words Justin McGuirk
“Mondays! Mondays are terrible,” says Iñaki Abalos. Which is unfortunate, as I’ve chosen a Monday to come to Madrid and interview Abalos and his partner Juan Herreros. Abalos Herreros are the most interesting architects in Spain, and they are too busy to both be tied up in an interview.
“We have a lot of work. I would prefer it to be continuous, not like this,” explains Abalos, drawing an up-and-down graph in the air. While making his apologies for not being able to join in the interview, Abalos fixes me with one eye – his other, I can’t help but notice, is looking somewhere else – then he turns away, leaving me with his partner. Herreros waves me into a seat and then he, too, fixes me with a look. He has big, frenzied eyes – the eyes of a madman.
The practice’s office is a fin de siècle apartment overlooking the traffic of the Gran Via, Madrid’s main east-west artery. The period mouldings feel at odds with the architects’ own very stripped work, but the choice is characteristically pragmatic. “It’s very cheap,” shouts Herreros above the noise of the honks and sirens below. “We have been moving the office around these three blocks for years – each time we have to paint, we move.”
Spain has an embarrassment of good architects, but Abalos & Herreros has always stood out. The pair met teaching construction systems at the University of Madrid in the mid-1980s. In the late 1990s, while most of their peers were producing very refined buildings that were essentially reinterpreting modernism, Abalos & Herreros made its name with a recycling plant. Rubbish recycling was not the domain of cultured architects until the practice designed the Valdemingomez plant outside Madrid. It was the first plant to contain all its operations within one building, and they followed it with two other plants. These beginnings in industrial architecture gave them a unique approach to the design of public buildings, and culminated two years ago in a modest building that also happens to be one of the most beautiful in Madrid, the Usera Library.
Looking up at the library, in an otherwise unassuming southern suburb of the city, you can’t help but feel drawn to it. It is a wonderfully elegant building, all the more striking for the way it is raised up on a bank above the street. But its impact comes from the way it responds to our intuitive idea of what a library is: a tower of books. It has the quality of something from literature or mythology – Herreros calls it “a fantasy” – and yet it is an inexpensive municipal project made of prefabricated panels. It wears its efficiency on its sleeve and yet it is a powerful enough image to be a symbol of local pride. “It’s very simple and it’s very clear and it’s a real success in the neighbourhood because it’s the representation of that feeling of belonging to something, belonging to a community,” says Herreros.
The amazing thing about this library is that it could have emerged from the same principles as that early recycling plant. “Perhaps our success in certain typologies is because we do the same there as in other places,” says Herreros. “We build university buildings with the same materials as a recycling plant or the house for [artist] Luis Gordillo, which is exactly the same system.” Abalos & Herreros has mastered what you might call the industrial vernacular. They use the same cheap materials, sourced from internet catalogues, as are used for the industrial sheds that line the outskirts of Madrid, and yet they do beautiful things with them. The studio for Luis Cordillo is made of corrugated polycarbonate – the building is austere in its form but richly translucent in its effect, like a giant lightbox.
Herreros describes the use of industrial materials for buildings like the Gordillo studio or the very similar municipal hall in Colmenarejo as a kind of “pop” – using the things that you see all around you. “We don’t need to have this pressure of inventing everything, every handle or the furniture, you know?” he explains. He talks fast, and sometimes he’ll issue a torrent of a sentence that sounds like it’s been translated by Google: “This obsession of architects where you do everything from the building to the clothes of the keeper, no?” But the buildings also share the pragmatism of industrial buildings, that willingness to simplify everything and subordinate it to an essential program. The method results in an aesthetic purity but one that
is not precious.
“It’s a real simplicity, it’s not sensuality, it’s not minimalism, which is very dogmatic or repressive. Our architecture, we can say, is without details. It’s looking for systems against details, and the systems are a collection of rules like in a game to make decisions.”
In some ways, Abalos and Herreros are architects’ architects. There’s an intellectual dimension to their work that the architecture-literate can enjoy but one wonders whether the public appreciates some of their references. For instance, do people really want to be reminded of industrial sheds? “This polycarbonate is so decontextualised here,” says Herreros, pointing at the Colmenarejo building, “that they don’t say this is the same you can use for a chicken farm, no? They see these things in trucks or in objects or in the plastics of the chairs you can buy in Ikea, or in Swatches.”
What Abalos & Herreros seems to aspire to is an architecture that can be understood almost subconsciously, an architecture with collective appeal. But the architects also want to find the appeal in the unexpected, whether it’s by using industrial materials or by turning a rubbish treatment plant into a visitor attraction. Their three recycling plants were attempts to give form to a faceless, stinking process – to make it not just acceptable but public. Any given morning, three coach loads of schoolchildren will visit the Valdemingomez plant. “It’s a place where you go at 8 o’clock in the morning and you see 3,000 tonnes of garbage that Madrid produces in one night, so you have an understanding of the scale of the city.”
The plant was also a move to activate the barren landscape at the edge of the city. The architects describe it as an “area of impunity”. “This is the place where people, I dunno, play football or learn to drive, no? And they are places to try programs or different scales. ‘Impunity’ because they are places where cities invent by themselves in a spontaneous way the way they use [them]. We were looking for a new generation of public spaces which were not the plaza or the park, and it was very important in Spain at that moment that discussion because it was the moment of Barcelona, with all these hard plazas, no? The absolutely paved surface of the city, and we were looking for a wilder condition of public space.”
The practice’s latest building offered the opportunity to carve a public space in the heart of a city. The Woermann tower in Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria, is a giant bargaining chip that uses its verticality to open up the majority of the site for a public plaza. “This is like the present the project gives to the city because the site was very big and we did a tower just to liberate all this space and create a public space, no? So this idea of creating something very public which has been paid for by the luxury of the private housing.”
And yet, the architects couldn’t bring themselves to do anything as conventional as a simple tower. The first thing you notice about the Woermann building is that the top fifth leans to one side like a wilting asparagus. Herreros describes this departure as a way of connecting the tower to the city and its surrounding landscape. The building sits on an isthmus between the new and old cities in one direction, and the beach and the port in the other. “It’s like how with the position of your body you show interest, and in this case it is to mark the line between the centre – the cathedral and the old city – and the new city and the mountains.”
This is a very programmatic explanation, one that is quite revealing about the way these architects think. There is no description of this tower as an aesthetic phenomenon. It is a playful piece of architectural theatre that subverts the idea of verticality, making it seem both boringly predictable and somehow precarious. “Perhaps it’s just psychological, not to just finish a tower, not to consider the tower like a stacking of floors,” says Herreros, coming round. “This idea of giving a finish to the tower is very classical and at the same time it’s like trying to give it a direction.” Ultimately, for Herreros, the projecting floors are about creating specific sight lines that connect the building to the city, lest it be interpreted as just your average beach hotel. “The good view is not the sea,” he says. “Well it is the sea but that’s also a little bit boring – the good view is the city.”
Abalos & Herreros designs urban monuments. Whatever scale the architects work on, they imbue their buildings with a sense of civic pride. The Woermann tower is intrinsically generous because of the way it opens up a public space in the city fabric, but it also has a symbolic quality. Like the Usera library – whose facade makes it look a storey taller than it actually is – the building exaggerates it height, using louvres to disguise its mere 18 storeys. It is a clever way of drawing attention to its tower status, making the leaning top feel even more risqué than it is. You might say the architects design relaxed icons: buildings that reflect a concern with image but that don’t look like they’re trying too hard.
This may even be a characteristic of Spanish architecture in general. With the exception of Santiago Calatrava, a paragon of expressive iconism, Spanish architects seem preoccupied with reinterpreting modernism, salvaging what is most refined and restrained from an outdated ideology. The growing international influence of Spanish architects has emerged from an unbroken modernist tradition that flourished after the death of Franco. Herreros understands his contemporaries as the products of different lineages; his generation was taught by architects like Rafael Moneo and Alejandro de la Sota, and Abalos & Herreros followed the latter. “We belong to the line that mixed an interest in technique and history and the Anglo-Saxon context, compared to the other lines interested in Continental Europe and the Italian tradition.”
But why are there so many good architects in Spain? “I think the universities are responsible. All architects have to teach. It’s a tradition.” They have to? “Well, its like a social responsibility, if you are an architect and you are involved in publications and you are a little bit famous, you have to teach.” The other reason, however, is that Spain needed wholesale modernising after Franco, and architects were given unusual levels of control over their projects – Herreros describes Spain as “the last paradise for architects.”
At this point, Abalos comes back into the room and joins in the conversation. We talk about teaching at Princeton, where one or the other of them has to go every month, and where they use what Abalos calls “the good-cop-bad-cop system”. Abalos enjoys teaching there, not least because it forces him to think in English, his third language. “I’m quite fond of using English now because you can be so simple. When I speak Spanish it will take me ten minutes to say something and in English … pah!” he says, splaying his fingers out as though mimicking birdshit landing on the table.
On the desk is a newspaper from the Canaries with an article about the Woermann project. In a glance I can see many of the same quotes I’ve been writing down through the interview. I point this out, and Herreros pays me back for it. “It’s difficult to invent a new theory every month,” he says.