Fernando Menis (Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 1951) is an architect, associate professor at the European University of the Canary Islands and president of the Laboratory for Innovation in Architecture, Design and Advanced Tourism of Tenerife, he is also a jury, workshop director and guest lecturer at Harvard, Columbia NY, ESA Paris, TU Berlin, Akbild Vienna or at Architecture Congresses in Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Croatia, Italy, Colombia and India, among many others.
After studying architecture in Barcelona, he teamed up with two other partners under the name Artengo-Menis-Pastrana between 1981 and 2004, year in which he founded the Menis Arquitectos studio with offices in Tenerife and Valencia. Independent or co-authored, Menis already built projects include: the Insular Athletics Stadium (2007),the Magma Art & Congress (2005), the Floating pool in the Spree River in Berlin (2004), Presidency of the Canary Islands Government (1999) as well as new projects in process: the Jordánek Auditorium in Poland, the Fuerteventura Convention Centre, the Aurum House in Taiwan, the Residential Tower in Taipei, and the Church in La Laguna.
Ganador en varias ocasiones del Premio Regional de Arquitectura de Canarias, a nivel nacional e internacional es finalista de los Premios FAD y WAF, de la Bienal Española de Arquitectura, y es invitado a participar con constancia en la Bienal de Venecia u otras exposiciones en el MOMA NY (2006), Aedes Berlin (2006), GA Tokyo (2009) y la reciente incorporación (2013) a la colección permanente del MoMa NY con su Iglesia del Santísimo Redentor.
El comisario responsable de la colección de arquitectura del MoMA, Barry Bergdoll, dijo de Fernando Menis que ha sido capaz de construir una arquitectura de extraordinaria fuerza de materiales y expresiones. En CORTIZO ARCH conversamos con el arquitecto canario para conocer con más detalle sus propuestas constructivas.
"We propose buildings that belong to the land,
they emerge from it and merge into the culture of the place"
Barry Bergdoll also said that you are capable of turning the most elemental thing into something surprisingly rich. The Texaco gas stations, one of your first projects, is a clear example of how to make relevant architecture despite the scarcity of resources...
I have always argued that quality architecture is not necessarily expensive, but it is very hard work. At the very core of an arquitect there must be an ability to adapt their skill to the context; to their client, to what he needs and has; to the users for whom the building is made, keeping the balance and refraining from falling into dangerous traps for himself or for the users of the future building. In this case, I'm talking about those treacherous work practices that have been promoted during the crisis. On the other hand, make no mistake: research needs and spends resources. There are situations, when it comes to large constructions with very complex programmes, in which being able to have a certain budget margin broadens the experimentation horizon; you can try new things with more peace of mind, research, innovate, prototype, standardise, certify... All this results in financial and time expense. If this expense is not foreseen in the development of the implementing budget, it does not mean that it should not be done, only that it is no longer "construction", but personal commitment; sometimes a sacrifice from me, my team and my collaborators. Quality always cashes in, perhaps not from the client, but from those of us who are responsible for producing it.
The genius loci, the respect for the location, is also very evident in your projects. To what extent is it decisive in your work?
It is always the starting point. I cannot conceive a project without first thoroughly studying its context at all levels: topography and landscape, climate, light at different times of the day and year, the local community, its history, its symbols and its culture, understanding what the people of that place care about, what they need now and what they might need in the foreseeable future, the client, their concerns, the culture of construction in the location, the materials that are used and made, the local economy... I always go to the area to observe and feel it, to talk to people, so that a series of intuitions can be produced about the place and the project that we are going to make for that place and for the people who live there, whether or not they are users of our future building.
Sustainability is an intrinsic concept to architecture today, however, in your projects we find it since the beginning...
Architecture is either sustainable or it is not architecture. It would be something else, a construction, the production of an object which lacks an essential: the reason for being and the reason for being as it is. The expenditure of al kinds of resources that each building implies must be able to be justified at the present time and in the long term. From my career, there is a significant example in this regard, which also serves to illustrate what I was saying about this necessary relationship with the place: it is the beach of Santa Cruz de la Palma, which has been completed in May of this year (2017). We did not execute it, Coastal Law executed it, but we drafted the project. 18 years ago, the Santa Cruz de La Palma City Council called a competition for ideas for the organization of the coastline of that city. There was a desire to build a maritime park similar to that of the capital of Tenerife, designed by César Manrique. During the period given for participating in the contest, we traveled to the island, we met with different personalities, then we went to the roof of the Cabildo, which was the best way to see the surroundings, and there is where the idea emerged: common sense said that it was best to design a beach, not a sea park with swimming pools, because the city needed to protect itself against the sea. It was an idea that went against what was expected, but what was expected was not sustainable. To make sure that this intuition was correct, we traveled to Barcelona to speak with another Canary Islands native, José Jiménez, an expert in coastal dynamics, head of the Coastal Morphology department at the Maritime Engineering Laboratory of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, who confirmed that The best way to protect a city from the sea was to create a beach that cushioned the force of the ocean. Everything took off from there, we got to work and talk and dialogue with half the island of La Palma and try to understand the essence of the place, we won the ideas competition and carried out the project.
Generally, we apply the philosophy of kilometre zero in our architecture: we realize it with the local means and resources or those that are as close as possible. We did it since the beginning, when we started out, intuitively, by common sense; And we have done it programmatically as we have grown and internationalized, having to face new obligations, working in places that we did not know as well as those at "home".
We intend, for instance, to build with local materials, produced there and using local companies. Thus avoiding transportation from distant places, and contributing to reducing CO2 emissions at the same time we reduce construction costs, we give value the local construction tradition and positively influence the local economy. In Toruń (Poland), where we have carried out the CKK Jordanki, we used brick because it is the most widely used material there; In the Canary Islands we usually work a lot with stone and also with wood and, if we go to China, the material we would use would probably be another, perhaps bamboo.
Sustainable architecture that makes use of recycling a lot, right?
Reuse and recycling are constant in our work; We are concerned not to waste resources, to prolong the life of things and ideas, to put residues to use. For example, at the El Tanque Cultural Space we recycle an entire industrial infrastructure, an old CEPSA oil tank, to transform it into a cultural infrastructure and in which new inclusions recycle pipes, sheets and everything we could find from the dismantling of the other adjoining tanks that we were able to save; one of these residues became the staircase of the MM House. During the Presidency of the Canary Islands Government, I discovered by chance after the demolition of the Hamilton house an old traditional patio made of tea wood, we reassembled it and integrated it into the design, making it the heart of the project. On the other hand, in CKK Jordanki in order to carry out the "pitting", a mix of concrete and brick was purposely conceived for this construction, we used discarded bricks from a local factory; waste bricks that have suddenly become valuable to us. In addition, in the Cuchillitos de Tristán Urban Park, we have recycled trees from some streets in Santa Cruz de Tenerife that were being remodeled.
Campo Baeza said that light is the most valuable material that architects work with. This play of light is evident in the Holy Redeemer Church, one of your most recognized projects and which is already part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. What did you make of this approach to sacral architecture?
The Holy Redeemer Church is dedicated to the Resurrection, which, symbolically and visually, is necessarily linked to the Cross. Large concrete volumes along with the light make up the entire project and recreate the mystical atmosphere of this fundamental moment in the history of Christianity. We made an austere building, lacking in superfluous elements. When entering, at the end, a simple cross appears, without decorations; Thanks to the light that invades it from outside, this cross "lights up", becomes present and becomes the protagonist of a space with ancestral charge. The first light of day, through the cross, illuminates the baptismal font, the Christian's first light. At noon, through the skylight, the altar, Confirmation and the Eucharist are illuminated. At 12:00, the Word. A beam of light spills out in front of the confessional over the sacrament of penance. The strategic arrangement of the skylights achieves the same effect on the anointing, marriage, and the priestly Order. Besides this symbolism that we have created for the building, responding to the assignment set out by the client, the Bishopric of Tenerife, we have also taken into account other factors that have conditioned our design and execution of the building. First, there was an urgent need for the local community to have a social and denominational centre. At the same time, the Bishopric of Tenerife did not have sufficient funds for the entire building; the money would come gradually year after year. Therefore, the main concern was to find a design solution that would allow the building to be built and delivered in stages, so that the community could start using parts of it as soon as possible. Another important factor was the steep slope and the rocky bed, as well as the fact that the future Church was going to find itself in a socially and economically depressed neighborhood, so the design had to become a reference, something with which the people could identify and be proud of. We designed a building that could be constructed and used in phases, a building of modules that, although connected to each other, can also function almost independently and are adaptable to unexpected or transitory uses.
From the outside, the church resembles a stone block divided into four pieces. The four volumes are leaning against each other, restless. The exterior walls are blunt, the concrete is monumental. Besides the design and formal decisions, the concrete here, as in most of our buildings, has been decided by sustainability; its isotropic nature enables energy efficiency, optimized by the thermal inertia of thick heavy walls. In addition, the building has good acoustics thanks to a combination of concrete with local volcanic stones, treated on the surface to achieve roughness and texture. The result is an expressive rough finish with a higher degree of sound absorption than conventional concrete.
The matter, the location, sustainability, light... What other elements are essential in the DNA of your projects?
Purpose and emotion, the duality that defines our working method and that supports each project in a continuous mutual dialogue. The question is how to get the correct ratio and the appropriate proportion of emotion, and with what work process. The equation varies according to the particularities of each project, but the balance between purpose and emotion, and especially the confrontation and the transition from one to the other, makes each design soak up both, thus becoming a living being, evolving as that advances. The building is not conceived as a mechanism, as the result of the mere addition of autonomous elements, but as a modeled organ, extracted directly from amorphous matter, which one must learn to model.
Emotion works both in the physical approach of the item and in its three-dimensionality through direct and intuitive modelling and the approximation to the landscape that will constitute its enclave, as well as in the immaterial feeling that architecture arouses in its designers, observers and future users. At the same time, design must be subject to purpose. A rigorous attention to the conditions of the place, of the program, to the technical and economic peculiarities, assures us that the modeled element is rationally consolidated and, therefore, works as planned. Contained in these two basic pillars, there are many other parameters that are part of the equation, which must be constantly reviewed. In some cases, the project requires that we carry out a conceptual review in its materialization phase, or an overview of the execution principles from its idea phase. For this reason, each project is multi-layered experimentation and research. Each new project creates a new horizon, leaving a visible trail, materialized by a large number of drawings on paper and by models of different materials, which serve as a logbook for the development of future projects.
We propose buildings that belong to the land, they emerge from it and merge into the culture of the place. We always try to develop enough awareness to emphasize the natural landscape and local historical values while responding to new urban development. On the one hand, we approach each new project in an intuitive way, using manual models, which help us experience the feeling of entering and using the building, which have great geometric freedom and can be constantly renewed. We work with our hands, feeling the model as an organic element that is easily transformed. At this stage, the design varies significantly from one model to another; Radically different solutions are tested and the qualities and disadvantages of each are constantly questioned, adding values to the equation and trying to find a formally attractive solution that, at the same time, can best respond to the required programme. When we have a considerable number of models, the potentials of each one are extracted. Then the best solutions are subjected to the power of reason, in a process of constant review and reversion, working only with geometric solutions, molding the volume to meet all the needs of the building. Once this point is reached, the project is reworked from the perspective of emotion, and so on, as many times as necessary, until all the variables in the equation are in balance.
Your professional career started in the 80s, a time when the country was experiencing one of its most important transformations and when architecture was put at the service of that change. How do you remember those early stages?
They were wonderful. It was the beginning of democracy, everything was being revived. Very interesting ideas competitions were being organized. Our work was respected and architects were believed in and trusted. There was a great collective illusion to build a better country and world.
However, with the entry into the 21st century, it seemed that a certain architecture was more concerned with exhibition than with functionality, forgetting about the people a bit. Do you think that architecture has reconnected with society?
There has always been architecture that connected socially and another that did not, but I don't think it has anything to do with exhibitionism. For example, the Guggenheim in Bilbao connected more with society than with the architects themselves or groups of intellectuals who did not know how to see its transformation capacity for the city. Good architecture always connects and, if it is truly good, it is not only functional, but also creates beauty.
The construction boom caused the oversizing of many cities that grew in no particular order, forgetting about public space. Should squares and parks preside over the cities to come?
Of course! Green spaces and public spaces generate a large portion of a city's identity. The squares are the meeting point, the place where we share and the place where we cohabit. What we need are better designs of squares and parks that really think about the human beings who are going to transit them.
What seems clear in your case is that interventions in public spaces have always been very present: parks, gardens, beaches, even a floating pool on the Spree river in Berlin. How unique!
It would be impossible to conceive the European city without public space; it is the heart of the city, what keeps its pulse alive, what gives it live. The public space, the square, the park, the beach, the promenade are critical for a city to be alluring, humane, and sustainable. Even large private developments should produce semi-public or public space and generate a coherent relationship with existing public space. We can never turn our back on public space, on the possibility of enhancing it.
The floating pool on the Spree river follows the tradition of public swimming pools on the late 19th century Spree and restores Berlin's closer relationship with the river through a floating pool within it. Located in the center of the city, it is configured from an old coal barge, like those that still traverse the river every day transporting materials, converted into a pool, with a “beach” formed by wooden platforms that allow leisure, relaxation and enjoyment. It is an innovative project that stimulates the Spree River, creating a place of leisure as the best way to optimize and boost that part of the city, located in the busy Treptow neighborhood of Kreuzberg. It represents the universal archetype of the ideal public space for its ability to overlap the architecture and the city without establishing any boundaries between them.
Another of our most enlightening projects for the importance of public space in the life of a city and its inhabitants is Plaza España in Adeje. The square extends over an old part of the city, on the edge of Hell's Gorge, one of Tenerife's tourist attractions. Before our intervention there, there was a small square in the shade of a large tree and some decaying houses that completely blocked the views on the spectacular surrounding landscape along with the Church of Santa Úrsula and the Franciscan Convent. Architecture acts here as a way of bringing people closer to the natural environment, while respecting and framing existing values. We made a simple gesture: we removed the barrier to reveal the picturesque mountains previously hidden, while taking care of a harmonious integration with the existing historical heritage, the Church, the built and natural landscape of the village. The plaza thus created, two and a half times larger than the previous one, combines the original function with that of a place of sociability, a place to see and be seen, like the Greek agora, and as an open-air theater with the landscape as a backdrop.
Speaking of public spaces. It has been 10 years since you won the competition for the Puerto de la Cruz Maritime Park and the construction has not yet started. After a decade without major progress, where does the project stand at the moment? If carried out, what will citizens come by?
That is a difficult question for me to answer. The power of good architecture is no longer believed in like it was at the beginning of the Democracy, leaving it for last. In the Port project architecture has been left for last, that's why it is slow. And we don't know if it will end well either, but I still hope someone will notice and say... What are we doing? There is still time to do better, but it is complicated. There are many administrations involved, little awareness of the ability of public space to transform a place, and a flock of bureaucratic difficulties.
Jordanki's Culture and Congress Centre in Poland catapulted you to international success. But you have also participated in important competitions in Taiwan, Switzerland, Costa Rica… That increasingly notable presence abroad, has it been sought or was it circumstantial?
It was our ambition and we have been working in this direction. Due to the crisis that architects have noticed a great deal in Spain, internationalization has become more vital, although we had already done some exterior projects before the crisis, such as the Berlin Pool finished in 2005 and we had always been present, through contests, publications, exhibitions and conferences around the world.
Let's finish off by talking about your forthcoming projects. What constructions are you currently working on?
We are now focused on erecting a hotel in Switzerland, in the Alps, in the small town of Bürchen. A beautiful place and a project that came about after winning a well thought out ideas contest. We are also excited about a project for a square and part of the seafront promenade in the city of Sal Rei, on Boavista Island in Cape Verde. Lastly, we have been comissioned something completely new for us, a challenge, it is a small project, precious and with a social vocation with which we are delighted: the Christmas illumination in La Oliva, a tourist town on the island of Fuerteventura.