Matter and technique. A conversation with Miguel Ángel Alonso del Val
Matter and technique. A conversation with Miguel Ángel Alonso del Val
CARLOS LABARTA AIZPÚN
The generation of architects that replaced our modern masters reached professional and academic maturity some time ago. In the 1970s they were learning under the very close shadow of Carvajal, Oíza and Sota. And with their unbreakable faith in architecture, they have managed to pass the baton to new generations. For some time they have been professors, and now even have disciples teaching in various Spanish schools. Among their number is Miguel Ángel Alonso del Val, the Professor of Design at the School of Architecture of the University of Navarre, who has followed his path with assured silence and without the haste that occasionally troubles the most insecure. Also a disciple of Frampton at Columbia University, he never separated his discourse from the tectonic values of construction and he began to weave his career with research on architectural design. Few architects of his generation have managed such a solid balance between research, teaching and professional practice. That is why this conversation, on the materiality of both his own and others’ projects, represents an opportunity to continue delving into their values and implications. The conversation took place in the office of the head of the School of Architecture of the University of Navarre, the new post—yet another—he has just accepted, and it gives us a chance to reflect on issues as crucial for architecture as matter and technique.
CL. You have researched and examined subjects related to matter since your started your degree right up to your latest material strategies in your own projects. In this dialogue, if you agree, we can address the issue by starting with a brief review of the role of matter in modern architecture and end with how contemporary culture has changed it.
MAV. As an introduction, I would like to say that the issue of matter is essential. In fact, all the arts take a risk when they climb down from the world of theory to the world of matter. All art has its own materiality, its own material world, and it is in the latter that art goes beyond theories. Because up until then, projects and ideas are played out in a purely theoretically plane. But we are aware that it is the materiality of projects that makes all architectural ideas gain that sense of permanence. And this experience with matter is absolutely radical. Only constructions whose materiality has managed to explain the architectural concept on which they are based have made an impact on us and left their mark. Naturally, there are many classicist architectures, but when we visit the Parthenon or Pazzi Chapel, or one of Bramante’s or even Le Corbusier’s structures, we truly understand that they leave their mark on us when matter has managed to rise above the concept of form or mere historical iconography to become architecture.
That is why some of us believe that an architect is actually a builder. Indeed, the difference between sculpture and architecture lies in the fact that architecture is built. A sculptor is not a builder, but an architect is. This means that although matter is transformed by ideas, this transformation stems from the essence of that matter. I usually say that, essentially, architecture is matter turned into geometry and light that becomes time. This is a poetic rather than a disciplinary definition, linking to other interdisciplinary views, but which establishes the importance of matter in the definition. And the value of explaining how matter responds to geometric manipulation and to light as an instrument that qualifies and works with matter. And which becomes time. This means that the durability of actions performed on matter is very important. In fact, one of the problems with current architecture arises from manipulations of materials that technology enables us to perform, but which often become a superficial architecture, not an architecture built in time, in which matter can increase in thickness over time.
CL. Does that mean that you link the values of matter with the condition of architectural permanence?
MAV. That is right. This is directly linked to the idea of consistency. A work of architecture is actually given consistency by the relationship between concept and matter and how, in turn, matter is able to qualify and strengthen the architectural idea behind it through this condition of permanence. As with those structures that we all admire, this is how they become a point of reference.
CL. We can start by analysing how this subject of matter was addressed by modern master The new Le- Corbusierian order, whose values of economy, precision, rigour and universality were outlined by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in Après le cubisme (1918), was not indifferent to a sensitive dimension, in other words, it was not an order emanating exclusively from reason, as it needed to compete with matter.
MAV. That is true, but I believe that when modernity was in its infancy, it took Le Corbusier some time to change from 2D to 3D, if you will pardon the expression. In other words, from his purist stage, from a superficial vision, in the best meaning of the term, and more programmatic, to a more constructive vision. It was at the end of the 1920s when all his thoughts on material appeared, and which I would associate with Villa de Mandrot. Not only is there a new order in this house through plastic play, but matter also started to acquire an importance that continued for the rest of his life.
CL. Do you think that this house was a decisive factor in Le Corbusier’s development?
MAV. I believe it was a turning point in his career that arose from a different perception of materiality. Obviously, as far as this aspect is concerned, there were other important constructions at the time, such as the Swiss Pavilion. But Villa de Mandrot has that value of change, which Laura Martínez de Guereñu studied so well in her thesis. This possibly occurred with the discovery of an architecture that relied more on direct contact with reality rather than learnings from books. His second discovery of the Mediterranean, no doubt contact with surrealist painters, and his own synthetic Cubism stage, in which geometrical and formal aspects were no longer as significant as tactile, material aspects, are all related to this change. All this is linked to the moment when Le Corbusier made that leap. And as I said, Villa de Mandrot became a discourse on materiality that he would confirm in the small Villa Henfel, and, therefore, it became exceedingly important.
CL. I believe that Mies van der Rohe adopted an attitude that we could say was veneration for the qualities and handling of materials as a factor of a new order. The culture of proximity to matter lies in the basis of his education starting with his family’s work with quarrie The order of matter and the desire to help illuminate the spiritual and material situation of his age combine in Mies. Out of all the modern masters, wasn’t he the one who added the most essentiality to this goal?
MAV. Concerning the decisive factor of material you mentioned, Mies certainly devised a discourse that was more consistent from the start. He was obsessed with a discourse that was perhaps more technical. He was more concerned with technical issues than with machinist issues. And technique must be understood as distinct from technology. Technique as an architectural vision is far more than mere knowledge of available technologies.
To understand Mies’ attitude towards material, we first need to clarify the terms technique and technology.
CL. I remember that in your PhD courses, which I attended as a student, you talked about the difference between technology and technique, as well as the reductionism that arose from immediately applying industrialisation processes to architecture.
MAV. To address this issue, I like to remember one of the pioneers who transformed the discourse of architecture with his research on reinforced concrete. Auguste Perret said that construction is the architect’s mother tongue and that poetically expressed technique yields architecture. In my opinion, an architect cannot understand construction as a series of techniques added at the end of the project to execute it. It has to be an intrinsic part of the project from the beginning. There needs to be an emphasis on reality, associated with materiality, from the start of the project. However, talk of the poetry of construction has often clashed with the domain of industrial production transferred to the production of architecture without any mediation. This transfer of industrialisation produces reductionisms that do not help us to understand architecture on the basis of all its elements. Because a production system is not a technique. The former is based exclusively on optimising minimal resources leading to a confrontation between architects producing architecture and those that really want to construct architecture. Technologies replace processes and economise them. Because this way of understanding technology turns it into a substitute for design.
However, techniques are there to support and not constrain architectural capacity. Technique understood on the basis of the Greek term techne, and not exclusively on the basis of technologies, distinguishes between construction and production. While the former is founded on knowledge of techniques used intentionally, the latter is based on a system in which technology is subject to economic values. However, together with that distinction, I have to say that a return to construction does not mean a simple collection of several materials. Instead of design as an assembly of various parts, construction should be valued as a project discipline and technique as the actual control of design. Something that is just a means to an end should not be construed as an end. I conclude with something else Perret said that technique pays continual homage to nature. Nature is not organised as a means to an end, but on the ends themselves. I think architecture should behave in the same way in relation to this debate between technique and technology.
CL. Now we can go back to Mies
MAV. Mies’ obsession was how to make this change, or rather the technique of his time, visible. Obviously, this visualisation is more evident when he uses materials such as steel and glass. But we can also perceive a technical change when he built with concrete, a different way of using technique to that of the nineteenth century, which he had to make visible through construction. In actual fact, all Mies’ projects are just one project of how to make this new technical condition visible. He shifted from a more avant-garde view in projects such as the silk industry pavilion, or even expressionist projects, bearing in mind his use of brick in the Rosa Luxemburg monument or in the Casa de Campo, to other projects that tried to monumentalise technique through the use of the century’s materials, glass and steel. And all in different stages that pursued the same aim. Mies was not a technologist. For him, technology was a resource with which to construct that visibility.
CL. At this point we could link to the figure of Kahn.
MAV. He is a different figure, but I’ve always been passionate about his work. As far as I am concerned, there are two Kahns. In the 1970s, the Kahn that shone through the reductive drawings of his projects, his sketches and drafts, excited the architectural world because he linked directly with the discourse of a return to monuments, to tradition. Primitivism was perceived, a return to the beginning, which he summarised in that phrase of his: “I love beginnings”. But in my US experience of seeing it live, my knowledge and study of his work, I was impressed by how Kahn was able to base his work on beginnings, draft his projects and discover how construction was actually at the service of an idea, but not enslaved to that idea. These projects are well constructed. As there are two Kahns, the second can only be perceived “in situ”. If you look at his sketches, you can find them basic, bare and certainly reductive. But when you arrive at his structures, you notice this shift from something very primitive to something tremendously elaborate, rich, technologically demanding and fantastically finished, exuding perfection. That is Louis Kahn.
CL. Your comments have reminded me of something Moneo explained in his courses at Harvard University, when he was analysing Yale University Art Gallery, how Kahn demonstrates perfection in the relationship between materials, unveiling a new syntax of construction, based on perfection, or even on puritanism.
MAV. Exactly. That is what amazes us. And the way he works with material makes an impact. The Richards Laboratories, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art and the Kimbell Art Museum show the architectural wealth of technical development that is not at all technological. Naturally, Kahn was no stranger to his time and he experimented, especially during the time he worked with Anne Tyng. But that experimentation ended up being controlled by what we could call the general law of building. Projects did not escape from this domain. The important technological developments of these projects, let’s not forget the date when they were built, are perfectly controlled by architectural discourse. The architectural narrative controlled that operation.
Of course Kahn was alive when technique was monumentalised, which is contemporary with Mies. But, in my opinion, the most interesting point about Kahn is that this monumentalisation is also capable of shifting to become a language that architects find accessible. Not as a personal gesture, but as a discourse others can assimilate and which shows how to handle material in a modern fashion as part of a technique that is also modern. The Yale Center for British Art is splendid in the sense that we can all be inspired by it without feeling that we lose our personality as architects. This is the importance of Kahn’s masterly legacy. He manages to create a modern construction without having to resort to an avant-garde construction. From Kahn we learn to use material in its place, not material at its limit. Materials that each has a dialogue in their scale. Not materials playing together as in a purely plastic board.
CL. Have architects abandoned the value of materials and the relationships that can arise between them through the mediation of technique?
MAV. Yes they have. To continue what I said before, we can say that many architects have lost the profound sense of construction and its materiality. By placing too much emphasis on technologies, they have forgotten construction in their projects. And, to a certain extent, this has happened in our schools too. An architect should play the role of a technician, not of a technologist. Now that we have undergone a technological change similar in significance to the one that the modern masters experienced, it is very important to rethink the meaning of technique and its expression at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it differs to the requirements at the beginning of the twentieth century.
CL. The heart of the formulation of modernity, the search for an architecture capable of responding to the spirit of our new times, encompassed a desire for clarification, and architecture’s contribution was its own order based on the differentiation between structure and enclosure.
MAV. The issue of contemporary materiality is indeed another problem. The discourse of modernity stems from an analytical and rational vision. Understanding the world from a modern viewpoint involves an analysis that establishes a rational discourse and, therefore, the world needs to be structured on its components. Consequently, modern construction is based on structure and enclosure and on the multiple relationships and dialogues that arise between these two major elements, and this leads to different architectural works. The productiveness arising from this dialogue between steel structure and glass enclosure and the various positions and relationships between them is very obvious in Mies. All his work can be studied and explained from this perspective.
But this modern vision has been superseded by technology. Electronic technification, environmental demands, the third industrial revolution, the development of composite materials, et cetera, have managed to break down that clear separation between structure and enclosure on a de facto basis. Some contemporary structures are difficult to read using this modern distinction. The case of Sanaa is a clear example of that. The Zollverein School of Management and Design in Holland shows us that it is impossible to distinguish these elements and opens up more complex relationships between the concepts of structure and enclosure. In fact, we could say that structure is enclosure and enclosure structure. Consequently, theoretically, we would be going back to a nineteenth-century situation, in which stone or brick was structure and enclosure and there was no distinction. But that is not actually the case. Because segmentation has already taken place; we have differentiated materials. What is understood as a single layer is, in actual fact, multilayer. And each one is specialised. One solves insulation issues, another finishes, another noise, et cetera. But the possibilities that technology has given us can also result in us architects becoming rather dazzled by the plastic possibilities of this materiality.
CL. Should we be talking about a new materiality then as a development factor of contemporary architecture? And as a continuation of this, we need to remember that modernity insisted on the concept of consistency as a condition resulting from the formal system that was holding back the architectural purpose based on the new compositional order. In view of events and contemporary architectures, how can we understand the value of consistency in architecture in a new way?
MAV. We can speak of a new materiality, but we need to be careful with our use of the term development, as it could turn out to be mere bedazzlement. We could speak of the Guggenheim effect. But the Guggenheim effect of the brilliance of titanium. We are dazzled by materiality and its effects, which leads architects as important as Herzog and de Meuron to place extraordinary emphasis on them. And many contemporary architects coming after them are also focusing on this aspect. Without a doubt, this is the first step in recognizing a new materiality, but the problem is that we have stopped at superficiality, superficial effects. I believe we now need to find a new consistency, using the words of Juan Antonio Cortés in his essay New consistency. Formal and material strategies in the architecture of the 1990s. As far as I am concerned, consistency means rethinking contemporary construction on the basis of technique, given that the traditional discourse of structure and enclosure no longer has any relevance. Obviously this discourse is relevant in teaching to initiate students into these modern bases, but from the perspective of new events.
CL. Material is associated with a particular scale that is often abandoned. Is this another of our architecture’s problems?
MAV. The idea of consistency is very valuable because it refers to the value of material. The material construction of the idea is vital for its survival as a structure. It is not an accessory issue because ideas in architecture have scale and matter. The Pantheon in Rome is what it is due to its scale and its construction, its matter. What impresses us is that combination between both architectural resources. In fact, one of the current problems is that many architects theoretically renounce scale and matter. They work on two- dimensional projects without scale, with no depth of matter. These projects are built virtual models, which, when they are seen live, do not become points of reference. It is true that photographs capture these superficial values of matter, which can initially dazzle us, but they do not attain the consistency of something that lasts when subjected to our direct perception.
The density that matter conveys can only be perceived in real exploration. Because its character goes beyond something that is purely visual. This produces structures that work very well photographically, but not so well architecturally. Architecture is the art of building. The importance that materialisation plays in the definition of architecture determines the purpose of the design and, at the same time, the importance of technique, as we mentioned before, becomes a real support for the project and helps define a specific construction relationship.
CL. As part of this dialogue on matter and its decisive link to architecture, we could go into further detail in the material strategies you have identified in your research, in one of your most important design.
MAV. Concerning my own material strategies, I remember that first structure in the surroundings of the Church of Santa María la Real in Ujué (Navarre), in which I experienced how something devised in concrete is built in concrete. I had discovered this through others, such as Curro Inza and Carvajal, but, in short, I was not conveying my own concepts into matter. Actually seeing how matter speaks to you, displays its own values in the project, is enlightening. And you discover the need to rub something out, to remove in order to express. Sometimes great emphasis is placed on the project containing aspects that concern its materiality, forgetting that the materialisation of the project itself encompasses the ability to elicit a response. In the first years, you are set on certain formal ideas, gestures, which then disappear, on the one hand, because of the construction itself, which has its own laws and, on the other, because of the potential value of the material, which expresses itself. Concrete and brick speak to us, enabling them to be in their rightful place and not at the limit, as we said before. At the limit we force them to be something that is not part of their condition. We have always obsessed about this issue in our projects. Because my partner Rufino Hernández, a professor of construction, has been a constant presence over the years. The technical requirement of dealing with material appropriately has always been very present.
CL. I gather, then, that, as time has passed, your material strategies have undergone a process of distillation.
MAV. Our strategy has been to remove things during the project process. It is a process of purification. Today we look back on this from a distance. But we must not forget that in the 1980s designing meant inventing problems to then solve them. We all remember the fashion of Carlo Scarpa, and how a misunderstanding of his legacy has frustrated many constructions, we could say they have been overdesigned. For him, everything is integrated, it is a Baroque discourse that touches everything from the entrance to the last window. But in many cases, other architects that have tried to imitate him have produced one sham after another. It is true that we somehow rebel against this approach.
CL. And so you did indeed turn to other methods of dealing with materiality. Quite a few guest tutors at the School of Architecture of Navarre, I’ve been told this by more than one of them, on discovering your sports courts for this university from the plane on landing, realised, even from the air, that they were exemplary.
MAV. After a few projects using the “old” materials, building walls of concrete, brick, cyclopean walls, we started to wonder, at the beginning of the 1990s, how to construct the same density we attained with those methods using industrialisation. And it is something we wonder about constantly. Researching how to use precast or industrialised elements does not necessarily involve removing density and consistency from the work of architecture. I have to say that, as far as we are concerned, the construction of this building between 1992 and 1994 turned into a real master’s course. The financial stress and, therefore, the need to purify that we experienced in this project resulted in the requirement to keep the design to a minimum. At the same time, however, we had to bear in mind that we were working in a university environment, in the presence of buildings that have extraordinary dignity and a very valuable constructive power. We could not erect a building that did not meet these requirements, although it was modest from both a budgetary and programmatic point of view. This effort, which initially was going to be solved with a far more formalist discourse, an attempt to gain presence through form, became the desire to gain presence through matter.
CL. This is a very interesting topic: from the presence of form to the presence of matter.
MAV. We could compare it to human relationships. There are people that dazzle you with their appearance and others that dazzle you with their presence. And it is the latter that you actually remember. Obviously we all have an appearance. That is why we can recognise that external form has value, although it is linked to an internal form that is presence. It is that form that says something about its reality. That was the great lesson this project taught us, which had us working as a team and as a studio, which gave us our identity. The internal success we achieved consolidated this as our path. It also explains later projects, such as the headquarters of Ericsson- Labein and the offices of Tracasa; it even explains the confidence with which we approached our work in Aránzazu, using precast concrete in an architectural environment dating from the 1950s in which, for many reasons, the use of stone prevailed. It would have been easy to construct that volume using stone similar to the stone Oiza and Laorga used in an attempt to imitate them. But there was a principle not to do it like that. Obviously we were looking for a material intonation, but using precast elements that denote the period the construction stems from, which was the beginning of the twenty-first century, based on a desire to connect technique to a specific age. This type of approach can be traced throughout our career, even in our housing projects, in which the margin was smaller.
It is true that it is still a discourse that closely follows the language of modernity and is certainly indebted to figures such as Kahn. But as time has gone by, our latest projects show a concern for affirming density through materials that are becoming less and less dense, more and more worked into thinner layers, into smaller thicknesses, multilayers, which in themselves no longer guarantee the consistency that thickness gave, for example Civivox in Mendillorri. The challenge is to arrive at that consistency with this new materiality. We need a twenty-first-century Mies capable of visualising a new technical condition.
CL. Indeed we need to understand how to elevate the technologies of our time to art through technique.
MAV. Exactly. It is what we said before. Construction is an art because it manipulates technology. If there is no manipulation, in the artistic sense of the term, as any artist has done throughout history from Velázquez to Duchamp or Warhol, we cannot really speak of art. Likewise, if the architect is not capable of manipulating technology through construction, he will not achieve the artistic condition. Because construction is either art or pure technology. In fact, we see so many failed buildings merely because they applied technology to a brilliant idea.
CL. Is there an understanding of the behaviour of material or its geometry? Can we refer to the laws of materials?
MAV. From a disciplinary point of view, I usually say that architecture is the construction of form and space with an order. But speaking about materiality, we said at the beginning of our conversation, in a more poetic sense, that architecture is matter transformed into geometry and light that becomes time. Therefore, as a first lesson, we need geometry to work on matter and vice versa. Geometry imposes itself on matter, but matter also has its own geometric laws. Brick, concrete and steel have their own laws and we are all aware that a construction fails when we have used geometry that is not appropriate for the material. Materials have their own laws of formation, behaviour and expression. And materials impose certain rules on architecture. This is an intrinsically architectural value that needs to be regained. It imbues projects with rigour and discipline.
The second lesson is light. Light qualifies material. But each material has its own light. And something else. Material action in architecture is not an instantaneous action; it is an action in time. There is the time of matter and each matter has its time. In fact, the greatest architects throughout history have understood this very well. Material was not chosen at random or as a result of a financial criterion. The decision was based on the temporal nature of architecture. And I believe this is important. We could use this as a basis to study the most recent Serpentine Pavilions, which in this instance, due to their ephemeral nature, are the opposite. Those pavilions whose material condition was more permanent have failed in this case compared with those that assumed their ephemeral condition with their materiality, for example Sou Fujimoto’s pavilion or the recent one by Selgas-Cano, which we would still need to see up close to judge correctly.
CL. We are reaching the end of our conversation and I would like to touch on the subject of the materiality of structures in relation to architecture criticism and the status of opinion this generate.
MAV. The subject of material is related to something fundamental that is one of the recent perversions of architecture criticism, which I usually call architectural gloss. The comments are often made on professional photographs without seeing the structures in situ. And this is when the profound nature of matter as an architectural support disappears. Therefore, some criticism is way off mark. For example, the work by Herzog and de Meuron on the CaixaForum in Madrid, which is a very brilliant exercise in many aspects. It is a monumental operation creating an empty pedestal from a building that was historically not very important and which is now being given significance, and it is wrapped in a matter that apparently contains value. Curiously, however, it is at the point where you discover the weakness of the steel lining when you arrive at the cafeteria, that the concept loses its support and you realise the intervention is weak. You only discover this when you visit the building. It is impossible for photographs to reveal or uncover this.
CL. Work on material, light, scale has to a large extent formed the corpus of teaching. From your academic perspective of years as a tutor and professor, do you still think that students can or should be educated about the meaning of materiality? Or has the frontier between virtual and material actually singularly collapsed with new generations?
MAV. The experience of material lies in the very origin of architecture and design and, therefore, also in teaching them. I do not think that the new relationship we are establishing with architecture through new technologies can replace the experience of space or matter. The very fact of inhabiting involves the perception of the materiality of space with all your senses. In a world in which students have to deal with a great variety of different information, training them in some certainties seems relevant. And one of them is that architecture is learnt by uncovering the creative properties of matter.
Our conversation could go on much longer, with Professor Alonso del Val providing his insights. But they need him to direct his school faculty. A fortunate coincidence talking about matter and teaching. I very much appreciate and am grateful for his time and thoughts.