On the Matter of Shifting Matters:Re-thinking City and Architecture @ the peripheries

Published in Thinking Practice: Reflections on architectural research and building work. Edited by Nicholas Temple and Soumyen Bandyopadhyay. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007.

For an Introduction – An Introspection

Trying to unweave the very subtle, yet strong, knots that link teaching with professional practices demands retrospection: a walk upon our own footsteps, devoid of the spontaneity of the original voyage, but rather charged with self-awareness. The very methods we apply to teaching and practice emerge to save us from the comfortless position of simultaneously being subject and object, interior and exterior. We therefore map the tangible, verifiable traces left behind by our activity in the city, in the universities, in our own studio. A graph of our nervous, seemingly erratic, trajectories emerges. Why did we turn here? Why did we shift? Why did we return or stand still? What forces motivated us to move forward? The vectors and attractors that mark the impulses of our own actions begin to acquire shape. The cartographies of familiar terrains will contribute, we hope, to illuminate the darker, more complex geographies of our collective mind, to endow method to introspection. Some kind of a non-linear chronology weaves in to provide a temporal armature to the spatial roaming. The phrase ‘an autopsy of the living corpses of architecture’ springs to mind from some remote place in our collective subconscious. There is, after all, a pursuit beyond matter, or a search for the spirit of matter, in our work.

This narrative approach could easily slip into auto-biography or psycho-analysis. Both fall short of our intentions, which are rather to disentangle a chaotic tissue of interrelations and attempt to understand the complex reciprocities established by the befriending of research, teaching and the actual making of architecture. The characters of this story, therefore, shall be our design studios and seven architectural projects of diverse scales and typologies, built between the years 2002 and 2007, mainly in Quito, a city encroached in a valley of the Ecuadorian Andes, roughly 2.820 meters above sea level. It must be added that the tectonic power of the mountains, the energy of their pleats, and the throbbing of their volcanic massifs, cannot be underestimated. The topography of this improbable city, its geological features and its geography, have played a most decisive role in guiding us through the enigmas of architecture.

Why research, teach and practice?

This evident, yet fundamental question needs to be addressed before we illustrate the relationships of interdependence that describe the rapport between these three activities. We choose to research and teach as we practice, mainly because we like to approach design as a form of research, and research as a mode of action. Furthermore, our academic studios are research based. To us teaching is synonymous to asking questions. We know that if we have a good set of questions at the beginning of the semester, we will be able to trigger interesting processes and discoveries, which tend to lead to surprising, otherwise unthinkable, designs. Some of the questions we bring into the schools are raised by existing urban conditions throughout the country. We look at remote areas, for example, and ask: how do we build in the Galapagos Islands, where unfortunately, settlements are growing at an unprecedented ratio and in the most deleterious of fashions? How do we inhabit the Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest, where oil camps have turned into bustling, fast-growing towns? How do we design not the park within the city, but the city within the national park?

These specific inquiries lead us into grappling with concepts such as environmental tectonics, or investigating urban ecosystems, or developing alternative construction materials and methods. Later on, we find ourselves applying some of the results obtained in a particular research to a project in Quito, whose conditions would have probably not raised the same issues. Alternately, research into the peripheries of the city has often provided answers regarding how to address urban expansion in the Galapagos or the Amazon, through the recycling of components and the re-use of waste, for example. Furthermore, through our own projects, as well as through publications, lectures and seminars, we attempt to disseminate the information that is produced in an academic context. We strongly believe that the knowledge that is constructed in the wonderful arena for experimentation and risk provided by academic venues must leak through their often hermetic walls in order to have an impact in the built environment.

Last but not least, it seems that the most important by-product of research and teaching within practice is that the former allow us to respond differentially to the specific conditions presented to the latter. We teach and research in order to be able to react dynamically to the diverse and discrete ‘architectural situations’ presented to us as practitioners. This probably explains why it is not always easy to draw connections between different built projects. Their common denominator is that each one of them stems from a research-based approach, the main vaccine we have found against the degenerative consequences of formula or style-based approximations to architecture.

Phisique Gym à Casa GG:
From tectonic experimentation to tectonic consolidation

Working on an interior design project like the Phisique Gym provided a magnificent opportunity to become acquainted with local materials and building methods, as well as to probe the possibilities opened for tectonic experimentation amidst a pre-industrial culture which preserves the arts and crafts –long forgotten in many places of the post-Fordian era. The investigation took place in university design studios, as well as on the building site, located in a privately owned, open plaza. As we experimented with the possibilities offered by different local and imported materials such as glass, ply-wood, particle boards, textiles, steel, rubber, mirrors and lighting devices on the construction site, we stimulated students to build detail models and 1:1 mock-ups of alternative building systems. This seemed the best way to induce tectonic curiosity and inventiveness within an academic arena where, in spite of its claims of allegiance to the poetics of construction, the students primarily illustrate their tectonic ideas through cardboard or basswood models, amidst a city where the overriding presence of CMU in-filled poured in-place concrete structures suffocates the emergence of other construction methods and materials.

Figure 1: Phisique Gym – Reception desk, glass bridge and yoga room
Photographs by Teresa Ponce

It was with this initial project that we faced up to the challenge of prioritising design by employing simple spatial or surface elements in certain situations, so that we could afford the construction of other more expensive –even luxurious items- like the reception desk or the glass bridge. In the yoga room, for example, we constructed the roof with an inexpensive and simple structure composed of parallel iron tubes through which we interwove bands of a translucent local canvas, the movement of which could parallel the ‘still dynamism’ of meditative exercise, as well as provide the desired artificial lighting and lightness effects. In the evening, light pierces through the folds of the system and dematerializes its translucent body. In the same room, in order to maximize the use of wall surface area, we introduced a mirrored door that can be opened against a light well when a large mirror is needed, and closed upon a wall-embedded furniture piece, when it is not. This mechanism frees a second large wall in order to accommodate a vertical fountain of travertine ‘scales’ along which water can trickle during meditative excersice.

Another small-scale interior design project, a bookstore occupying the space underneath a large staircase that connects the two main levels of a covered commercial courtyard, provided a further opportunity to experiment with local materials and furniture systems. The clients accepted to build a suspended-ceiling composed of irregular modules upholstered with leather, an easily available and affordable material, the architectural possibilities of which as soft skin or even as hard surface are yet to be explored in the country. The ceiling had to adapt its form to the twisting and descending shape of the staircase. We drew heavily on the work of Office dA, by looking into the possibilities of understanding surface as dress or textile; joint or connection as stitch; and composition as dressmaker´s pattern. We also wanted to tap into the liberating concepts brought about by the digital revolution, specifically, by exploring the possibility of not using a fixed module in the suspended-ceiling. Restricted space also allowed us to experiment with dynamic elements, such as a magazine display piece, which was designed to fit within the tight space available beneath the staircase during the night, but rolled out towards the plaza during the day. The same purpose was achieved by developing a pivoting door-bookshelf that provides access to a small storage space in the back without sacrificing surface area for books.

Figure 2: Bookstore
Photographs by Teresa Ponce

Casa GG and Telluric Architecture

When we shifted from the intimate, versatile and detailed scale of interior design, where we could ‘zoom into’ notions of materiality, concentrate on textures and light effects, to the scale of a house, a new set of incentives emerged. In Casa GG topography became the protagonist of architecture. Quito is wedged into the Andes and the Pichincha Volcano serves as its main anchor or foundation. Within the valley where Casa GG is located, this physical relationship with the mountain is lost, and a new visual and axial connection is established with another volcano to the south –the Cotopaxi- in order to compensate for the weakened telluric force of the flatter valley, a topography creased with ravines which acquires its interest through the tectonics of the pleat. By way of a set of three horizontal, floating planes, which meet the ground through a recessed perpendicular structure that ends in a V-shaped, overriding column towards the south, we sought to acknowledge the uniqueness of a relatively flat condition amidst the slopes of the cordillera. The house anchors itself at the highest point of the site, towards the street, and cantilevers in the direction of the valley, like a paper airplane about to take off.

Figure 3: Cotopaxi Volcano
Photograph by Jean-Claude Constant

Figure 4: Casa GG – Interior façades at night
Photograph by Jean-Claude Constant

We acknowledged that geography –an external, tangible fact- manages to seep through the skin in order to become and internal, subconscious act of spatial perception and organization. In a world in which geography collapses under the forces of telecommunications, travel and migration, it also became appealing to explore the notion of ‘geographical stratification,’ as multiple terrains and cultures accumulate in order to procreate our physical surroundings, in a never ending interplay of capital, matter, population and cultural flows.

In this particular project we sought to explore the ways in which mobilization of matter occurs through architectural practice, for multiple geographies merge into a place, and multiple times fuse into an instant. Topographies move, both through external (commercial, economic and transportation systems) and internal processes (culture and knowledge acquired in different places). We were, therefore, interested in outlining the ways in which architecture acts as an assemblage of geographies; on how it serves to unify human kind and nature, as well as different cultures, at the juncture of matter. And by matter, we mean the substance of all reifications of energy in both its natural and artificial states. Ultimately, we like to keep in mind that the words ‘mother’ and ‘matter’ share the Latin root ‘mater.’ Architecture is, after all, the alchemy of physical space. We change the surface of ‘mother’ Earth as we practice and translate our cosmovisions into built environments.

Multiple places and identities meet in this house. The outer crust is inspired by the Spanish Fortress of Cartagena. The client wanted an impervious, protected house. The design responds to his need for security. The entrance door has echoes of Inca trapezoidal voids and the external façade celebrates mass in a fashion reminiscent of pre-Hispanic architecture. The steel window frame of the inner skin is a local adaptation of British technology. The plan echoes Moorish enclosures. The concrete structure, a system typically used in Quito since the Modern Movement, was imported in the 1950s. Even from a technological point of view, the house is a hybrid: the stones were cut by masons on site from large boulders transported directly from the quarry; the steel window frame structure was hand-made. The technological ‘disadvantages’ of a peripheral condition turned into advantages and opportunities for customization. The local and the global, the high and the low tech, merged in each tectonic resolution.

Figure 5: Casa GG – Front façade
Photographs by Jean-Claude Constant

The requirements of our clients were clear-cut, even if somewhat schizophrenic: ‘we would like a house that looks like a fortress or bunker from the outside and is light, transparent, well-lit and open to the landscape from the inside. The house must be composed of two separate, yet interconnected pavilions.’ The rectangular 1.024 square meters plot of land the couple acquired in Rancho San Francisco (a walled suburb located between Quito city and the Cumbayá Valley) is situated in a privileged position: the axis which divides it longitudinally into two equal parts collides in the distance with the conical perfection of Cotopaxi Volcano after crossing a private park and the cleft of a ravine in the landscape.

The plan responds to the requests of our clients by deploying a V-shaped band: a hand which folds in a symbolic gesture to hold the roundness of Cotopaxi’s layout. This basic form unfolds into two layers: an impervious, opaque and solid external crust on the one hand; and a transparent, open, and reflective internal glass surface on the other. A clear dichotomy between front and back, public and private is established. The house consolidates an architectural schizophrenia that simultaneously portrays fear and trust: antisocial from the street, warm and cosy within the interior garden courtyard. The travertine and plastered shields of the outside, fold to protect the fragile intimacy of family life. In addition, by keeping the V asymmetric (one of its limbs is shorter than the other) we were able to provide two separate, yet interconnected pavilions. The larger one accommodates all the programs needed for the house to function: main bedroom, a bedroom for the youngest daughter, kitchen, living room, dining room and studio. The lobby acts as the main spatial and circulation link through the interior, and a bridge serves as an external connection to the shorter pavilion, which accommodates two bedrooms for the older daughters -who spend most of their time abroad- or for family guests.

Even though the crust of the front and lateral façades establishes a drastic separation between inside and outside, the continuous glass band of the back façade opens up to facilitate the influx of light, views and air. The only opaque surface in the back –a two- story ‘shingled’ travertine wall- contributes to reinforce this continuity; it approaches the interior from the visual perspective of Cotopaxi and collides into the lobby, inasmuch as it takes off from the lobby so as to reach the volcano. The open film of glass, on the other hand, celebrates the green tonalities of the Andean landscape in a game of reflections of colour, inviting nature to access the interior and trapping it along its surface.

Figure 6: Casa GG – Travertine wall
Photograph by Jean-Claude Constant

The defensiveness of the front and fragility of the back are also echoed by the interplay of light, void and the surfaces. The perpendicular light of the Equator collides with and bounces off the forbidding surfaces of the front, homogenizing them, diluting their edges –framing the thick shadows of their voids. This effect is counteracted by the linear pattern of a bass relief, which seeks to soften the boldness of the surfaces by demarcating them with lines of shadow. The light manages to pierce through the small orifices carved into the crust in order to draw stark and oblique shapes onto the surfaces of the interior: a line, a square, a trapezoid, a rectangle. The effect is reversed in the back, with the exception of the travertine wall, along which the light cascades in a flickering game of light and shadow. During the day, the light illuminates the interior like an Equatorial blaze. Roll-out shades were installed to protect and cool the interior, blurring, but not obliterating the view of the landscape. At night, the artificial light of the interior has a burning desire to get out and return to the elements, like the magma of the volcano that dwells beyond sight.

Figure 7: Casa GG – Lobby
Photograph by Jean-Claude Constant

Guápulo House à Coca-Cola Headquarters:
Early quest into environmental design

Casa GG stands in stark contrast with the Guápulo House. The former is located in a suburban valley subject to recent sprawl, whereas the latter stands in the colonial, historic district of Guápulo. Originally a huaca (pre-Hispanic place of animistic, mountain worship), through syncretism Guápulo became an important site for Catholic pilgrimage. An imposing Baroque church and its monastery were built in the XVI Century to the north of what was the original Spanish foundation. The building code imposes a different set of restrictions in this area: the roof of the house could not be flat and its slope had to follow an average inclination derived from those of its immediate context, and modern materials like steel could not be visible from the exterior.

The clients were quite different too and could dispose of a much narrower budget. A young, well-travelled couple in their thirties, they commissioned us to design an 80 square meters ‘loft’ house. They affiliated with the premises of ‘honesty of materials’ (which would come into conflict with the building code that restricted the expression of some towards the outside), visible infrastructure (they wanted the pipes to be revealed, for example) and free-flowing plan. Furthermore, the house needed to be conceptualized as temporary, for the couple has plans to build a much larger version of it in the future. In order to accommodate for this eventual transformation, we located the house in the lower, flat portion of an otherwise incredibly steep site, and attempted to occupy the least amount of ground in such a way that the loft house would not impinge itself upon the future development and could be easily plugged into it as a studio or guest house, or simply dismantled. This shy way of nestling into the terrain did not prevent us from orienting the house so as to allow its inhabitants to enjoy the sun and the views of monastery and valley.

Figure 8: Guápulo House – View of monastery from bedroom
Photograph by Teresa Ponce

This set of conditions provided a unique opportunity to reinterpret an industrial typology within a residential historic district; to import a retrofitting mechanism of the recuperated industrial sites in developed countries into a non-industrial, historic neighbourhood of a developing nation. But more than a reflection on the loft and its predominance as a favourite typology among young Ecuadorian professionals, the Guápulo House provided an opportunity to test some of the materials and construction systems we had been investigating in our university studios.

As we mentioned earlier, poured in-place concrete structures are the norm in Ecuador, regardless of specific conditions of temperature, humidity, light, soil and wind, all of which vary greatly within the diverse ecosystems that occur where the Andean mountain range meets the tropical Equator. Here, instead, we had the opportunity to use a demountable, bolted steel structure. The contractor we worked with provides services for the oil industry in the Amazon, where steel and demountable components are required for most oil infrastructure to follow the strict codes of practice stipulated within the environmental law. Since the house was conceptualized as a temporary structure, the possibility of dis-assemblage and component re-use became particularly appealing. In addition, steel offered an interesting alternative to concrete from the standpoint of seismic resistance, thanks to its more resilient nature.

In this project, we were able to introduce yet another valuable construction material. When confronted with a lot where the ground falls 50 meters from top to bottom, stairs and retaining walls become fundamental elements to articulate landscape and architecture, city and topography. Stone fell beyond our budged and we did not want to build immense surfaces of concrete. We used geo-fibers instead. Interweaving them with the soil allowed us to sculpt the landscape and retain it, without sacrificing green surfaces.

El Recreo Residential Complex:
From minimum to maximum existenz

Upon completion of Casa GG and the Guápulo House -two portraits of the lives and personalities of very specific clients- we were commissioned to design a 250 apartment low-income residential complex for ‘generic’ customers of Southern Quito, the most neglected area of the city ever since it was zoned in the 40s as an industrial district. This trend was reversed by the massive migration of Ecuadorians after the financial crisis of 1999. Remittances have become the second largest revenue source for Ecuador, and in the particular case of Quito, families who dwell in the ‘South’ are their main receptors. This condition has propelled the area into a busy cash economy, whose financial activity remains relatively autonomous from local economic and political instability.

Confronted with the challenge of designing for the mean or the ‘average’ person or, as Le Corbusier would sum it, for a Modulor, proved to be a straining task. Inevitably, we turned to the bibliography of the pioneers of the Modern Movement, who had the courage to face the immense demands posed by fast-growing industrial cities and the emergence of unprecedented concentrations –‘masses’- of individuals. We analysed the German Siedlungen; we delved into concepts such as minimum existenz and Gestalt; we studied efficient plans geared towards packing all the functions of life into condensed, laconic housing types; we researched Walter Segal’s Temporary House. Our client even financed a trip to Bogota, where we visited some of the most successful real-state developments of this kind.

The issue of ‘standard’ resident or family remained problematic, nevertheless, for one is inevitably haunted by the same questions that seem to define and confront positions within architectural theory since the dawn of modernity. We could either acknowledge that there are universal dimensions and needs that satisfy general minimum standards and link humanity across cultural borders (the Quito building code proved to stem from such an assumption and is still largely modelled after the recommendations outlined by CIAM more than 70 years ago); or take the opposite stance, and favour individual and collective idiosyncrasies though self-built approaches (unachievable for 8 storey high rises); or locate ourselves on a middle ground, by using an open plan or neutral container approach that would provide a generic structure capable of supporting flexibility, adaptation and personal imprints/ in-fills. Ultimately, economy decided for us. Only repetition could be afforded, so we worked with three apartment typologies of 60, 75 and 90 square meters each.

After testing several configurations on the site –a meander of the Machángara river, wedged between a huge shopping mall and a recently regenerated linear park- we chose a combination of four equal, rectangular-based, high-rises of eight floors –the maximum height allowed by the building code in this particular area. Eight apartments in each floor were fed by a common corridor, accessible from a staircase and an elevator (a true luxury in Ecuadorian low-income housing projects). This rather standard procedure is ground breaking amidst a horizontal urban fabric, where the majority of families are used to live in two-storey houses, and could be reluctant to switch to the life-style of vertical stacking. In order to accommodate for this cultural shift, we introduced duplexes in the corners of the high-rises, for they emulate, after all, the horizontally spreading free standing homes. From an urban standpoint, we located the towers so that a common semi-public space could be generated between them, and we tried to make the transition into the linear park as seamless as possible by substituting the standard opaque wall of most enclosures in Quito with tall planes of mesh along which ivy can grow.

Once the project was launched into the market, the response was immediate and unexpected. The four high-rises were sold in one month, but a large percentage of the buyers could afford not one apartment designed for minimum existenz, but two, three and sometimes even four. We had to reconfigure several apartment blue-prints and realized as we worked that we vaguely knew the community we were trying to serve, and that our design had stemmed from prejudice rather than experience.

The corollary of this realization was our involvement in a low-income housing studio that is the result of a collaboration between five universities in Latin America. This activated a set of ongoing excursions –in tune with the derivé strategies of the Situationistes- into the peripheries of Quito. Our findings deserve a space of their own, but within the frame of this essay, a description of our studio approach and the ways in which it has helped us reformulate the way we think about housing should suffice. We worked on the hypothesis that the needs and desires of individuals, families and communities are embedded in the informal city, so a thorough analysis of its phenomenology can serve as an effective indirect participation strategy.

During initial navigations, we used several tools to collect ‘urban material:’ drawings, videos, still photographs, temporary sequences of photographs, recordings, objects trouvés… This served to establish initial, intuitive discoveries. As a second step, we chose to investigate what we termed ‘the tectonics of marginality.’ Students had to dissect from the seemingly chaotic informal accretions of matter specific materials: wood, masonries, metals, plastics, rubbers, glass, ceramics, and textiles. Then, they had to research how these materials were being joined or assembled on site, and based on their tectonic discoveries, develop a construction system. Each was built at 1:1 scale in the university’s courtyards at incredibly low costs, because most students replicated recycling processes that are quite common in the peripheries, and used low-cost components in their construction experiments. As a final analytical exercise, we undertook a comparative analysis of five low-income housing projects that had been financed and built by the Ecuadorian government in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It was revealing to discover that originally homogeneous, formal neighbourhoods, had been ‘informalized’ with time by their inhabitants, who transformed them in an attempt both to individualize their households and allow them to grow as the family grew. If we were to design a low-income housing project anew, the main tectonic and aesthetic keys would be derived from the city, its materials and procedures, rather than from abstract assumptions about universal concepts regarding minimum or maximum living.

Building Ideas:
‘Under Construction'

In the last two years our research has shifted heavily towards investigating more sustainable modes of living and building, and reflections on the city have remained our predominant source of inquiry. Two projects have benefitted from this shift: the new Coca-Cola headquarters, which are under construction in northern Quito, and the eco-community Mar Adentro, a 20 hectares development we are designing for coastal Ecuador.

In the Coca-Cola project, we have received the support of our client to introduce a roof garden. We are recycling the soil extracted for the foundations on the roof, where we expect to deploy a secure, pleasant garden with grass, local trees and flowers. Besides the benefits they provide from an environmental point of view, roof gardens may contribute to re-inject the city with social condensers and places for encounter, discussion and exchange. Fear is killing the vast majority of public spaces in Quito. The semi-public, semi-private alternative of a roof top may partially contribute to alleviate this deficit. Another environmentally friendly feature of the building is its rain-water collection system, which is complemented by a water recycling plant. Coca-Cola production demands abundant quantities of water (8 bottles of water are needed to produce 1 bottle of Coke), so efficient water management has become a priority for the company. On the other hand, the longitudinal design of the building facilitates cross-ventilation, which in conjunction with a set of strategically located shades and filters will prevent the need for mechanical ventilation and air-conditioning.

The eco-community Mar Adentro, on the other hand, is allowing us to embark ourselves for the first time on design at an urban and landscape scale. Our choices affiliate with the site: rocks, trees and plants will fuse with the architecture, which is being conceptualized as land art. The complex will be animated by clean energy (solar and/or eolic) in an autonomous way, without recourse to the central grid. Since the complex will be occupied seasonally, energy surpluses will be fed into the nearby town of Pedernales. Each architectural component will include a rain water collection system, and we are proposing to have a double piping system: one for the recycling of used water, which can be re-used in toilets and for irrigation; another one for fresh water needed in showers, lavatories and kitchens. Waste will also be sorted and recycled in conjunction with the local government. Vehicles will be harboured in a limited number of parking areas, which will link to biking and pedestrian paths built with treated wood above ground level in order to prevent erosion. The dry forest that inhabits this particular stretch of coast will be the main source of inspiration for landscape and garden design.

It matters

To conclude, we would like to return to the title of this essay. We chose to name it ‘on the matter of shifting matters’ for several reasons. Architecture is an act of transformation of the material world. Through will and design, architects must take on the immense responsibility of transmuting the land. We use minerals, water, vegetation, soils, lumber, rocks, fuels –more or less processed materials and the energy they embed- as we shape space. Each urban metamorphosis involves the absorption (some times depletion) of a mountain, a forest, a lake or a desert -more often than not located in an invisible elsewhere. As architects we have the responsibility of ensuring that each mutation of matter we provoke is worthy of society and nature. Research and teaching lie at the core of this responsibility, for they endow action with meaning and value; they transform thoughtless into thoughtful making.

We teach, research, and practice because what we do matters.

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