The landscapes in Toni Gironès’s architecture

Published: September 9, 2019

This conversation took place in September 2018, following Toni Gironès’ lecture at the AAICO — Architecture and Art’18 International Congress, in Porto.

In your public presentations, it is possible to perceive many of your concerns, not only about the different contexts where you have been working but also about the natural processes that affect the human occupation over the territory. It is not so usual to find these concerns related to the project of a single building — it is more usual to see them related to landscape projects.

In your presentations it’s also interesting the way you move between scales — the territory and the climate; the different places; the different programs; the budget; the materials and the details — also starting with the image of our planet. These are also related to bigger subjects such as the current environmental conditions, climate change, public engagement, etc. It seems more close to an architecture of causes, than the usual architecture discourse, more centered on the design concept, program or form.

How do you see the practice of architecture related to these different scales and global important subjects?

During the lecture in Porto, there was one important word — habitability. And, from there, the experience of architecture. If we change the word ‘architecture’ for ‘habitability’, we will open the mind because this simple word may make us think about what is our job, or for what we are working for, or for whom we are working for. In this case, I think that in the idea of what is contemporary architecture, there is a central misrepresentation about what we produce in the end. And I say we as a collective. If you look to architecture from the concept of habitability, it will be possible to understand architecture as something that works the relationships between people and the site, people and the place or people and the environment. Thus, architecture as habitability is something that intermediates. And, something that acts as intermediation, always need to know what happens on both sides of the boundary or situation, trying that different parts relate between them in harmony — leading to the habitability of humans. In Planet Earth as a territory, there is a complexity of questions that involves different scales and different frameworks. But, if you work with this concept, by connecting sensibility and scientific accuracy, and combining all these parts during the project design process, in the end, the things will materialize as something natural.

Actually, what happens is that a big percentage of architects in the world, and also in the academies, think that architecture is to make buildings and cities. In this case, I think that my job as an architect is to work the habitability in the Planet Earth.

For me, there are no absolute programs. I can work with buildings as in Badalona or Salou social housing as well as other different programs. You begin working and relating local specificities, the resources that you have, different spatial dimensions, polyvalent requirements, etc., and all these things that you referred before such as landscape, program, materials, detail and so on are all connected in harmony as different parts and dimensions of the working process. In the end, you will produce your own program.

When you transform all the questions that the clients make you, through this framework, that is the concept of habitability.

The concept of habitability is also connected with us as biological species and the biological support that is the Planet Earth. However, the continuous human changes and transformations have led to the need to review our relationship with our own planet.

Despite the use of the term “landscape” in the architecture practice, I prefer to talk about the Earth system, the natural cycles, or nature’s elements, which are also related to the practice of agriculture, because maybe, at the end we need this support.

And for me, in my short life related to the time length of the human species, I prefer to work in this direction and to try to modify some assumptions as much as I can. I’m trying to communicate this strong connection between humans, which are in harmony with all that we have around us, the Earth, the Universe, etc., and I’m trying to use the architecture as an element that I can work as an instrument with it. Not only as an architect but also as a person.

But sometimes people are not entirely aware of these subjects…

When people have time to relate and enjoy the place, there’s no need to explain nothing, or to explain theories. Each one has its own experience of the site, the experience of their life, the experience of their habitability.

However, the experience of the Modern Movement in architecture is still present in the mind of the architects when they are designing. This is a strong image that architecture students and architects have in their unconscious. For example, the white box with long windows and stilt pavilions that arrive at the site as an absolute element, using abstract concepts from modernist art movements. I think that is interesting as a design process, but if, at the end of the process you want to express the habitability of the site and the people, you need to return to the origin, because this abstraction needs to be real in the end. I think that there are a lot of architects that design as an abstraction and build the site as an abstraction, not completing all the process.

In your works over archeological sites, there is, not only a great concern with the layers related to the history of the site but also with the mediation between building and landscape.  Everything seems to be very balanced. They do not compete with each other. The importance of history doesn’t overlap the landscape and vice-versa. They merge through the used materials, and these materials also tell new stories (such as the process of rusting) through the way they react and transform over time, the same way the landscape does.

Can you talk more about these approaches and material decisions?

Material decisions are part of the process. I think that the proximity of the materials is important. The contemporary society understands time as something in an eternal present, fighting with the real-time — the time that is in movement. But if you work with the porosity in materials, if you work without constraints related to the aesthetic images that all society has in their conscience, maybe you can understand that when you are building habitability, it is also the passage of time that is contributing to building that habitability. You don’t need to fight with time or how time is passing, during the years or through the processes in the site.

Thus, the wood, the iron, the stone, all the materials will change. The porosity in these materials is in direct relation with time and harmony will appear through the passage of time, as a natural process.

So, this is important in the experience of architecture. By experiencing with all the senses (e.g. smell, touch, hearing), many aesthetic prejudices and questions may become less relevant. People may like (or not) the places at first sight, but they might feel good after experiencing it.

And this is when harmony happens. Then, you can fight with the prejudices that people have as a society. For me, it’s essential to understand that time builds its own habitability and builds architecture and that we don’t need to fight it. For that, it’s just essential to understand the material condition and the passage of time.

Time and experience are also very present in your projects in archeological sites like Seró, which also need to be experienced through time. The public is slowly directed through several environments (corridors, exhibition rooms, and the surrounding landscape). It is not a direct experience and doesn’t seem to be a touristic walk that will be forgotten some minutes later. Do you think that this experience, which takes time to be completed, can remain more attached to the peoples’ memories?

Yes. If people go to these places, as in the case of Seró, an agricultural place, they go there to have a specific experience. Thus, all the work around memory, all the transitions between the different experiences, is part of my work. Is part of my work to give them these transitions: different atmospheres, different insights between interior and exterior. And then, who interprets, who has the experience, is the people that go there. But you need to work with the conditions that permit to offer this experience and this continuity – this will be the material from which these people build their memories and experiences.

In the case of Seró, when we did the bathroom of the building, I said to the client that I didn’t want to put mirrors. I preferred people to recognize who they are at that precise moment, and how they are changing during that frame of time while having this experience. These spaces should make you recognize your experience, your memory, and who you are without needing to recognize yourself as an image in one mirror.

The society is changing, is fighting between the biological life span and trans-human and post-human possibilities. And we need to work in balance with all the options that we have.

But I think there are important foundations as humans. Biological ones. For me, uncertainty about life and death it’s not so important. I think that we are part of one process and the doubt is an important part of our progress.

The questions and not the answers are the most important. If you design by working with the questions, working with the doubts, and working with the uncertainty, you will progress more.

Another interesting subject is related to how some of your works can be related to some art approaches and experiments. This has been done by creating singular situations and experiences or by using temporary strategies of public engagement and activation. For example, the Passanelles installation, the La Pedrera installation, or even the walls in Seró, made with white wine bottles from where you can take off the cork or remove the bottle as a thermal and cross ventilation system. These are very simple gestures, but also very performative ones.

As an architect, how do you manage these porosities between temporary and permanent, between art references and architectural practice?

I think that architecture works with different concepts. I think that science is important as an objective knowledge; philosophy as a concept; and art as perception. And I think that sometimes, directly or not, we work with artistic concepts.

During the process of raising questions, we may arrive at different results through different paths, and maybe art arrives from one of those different paths too.

If you work with material leftovers as a generator of places (with the materials that people normally don’t use more), they may be reused or recycle as a way to preserve a memory or to create new conditions and situations. The same way there are artists for whom the material and the passage of time provides something that is interesting to reuse as another concept. In the end, for me, there is never a direct reference. The attitude may be similar to art processes, yet intersected with a scientific approach.

I’m more interested in recognizing the conditions of the place and its different scales, which are directly related to habitability. Whether living conditions or geological processes.

If you have this capacity, if you are conscious that this exists, you can register it, and then, when crossing it with the needs that people have through the creation of the program, then you can activate these elements with the action of the design. As the doctor — if a doctor makes a good diagnostic about what happens in your body, he will make major improvements in your health. This is the analogy between health and habitability, and between medicine and architecture. I think that in architecture, during these last decades, people always loved to make strong surgical interventions, modifying all the site, doing a big building. I think that we need to review the relationship between the public and the site in which we live. The recognition and activation of the pre-existing must be a central approach in architecture.

One last question: this is related to the deciduous climbers that are very present in your work, maybe more than trees. To a certain extent, they act like temporary installations, between its visibility (constructing the summer shadow) and its absence (constructing the winter sun).

Usually the vegetation is implemented almost at the end of the project but, in your case, you are adding and using these climbers like any other building material, which will have the ability to transform or to evolve over time, like the iron that will rust or bend over time shaping the form of a pergola (such as in Seró).

Can you talk about the use of plants (and the climbers) in your work?

Yes. Not only the climbers but all the vegetation in general. For me, it’s an architectural material. In the pergola of Seró, we have the effect of the gravity, but the grid made by the Parthenocissus quinquefolia mixed with the iron is building something. It is building a roof and it is building an important change in temperature. This is the most important because when we were designing this pergola, it was not the design of one pergola. It was the design of one shadow. This was the real exercise.

The shadow is in direct relation with the habitability. If the material was steel, you would know that you would have a higher temperature under the shadow than outside; if the material was opaque glass, you would have the greenhouse effect… even worst, etc. etc. In the end, you would understand that the best material between the sun in summer, when you most need the shadow, is the vegetation. And it’s also a smart material because it’s a deciduous plant and changes. In winter, when you need the sunlight, the leaves disappear.

Constructing the sunlight by its absence…

Yes, but not as an aesthetic approach as you have seen during these past years, with glass skyscrapers and vegetation being used as an image. However, the skyscraper is made with glass, and you need an artificial climate to make it warm or cool. In the end, is just an appealing image. Like all these vertical garden facades with artificial robotic systems and pumps, when you know that these plants grow naturally with soil, water and you don’t need to create all these artificial processes.

I also use a lot of pre-existing trees in the site as important main shadows, whether through deciduous or evergreen trees.

And, although in Salou social housing you can see the presence of climbers in the building, you also have an area of 10 meters where I’ve planted a forest of deciduous trees. And then, the main wind of Salou (Mistral) arise from this direction, will cross this area of 10 meters of trees, it will cool down, and after cooling down, it will cross the apartments through the windows.

I think that to understand the trees and vegetation as an architectural material is another subject that maybe, in the architecture schools, is not so present. The tree is always something that is being used as a decoration of the site.

And, in the public space it’s normal to organize trees in rows, but without paying attention to people. During my presentations, I usually show images where we can see one bench with a tree placed in the north side. But there are also examples of trees placed in the south part, but at a distance of one meter from the bench, when the shadow has five meters.

You place the bench not thinking with the shadow, but just thinking with the object-tree. In the end, there is no habitability. It’s the same when you have a bench made of steel where it’s impossible to seat during in the summer because it will be burning hot.

Some projects are being produced as an image to be photographed because people read architecture across one screen or a publication, but the habitability concept disappears.

Sometimes, I feel that in the end, there’s no theory. Just paying attention, knowing how to observe, learning more and more day by day. This is one process and not an absolute idea, or an absolute image, or an absolute program.

© Images by Aitor Estevez Olaizola (images 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9) and Toni Gironès.

Estudi D’arquitectura Toni Gironès