PLAYGROUNDS: System and Subjectivity

January 30, 2006–March 19, 2006
Noyes Professors Luis Mansilla, Emilio Tuñón, curators


"The word has the power, among other things, of pointing out the fields through which the sometimes harsh river of sensibility and intelligence has to flow. All language is thus a vector that signals a precise horizon in a firm and often trivial use, or perhaps a dense landscape which, under observation, permits the discovery of new possibilities of thought and action."


Thus began a short essay by Emilio Lledó, "The Framework of Beauty and the Desert of Architecture," published in Revista de Occidente in 1984. Twenty years later, it is only fair to acknowledge our debt to this simple but profound text, which, delving into Kant's Critique of Judgement, imagines architecture as a dual installation:  installation in nature and installation in culture.

What emerges from a reading of the essay is an image of the architect as a person-who-builds, yet above all a human being concerned with our mesh with the nature that we both fear and love—an obstinate nature that goes its own way regardless of our desires, but that we manage to relate to through what Kant called human sympathy. Faced with a destiny imposed by nature, humans rebel and struggle to change it; they imagine themselves changing nature and their destiny, inventing freedom. They then struggle to find their place in the human activity that begins where nature ends:  in the construction of the other world, culture.

Equality and difference,  as the room in which ambiguity and possibility can be expressed, are the defining aspects of this work, in our view.


Equality and Difference

By setting the heart of the task in an environment that is both abstract and human, architecture projects become independent and may be considered prior to the existence of a specific place, program, or client. The nexus between every project, every action, every thought, and a common area of reflection enables the task to be given an abstract component independent of form, which is later particularized on the basis of the specific conditions. This is one way to explain the thread that connects our projects, through the presence of equality and difference.

The roofs of the Zamora Museum—its fifth facade, the only one visible—organize the whole construction; a single section of skylights, placed with different orientations, heights, and widths, seems to diversify the areas below. The arrangement evokes the ploughed fields nearby, but above all permits the presence of equality and diversity. This is the real soul of the building, and any other decision is not subordinated to but arises from it.

The family of skylights is brought frontally to the facade of the City of Leon Auditorium, sliding toward a family of windows. Its frontality describes a public space opposite the majestic Hostal de San Marcos, while its exaggerated depth with the interposing ramp softens the western side, sheltering the interior rooms from direct sunlight. The windows are arranged alongside each other as if in a family photo, or perhaps in the manner of a cubist face with a thousand eyes.

The first challenge of the Castellón Fine Arts Museum is the need to merge four museums into one without each losing its personality. This mandate presented an  opportunity for the museum to become organized through similar but different spaces. Although each level has the same number of boards and screws, the shifted concatenated void, dappled by light, ensures that each level has a diversified spatial organization.

A family of skylights on the roof, a family of windows on the facade, a family of spaces in the cross-section–families will continue in the stories of MUSAC in Leon and the cross-sections of the Museum of Cantabria.


Restriction and Potential

How can this concept of the "family" become visible without being trapped in formalism? How can its immediate presence be reduced while giving more freedom to the process that shapes it? Equality and difference here cross paths with restriction and potential. By reducing a design's elements to a minimum, it is possible to increase their possibilities. In the San Fernando de Henares Swimming Centre a single feature, a concrete beam, strives to address a cluster of diverse issues. Restriction also informed the design of the Castellón Museum of Fine Arts, where it was decided that the facades could make use of only two pieces of cast aluminium:  a sheet for opaque areas and a louver for cross-lighting.

The surprising consequence of restriction is an increase in the links between things, but above all, an unexpected creative richness, given that the need to resolve something with limitations leads to novel solutions. Paradoxical as it may seem, the restrictions did not reduce freedom but rather expanded it, just as the strict rules of chess permit infinite moves.


System and Subjectivity

In this somewhat involuntary way, our work began to take on a clear outline:  a precise set of rules, a chessboard –a playground- on which order and freedom appeared at the same time. And that was nothing less than the obverse of the presence of equality and diversity as a material echo of our human condition. Cross-fertilizing equality and difference with the creative potential of restrictions, a new question arises:  What content or what expressive capacity can order have? In reality, things can be manifested only as parts of a whole, albeit with their own personalities. This question gave rise to the approach called "expressive systems," which might be likened to nonrectangular game boards. MUSAC, for example, is based on a combination of a square and a rhombus, repeated indefinitely, woven like a cloth. This pattern has arisen from the need for a large, one-story work that can be covered with 465 identical beams, forming equal spaces made diverse by patios or light wells. Once again, equality and difference, this time in space instead of surface, in the whole instead of in the parts.

By working this way, the shape or character of the building becomes independent of its perimeter or form, given that although it could be widened or have added modules or fewer patios or a different array of any other element, the building would have the same basic character and be remembered in the same way. As if it were a field or perhaps a mathematical figure, each part has a one-to-one relationship with the others, in addition to a  connection to the whole. It is hard to describe the thrill of working with these types of restrictions, in which each movement necessarily has implications and consequences while still maintaining its total freedom.

The Museum of Cantabria is also based on an expressive system, formed by the combination not of two pieces but a single trapezoid. Its outlines are eroded on the plan, veiled through the prominence of the section until they make the initial stiffness disappear. As if refusing to declare their isolation on the plan, the trapezoids grow upward independently, like a construction made from the sum of parts –equal in plan and different in section- that imagines a world in which the collective can arise only from the agreement of individualities.


The projects now on the drawing board continue on their way, evolving through  the mysterious interplay between system and subjectivity. Meanwhile, the most important thing for us is always what is yet to come.

Excerpt from "System and Subjectivity," El Croquis 115/116 II, 2003.