGP: We had the opportunity to meet the pre-war architects thanks to my father, José María García de Paredes, architect and friends with many of them. Outside the School we were close to José Luis Sert, who always encouraged us and taught us many things parallel to architecture – painting, music… Through Sert we met Miró, for example.

FDC: I have the feeling that the interest in modern Spanish architecture is stronger in Barcelona than in Madrid.

IGP: Yes, and this probably makes sense. Barcelona was more structured, as a city and as a society, there was a clearer vision of what modernity was and its relationship with its own history. Let’s not forget that Barcelona has a longer urban tradition than Madrid. With its antecedents in the 19th century, in the 20th it managed to become a very important city, one that studied its own history and its main local architects.

FDC: You graduated in 1982, but the office was set up in 1990. What happened during those years?

IGP: We started working with Ángela’s father, an architect at the height of his professional maturity. He had a small studio with a lot of prestige among colleagues. After studying in Madrid and his stay in in Rome, where he met Carvajal, he began a brilliant career, with very interesting projects that earned him the National Architecture Award. He had always wanted to keep control of his work, so he was never really interested in expanding his office. When we had just completed our studies he received several important public commissions, this was right after opening the Manuel de Falla Auditorium in Granada – the first concert hall built in Spain after Barcelona’s Palau de la Música of 1908. The building had a major repercussion because it focused on the relationship with the place and with the constructive tradition of the materials. As a result he was commissioned to build the National Auditorium, and that is when we joined his studio. The collaboration lasted ten years and ended not by choice but by fate, with José María’s premature passing. We found ourselves in a strange situation: it was our moral and professional duty to finish his work, so we launched our own career later. We started out entering competitions. The first one was Europan, which we won; and that is when our independent work began.

Nordic References
FDC: Your Europan project is very specific. As young architects I think you drew inspiration from Alvar Aalto.

IGP: He is a constant in our work. There is a continuous presence of references that arise, not deliberately, but they’re there. In the case of the two housing developments, there is a clear relationship with Aalto’s project, but not a direct reference to him. There we extended the streets establishing an undulatory mechanism that gave the city the continuity we think it needs. Aalto’s project, however, is not an urban project but a landscaping one. Interestingly, landscaping is used to address an urban continuity issue.

FDC: When looking at works like the Valdemaqueda Town Hall, I think about Aalto and about your relationship with the Iberian world. Perhaps Aalto’s influence comes through Siza and Moneo.

IGP: I think we can talk about a special relationship between north and south. The relationship between the north and the Mediterranean is almost a matter of symmetry. Peripheral countries like the Nordic ones are drawn towards peripheral countries like Spain and Portugal and vice versa. Apparently there are no points of contact: not in terms of climate, not social, not even of cultural tradition. Perhaps that’s the reason for such strong attraction. However, Nordic and Mediterranean architectures do have something in common: the interest in the domestic and in comfort. Siza and Aalto’s houses are comfortable, in contrast to British or Central European ones where other values prevail over comfort, or even the relationship with nature.

AGP: It surprises me that you see an Aaltian influence in Valdemaqueda. It was the first competition we won, at the same time as the Europan, but the first work entirely of our own to be completed. We gained a lot of on-site and project management experience in the construction of large buildings. Our situation was the opposite of that of other young architects: without works of our own but with experience in developing and building projects at a studio. The success of Valdemaqueda, which won several awards for young architects, surprised us. It was a type of building we hadn’t dealt with until then. We knew how to build auditoriums and cultural buildings, but not town halls. We took a trip to northern Europe, traveling through Denmark and Finland mostly, to become familiar with Nordic town hall buildings. We almost did a PhD on town halls. I am glad to hear you notice that resemblance because it is surprising to see how such a small building can concentrate everything we took in during that trip.

FDC: Why the Nordic countries?

IGP: Probably because of the opportunity, and also because of Ángela’s personal history. When García de Paredes and Carvajal were in Rome in 1958, one of the conditions for residents was that they had to go on a journey through Europe. They went to Finland in a Seat 600 to see Nordic architecture first-hand. Ángela says that the first time she went to Villa Mairea was before she was born, because her mother was pregnant during that visit. We wanted to see the house up close. I like it because it comes across as a lived-in house. The Farnsworth or Ville Savoye are almost monuments of modernity. Villa Mairea is a house.

FDC: The interior of the auditorium of the Congress Center of Peñíscola seems to draw on Aalto, is this so?

IGP: No. Aalto never left reinforced concrete unpainted. In Valdemaqueda it is completely naked, as in Le Corbusier. Aalto didn’t make a concrete ceiling with such forms either; he did so with wood in Viipuri, but not in concrete. Utzon however did use concrete. There is a Utzonian, rather than Aaltian, reference. In Peñíscola it had a structural explanation: we couldn’t go higher than twelve meters, and there wasn’t room for the metallic structure and wood ceiling, so we proposed building a concrete slab that was both structure and acoustic ceiling.

AGP: It was a big structural challenge because it was done with a suspended formwork, with no scaffolding.

Fragmented Volumes
FDC: Many buildings are an assembly of separate volumes, as if the volumetry were the expression of the different functions. And not only does it represent them, but also gives them a monumental character. At the Valle-Inclán Theater, for instance, it is the result of the superposition of the volumes of the different functions.

AGP: When we won the Peñíscola competition we also won the competitions for the theater and for the Museum of Almería – we were handling the three works at the same time. The reason for that fragmentation was different in each one of them. The theater project evolved in each phase, but always with the idea of adapting the building to the scale of the neighborhood. We were concerned about two matters: that the building had to blend with the scale of the city, which is why it is subdivided into volumes, and that the public plaza in front of it should relate to the existing Plaza de Lavapiés. The neighborhood has few public spaces and that is why we thought the plaza was important. Dividing the building into three volumes allowed us to push them against the party wall to free up space. What happens inside is as important as what happens outside. We were recently there, and it felt rewarding to see the plaza full of people, just as we wanted it to be.

FDC: I imagined one of the volumes as a huge screen, as the Maison de la Publicité in Paris.

IGP: We proposed transforming one of the facades into a public screen to Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, Madrid’s mayor at the time. It would have been a good opportunity for the theater and the neighborhood. A project makes sense when the City Council decides to intervene in a place like Lavapiés – a humble neighborhood, with run-down ‘corrala’-type dwellings – to keep it from becoming a ghetto closed to the rest of the city. People go to Atocha, the Reina Sofía Museum… but they don’t go into Lavapiés. That is why public facilities like the Circo Price Theater by Mariano Bayón or the Escuelas Pías Library by José Ignacio Linazasoro were built there, to attract visitors. And it is working.

AGP: When the night falls, the building is inverted and you can see everything that’s happening inside. It becomes an extension of the public space.

Structures and Skins
IGP: Not long after the completion of the Centre Pompidou, which shows the structure and the installations, Oiza asked us: “And the skin? Where is the skin? We have skin to cover veins and bones.” Part of this probably still echoes in our minds. We think that structural clarity is necessary, but it shouldn’t play the main role. Architecture must address the needs of people and cities in the first place.

AGP: The situation is different in each project. In La Olmeda, the structure is indeed the main element. One of the most important awards it has received is the Eduardo Torroja Prize, which is given jointly to the architect and the engineer. Oiza however was very likely to give a speech and then another saying the opposite.

IGP: Would you agree that inside La Olmeda the structure plays a key role facing Roman architecture, but that from the outside the skin is what stands out?

AGP: Yes, absolutely.

FDC: We’ll talk about La Olmeda later, it is something I want to discuss in depth. At the Visigothic Museum of Mérida, the structure is very important because the building is cantilevered. And it is a very expressive cantilever because it rests on the glass, giving the impression that a very heavy building is floating in the air. This structure is very bold and clear, but if you don’t understand it, the building runs the risk of looking like a daring play.

IGP: It is a question of balance. There are archaeological remains underneath on which we cannot rest. The archaeologists gave us a very small support area for the volume needed. That is why the building grows as it rises, expressing the strength of the cantilever while caring for how the building meets the ground and covers the archaeological site. The interplay of geometries generates a series of shadows. The first and last reason was that the building could only rest on that surface, and with the height limit, it could only grow horizontally.

FDC: What you are explaining is very rational, but I have the feeling that in your work there is no will to use the structure as a formal element, which can have the same value, solving all the decisions, that you later look for in the skin. In other words, I think you organize the movement of the volumes very well and use the skin in many different ways, but the continuity of the volumes and the articulations keeps you from also using the structure as a compositive element. You have many works with an important structure, but it is concealed.

IGP: We are waiting for a commission to build a skyscraper, which will offer the true expression of the structure.

FDC: skyscraper is very easy. The problem is La Olmeda, whose structure is very elegant but is covered with a huge core-ten steel wall.

AGP: I understand what you are trying to say. The structure is expressed in the interior, but not on the exterior. Just as in Peñíscola, where it is concealed to the exterior.

FDC: The vault over the ruins is so elegant that it is enough to give the building a personality of its own.

IGP: Sometimes we explain the project together with another one by Oiza, the chapel on St James’s Way. It is not a closed space, but a condenser of energy. Aside from the museum design, we had an important commitment towards the landscape. The first drawings were a structure in the landscape, and the skin was interior, but the project changed, and there were many open parts which they asked us to close due to maintenance reasons. In the end, with the perforated sheet we wanted to convey the transparency of the initial idea, which was no other than a structure from which a protection was suspended.

AGP: La Olmeda was a long process. There was a first call for ideas in 2000, and five years later a restricted competition, with the teams that had been shortlisted, to build it. The project evolved. The first proposal, where the structure was very slightly exposed, was gradually transformed because an additional concern arose, which was how to place a building of such features in a landscape with no constructions, only with groups of trees. We were worried about building such a technological element so close to the poplars. That is where the skin, totally perforated, started to appear, to avoid giving the structure too much presence. When visiting it now at night it is tranquilizing to see that the building is barely visible, because it blends with the trees and the colors of the landscape. It is a discrete gesture, in my view.

FDC: The enclosure always shows the diversity of volumes. They are always set apart by the enclosure, not by their consistency. This is especially noticeable at the Auditorium of Lugo.

AGP: I am very interested in works where, as in music compositions, movement is inside and not on the surface. For me that is the best praise. Maybe in all our works there is an interest, not so much in being discreet, but in blending with the place. I think that an architect must try to interfere as little as possible.

FDC: Yes and no. Think of Brunelleschi, and about how he bothered the Florentines. Let’s talk about the Museum of Almería. It is built with reinforced concrete and clad with stone. You make cuts on the volume and also add something amusing: a hole to show that it is only skin. And you do so removing the skin, but one cannot see what’s underneath.

IGP: Unfortunately, this has a rational explanation. It is a quite precise structure of concrete boxes, because the museum had its own collection and each part had its own space. We designed the scheme with a circulation area and a double staircase, but the regulations asked for another staircase for evacuation, and we had to displace the program to insert it in the same area. And that is why we made a void between open air volumes, and the skin reflects this stretching and leaves an opening. Everyone thinks it is a reference to Alejandro de la Sota.

AGP: We are interested in Sota, but in this case there was no specific reference to his work. Here, as in the theater, the plaza is what’s most important. We confined the museum to a reduced area and left the rest for the plaza, because there were no public spaces around it. We were interested in creating a relationship and transparency between the square and the museum, letting everyone look out to the museum from the window in the plaza.

Preexistence as Argument
FDC: You build a lot on ruins. This issue, which in Spain has been tackled with greater freedom than in other countries – especially Italy –, cannot be transferred to everyday practice, because the presence of ruins involves a connection with a terrain that is not such, it is an existing construction.

AGP:We weren’t looking for this, it just happened by chance.

IGP: For us this has to do with designing with ‘others.’ Not so much what our architecture may impose on the ruin, but architecture’s capacity to complement itself, to become just one thing and not two. Not the ‘ruin’ and the ‘new.’ This opens a path to make the remains of the past become part of the architectures of today. There should no longer be a frontier between the archaeological and the new. It can be the same thing in many cases, as history has always taught us. What difference is there between the Syracuse Cathedral and a temple built eighteen centuries ago? It is the same thing. Everything revolves around one matter: quality.

FDC: But who guarantees quality?

IGP: That’s part of the problem. Today we don’t have an Academy to indicate paths of intervention, a group of people contributing ideas on what can be done in each case. Maybe no offices should be built in the Roman Forum, but there are parts that maybe could be used, instead of keeping it as a field of ruins. A beautiful field of ruins, but perhaps it could have facilities for plays, movies, exhibitions, and so on.

FDC: I wonder if your capacity to intervene on maximum artificiality – because building on the ruins is doing so over something artificial – has to do with your talent to avoid evident conflicts within the works. Your works tend to create a composition with all the possible conflicts, and you are capable of finding harmony among them.

IGP: I don’t know if this is linked to that relationship between the structure and skin, or between our answer as architects and the existing. There is a relationship that is not one of imposition. I think that the greatest failures when intervening on ruins come from imposing an architecture of today. And because of our inability to achieve a beautiful dialogue like the one established at the Cathedral of Syracuse. There was no intention there to impose the architecture of the cathedral. It uses the columns of the temple as part of itself. And that inspiration is beautiful.

AGP: The way of dealing with the existing is very different in each case. In La Olmeda it is evident: a large villa, wonderful mosaics… We used a cover to give the whole complex a unitary character. In Ceuta the existing has a huge urbanistic and archaeological value, but not material, and it was destined to be set underground. We thought that maintaining the Muslim city inside the library was a beautiful idea, and in the competition, instead of leaving it below, we proposed raising the building around it and making it visible from the inside. In the project for the City of Justice of Jaén we designed a completely modern building as a backdrop, and this existing element is transformed into an archaeological park. The current construction works for the library of Córdoba have revealed a wall and remains from the 11th century, from the Caliphate. We have adapted the scheme and now the wall organizes the children’s library. We think the project has improved.

IGP: It is like introducing a work of art in architecture. It is a way of explaining to library visitors that information and culture are in the books, but also in the archaeological remains. They must be read as well. Two issues that talk about two different cultures, two different periods…

FDC: The preexisting is transformed into an installation, and a metamorphosis takes place. It is curious that right in Ceuta, where the archaeological remains are so present, the building is more abstract and closed. Of all your buildings, this is the most closed one, the most continuous enclosure you have built.

IGP: It’s true. On one hand the environment is quite aggressive. On the other, there was a problem from the outset, which can be seen in the section: we didn’t have space below street level, because the site was taken up. In the libraries, the books, installations, etc., are placed underground, but here it wasn’t possible. The best way to reach an agreement was once again through the skin and not the structure, which is this time also more clearly expressed in the interior. But on the outside the skin tries to create a continuum that contains different elements, aiming to convey an image of clarity.

FDC: This is beautiful. I really like this building. But it is curious to see how in the face of maximum presence you have reacted with a minimum language. I think this is more coherent than La Olmeda.

IGP: It’s fine, because when you do something you don’t see it as others do. When someone else explains to you what you have done, you surprise yourself. Some people say all our works are the same. The same? In reality, everything is different!

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