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‘The current situation in Chile is exceptional’: Interview with Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Pezo cien house

Filip Šenk in conversation with Pezo von Ellrichshausen

Filip Šenk You have a small office and don’t appear to want to make it any bigger. And so far, it seems you also prefer relatively small projects. Why is this?

Sofía von Ellrichshausen For the first part of your question, yes, we consciously decided to have a small office. The reason being that we are a couple, and we don’t separate our private life from our work. This makes our way of working very intimate, very personal, and that’s why it is extremely difficult to share it with other people. We don’t want to delegate to other people. We want to have continuous discussions about the project we are working on.

Mauricio Pezo We want to participate, we want to make models, we want to take pictures, to do the drawings. Simply put: we want to be architects and not administrators of an office while someone else is doing the creative stuff. But it is more about the intimacy of our cooperation. With a large office, we would add more tension to our personal relationship. Since we make no distinction between work and life, we need to make sure that we have a good quality of life.

SvE: We could easily turn our small atelier into a more productive company to make more money. We strongly believe there is no correlation between quality and size.

MP: To be more efficient, for instance, one of us could do the lectures, while the other one kept working.

‘There is always something you already carry in your backpack. These houses are of the same lineage of thought, but at the same time they are totally different’

SvE: But we aren’t interested in that. We want to have a good relationship and enjoy what we do. We have intentionally built a work system that we prefer to take care of. But for the second part of your question, we don’t consciously focus only on small projects. We have the capacity to do large-scale projects as well. We can devote as much energy and focus to a big project as we do for a small project. In architecture, I’m convinced, it works this way; neither the amount nor relevance of the work is proportional to the scale of the project. We could spend as many hours thinking about how to make a table as we could in making decisions for a larger project.

MP: We have met architects working in big offices who boast about spending merely a week thinking about the so-called ‘concept’ for a large residential building, with evidently mediocre outcomes. Nevertheless, I think not only is there no correlation between the scale of a project and the amount of work, but there is no correlation between the size of a building and its architectonic quality either. A small building can have profound architectural relevance, and a huge building can be irrelevant from an architectural point of view. It is not about the size but about the significance of what has been done.

FS I get that, but still, a huge building has more details and inevitably it is a big mark, something that automatically gets more attention.

SvE: Yes, but it can easily be a negative mark.

Pezo guna house

Pezo guna house

MP: It can be a commercial condo tower or a casino; they tend to get a lot of attention in a certain way. But I would rather work on a small cabin or a chapel than a huge supermarket. Such architecture is meaningless. Most often, it embodies values that I do not share.

SvE: Most of our work now is small projects, but that’s the way you normally start. Nobody will come to young architects asking for a project that has a large scope. However, we are now working on slightly larger projects, but the amount of work we put into them is quite similar to our previous smaller projects.

FS How much time do you roughly spend on a project?

SvE: As long as it takes. It sounds luxurious, I know.

FS: You have to have good clients, then.

SvE: Yes, but it is not only that. We aren’t that slow. There can be projects where we agree about things from the very beginning, and then it goes really fast.

MP: With every case, it can be a year for the project and then a year for its construction. Anyhow, architecture is a slow process almost by definition.

SvE: But we are never doing one thing at a time. Of course, we give our clients deadlines like everyone else. Sometimes we finish in advance, sometimes we realise it takes longer to find the right solution. I think we have become faster with time. That means we spend less time wandering around blind alleys. With time, you learn a lot about yourself, you can recognise what you are interested in and also which tools to use to work with your thoughts. Now we can say we have our personal tools that allow us to concretise our thoughts effectively and quickly.

FS How do you start a project? Do you talk or sketch first? Do you usually have a visual idea or rather a thought about what you want to do (with the space)?

MP: Normally, we start with a drawing of proportions and relationships. We decide whether a big room should be in one or another position, and then we establish certain basic directions.

SvE: It is a very structural thought.

MP: We never make a perspective or facade design; it is the primitive relationships in a building that we care most about at the beginning.

FS: You often mention space. How do you talk about that? Do you consider how it will influence the beholder or what impression it will make?

SvE: We think of space more as immaterial units. We first determine what these units are and what their relationship should be, but never merely as a functional relationship. We are interested in relationships that can build meaning that goes beyond the space itself. We are interested in the articulation of the whole spatial structure with some sense of unity.

Pezo gago house

Pezo gago house

Source: Cristobal Palma

Gago House

MP: It is not only about the qualities you can perceive in a certain room but also about the way in which the room is connected to another room. It is, ultimately, about an integral whole. And such a totality is built through the connections to three particular facts: the site, the programme and the construction. It is also important that this totality be understood by someone else. Of course, we are interested in the direct perception of the qualities of a room but also in the mental image of that spatial totality.

SvE: That is why we never start by stating whether a particular wall in a house will be made of wood or concrete. That is not relevant to the initial understanding of the spatial relationships. You can build them with wood or with stucco, and the space is essentially the same.

MP: This is what we call the spatial structure or the topological space of architecture. Whether there is a circle, a square or a triangle, the exterior shape is not as relevant as the fact they all enclose an interior; they all have a closed perimeter. Topologically, they are the same. We are interested in finding those topological figures that can be more primary than the perception of the parts.

FS: But even if your approach is very conceptual and abstract, you don’t forget the man; the fact that the building is for a human being.

MP: No, what we do is always closely related to the most elementary factors. Our exhibition here in the Czech Republic is called Finite Format, and the notion of format refers precisely to that. Format is the definition of a space that is very primitive because it mainly defines a couple of qualities, a certain direction and a certain size. Size is not only relative to the human body but to the proportions of the rooms. You cannot state that a room is big or small if you don’t compare it with another room. There can be a tiny room in a huge house or a big room in a small house. It is interesting for us to find the right balance of size and direction within a space. Instead of form, we use format to insist on how architecture can be read in basic terms.

FS: Do you also want to give a strong form to architecture, in order to be recognised?

SvE: No, we don’t think in these terms. It is strange – we are aware that over time, of course, our architecture has acquired a certain language, a certain identity that we, as well as other people, can recognise. But that is neither the starting nor the end point of our investigations.

MP: Our aim is to find what we refer to as those fundamental elements of space. We do not rely on literal or metaphorical references. We tend to always go in the same direction: towards some fundaments of spatial construction.

SvE: It is a sort of raw thought, rather primitive and elemental. We have developed a personal method to produce buildings; therefore, they all belong to the same formal family.

‘If you take our houses and build them with different materials, the most important element, a particular spatial relation, would still be the same’

MP: We do what we do, because we don’t want to do anything else. We don’t want to decorate, we don’t want to build metaphors. Therefore our houses all look naked in some way. Not only in material terms but also conceptually and spatially.

FS: However, the raw concrete you often use underlines the idea of this nakedness in the strong appearance of the building. So the form is a pragmatic result of your spatial structure, right?

SvE: We enjoy subtleties, but it is not what we consciously produce.

MP: Take for instance our installation at the Royal Academy in London, at the Sensing Spaces exhibition last year. The boards on the columns were placed vertically, because it is a way to easily clad the curved surface. It would have made no sense to place them horizontally. This is not design.

SvE: We are not interested in superfluous aspects. We keep everything naked, raw, with the most direct impression of its basic form. We find an honest beauty in it. So we do not try to soften those qualities.

FS: How do you approach material, then?

SvE: We prefer natural and simple materials.

MP: We don’t use anything fake or too industrialised.

SvE: You think we have a preferred material?

FS: I would say you like the contrast of wood and concrete.

SvE: We started using concrete because of the seismic condition of our lands. It is a rather pragmatic concern. You need to use reinforced concrete for the lateral stress. Wood is also suitable because of its flexibility, but it is also better for tactile contact. But we don’t make a deliberate choice based on a preconceived aesthetic programme.

MP: As I already said, we start mainly with spatial concerns. Once we have this sort of articulated air, we start to investigate the material’s potential, the thickness of the walls, the structure, the texture, etc. The material is the most circumstantial of the factors. A project evolves in a particular material direction because of many factors: climate, budget or labour availability.

Pezo guna house

Pezo guna house

Guna House

SvE: In fact, the same spatial structure could be built with many materials. If you take our houses and build them with different materials, the most important element, a particular spatial relation, would still be the same.

FS: Do you have some special relationship to father figures of Modernism? The spatial thinking of Loos or the spatially subtle ideas of Mies?

MP: Not really. In Loos’s case and his notion of Raumplan, the room is supposed to be divided by floor levels, so as to configure many rooms within a room. We are not so much interested in the design of the room as such but rather in the connection of several spatial units within a larger totality. It seems different for me.

SvE: Of course, we have studied many of these historical characters, but we don’t specifically follow any of them.

MP: At an upcoming event in London, we are going to discuss this subject with Joseph Rykwert, under the notion of ‘original form’. In short, it refers to our belief that it is still possible to do architecture without reference, without quoting or alluding to anything but the architectonic object in itself. It somehow seems a rare possibility nowadays. In our current ‘digital neo-Postmodernism’ era, quotes are everywhere.

FS: Can you really put aside what you have learnt?

MP: Yes and no. Of course you can avoid quoting and referring while you are working on a project.

SvE: Inevitably, we would not be in the position we are now without reading and studying everything that we have. But we never discuss any of these references while developing a new idea.

MP: We discuss a variety of subjects about every project, but we never discuss concepts. We don’t use words to make buildings.

SvE: In the same way, we never discuss our internal creative process with the client. Of course, I discuss it with Pezo while we work, but not with the client because we don’t consider it relevant to the final product. References and processes are two big crutches in contemporary architecture. You have many architects showing a hundred models and documents of the process as an attempt to justify a result or the effort invested in their work.

‘We don’t care about the process. The final architectonic object is enough; that is what we care about. It must be good enough without any additional smart-looking stories’

MP: This is similar with the idea of context. Some architects try to be emphatic about their precise understanding of a context as a way to justify their design decisions, even with statistics and scientific data. I’m afraid this is the same nonsense as if they showed you a hundred scale models while claiming that the resulting building must be great only because of the number. It makes no sense. We don’t care about the process. The final architectonic object is enough; that is what we care about. It must be good enough per se without any additional smart-looking stories.

SvE: We know that, when one has to build a project in a certain context, it is obvious to take it into consideration. Architecture must belong to a place.

MP: And it is not always only the immediate physical context – the topography and the site – but also a cultural one.

FS: Well, your Gago House doesn’t really fit the built context. Or in what sense is the context present, if at all?

SvE: Right there, the context we were interested in was not the built one. The context for us lay beyond topography, orientation, distant views, etc. The immediate neighbours were irrelevant.

MP: That is a case that pivots on top of itself. It states a clear opposition to the surrounding houses, perhaps as a form of silent correction to their banality. You can easily tell that all the houses around are as big as our house and even more expensive, but they don’t fit their little sites. Their ambitions overwhelm their real capacities. They completely occupy the plot. Gago looks really isolated, and with a generous garden in the back and free air all around. But it wasn’t meant to be a criticism of its neighbours. That would have been an easy fight.

SvE: But it is inevitably there.

FS: It is a clear statement. You once said you see architecture as a form of knowledge. Knowledge of what? Clients, site, space, context, society?

SvE: All of it.

MP: There are certain levels of understanding. At the beginning, architecture is a source of knowledge for the architect him or herself. We are looking at the world through the architecture that we do or visit. It is a window to the world for us. For others, it can be poetry, novels, chemistry or physics. It is possible that someone in the building with some intentional input will see something similar to what the author did. Architecture thus will become a discovery of a certain point of view about the world.

SvE: There are two very different ways to do architecture. Some architects would say they provide a service, but a job in the sense that anybody could do. They just provide a standard way of doing things. They fulfil certain expectations of society. But there are other architects who would say: I know I’m offering a service to someone, but I’m also forming and projecting my personal view of the world. We have a certain perspective of how we see the world, and maybe they will share it. Maybe not. However, once we put an object out there, it becomes an intellectual source for someone else.

FS: Can you then summarise the message? Or your view of the world?

MP: The message can be different for different people. That is why we don’t talk about metaphorical or symbolic values. By perceiving the spatial structure and even through the feeling of the place, you are going to experience something you wouldn’t have if it wasn’t there.

SvE: We are expressing ourselves through the elements of architecture, so everything we say with words is insufficient. We have done the best already in the work itself. One has to be very careful to frame the message when our attempt of expression resides within the building. You can say there will be different readings of our houses, but there are some aspects that we are interested in, and these find their way to almost anyone.

Pezo poli house

Pezo poli house

Source: Cristobal Palma

Poli House

FS: You stress simple things: walls, windows, rooms, etc. The view is usually very important. I would like to see the view from Poli House with the sea on three sides of the house.

SvE: Sometimes it is difficult to talk to someone about our architecture, because the photos are so reductive. And, especially for us, it is difficult, because we don’t design architecture as a visual effect. To grasp our building, it requires walking through it. It requires seeing the sun moving through the day. It requires hearing the surroundings and so on, and then you get the complexity. Juhani Pallasmaa wrote an essay about his experience in Poli House. You have to be there to feel the wind and the sounds of the waves. Photography is insufficient.

MP: We wrote that there is a distinction between thinking about architecture and practising it. Our main project in architecture was to understand it as a form of knowledge. To put such a project into practice means understanding that, if our main life project is to understand architecture as a form of knowledge, the practical project is to understand the form of architecture, the knowledge of form. In our case, it is a format that gives you the basic data about the space. So it is different. There is a gap between the form of knowledge and the knowledge of form.

SvE: There is a remarkable book by philosopher Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind. He writes about how you understand and experience space as a conception. We have been reading it for many years now.

MP: He writes about the conception of space and the subtle distinction between a spatial schema and its concept. He argues there is an overlap between how you name and how you imagine spatial relationships, such as encounter, perimeter, etc.

SvE: We believe you don’t need to know anything about architecture, but still, while walking through buildings, you start to create mental images about the space. It is a kind of deep impression that persists after you leave the building. That spatial structure is imprinted on the mind.

‘There can be branches that open up and close and projects that are twins, projects that are siblings, projects that are cousins’

FS: You seem to work with continuity. If one looks even briefly at your buildings, they might look like a variation on the same idea. Take for instance the  and Solo Houses. You said you don’t believe an architect can start with a blank page for every project.

MP: Yes, there is always something you already carry in your backpack. These houses are of the same lineage of thought, but at the same time they are totally different.

Pezo solo house

Pezo solo house

Source: Cristobal Palma

Solo House

SvE: You can trace these families of ideas back. You can tell they belong to one family but are not the same. You can tell, from our first project to what we are doing now, the same interest is still present there. There can be branches that open up and close and projects that are twins, projects that are siblings, projects that are cousins.

MP: It all fits in what we have said already. We don’t think that by doing a single house we can completely exhaust our idea or our research about that idea. We need more buildings and more chances to analyse the potential of that particular idea.

‘Our society goes crazy when it expects novelty all the time … You can produce it, I know that, but only without really believing in what you are doing’

SvE: Our society goes crazy when it expects novelty all the time. Unfortunately, many of our colleagues are trying to respond to that endless spiral. They must go totally schizophrenic, because I can’t imagine you can produce that variety and believe in it all. You can produce it, I know that, but only without really believing in what you are doing.

MP: We have had many discussions in academia about this subject. And many final critiques are based on the fact that projects within our studio seem to be similar, that in a first and fast reading they all look the same. But there are buildings with radically different floor plans. That is a misunderstanding.

FS: Is this approach to architecture also the reason why you present yourselves as an art and architecture studio?

SvE: The label is always difficult, because we are not trained artists, and we are really not so interested in trying to define what kind of territory we are in. But there are two differences. Some of the projects come as a request from someone else, and you respond to that. But a lot of our projects are demands of our own, which is what seems to be expected from a work of art.

MP: In other words, the work of art is a problem in itself, but it can eventually solve some real problems in the world. And architecture is the opposite. Architecture is indeed a solution to many problems: technological, ecological, social, etc. By definition, it always solves something else, some basic human need. But the architecture we are interested in can also become a problem in itself. Like art. It is rather obvious that you have to place the windows or the access to a building properly. But, in our view, this is not enough.

SvE: We produce another level of research, even if no one is asking for it. But we produce it anyway as a kind of disciplinary source that triggers something new besides the immediate answer to a given case. We do not go about our practice in the same way as a service.

MP: I would be happy to consider any of the buildings we have done, or even those buildings by architects we admire, as equivalent to the production of a good book that stimulates a way of thinking. It is not a great challenge to make a good-looking house on the beach. It is a flat thought, a banality, to have a house with a horizontal window to capture a beautiful panorama. That is not the point of architecture.

SvE: We have visited such houses, and they can be a nice place for a weekend. You watch the sea and enjoy a glass of wine looking at the sunset.

MP: But the architecture doesn’t touch you.

‘Our house is conceived according to a radical separation of functions, which is even more evident thanks to a distinctive treatment of the material for each part, with a greyish tone for the office space and lighter and warm woods for the house’

FS: You live in a house you designed for yourselves. After living there for four years, would you change anything now? And is it still touching you?

MP: Yes, every day. Our tower is a custom-made place. We have our routine that oscillates between our private life and our studio time and is shared with a small group of collaborators. The house is conceived according to a radical separation of functions, which is even more evident thanks to a distinctive treatment of the material for each part, with a greyish tone for the office space and lighter and warm woods for the house. Our life occurs in a concentrated vertical flow that is interrupted several times a day by a horizontal expansion in the lower stratum, in relation to the ground and garden. Every level is different. Each one has a precise set of openings. Many of them are facing a huge cypress tree that we just incorporated into our own property. There is a beautiful balance, almost a tension, between the tower and that old and dark tree.

FS: There seems to be a strong generation of architects in Chile right now with you: Aravena, Radić … Do you discuss architecture together? Or is it more of a competition?

SvE: We don’t talk so much. We know and respect each other very much. Chile is a small country with 16 million people, and half of them live in or near Santiago. Most of the architects live in Santiago and probably in the same neighbourhood. We live in another city, in Concepción, and we get along very well with other architects. We don’t compete for territory. The current situation in Chile is indeed exceptional. Perhaps the most important consequence is the rise in the average level of production, not necessarily the exceptional cases.