Design Manifestos: Cristina Parreño Architecture

Cristina Parreño Alonso

The 2015 Design Biennial Boston was unveiled July 16th in the Rose Kennedy Greenway space. The Biennial focuses on exhibiting the inspiring work of emerging architects and designers building their practices in Massachusetts. With the program a month in, Modelo was able to catch up with Cristina Parreño Alonso one of the four talented architects whose work is on display. Full interview below:


On her voice as a designer
My voice as an architect is a combination of being trained in Madrid, having my first professional experience in London and later moving to United States. The Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid was a big school and one would get exposed to many different voices. Also, although from a previous generations, there were certain architects whose work was very present, and I still believe relevant. People like the Saénz de Oiza of the BBVA, the Miguel Fisac of the Centro de Estudios Hidrograficos or the Alejandro de la Sota of the School Maravillas were very influential.

After graduating I worked for a few years in the office of my thesis advisor, a small office with a wide range of projects that gave me the first insight to the real world.

From London, as well as the experience working in an international architectural office, I would take The Barbican Center; a post-war brutalist complex where I lived for 3 years. The project is the materialization of a utopian idea for an inner-city living. High-density residential is integrated with schools, shops, restaurants, theaters, and exhibition spaces. I was always fascinated by the ease with which the architects moved from the vast-scale urban strategy to the design of every detail of the kitchen, every doorknob, every switch. With its failures and its successes the project had a huge impact on me. I was living in the Barbican when I won the first price for the Rehabilitation of AZCA, (one of the first business complexes in Madrid) a project that like The Barbican has a mixed used program, absence of cars in the surface and a large urban scale dimension.

The exposure to the more practice-oriented model of Europe in contrast with a more intellectual one in America has been an experience that in my case had to do not only with the different cultures of the two continents but also with the specific things that I have been doing in each case. In Madrid and London I worked on real projects, many times directly on site, and I had to deal with the impact of building constrains. In United States I have being very directly involved in academia, teaching design studio at SUNY Buffalo first and at MIT for the past 5 years.

Paper Chandeliers (Photograph by Luis Asin courtesy of Cristina Parreño Architecture)

The combination of these two worlds has defined the way I think architecture. On one hand as a very pragmatic endeavor, full of real constraints and on the other hand as an intense intellectual exercise in which one is constantly inquiring one’s own work and putting it in context.

In any case, the discovery of one’s voice as an architect is an ongoing process. One is constantly evolving and influenced by people, surroundings and experiences; but also by certain works of architecture that move you in a way that reminds you why you want to be an architect.

I have recently visited the works of Alvaro Siza in Porto; Eduardo Soto de Moura in Braga and Rafael Moneo in Merida. There are works of architecture that will always feel as if you experience them for the first time. You always see something different. This time I was fascinated by the extreme attention to detail and structure, to the point where it seems effortless, it almost disappears in order to give way to the experience of space.

Cultural Center in Taichung (Image courtesy of Cristina Parreño Architecture

On the nature of her projects and working style
More than trying to find clients; I develop projects and areas of inquiry and clients have found me through this process. My project Tectonics of Transparency is an example of that scenario, in which the obsession with a topic finds its way of getting materialized, first through a research grant by the International Design Center and then through a commission by the Design Biennial Boston.

I also work on competitions of a variety of scales. I like to be exposed to projects when the client is not yet present as a way of performing architecture from the point of view of a more theoretical exercise, working speculatively, extending academic research within the professional realm. The world of competitions is a tough one but it sets a good arena of experimentation from which clients can emerge.

I am a solo practitioner, which gives flexibility for collaborations. I like to collaborate with different people for different projects. Amin Tadjsoleiman is an excellent architect from Iran that has collaborated with me in several international competitions. Our voices come from very different places, which makes our disagreements very productive.

I have also collaborated with Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas whose voice as artists influenced the project of architecture in very interesting ways. Also people like Peter Houk from the glass lab at MIT and Paul Kassabian from SGH were crucial in the projects where I have worked with glass.

“Tectonics of Transparency” Design Biennial Boston Installation (Photograph by Jane Messinger courtesy of Cristina Parreño Architecture)

On her tools and the state of design software today
The tools vary depending on the stage of the project. I use physical models, cad, rhino, grasshopper, photoshop… With the new modeling software, 3D plays a more important role at the earlier stages, whereas before it came slightly later. However, 2D, plan and section are still crucial in my process. I think that today there is new software for almost everything and inevitably the new tools affect and enrich the process of design. However the more analogue techniques bring certain things to the process that are important and can’t be substitute. I like to be multilateral in my approach, toggling back and forth between mediums.

On her firm’s unique approach
The work at Cristina Parreño Architecture focuses on spatial speculations usually based on reinterpretations or transformations of existing conditions. I like to work with the “given” and manipulate it in order to create the “new”. This approach works at different scales. For instance:

At the urban scale, we can think of the deep understanding of the context and the external forces as design drivers. We could look at it as the exploration of the boundary between analysis and projection. At the scale of the building, I like work through “typological transformations” where architectural types are seen as a frame within which change can occur.

Then, at the scale of the prototype, I have worked on material translations through the development of physical constructs. I’ve been interested in the production of architectural prototypes where existing structural systems are translated to another material. (From concrete to glass for instance) These experiments have the intention of being translatable to the scale of the building.

On projects that reflect this approach
Some projects that speak of this approach: The cultural center in Cordoba was a competition to design a small urban infill in the very dense urban fabric of an old Islamic city in Spain. The strategy that we used was to simply reconstruct that small piece of city with the same elements that we found. The idea was to generate something new rearranging or reinterpreting some of the elements that are specific to the cityscape of Cordoba: the roof-scape, the red ceramic tiles, the public space, the patios, the squares and the latticework…they are all ingredients with which the project reconstructs the site as if it was an operation of urban surgery.

The Helsinki National Library is an example of typological transformations. The National library of Boullet and the Ancient Grece Library served as the premise for the project. The library blends and reinterprets these two typologies defining a new one that is divided in 3 main elements: A big urban box (potential meeting place, a trading area, a public square, a democratic agora, an open space for collective demonstrations, a games area…concerts, public lectures ) a series of suspended small boxes (cinema, multipurpose hall, restaurant, sauna, children’s room, and exhibition) and a double ramp system (the library and the vertical park)

Helsinki National Library (Image courtesy of Amin Tadjsoleiman and Cristina Parreño Architecture)

Through the definition of these elements the library describes new relationships between the book and the public, but it also defines the more concrete architectural terms of the building: structure, circulation, programs, envelope…

National Library of Slovenia works with an architectural component that is a large construction unit which also acts as a book container; it’s the façade of the building, it hosts the mechanical services, it modulates the natural light and it serves as space divider. The project is generated by means of blending function, construction, structure and environmental performance in a device that becomes the generator of the project

National Library of Slovenia (Image courtesy of Amin Tadjsoleiman and Cristina Parreño Architecture)

At the scale of the prototype I have been working on the research project Tectonics of Transparency where I have develop a series of prototypes with the idea of translating existing structural systems into the glass medium.

On her Design Biennial Boston Installation
The project at the Boston Biennial revolves around the notion of material translations. It’s the continuation of a research project called Tectonics of Transparency that looks at moments in history in which new types of materials were incorporated to existing structural systems. For instance, reinforced concrete appears in Spain in a moment when the catenoid structures made of ceramic tiles were starting to prove inefficient for being too labor intensive and for the need of very skilled workers. Figures like Eduardo Torroja, Felix Candela and Miguel Fisac started to speculate and work with the newly adopted reinforced concrete continuing the effort of integrating structural performance with the architectural qualities of light and space. Soon after, Eladio Dieste; due to the lack of concrete in Uruguay translates and reinvents these structures to reinforced ceramic-work.

Tectonics of Transparency explores the insertion of glass as another possible material to this chain of transformations. The project investigates the structural properties of a material that has traditionally been used as an infill and conceived of as nonbearing.

“Tectonics of Transparency: The Wall” (Photograph by Jane Messinger courtesy of Cristina Parreño Architecture)

The prototype, “The Tower” looks specifically at the bell towers design by Eladio Dieste in brick in the mid 20th century and translates that type to the glass medium, offering a new set of parameters thus requiring new means and methods of aggregation, joinery, and stabilization. The use of glass as the only material touches on issues of perception, transparency, light and opacity. In turn, the artifact has the potential to exude multiple interpretations.

On the future for her firm and architecture
My aspiration for the future is to have a practice that maintains a great level of experimentation and which work is consistent. To have a practice that finds a good balance between real constrains and intellectual challenges.

I see space for disruptive innovation in new materials and technologies applied to architecture. But there is also a type of innovation that comes from tradition; from looking at things differently; changing a small thing but making a big difference. I think architecture is a combination of both.

Design Manifestos delivered weekly subscribe to our newsletter.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.