For too long, Lacaton & Vassal have been the only living architecture misfits, consistently producing buildings of high utility, great economy and stark beauty. H Arquitectes readily admit to being influenced by Lacaton & Vassal and their readiness to acknowledge it immediately marks them as different. Their Casa Gualba appeared in the Dec. 2012 post The New Architecture of Austerity.
It’s time for a better look at what H Arquitectes are about. I half expect there to be no more or less than what we see. If so, they would be the second living misfits and the second known instance of Post-Media Architects designing buildings to be buildings and not as vehicles for fame.
The buildings described on their website say it better than I might say here, and this too is a positive. H Arquitectes aren’t designing buildings for others to write things such as I’m about to.
At first glance H Arquitectes’ website appears constructed for looks rather than convenience because projects are accessed by icons scattered across the screen. This was mildly exasperating to begin with but, after a while, I realised it was telling me to slow down and take some time to explore. It worked.
The rewards are immediate. Clicking an icon loads a slideshow that, in some cases, shows stages of construction and how the thing gets built. Fancy that!
Photographs of construction are there because somebody thought they were important and we might like to know. I can present them to you because all images are downloadable. I like these people. The forward > button can be difficult to find at times but, after viewing a few projects, you’ll get a feel for where it is and you won’t mind.
I haven’t trawled the internet to gauge their media presence but, from what I’ve seen, H Arquitectes prefer to let their projects speak for themselves. H Arquitectes buildings may sometimes look similar but even the ones that don’t, share a similarity of approach. An approach is not a look or a style. I want to highlight this consistency of approach because if they can use it to make buildings that aren’t copies of themselves, then so too can everybody else.
1. Simple planning integrated with structure
- Casa Gualba, above, I’ve mentioned before. It’s self-stabilising layout produces six peripheral acute angles, three of which dissolve into windows and the other three of which lead to them. The central corridor is space that makes the entire plan work. There is no hallway. The kitchen is where people arrive and are met.
- Casa Barcelona may remind you of Peso von Ellrichshausen’s Casa Meri but is less forced. Different things such as a garage and a machine room accessed externally, and an outdoor area are allowed to happen within the volume of the building.[for comparison, PvE’s Casa Meri]
Casa Escala has a plan and structure that couldn’t be more integrated, but the same could be said of all their other projects.
2. Simple construction integrated with materials
Many of H Arquitectes’ buildings make the same points. This is a corner of Casa Gualba. This is not some cheap trick. To save yourself some time and labour cutting bricks, you have to make sure the same thing will happen at the other end of the wall as well. All three sides/runs need to be carefully dimensioned.
Window openings all fall on half bricks, as they should.
3. Integrated construction and building science
The website text for Casa Costa Brava includes words such as sun protection in summer • sun’s radiation in the winter • mosquito net • thermal bridge • double glass • ventilated façade • • full construction opening • interior bearing wall • insulation • thermal inertia • air tightness • condensation • cracking • reduced weight • self-supporting main beams • lack of formwork. These are all things H Arquitectes thought were important and thought we should know about. They are. We should.
4. The absence of the concept of ‘interior’
When construction is integrated with materials and executed with care, the result is beautiful. This photograph is the interior of Casa Barcelona. It’s obvious that what the architects have done is provide a shell for living without making any demands for how that living should take place. This approach is shared with Lacaton & Vassal and it’s a useful and liberating one for both buildings and their inhabitants.
5. Economy of resources 1
When a practice completes such a thoughtful body of work in their first sixteen years, it’s always a worry that larger commissions and bigger budgets will kill off the drive to innovate and invent. Fortunately, how to build intelligently with a minium of resources is one bigger issue that remains relevant at any scale. Their Centre Civic Cristalerias Planell in Barcelona.
It is being constructed within a existing shell.
Aspects of its planning will seem familiar by now,
but the integration of an environmental strategy is something new. We don’t see diagrams like these next as often as we used to but it’s not because what they indicate has become accepted best practice.
6. Economy of resources 2
An ability to see and maximise the potential of existing structures is evident in the above project and also in this one for the refurbishment and extension of a school.
The approach to the extension you will recognise from Lacaton & Vassal’s Transformation de la Tour Bois le Prêtre. The providing of additional space is what extensions are about.
7. Economy of resources 3
H Arquitectes seem to have no preferred material but whatever they use seems to be like it was always meant to be used that way. Here’s Casa Escala again. It’s forthrightness is shocking. It is what it is – a column and slab structure such as you’re likely to see dotted around the Iberian Peninsula in varying stages of construction.
8. An approach for our times
In 2012 I wrote about The New Architecture of Austerity. Austerity hasn’t gone away. H Arquitectes have mainly designed and built houses but notable amongst their other projects are two extensions to schools and a municipal gymnasium. Municipal facilities, even in Barcelona, have been hard hit by ailing economies and H Arquuitects have been able to devise a credible approach to how to design and build to maximise limited budgets. This approach has elements of environmental sustainability but stronger still is how it seems to have arisen from a desire to be economically viable and with no loss of humaneness.
9. Neither art nor artifice
It’s difficult to even write the word ‘materiality’ without sounding pretentious but I can’t think of a better way to describe this attitude where materials are allowed to be what they are. This is not a Barcelona Pavilion display of expensive and rare materials veiled as an aesthetic. Often, an abundance of different materials is allowed to coexist, each doing what they do. This attitude extends to fittings such as the light fitting and conduits.
The same sensibility can be seen in Casa Sant Cugat del Vales.
or the fittings in Casa Parets del Valles
or the cladding fixing on Casa Vacarisses. It’s the application of thought and care that transforms these simple things into objects of beauty.
As extension of this attitude is the use of trellised plants as an active building component, notably Casa Barcelona, but here at the Council Gymnasium for Barberà del Vallès
and again, the Student Housing for the University of Sant Cugat.
We’re not unfamiliar with this kind of sensibility to materials and construction but it’s not a contrived ad-hocness, a precious high-tech statement, or a vapid expressionism. Everything is the right material for what it has to do and is allowed to happen naturally.
Plans however, can’t be just allowed to happen. Designing a plan to make everything fit a volume without excess space means an excess of materials and budget won’t needed to enclose that space. Not wasting space means no space not working to make the building perform better. The entrance courtyard to Centre Civic Cristalerias Planell isn’t rentable space but is entrance, lightwell and environmental strategy all in one.
• • •
What’s not to like?
Very very little. Out of 23 projects, the only thing I’m still wondering about are the intersecting walls in the Centre Civic Cristalerias Planell project. With Casa Gualba the walls were intersected in the simplest possible way and, if it represented anything, it represented nothing more than that. Upscaling the idea still says the same simple thing but, because the bricks aren’t proportionally bigger, is no longer that simple to build. An authentic simplicity is still there but harder to find. At the same time, the representation of simplicity becomes easier to see. I can’t tell if it’s more important or not and I’m disturbed it’s such a close call.
The other thing I’m still pondering are the ornamental gestures on their Granollers Housing.
Since Architecture Misfit #20: Togo Murano I’ve been more accepting towards aesthetic gestures that resist rationalization. HA’s website text says
Besides, print inscriptions and ornamental recessed caps remind us of a tattoo that reinforces the perception of skin and gives a personal and human touch to the building.
This is true but though tattoos may draw attention to the skin they rarely improve it or our appreciation of it. Having said that, the two most successful tattoos I’ve ever seen were in Barcelona so maybe I need to get out more.
But where’s the “Design”?
It’s all design. Nothing is allowed to happen by chance. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s sonnets, each one different and posing a new problem to be solved as effortlessly as possible – or at least they do if you agree with Helen Vendler’s formalist analysis of them. People who disagree (and many do) say ‘even if all that is true, the art of Shakespeare’s sonnets is so much more’. The same question now needs to be asked of H Arquitectes.
Heading this blog for a while now has been the new misfits’ tagline without art or artifice.
- Both of these are very much present in the buildings of H Arquitectes but
- the architectural design process can’t (or rather, shouldn’t) begin with the intent to display artifice or create art – it should begin with a problem to be solved.
- Solving that problem requires the application of skill and intelligence and this means that artifice is present from beginning to end.
So much of what’s presented to us as art and architecture these days is flawed from the beginning because it attempts to forcibly create art and directs all artifice to that one end. (The absurd but all too real extreme is that for something to be art, the only artifice thats needed is for its creator to say it is art. We’ve come to accept this and don’t ask too many questions out of fear we’re being had.)
H Arquitectes’ artifice is mostly invisible and the results apparently effortless. This allows the classic Formalist position whereby Art is admitted as a concept to explain artifice we don’t register or, even if we did, are happy to not comprehend. There’s nothing wrong with this and it’s not a contradiction. An identity as Art at the end of a process simply means the artifice is perfect. This is how I view H Arquitectes’ buildings.
Finally, we come to my tenth point and that was probably the most important one anyway,
10. The joy of making things
• • •
for letting things happen,
for caring about how to make things,
for using budget and environment as drivers,
for being sensitive to materials whatever their cost or quality,
for showing us how a humane architecture can be derived from these but,
most of all, for giving us hope this current dark age of architecture might finally be ending
misfits’ salutes you!