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23 of November '20

The interview with Carmen Espegel appeared
in A&B 9'2020

I'm dating Carmen online, it's March 2020, the pandemic is underway - she's stuck in Santander, I'm stuck in Zakopane. We had met during doctoral seminars at the University of Porto a few months earlier, at which time Carmen showed me architectural history from a side I had never seen before. Within five minutes she was able to talk about the love stories of Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, draw construction details of the first glazing, and immediately hooked on Heidegger. This meeting had to happen at some point, while online. Like all readers, Carmen invited me to her studio in Madrid, which I will certainly visit. What does architecture look like as seen through Carmen Espegel's eyes?

Adrian Krężlik: In 1911, Otto Bartning, in his article "Should Women Build?" writes that architecture designed by women is "fragile because they listen to clients instead of telling them how it is''. How to respond to such absurd statements?

Carmen Espegel: Recently Routledge published my book "Women Architects in the Modern Movement" [the Spanish version has the much more graceful title "Heroínas del espacio," or "Heroes of Space" - ed. note]. And in it I already give an answer to such a question. After all, you have to start with the fact that we are talking about the year 1911. This is also a very typical hook for that time. A woman is not considered a professional. From today's point of view, what she says is very interesting, because this is what modern architecture follows: lightness, subtlety and delicacy. Today we are looking for cooperation with the client. After more than a century, we appreciate a slightly different instrumentarium; what belonged to the feminine world has become the common instrumentarium of architects. I think we've reached the point where the boundary has moved the other way. Of course, now we have this domesticity everywhere. Note that domesticity is beginning to permeate other spheres. That large multinational corporations, such as Google, Starbucks, are beginning to domesticate common, service or office spaces. And it is these values that, paradoxically, have become leading. What's more, today we share intimacy. Contemporary artists who are flourishing in art spaces are talking about this very domesticity and pushing it outward from the home. They are moving intimacy outside to share it with others. What Otto Bartning criticized at one point in history is among the leading elements in contemporary architecture.

24 viviendas (24 apartments)24 viviendas (24 apartments)24 viviendas (24 apartments)

24 viviendas (24 apartments), Fuenlabrada, Spain, proj.: espegel-fisac arquitectos

© espegel-fisac

: I have the impression that this domesticity is being stuffed even in places where we don't want it: in cafes, in office spaces, everywhere.

Carmen: This sales technique is extraordinary. They want you to feel at home, something that was unimaginable in the 19th or 20th centuries, when private and public spaces were not in such close relationship. The boundary between one and the other was clear. Together with the development of technology, today, after all, we are at home more than usual, the inside has disappeared. The relationship between inside and outside, privacy and public space is very dynamic today.

: As we are talking about this domesticity, let's look at the first heroine, Charlotte Perriand. How do we talk about Perriand, leaving out Le Corbusier? Because when we talk about Corbu, some kind of magic drawer opens up in the minds of architects. It's probably the most important reference point in 20th century architecture. Can we talk about Perriand without talking about Corbu? What was her influence on the master's buildings?

Carmen: You have to talk about Charlotte Perriand in the context of her entire career. And you can mark on the timeline the presence of Le Corbusier. Especially in the early period of her career. And one must not forget that Perriand worked with the greatest: Lúc Costa, Oscar Niemeyer, Georges Candilis, the Candilis Woods duo and with Jean Prouvé. She was a firecracker woman! She worked with everyone and everywhere. In Latin America, Europe and Japan. It can't be said that Charlotte was only associated with Le Corbusier. Her career proves that she was an excellent designer, also the quality of her work was extraordinary - everyone wanted to work with her.

I would reverse the popular statement: Le Corbusier would not have achieved so much if not for Charlotte Perriand. He would not be the significant figure he is today. Of course they would have been an architect, but not That Architect. Ultimately, architectural studios work as a team.

Charlotte Perriand joined the studio in 1927, and her influence on Le Corbusier's buildings was fundamental. If we compare the 1925 L'Esprit Nouveau pavilion, when Charlotte Perriand is not yet there, with the next building, the 1928 Villa Church, when she is there, we see a radical change. Perriand brings modernity to the interiors, something missing from Le Corbusier's previous designs. She was able to make the interior and exterior cohesive. It should be remembered that Le Corbusier in 1925 had already defined what interiors should look like. But this is mostly theory. To date, he has not yet done virtually any interior realization. Maybe except for the casier, a multifunctional piece of furniture that can store clothes, books, newspapers or kitchen appliances. If you look at the pavilion, you can immediately see that it is extremely modern in its concept, especially when it comes to the exterior and the architectural space as such, but not when it comes to the interior. The furniture is placed somehow badly. There are paintings by Léger [the reference is to Fernand Léger, the French painter - ed. note] hanging on the walls, there are thonet chairs made of bentwood and a traditional leather sofa. It's kind of such a strange amalgam. And when you move a few years later, you look at the Villa Church and are stunned. You see that this design is consistent, this furniture was prepared by the three of them: Corbu, Jeanneret and Charlotte. They are contemporary. We have a chaise longue, a table with a round leg, known until now only from airplanes. Now you can't separate architecture from furniture, interior from shell. Charlotte has brought radicalness to interiors. Until now it was in words, but not in deeds.

: And what was it like with Lilly Reich? What was her role in Mies van der Rohe's studio? Is it possible to talk about Mies without talking about Lilly? Is it possible to talk about Lilly without talking about Mies?

Carmen: Let's start with the fact that they were partners [Reich and van der Rohe worked together from 1925 to 1938 - editor's note], which few people know. How did Tagliabue influence Miralles [Benedetta Tagliabue and Enric Miralles of the Miralles Tagliabue EMBT studio - ed. note], Mansilla influence Tuñón [Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos - ed. note]? In such relationships, it is difficult to estimate. Reich and van der Rohe worked together primarily on exhibitions. At the time, they served as a place for experimentation, a place to test hypotheses of modernist architecture. Why? First of all, it was very cheap, quick and easy. They experimented with textures and materials, such as velvet, silk, viscose, in different patterns, different colors. They allowed the exhibition space to be divided into smaller sections.

The ephemeral world of the exhibitions that Lilly and Mies created, where Lilly was the teacher, was a place to try out contemporary concepts that were later transferred to architecture, which was too slow to respond to change. She was responsible for the interior, the furniture, he for the rest. Once again, it must be said - they were partners. Mies took care of continuity and spatial fluidity. Christiane Lange, an American researcher, found that the two worked together on the design of a pavilion in Barcelona. The turquoise glass and materials and their colors would have just been Lilly's mark.

: Some time ago I was surprised to learn that when Mies left for the States, it was Reich who ran the studio.

Carmen: And I'm not surprised at all, they were partners. Mies accepted an offer to become dean of the Faculty of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he stayed there. Their love relationship also ended then. Reich returned to Germany on the last ship from the States before the outbreak of World War II and took custody of the studio's archives. She moved them to the home of one of her students, and that's how we know the pre-war works of Mies and Lilly.

24 viviendas (24 apartments)24 viviendas (24 apartments)24 viviendas (24 apartments)

24 viviendas (24 apartments), Fuenlabrada, Spain, proj.: espegel-fisac arquitectos

© espegel-fisac

: In your lecture for the Juan March Foundation, you remind us that it was female architects who made the barrel of Diogenes habitable. Is this how we should understand the role of women in architecture at the beginning of the 20th century? What has changed?

Carmen: Remember that many if not most of these women entered architecture through the back door. Few of them studied architecture. Those who didn't graduate from architecture school were simply talented women. They were great at designing interiors, or carpets, or furniture, or were excellent embroiderers, or designed textiles. They are the ones who propose to make the cold and abstract architecture of modernism, the purist and ascetic interiors of modernism habitable. They enter architecture where they are allowed. As soon as they find a crack, they immediately get through it. As I mentioned, at the time, not many of them graduated in architecture, maybe only Schütte-Lihotzky, who also had good professors. The others didn't.

When I think of Diogenes' barrel dwelling, I think of Corbu's quintessential dream, objectivity itself [here as an ontological position that holds that the object of cognition exists outside of and independently of the cognizing subject - ed. note]. This is architecture without unnecessary wrappings and decorations. Architecture in itself. Architecture without anything, which is very difficult to inhabit. This inner shell, which is what they began to build, is essential to understanding modern architecture. However, the history of this modern architecture has always been told to us disastrously. They only talked about glass, steel and so on, and this architecture has always been clothed. If you look at the Tugendhat villa, you will immediately see that you can't read a book in the library while someone is playing the piano. Everything was connected. These interpenetrating spaces cannot be inhabited, after all. Free Jokes. You will also see successive layers of fabric that overlapped. And again, we were not taught about this. It wasn't until I studied it that I understood what it was all about. I knew how it worked - all you had to do was move or close off spaces with curtains. In this way, it separated parts of the house.

: Who are your heros in architecture? Who inspires you?

Carmen: [laughs] I have many, many heroines. At the very beginning, Eileen Gray, about whom I wrote my doctorate. Once, when I was working on the design of another house, a colleague came to me and said he saw Gray's influence everywhere. I realized that I had stopped noticing it. The way I designed the bookshelf hanging from the ceiling was nothing but an interpretation of Gray's suspended ceilings. Without a doubt, Gray flashes through my entire professional life, probably because I spent many years with her. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, whose work showed social commitment and was very political. Architecture is politics. I feel a lot of Grete's influence on my own work. Of course, Lina Bo Bardi - first of all she talked about the common, she appreciated rural construction, Brazilian architecture. In doing so, she showed how we can read modernism from a different angle. And at the very end, contemporary Kazuyo Sejima. First of all, because when everyone stopped appreciating residential architecture - because it is so ordinary and everyday - she opened a new chapter. Her vision of the infinity of housing demands attention. And then there is Petra Blaisse, an architect and designer, a collaborator of Sejima and Koolhaas, by the way, she is also his partner. Her studio, Inside Outside, handles the layering.

[The phone rings and Carmen says she has to leave for a second.]

: Recent years have been an interesting time in Spanish architecture. On the one hand, very little is being built compared to the 1990s; on the other hand, we see Spanish names everywhere: Izaskun Chinchilla, Arantza Ozaeta Cortázar, Andrés Jaque or Eva Franch and Gilabert. How does this happen?

Carmen: This very question was asked to me by (Kenneth) Frampton when I lived in New York. Frampton said that it's not that we have a few good architects, but rather a lot of good ones. And it must have to do with how they are trained. Perhaps, of course, I don't want in any way to attribute to us, the professors of Spanish universities, some extraordinary merit, but I think we base everything on two elements: professional practice and theory. In Spain, architectural education circulates between ideas and practice on site. All, or almost all, lecturers are either running design studios or working in them. There is some very strong connection between criticism and practice, precisely among today's forty-year-olds who have been out of work, especially during the crisis [this is the crisis that has been going on since 2008 - ed. note]. There are always Spaniards in the largest design studios, and the same with universities, both among faculty and graduate students. Beatriz Colomina from Princeton (the one from Radical Pedagogies), during one of the lectures we invited her to, said straight out that they want Spanish students because they are hardworking, creative and bring a great working atmosphere. I think it's the way we educate that pays off - first of all a good theoretical basis, and then practical.

: How does your work at the university affect your projects? How does the work of an architect affect teaching?

Carmen: From the beginning I worked in both fields and developed them simultaneously. I have also always done competitions. For me, this coexistence is the key to the profession. Sometimes the reality in the design studio is quite brutal and makes you stop dreaming. You are always in the line of fire. Then you go back to the academy. You practice with students and bring those exercises back to the studio. And vice versa, during design correction you use your professional experience, especially on technological issues, how to build, how construction works. And then there's research, which is the third leg missing from your question. Not only teaching and designing, but also researching architecture.

przekrój cross section through a city section; 500 Viviendas de Interes Socialprzekrój cross section through a city section; 500 Viviendas de Interes Socialprzekrój cross section through a city section; 500 Viviendas de Interes Social

Cross section through a section of the city; 500 Viviendasde Interes Social, Bogotá, Colombia, design: espegel-fisac, Lacaja arquitectos

© espegel-fisac

: In the studio you run with Concha Fisac, you work on housing in both northern countries, such as Germany, and southern countries, such as Colombia. Is the design process different depending on the location?

Carmen: First of all, we first get to know the context in which we will be working. But actually always answering similar questions: who are the people who will live in the location, how do they live, how can we help them, using tools from the architect's workshop, how can we change some habits, because after all, the apartment has some routines, sometimes absurd, sometimes we turn everything inside out and ask ourselves what would happen if we did the opposite. So far we haven't been able to work in participatory processes yet, but I hope that will change soon, because we want to work that way. For example, in Bogotá [the 500 Viviendas de Interes Social project - editor's note] we started with the first familiarization, together with an architect from Colombia, Gloria Serna. So the same first stage: we analyzed what social housing means in this context, what are the determinants, what are the minima, what are the local materials. We were in constant contact. This was to be a real project, not an impossible one. Reality has enough data to make a good project. What's more, there is a real estate market in every country, and if at some point you do something a little better or differently, it often starts to work, and the residents are happy. And that's what happened when we suggested to one developer, who builds well but very conservatively, that there should be two entrances to the apartments - first a common gallery, and then entrances to the houses. He started by saying that it would cost a lot. We had to explain that it would be a place to leave a bicycle, put flowers, where old ladies can sit. In our design, we look for solutions that allow for flexibility. After all, home is where we mature as an individual, and yet we don't give it enough importance.

: Continuing on the theme of this flexibility, I'd like to take a moment to talk about where you work - Casa de las Flores. How does it affect your work and why should we visit it?

Carmen: I invite anyone who will be in Madrid to come to the studio and see the building. It was designed by Secundino Zuazo in 1931, and it's something completely different from what was usually done. At that time, one built a front tenement, only later the first, and then another outbuilding, three meters apart. The buildings were indeed mediocre. There were apartments that looked like three-meter narrow courtyard-studios from one side and the other. Some kind of horror. That's how they built, because the more they managed to build, the more money they made. Zuazo suggested to the investor, who, by the way, had a brick factory, that this building would be a kind of showroom for his products, and that he could promise a lot of square meters, but not the maximum number. But the apartments would be great, no matter if they faced the courtyard or the street. So, for the first time in Spain, he is using an element that has been practiced before in Germany and the Netherlands, for example: a courtyard with a garden. And it turns out that such a yard is better than the street! It's bigger, has more light, ba, it's quiet. The backyard gives the feeling of living on an island. Outside the frontage could not be built higher, because the regulations did not allow it, but they did not specify the height inside, so inside they built higher. And this manages to meet the client's requirements. This is an unusual place. A long time ago we managed to rent an office in this building, and it was not easy. To this day, when we enter the building and look at the entrance, we think we need to design better entrances for our projects, like the one at Casa de las Flores. [Carmen takes out a red fan]. This building teaches us something every day.

Casa de las FloresCasa de las FloresCasa de las Flores

Casa de las Flores, Madrid, Spain, design: Secundino Zuazo, 1931,title=Casa de las Flores, Madrid, Spain, design: Secundino Zuazo, 1931}

photo: Luis García © CC-BY-SA 3.0-ES

: I was recently at a debate between Frampton and Sizy, and Frampton just emphasized the word resistance (stubbornness and resilience). And the same thing appears in what you are saying: persistence in order to get to the core of architecture, to create a framework for a better life, something we are increasingly forgetting.

Carmen: For me, this is the very essence of architecture. The social responsibility of the architect. The ultimate goal of architecture is for people to live better. Everything else I don't really give a damn about.

: It's hard to imagine a better ending to our conversation. Thank you.

Carmen: I would also like to thank you. It was a real pleasure. I'm glad to see that the next generation is really interested in architecture.

interviewed by Adrian

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