The Chilean art and architecture studio of Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen collaborated with students from the IIT College of Architecture to design one of the Lakefront Kiosks commissioned by the Chicago Architecture Biennial for the Chicago Parks District. Pezo and von Ellrichshausen sat down with architect and critic Fabrizio Gallanti to discuss their approach to design and the role of local context in architecture.
Fabrizio Gallanti: Your works manifest a strong continuity in the architectural language they employ. The different projects pertain to a “family”: in your design process, how do you balance between stylistic recurrence and the different programs of each?
Sofia von Ellrichshausen: We certainly follow the idea of “always doing the same thing but never in the same way,” a beautiful piece of advice given by an Argentinian poet to those who make art. We have always worked in series, repeating common attributes in some cases, as variations of the same thoughts over and over again. But this method was not defined as the pretext for doing what we have done.
It was quite the opposite; we developed a formal system that could be determined by particular circumstances, a kind of synthetic informality. With time we have realized that we can use almost the same logic for other cases. Somehow, in an unexpected way, we have discovered that our own arguments were not exhausted in a single case, so our spatial exploration could go beyond the program, the context, or the given technical resources. We never impose a form on a form of life.
Mauricio Pezo: That is why we prefer to replace the notion of form by the notion of a format. A format is a general outline that is basically determined by a certain size and a certain direction. We believe we can repeat the same format for a diverse range of situations. There is always a fitting process, an appropriate size, an extension that works better for a specific moment. Nevertheless, we believe there is no exact correlation between form and function — which is no more than a modernist myth.
FG: International critics assume that because you are from Chile, there should be some “Chilean” quality in your design. I always find that very hard to detect, in your work but also, in general, within the significant variety of architectural production in Chile. How do you feel about that simplification, and what is the way in which you react to the local context?
SE: We don’t think in those terms. We don’t believe in labeled architecture. Any building that occupies the Chilean territory can be named Chilean architecture. We think there is no value in such a category, neither in the so-called Latin American architecture, nor in international architecture. Labels are no more than institutional reductions. We all know that by definition buildings are produced and constructed in an actual place, therefore they are affected by a unique natural or cultural context. But that doesn’t mean they should be a representation of that particular location, of a local identity.
MP: We are more interested in a general notion of identity, in the capacity of a building to be characteristic, singular, and unique. We understand buildings as individual objects filled with qualities, with spatial and material character; objects that are not only determined by an inner atmosphere but also by a presence, by a personality, a resemblance of themselves.
It is inevitable, or rather reasonable, to take advantage of local resources when building that object. But local materials or techniques, as well as the existing topography or landscape, in our view, are not the real argument of an architectonic artifact, but some of the many means to achieve something else: the understanding of a structural relationship. Buildings are always rooted in a specific place, in a locality, even if they are temporarily installed. But this does not mean that there is a hierarchical relationship between that object and its background.
We prefer to think about it as a reciprocal relationship, as a constant oscillation between autonomy, detachment, adjustment, or response. And this is a continuous process that occurs not only during the production of the architectural project, but also throughout the actual life of the building, in its interaction with a particular community, the traditions, the weather and so on. Most of these factors, fortunately, are beyond the architect’s control.
FG: Your practice has acquired an international dimension, translated into commissions, professorship, and participation in multiple initiatives. Which lessons have you incorporated in your thinking throughout that exposure?
SE: We have expanded our field of action only to confirm that our method of work, somehow guided by basic means and a logical intuition, is pertinent and even necessary in other cultural contexts. Our experience in prestigious and influential schools or museums is that there is a need for a more profound understanding of the art of architecture. There is an enormous amount of production and visualization of buildings, but very little reflection on how the specific elements of a building (e.g. a column or a window) have the capacity to determine the meaning of a place, without any other rhetoric.
MP: It is indeed interesting that one has to step away to confirm one’s own position. Perhaps that geographical distance works in two directions; it allows us to select what we want to see from the rest of the world and to be extremely careful with those new pieces we place in that relatively unknown world. In this act of placement, in opposition to the common places of many global practices, to claim local traditions or materials as features to “integrate” the building into the local culture seems too forced, or no more than a political or promotional slogan.
We neither want to go to a place and read it superficially, nor to impose any peripheral entitlement, any moralistic or self-patronizing validation. It is too reductive for us, too flattening. We are more interested in finding a common ground, a sensitive balance between those facts that we can transfer back and forth from our own experience, without hierarchies or prejudices, in a translation that allows itself to distort both realities. In the end, we are only working in those projects that make sense for us, where we can share and expand our own sensibility.
Pezo von Ellrichshausen is an art and architecture studio established in Concepción, southern Chile, in 2002, by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen. Their work has won several awards, and has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennial, the Royal Academy of Arts, and MoMA. Pezo and Von Ellrichshausen teach at the Pontífica Universidad Católica de Chile in Santiago and IIT College of Architecture in Chicago.
Fabrizio Gallanti is a founding member of the collective gruppo A12 (1993–2004) and the architectural research studio Fig-Projects (2003-present). He was previously the architecture editor and web editor of Abitare magazine, and Associate Director of Programs at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, Canada.
This is an excerpt of a longer conversation, condensed and edited for clarity by Consortia. The full text of this conversation and many others will be featured inThe State of the Art of Architecture, the catalogue of the first Chicago Architecture Biennial. The book will be published by Lars Müller Publishers in November 2015.
For more information, visit http://chicagoarchitecturebiennial.org/exhibition/publications.