Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New Kids on the Block: Estudio Barozzi Veiga

Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne, rendering
In the May issue of The Architectural Review, I interview Alberto Veiga of the Barcelona-based Estudio Barozzi Veiga (with Fabrizio Barozzi). As the published version was cut and re-arranged, I reprint it here more-or-less in full.

I love all the Kasper David Friedrich / Schinkel / Boullée moments in these projects. Also the bits of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then why does it bother me so much when a Swiss architect does same? Is it just my nostalgia kicking in here? Are these guys doing anything different?  Or is this once again the asexual aura of the Protestant Sublime?

Strand Quadrangle of King’s College, London (competition finalists)
Auditorium, Águilas (Murcia), Spain
Neanderthal Museum, Piloña (Asturias), Spain (competition)
Ribera de Duero Regulating Council, Roa (Burgos), Spain
Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne (in development)
Graubünden Museum Expansion, Chur, Switzerland (in development)
Philharmonic Hall, Szczecin Poland (upcoming 2013)

The Strand Quadrangle, Kings College, London, competition project

David Cohn: The issue of representation comes up pretty clearly in your competition project for Kings College.

Alberto Veiga: Their brief called for remodelling the open space between the Strand and the river, to gain competitive edge. It's a terribly fractured and chaotic space, very Charles Dickens, without a clear organization.

We always start a project with the public spaces, and organize the design accordingly. At Kings College, the campus needed a clear, potent and recognizable space that could organize its three buildings. We designed a plaza around a sort of monolith. It's simply an entry with a mechanical stair down to the new hall. It's small but rather powerful in attitude, to make it clear that the buildings are part of a whole. We didn't want to create an icon, or impose anything on the existing image of the College. What was needed was simply an element of reference.

Fabrizio and I try to synthesize all the problems that come up in the design process and condense them in the most essential way possible. But we're not minimalists. Often we are quite expressive in formal terms. But we try to be very clear about the ideas we wish to materialize. The best way to confront the complexity of things is often not to respond with more complexity, but rather by trying to resolve them simply.

Auditorium, Águilas (Murcia)

One of your first completed projects, the Auditorium and Congress Centre in Águilas, belongs to a series of designs characterized by inflected rectangular volumes. 

We are influenced at times by the simple, powerful geometries found in Brazilian modernism, which can be very expressive or very silent depending on what is called for. Working volumetrically permits this range.

Águilas is a building that faces the sea. We wanted to make it as compact as possible to liberate the largest amount of public space. The resulting building has a powerful presence. It's a modeled mass, the intersection of two spheres and a cone. The curving facades change greatly with the changing light, and the building becomes a dynamic element. People's perception of the volume changes as they walk towards it. Every opening has a visual connection to one of the principal features of the town – the castle, the windmill, the mountain. Moving through the interior, people can recognize these, and see their surroundings from a different perspective.

The impulse to carve things out appears in many of your projects. It's like you're sculpting a homogeneous mass. The monumentality and gestural qualities of the result are almost guaranteed. 

We really weren't trying to create an iconic building. It's true that we often work in mono-materials, to underline the importance of this three-dimensional aspect of spaces, to make them clear and simple, and to work with the light in a very clear way.

Neanderthal Museum, Piloña (Asturias)

In your designs for sites with a more sombre, northern climate, such as the Neanderthal Museum, you use the same sculptural process, but with different results, responding to the place and its ambiance.

I n the Neanderthal Museum competition, we were able to develop this idea of condensing a concept to its essence, of becoming less exuberant. We wanted to transmit the idea of a primary form in the landscape. We imagined that it would at least provoke the curiosity of anyone approaching it.

Ribera de Duero Regulating Council, Roa (Burgos)

In the headquarters for Ribera de Duero you focus more on the outdoor space, while the building itself is also more fragmented, in keeping with the scale of the village. 

Our design makes a gesture to the marvellous landscape around the village with the tower, a typology familiar to anyone in Castile. It has a certain scale, as it is a representative building. But the public plaza between the three volumes is its centre, behind the facade of the ruined church. The building's largest spaces are underground.

It seemed to us that views of the landscape improve when framed by architectural elements. In Roa, everyone s eyes are filled with images of vineyards and the Mesta. Seeing them filtered through the new building offers a different perspective.

Museum of Fine Arts, Lausanne

The art museum in Lausanne is one of your quieter volumes. 

The competition proposed rehabilitating existing train sheds for the museum. But we thought that the most important part of the problem was not the building, but the discovery of this part of the city. We were the only ones in the competition to propose demolishing the existing building for a public space. The new building protects this space from the train tracks on the opposite side. It's a simple parallelogram, parallel to the tracks, that defines a plaza. It's made of brick, because we like the idea of working with elements that are not completely perfect, that introduce the factor of randomness, of someone laying the bricks.

The new building absorbs parts of the existing train sheds?

We didn't want to erase the memory of the place entirely. Working with the memory is much more powerful than working with physical. We maintain the most singular elements of the existing building, which become singular elements in the new work. A large gothic window bay will overlook the entry foyer. It's the only window looking south.

Graubünden Museum, Chur, Switzerland

In Chur, you're doubling the existing Graubünden Museum.

The present villa has a garden that is rather exuberant by Swiss standards. We decided that the garden and the villa were equally important, and so we designed the smallest building we could, with the new galleries underground. This allowed us to maintain a proportionate scale with respect to villa, so that each has its own identity and importance. Like the villa, the exterior of our building is very ornamental. It's finished in concrete elements worked up like Frank Lloyd Wright's textile blocks.

Philharmonic Hall,Szczecin, Poland

The Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin is perhaps your most expressive design.

Szczecin (the former Stettin), used to be Berlin's seaport, and it still feels like a German city, with a cityscape of powerful, vertical volumes, steep roofs and sharply-pointed steeples, which bring to mind German expressionism. But it's also a Polish city, and all its industry was dismantled after the country joined the European Union. It's trying to reinvent itself, using culture to attract tourism. The building not only had to be a symphony hall, it also had to be an urban landmark.

Basically, we adapted the local architectural tradition, those pure geometries, rather massive, vertical elements. And we started to repeat an element, very similar to the tower in Roa, some 20 times in different positions, to form the whole. The building is completely clad in glass, which is illuminated when it's in operation.

In another aspect of representation, your drawings and renderings are quite interesting. Though you often use photomontage, some almost have the quality of engravings. One sometimes thinks of Bouillée.

We've gradually refined our drawings. We try to strip them down as much as possible, and to find our own language. In more recent competitions, we often simply work in black and white, for greater clarity and expressiveness, and to emphasize the importance of the spaces. We bring renderings into the design process very early, trying to imagine the materials, colors and light. We do them ourselves. This is the phase of the project that we most enjoy, when you have the greatest freedom. It takes us three months or more to do a competition, which gives you time for reflection.

Returning to the problem of representation in general, we are usually talking here about public architecture, and the idea of working for a specific community, in a particular place.

Representation is a problematic word these days, because everyone associates it with a certain kind of iconic architecture. We don't avoid this discourse. Public architecture must often be representational. This role allows you to organize a place, to create a reference point, something people can identify as part of their city. And such works must often be imposing. They shouldn't necessarily evade monumentality. You can't design an auditorium as if it were a house.

But your work is very different from the iconic architecture we've seen in the past 15 years.

Though they may be relatively simple, buildings must emit a certain attitude or character. And that doesn't necessarily mean making a design unique. Character is a difficult concept, which I think has gotten lost along the way. 'Anything goes' isn't the right response for every situation. Nor is the generic, except perhaps for programs like offices buildings. For us, the identity of the architecture is more important that the personality of the architect. And I'd generally prefer that the public space that generates a building become an icon, rather than the building itself.

Águilas Auditorium
'The way to confront the complexity of things is to resolve it simply'
Interview with Alberto Veiga of Estudio Barozzi Veiga
The Architectural Review, May 2013, pages 76- 79

All graphic material courtesy of the architects

Other blog entries on Barozzi Veiga:

Barrozi Veiga: A Question of Character
Jan. 17, 2017

Barozzi - Veiga: Building the Void
Dec. 3, 2014

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