EMBT Arquitectes Associats. A colorful reality

The vision of an architect, Gaudi said, is determined by the inclination with which the sunbeams reach the eyes of those who get them. The light of “his” Barcelona must have always had something special: from Gothic masterpieces to the uniqueness of Modernism, the spirit of the Catalan capital has been carved into every corner by a dinasty of extraordinary performers, whose legacy is now collected from the originality that atelier Enric Miralles – Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT Arquitectes Associats) put in every creation of theirs. Exceptionally, on thirteenth anniversary of the death of the partner, Benedetta Tagliabue tells their story, their city, their unique and surprisingly alive architecture.

Benedetta Tagliabue: an Italian architect who have trained in Venice, capital of theoretical academicism, and becomes international in Barcelona, the heart of most free and lively European architecture. What are limits and potential for a background like this?

My career as an architect took advantage of the chances I wanted to take. Venice has been a fantastic university with an exceptional intellectual tradition, but we students wanted to get engaged in more creative activities. With a group of friends I founded a magazine linked to groups of European students, who showed us a way of making architecture different from the one known in Italy. I began to travel for study or for interviews, until my final thesis in New York where I met Enric, maintaining the journey as a constant of our atelier.

Atelier that has always had its headquarter here, in Barcelona, sided by Foundation Enric Miralles. What are its meaning and intentions, beyond the tribute to a genius of contemporary architecture?

The history of the atelier is related to the presence of Enric, with whom it was impossible to split work from private life. In his absence we have found it necessary to carry on his thought without stopping on what remained of his and not expressed, but looking back to what he would have experienced at every time. The Foundation is not a static archive of memories, I would define it a register of themes to be developed in the design opportunities to come, the ones Enric had no way to grasp.

What does it mean to work in here, in a town written by a unique architectural history, shaped by the genius of Catalan Modernism when elsewhere rationalism and the Modern Movement were rising?

It is a special city. I came to meet its melancholic side that once permeated the ancient neighborhoods. Now Barcelona stands out for its lovely climate, its ease in living, its citizens’ participation in civic life that makes this the most democratic place in in a traditionally conservative Spain. The spirit of Catalan avant-garde is the most readable feature in the social art that is architecture, interpreted over centuries by a dynasty of great authors.

Between your signatures in Barcelona we first mention Santa Catarina market. Here the regeneration of urban space begins from a unique aesthetic connotation or from a new functionalization of socially fringe urban areas?

I do not believe in a strategy from the outset, I think in this case it all started from being “neighbors” – we still live in there – who did not accept town authorities’ intentions to cancel the public space where then the new market arose. The initial protest led to a dialogue with the political parties so as to citizenship, which resulted in a job different from all previous ones. Regarding the technique for coverage, quotes to Modernism, to Gaudi and to trencadis were forced beyond our intentions, which were simply oriented to use the traditional materials of this region in a contemporary language.

And how the involvement of users, in this as in other projects, should be reflected in urban architecture? How public spaces should be configured and dimensioned and which are the tools allowing the public to participate?

In Santa Catarina a major role was given to the dialogue between people and institutions, limiting the role of standards to reasonably good practice for something functional and livable. Quoting Javier Maniscal, when you are restoring existing buildings you do not work as an architect, but as an housemaid that perform simple ” graceful maintenance.” Many times even most successful urban operations are thought this way, especially when aimed at a balanced and sustainable improvement in the lives of all.

A sustainable regeneration, therefore, should abandon excessively technocratic claims focusing on the social value of the interventions?

I believe that architecture is wide enough to be considered under endless points of view. We are interested more in a social approach, both in interactions with people and with things, which I and Enric consider living as the places they occupy.

Completely different is your project for Gas Natural headquarters, new prince in Barceloneta skyline. A will to experiment in high-tech style or an explicit need for monumentality asked by the client? How social spaces are here combined to an iconic and referential perception?

The idea of such a representative building, in the position where a multinational company with proud Catalan roots was born, I think is more romantic than symbolic. We wanted to play with the monumental icon and an absolutely noniconic versatility: the perception of the building is different depending on your point of view, creating a multitude of images and possible interpretations. The Catalan civic sense emerges also in the interwoven relationship of this buildingmonument to the city, without breaking to stand still and static but rather opening to the dynamism of the public life.

A recognizable signature of your study is the structural use of color, which stands out for the boldness of composition without breaking with traditionally more faded contexts. There are rules for color management or everything comes out from a successful and intuitive sensitivity?

The experimentation in color was born together with the shared path between me and Enric, gradually introducing the color also in the drawings, which until then were pure black lines. I think it’s due to the fascination that we suffer from the reality, which is colorful, although the acceptance of color in architecture is something pretty new. It has long been accused of ridiculousness, as proven by the resistance Adriaan Geuze kept on our cromatic choices for villas in Borneo-Sporenburg.

In Santa Catarina choices arise from the universe of smells, tastes, and above all the colors of the market, which are lit by the zenithal lights and reported in coverage as the simpler tribute. The color is not however a recursively cliché our, as evidenced, for example, by neutral grays of the parliament in Edinburgh.

Even in Vigo campus are earthy colors to paint a Mediterranean and tectonic architecture, very different from the diaphanous and parceled Spanish pavilion at Shanghai Expo, where basketry just suggest a massless architecture. How two so ideologically and technically different conceptions can coexist? What are the reasons that lead to one or another choice?

Both projects, Enric would say, are “topographies.” In Vigo the mass of the structure communicates with the mountainous topography of the area, creating a single new level curve which does not separate the functional areas of the university to incent meeting between students. The architecture becomes an “artificial valley,” a new topography generated from the same materials as the mountain to the boundary, a transformation of what exists in full continuity with it. For the pavilion in Shanghai the fundamental principles are the same: in a light and airy structure like that, with the intent of a reversible and removable skin, the very lines become a topography, simulating the grandeur of a mountain as well as he ephemeral and volatile presence of a cloud.

About the Expo theme, what are the strengths of your proposal for the Italian pavilion in forthcoming edition, which gained outstanding success with critics and audience?

Without prejudice to the sanctity of jury verdicts which I fully trust, I feel immense satisfaction for a second place with a so appreciated and acknowledged project despite its boldness. I would love that our project found a output, even in a reduced form and starting at the very exhibition, to give space to the subject of domes, historically and currently linked to the Italian collective of architects who engage in economic and self-constructible production.

One final note: it is very interesting the use of collages in the realization of preliminary paradigms. What are the logical criteria that govern this juxtaposition of almost childish visions, and how these can lead to a concrete output?

Our projects are made by continuity and situation, and the collage is nothing but the transformation of a situation. It is never a matrix to be extruded in the environments of the project, but is a tool through which colors, contrasts and choices of specific textures fix on paper logical relations such as connections, negations, solids and voids and sensations, clarifying all emotional characters that a system has to transmit.

Text edited by Filippo Pozzoli

Photos by Enrico Basili and courtesy EMBT Arquitectes Associats

Look at the video-interview with Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT Arquitectes Associats)