IÑAKI ÁBALOS // Ábalos+Sentkiewicz

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Iñaki Ábalos (Donostia-San Sebastián, 1956) is an architect (1978) and a Ph.D. in Architecture (1991) from the Higher Technical School of Architecture of Madrid. Ex-Chair of the Department of Architecture in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), he is currently Professor in Residence and Chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard University GSD and Chaired Professor of Architectural Design at the ETSAM. In addition to the latter two, he has taught at other prestigious universities such as Columbia, Cornell and Princeton in the USA, the Architectural Association in London and the EPF in Lausanne. Iñaki Ábalos combines his academic and research activity with his professional one. In 2006, after more than 20 years worth of projects in the Ábalos & Herreros studio, he founded a new architecture firm with Renata Sentkiewicz, Ábalos+Sentkiewicz (AS+), with offices in Madrid, Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) and Shanghai (China). The projects and constructions of Abalos+Sentkiewicz (AS+), have been internationally recognized and the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions in prominent international centres such as the AA (London), the Pavillon de l'Arsenal (Paris) or the MoMA (New York). This prestige is also reflected in the more than 30 awards received in architectural competitions for projects such as the Lolita Building in Madrid, the Tapies Foundation building in Barcelona, ​​the Solar Tower in Valencia, the Urban Park and the AVE Station in Logroño or the Zhuhai Contemporary Art Museum in China.

"AN ARCHITECT'S GOAL SHOULD NOT BE TO ADORN ONLY THE LIVES OF THE RICHEST"

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You have just completed your term as director of the Department of Architecture at Harvard University, what do you make of this period?

The summary is very positive. I have not had any big surprises because I already knew Harvard and the American university well, where I had given talks, participated in workshops, and seminars. There, academically, architecture is experienced as a cultural and constantly changing activity in which all ideas are debated. Harvard is a true knowledge laboratory with very established traditions, a first-rate body of teaching staff that works like a perfectly oiled machine. This centre has a very important European tradition whose origin dates back to the bauhaus. Walter Gropius was its first chair and dean and in his early stages he introduced all the knowledge that had been developed in Germany. Since then, Harvard University has been a kind of European embassy in America in which European teachers trained the best-prepared American children. Nowadays many institutions grant scholarships to be able to enrol. By doing so, it has become a place of true intellectual, not economic, elites that receive influences of architecture from all over the world.

Other Spanish architects like Rafael Moneo or Josep Lluís Sert also held that position. Beyond their professional career, why do you think they opt for architects from our country?

I believe that the training that is given in our country, more complete and less specialized, allows us to have a more general vision for management positions and that attracts Americans. On the other hand, in Spain we have been differentiated by not believing in the specialization between Architecture and Urbanism. Sert introduced the Department of Urban Planning & Design at Harvard and proposed a true link between urban and architectural vision both at school and at conferences of that time. This was also reflected in Moneo's time and, humbly, I think it is also present in our work and in the academic project that I lead.

In addition, in Spain my generation gre up imbibing from authors who wrote and built, which helps understand this way of seeing architecture. However, in the US it is almost unheard of to find people capable of meaningful writing and at the same time having innovative architecture. That lack of specialization is what allows us to have a certain influence, due to our more holistic vision.

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Are there great differences at present in the architectural field between the American and European trends?

More than trends, I would define them as modalities in which the profession has been shaped into. This depends on aspects such as the regulations of each country, the presence of architects in construction processes or solely in design processes, a more technical or artistic training and how the construction sector is structured in each country. All this creates an amalgam that is reflected in a different way of building in almost all of Europe and Latin America compared to that of the US or China. There are differences and obviously this affects teaching. You could say that at the beginning of the 20th century it was the United States that built and Europe that gave legitimacy or cultural value. Today this has changed a lot. Nowadays in the US there is hardly any construction and merely marketing buildings are constructed, but it is the University that gives them value and prestige. Anyway, the emergence of China as a third factor, breaking that Europe-America duality, has changed the context. Currently one in every two square meters is built in China and that has a huge impact. This profession is not immune to the fact that in every historical time there is a certain place where there is more need for architecture. This obviously influences the way we think.

In China, precisely, you are doing one of your most ambitious works, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zhuhai, do you have more projects in the Asian country?

As a consequence of the recession that affected Spain, we decided to go to the United States not only to train young people at Harvard, but also to cast our studio more internationally. We consider China and Latin America to be the where, right now, there is the greatest need for quality architects and architecture. Quality in Europe is like a boutique product; in other places it is something that needs to be redefined, quality is equal to the future, it is social and it is political, it is not simply luxury. It is much more interesting for an architect to work in these environments than in spaces where everything has to be super luxurious, which is also great, but an architect's goal should not be to adorn only the lives of the richest. So we are now working on urban projects of marked social character in Medellin and Managua on the one hand and on projects of varying scope in Shanghai, Zhuhai and Seoul.

In addition to the Zhuhai museum, which has recently been promoted to the category of national museum and is in an advanced state of construction, we have recently won a competition to develop a 5 km route inside a large park in Shanghai, with 3 of these kms being elevated in what we have called "The Flying Spine"; also a mixed-use block and a church that are now beginning construction. On the other hand, we are currently submitting several restricted competitions, perhaps the most significant one being that of the Shanghai Opera Palace, in a privileged corner of the Huangpu River that runs through the city and the entire region.

But the best news is that we are starting to have interesting jobs in Spain again, something that we are doubly happy about: for working here again but also for what it means for the recovery of a certain optimism in our country, which we hope will consolidate in the near future.

You spoke of the crisis and the need to bet on projects in new countries. Another consequence of the recession was that Spanish architects were placed in the spotlight. Have you felt attacked by the media?

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I think that from a journalistic point of view, Spanish architects have been treated very unfairly. The national market stagnated, but not because Spanish architects were based on the star system and on making buildings with extravagant shapes. Spanish architecture, exceptions aside, has been characterized for being honest, quite contained and very aware of what an euro is. Time has revealed how part of the responsibility for the situation lay in the political lack of control and the lack of knowledge of some when it comes to managing public money. If we look at the constructions that have been an economic disaster in our country, I would say that we could hardly rely on Spanish architects in this phenomenon. I am all for international exchange, but it has been strange to see how key constructions were commissioned to architects from other countries with an interesting background, but of dubious experience, ruining entire autonomous communities and yet not one Spanish architect has received a commission in England, for instance, the country from which most of the authors of these aforementioned projects are from.

Something a little distressing has happened to Spanish architects because when the crisis struck we were held responsible for something we had not done. It is also true that we have been a bit naive and, due to this traditionalism of small scale offices, most of the studios have been unable to adapt to the new context. I do not want to make a tenacious defense of Spanish architects, but it is true that some things have not been well recounted to citizens.

Let's delve into your investigative side. When "sustainable construction" was hardly talked about, you were already referring to "thermodynamic beauty" and taking advantage of aspects such as conduction, radiation or the convention of materials. Have aesthetics and sustainability been compatible from the start?

Talk of sustainable architecture emerged with the energy crisis of 1973. Keep in mind that these discourses came from the cold north with very different acclimatization techniques. Nature is your enemy there, while throughout Spain, the vast majority of the days of the year, it is your friend.
In addition, there has been a kind of fascination with engineering jargon as if the architects did not know what cross ventilation, thermal inertia, conductivity, effusiveness of materials or so many other parameters are. In Spain we have examples such as country houses, farmhouses, courtyard houses or ranches that speak for themselves of thermodynamics in an exquisite way. What I tried to say, from the beginning, is that there are not two worlds: form and matter, on the one hand, and energy and the little red and blue arrows, on the other. Both have always been united. Perhaps there are climates in which thermal machinery is a priority in order to survive; But there are many others, especially the most populated in the world, such as the tropical and subtropical climate, where the responsibility of the architect is much greater than that of the engineer. In these places, with minimal attention to aspects such as shape, matter and air movement, reasonable comfort can be obtained 70-80% of the days of the year. Spain is a country in which solar energy is not even needed to make passive architecture, geothermal energy in 90% of the terrain is sufficient. Properly using mass, thermal inertia, radiation and geothermal energy we sort it out without using a single solar panel. Now we are beginning to have a collection of projects and built works that fortunately go in this direction and invite optimism. However, it is necessary to take a qualitative leap in training. Students are more than capable of understanding and assuming technical knowledge of thermodynamics. This will allow them greater creative freedom and a greater ability to use matter from the point of view of energy and ecology.

Let's talk about enclosures. You assured that "The curtain wall is the lingua franca of architecture", is it perhaps the element that best adapts to the different constructive realities of each country?

I have been a great defender of the curtain wall since my beginnings in architecture. I think it is one of the great inventions of modern times that has been progressively refined and is reaching very interesting levels in its entirety: structure, frame, glass, subsystems, interior and exterior layers, etc. The thermodynamic breakthroughs in glass and aluminum keep progressing and we know much more about them now a days. Even if we think of some constructions from the 60s, if we used the same frames today, the same structures, and the same types of wall, but with new profiles and new glass, greater energy efficiency would be achieved. Furthermore, the curtain wall has great operational advantages. It makes it possible, for example, to define precisely how it is going to be built being 10,000 km away, guaranteeing the highest levels of finish that, with other types of precast, would only be possible with an artisan dedication. Although the curtain wall can be seen as too homogeneous, the truth is that it allows us to work in a global context with guarantees for the future.

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One of the Ábalos+Sentkiewicz projects in which CORTIZO is present is the Logroño AVE Station. In it, architecture and landscaping go hand in hand. What would you highlight about this construction?

The AVE station in Logroño is a very clear example of the use of urban and architectural range interchangeably, something typical of Spanish architecture as we spoke previously. We entered the contest along with many foreign studios. They understood that an icon had to be made and we believed that we should pay attention to what the intervention meant in terms of urban transformation, burying the roads as they pass through the city and thus turning an impassable barrier into a fantastic linear park. We designed a park and a kind of grotto that would be the station. With a few unevenness we gave continuity to pedestrians, to cars, in short, to the city. We integrated a series of things without any any of them being a striking object. This proposal for combining urban and architectural scale was the key to success in the competition. Later in the construction phase, we understood that we were not interested in showing too much of the structure, although it was not ostentatious, in fact it was very beautiful, we therefore did not want to hide it either.
With CORTIZO blades we sought to generate a pattern that defined the interior appearance of the station. We chose it to be extruded aluminum so that it had a long life and in turn provided an abstract dimension. In addition, it was a solution deeply rooted in Spanish architecture that allowed to see and not to see, protecting from light in a some times and letting it pass in others. I consider that a splendid and scrupulous work has been done by the people who were on site, showing a love typical of good craftsmen. It is very satisfying to see that such craftsmanship still exists in industrial materials.

We have talked about the past and the present. As for the future, what goals are you setting for yourself?

There are many goals; one of them is how to return to the Spanish university. I think these years have been fruitful; I have assimilated interesting ideas for the culture and the current Spanish society that I hope to be able to transmit when I return from Harvard. Transferring what I have learned to future generations of architects is a way of giving back to the public university everything it has given me. On the other hand, another objective is to consolidate the international outreach of our firm Ábalos+Sentkiewicz and of our office in Madrid from which we are currently developing projects in Europe as well as in Asia and Latin America, reinforced by satellite offices in Boston and Shanghai.

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