Begoña Marín Calle and Armando Valenzuela Moyano interview the renowned Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza in his studio in Madrid.
Alberto Campo Baeza is the latest recipient of the National Architecture Award given by the Spanish Association of Architecture Institutes. Almost at the same time, the National Geographic organization named Andalusia’s Museum of Memory —along with the Guggenheim of Bilbao— one of the “ten modern wonders of the world,” an accolade which Campo Baeza, naturally modest and restrained, disagrees with. He receives us in his studio in Madrid’s Justicia neighborhood, dressed in a blue-striped shirt that was his father’s, and leads us into his office, a corner at the back where a painting by him hangs beside a Chillida print. We start to converse around a table on which there is a card-board model of his latest house project and a prototype of a delicate lamp he has designed in three lines: a trihedron of steel expressing the essence and exactitude that governs his work in general.
Begoña Marín Calle: Why don’t you agree with National Geographic’s recognition of your museum?
Alberto Campo Baeza: Well, these are media gimmicks, as when they declare a city the most beautiful in the world ,with the exception of Cádiz, proclaimed as such last year by The New York Times, because Cádiz truly is the world’s loveliest city. Actually, architecture rarely makes news. Only when someone does something outlandish or when something falls or something tremendous happens, as with Nôtre Dame. Any second-rate painter or sculptor does something and makes headlines. Just think of ARCO. But the media pays no attention to architecture ,or very little, or only very sporadically. Anyway, back to the museum, I suggest you go there for a meal. There’s an excellent restaurant upstairs run by Arriaga. I’d never eaten there before. I’d done the building, that’s all, but when I last went to Granada I passed by there and the feeling of having a meal afloat is wonderful. It’s transparent on both sides and you feel you’re hovering over Granada.
Armando Valenzuela Moyano: Given architecture’s lack of a presence in the media, photography —the image of architecture— becomes fundamental.
ACB: A bad architecture with a good photographer is a hypocrite, but a good architecture with a bad photographer is an imbecile. I am fortunate to have a splendid photographer, Javier Callejas, who is an architect but who appeared on the scene when he had not yet graduated. The photographer is the key link in the transmission of the message. The first one I worked with was Hisao Suzuki, he took the photos of the Gaspar House. I remember we traveled down to Cádiz and he made me get up at five in the morning to go to the house. We sat on the floor, everything was still dark, and after ten minutes it began to brighten up. At this point he stood up and in silence took the marvelous photographs you all know. Those photos perfectly captured the beauty of the house.
AVM: You say that photographers are free to shoot your works as they please, that there are no directives in terms of what you want shown or conveyed.
ACB: I give them freedom, especially with Javier Callejas, who is an architect and has the mind and eyes of one. In the daycare center for Benetton in Venice, for example, Suzuki did the photos, but not all were to my liking. I had taken some during visits to the site and saw that some images were missing. Hisao could not return to Venice at that moment and the pictures we published were taken by a Benetton photographer.
AVM: Interesting for its didactic worth is that your books show images that reference works of other architects. I think for instance of the interior shot, taken during the construction of Owen Williams’s Daily Mirror Building, that in some of your monographs accompanies pictures of the construction of your Caja Granada, or the penguins drawn on the ramp of Andalusia’s Museum of Memory, in clear allusion to Berthold Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool. Is this about the evocative power of images as a way to present a project? About the copy as a design tool in the terms put forward by Antonio Miranda, a starting point to exceed and improve on?
ACB: In this I am not of the same opinion. It’s true that for pedagogical purposes, as often happens in class, examples and images are given, all perfectly valid, to help people understand something via comparison. But I prefer to talk about memory. Memory is an instrument not only for us architects, but also for writers, for creators, for inventors. The first tool of an architect is reason, aided by imagination. In Fernando de Terán’s office at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which he directs and I am a member of, is a Goya etching titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. But the Prado Museum possesses a text on that print where Goya says: Reason, helped by imagination… Once again the etching is very clear, pedagogiclly, but there are second parts, and the text explains what the image cannot. Reason and imagination are essential to the creative process. And the third ingredient is memory, an architect without memory is like a needle without thread. Both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier have a photograph taken in front of the Parthenon, the most modern architects posing with the most ancient architecture. I will sooner speak of memory than of copy.
AVM: And what of the image as reference or evocation in Caja Granada?
ACB: Well, you’ve already mentioned Owen Williams, but one thing I discovered to my tremendous satisfaction is that the four pillars in the Caja’s central space are as tall as, and equal in diameter to, the columns of Granada Cathedral, and have the same distance between them. This cathedral is the world’s most gorgeous and it has been restored with a lot of delicacy, I don’t know by whom, but whoever did it has done a very good job. I was there the other day and sunlight was streaming in through the high stained glass windows, in diagonal trajectories full of drama and beauty. And something similar happens in my building. I realized this later, but it can’t be by chance. At play is the memory of light, the memory of space.
BMC: Juan Herreros speaks of this space as a hypostyle space. It’s a lay cathedral, you enter and see the light, and look up. There are videos and images that show the building as it really is, and when you visit, you are amazed at how everything you have seen on a screen is real, there is no post-production.
ACB: At this point I should acknowledge that Suzuki’s images are marvelous, that they present the Caja as it really is, and help people get to know it. But nothing beats actually being in a building. Some time ago I wrote an essay about memory and spoke of recognizing spaces. It happens to architects in particular. We are trained to understand buildings through plans, as with the Pantheon, for example. But one day you enter it and what you see is sublime, and that experience of the space cannot be replaced by knowledge of it through drawings. Eduardo Chillida wrote a beautiful piece describing his feelings stepping into the Pantheon and embracing the column of light shining in from above.
AVM: You keep talking about light. What’s your relationship with it?
ACB: In the same way that I say that memory is the first instrument, I say that light is the first material. It’s free and yet the most luxurious material that architects work with. Right now I’m doing a house in Madrid, in Montecarmelo. It’s very simple and on top is a glass box, and the ceiling has an oculus. The other day I arrived at the site and blew my top (which I don’t do much) because they had put a small bib around the skylight to wetproof the root terrace, blocking the view of the sky. The site manager, a very smart guy, climbed up and removed a brick of the bib, in such a way that, from down below, we could see the sky where he had removed the piece, but only the masonry where he had not. It was a very emotive moment. A pedagogical comparison would be with poetry: a word here says nothing, but you change it and the new word says everything.
BMC: Oteiza used to recount how, as a child, he would make holes in the sand and insert himself inside in order to observe the world from that perspective. That’s a very architectural attitude. Remove in order to make space. There’s something of this in your architecture.
ACB: There’s an American artist, Michael Heizer, who has a work in the museum of the Dia Art Foundation (Dia:Beacon), consisting of four holes in the floor, painted black inside. A while ago we were talking about copies. In the travertine platform of the House of the Infinite there are three excavations, and to explain it I use an image of the Michael Heizer. The excavations are: the swimming pool, one at the entrance to the house, and a small amphitheater. Emptying brings out the power of the project.
AVM: As a student at ETSAM I learned a lot of architecture studying your houses, where the clarity of the concepts has a very direct pedagogical effect. Questions like the light defining a space, the interior flowing to the exterior or the exterior penetrating the interior, the tectonic and the stereotomic, have a straighforward presence. Nevertheless, what for students is a longed-for learning process can be difficult for the private client. Is the didactic experience possible with clients? How do you engage with them to obtain architecture as you conceive it?
ACB: Clients have to be taught and convinced, with a lot of tact and deftness but firmly. It can be a long hard process. The commission for the House of the Infinite, for example, came from an architect married to a very charming Belgian. It’s a simple story: in the vicinity of the Playa de Bolonia (Bolonia Beach) is a Belgian community, and close by is the Playa de los Alemanes (Beach of the Germans). There they bought a piece of land, the best, where a German had, right by the sea and the dune, built a house in the late 1950s, before that was prohibited. The house was in ruins and had to be demolished, but this made room for a new construction that could stretch all the way to the dune. The clients called me in to design a home for them, thinking I would build them a white house like others I had done in the area, but I came up with something different: a podium fused with the earth and which the wind and sand would erode until it looked like a ruin. They took my proposal with some reticence at first. Meanwhile, they came across the Belgian architect Vincent Van Duysen, who uses a lot of pietra serena, a greenish gray stone, at which point they gave me the go-ahead, on the condition that I use that stone for cladding. I had proposed a travertine with onyx stains, onyx travertine, for a more toasted tone that would blend with the color of the sand on the beach. After some months of fierce battle with the clients, and plenty of adroitness, I won with conviction. Now they’re delighted. But this is not easy. People probably think I turn down lots of clients but what really happens is that my specialty is scaring them away, and some reappear eventually. Others don’t.
That said, there’s a second part, and we should talk about it too: we should see to it that people don’t take our schemes as impositions. Architects propose a framework for people to be happy in and live as they please. You can’t go to a house and remove the furniture they’ve put. I did some projects with Julio Cano, among them the PPO Iturrondo professional training center in Pamplona. Last year (2018) it was included in the Iberian DOCOMOMO, a program aimed at protecting contemporary architecture, and in February this year (2019) I was there to give a talk.
The building had been much altered and was to be repurposed for administration functions. The restoration job was assigned to Maite Apezteguia, a fine architect who was worried about having applied white paint to the originally orange honeycombed beams. I enter the building and Maite, very worried, asks me what I think, and I tell her it’s fine, perfect. She says, Alberto, doesn’t it bother you? Not at all, I reply, it’s great. You can’t enslave people with your works. Carvajal explained this very well through the example of the case and the box. If you have a case for a fork, you can’t try to put a knife in it, but if you have a box, you can put in a knife, a spoon, and a fork. It’s better to make a box in which everything fits. Melnikov said that he had only made boxes in his life, big and small.
BMC: The Caja Granada, precisely, may be the clearest example of a box.
ACB: Yes, and the Caja Granada, is a stereotomic box set the other way around, against the floor, in an effort to trap air with a heavy artifact. Later I perforate it so that solid light comes in, as into a trap. Because of its dimensions (72 x 72 x 36 m), I put four columns at the center to solve the gravitational problem.
AVM: We talk about your white houses and the House of the Infinite, but you have also built social and low-cost housing developments. Are these different registers?
ACB: No. True, I did the House of the Infinite for one of Belgium’s richest families, and that enabled me to do whatever I wanted, but I have also built economical dwellings, such as the Gaspar House, which went up on a budget of 2 million pesetas then, but with the same intensity that goes into all my projects. Or the complex at La Viña, in Entrevías, the best social housing I have ever done. I like to build good and economical architecture for everyone. And for this, we don’t need large spaces. We’re now in a competition for quasi-social dwellings, and they’re going to be very radical. I live in a single, 25-square-meter space. I have a retractable bed, lots of shelves full of books, and everything within reach. That’s all I need.
BMC: You were born in Valladolid but consider yourself from Cádiz. You love the city and its light.
ACB: Around 49 BC, when he was not yet emperor, Caesar Augustus went to the Tower of Hercules in Cádiz to have the priests of that famous sanctuary interpret a dream he’d had, before crossing the Rubicon and taking up arms against the senatorial government. The oracle said he would one day be emperor of the whole world. When this came true, Caesar Augustus remembered the prophecy, and in gratitude declared all Cádiz citizens Romans by birth, pleno iure. This is something that most people in Cádiz don’t give importance to, but I do. I defend my Roman and gaditano citizenships.
My father, for a number of reasons, was ‘banished’ to Cádiz. And that was the best thing that could have happened to us. We lived very happily. I can’t describe how wonderful it was to live on the edge of La Caleta. I attended the Marianistas school of Cádiz, did high school there, and its church was the Oratory of San Felipe Neri Oratory, which was where the first Spanish Constitution was passed. Those were very enjoyable years for me. And discovering the light of Cádiz was fundamental.
My father died at 104 and was always studying. At medical school in Valladolid he received 19 distinctions. He spent his whole life studying. As children we would ask him why he kept studying if already knew everything. When he passed away, my sisters sorted out his papers and found three sheets on which his teacher, instead of “matrícula de honor,” had written “admirable.” He sat examinations for the military, as a safety net, and passed them, and in May 1936 he came to Madrid to do the required adaptation course. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War found him in Madrid. After the war he was labeled “hostile to the regime” and sent to Cádiz. A punishment that made us very happy.
BMC: You’ve mentioned Goya, Rome, Greece, Agrippa’s Pantheon. How important is Antiquity, the classical world, in your training and in your architecture?
ACB: Very important. Let’s go back to Caja Granada, for example. The project is a large stereotomic box where, in the maniera of the Pantheon of Rome, there is a clear continuity of vertical and horizontal planes.
What in the Pantheon is a grand dome thanks to the constructional continuity of a material that only works by compression, is in Granada a linteled box thanks to the horizontality made possible by a new material, steel, and with it, reinforced concrete, which works well in a linteled system of large structural spans. What in the Pantheon is masterfully executed in the only system possible then, the cupula, is in Granada resolved with the modern lintel system that lies within our reach.
And if the Pantheon, logically, brings in light at the culminating point of its constructional system, through the divine oculus, Caja Granada perforates its upper horizontal linteled plane, to receive the light needed in what we have called “impluvium of light.”
Some years ago I wrote a piece about one of my obsessions: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I own 66 editions in different languages. In Spanish, in English, in Portuguese, in French, even in Croatian. The original was in Greek. On one of my trips to New York I found a very cheap Penguin pocket edition. The translation by Maxwell Staniforth is unbeatable. I have looked for Spanish versions and none has the precision and exactitude of this one. One day, surfing the Internet for a good Spanish translation, I bungled and stumbled upon an establishment in Málaga that makes bronze reproductions of classical sculptures. And that’s how I found this equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Piazza del Campidoglio. So you see, always Rome. [The small sculpture presides the table in his studio, amid books and projects.]
AVM: When talking about knowledge transfer you have mentioned photography, but you have quite a large output of writings and your website is among the most beautiful, clear, and pedagogical I have ever seen.
ACB: My website has almost 6 million visitors. How can that be? I don’t know. It was designed by Massimo Vignelli, one of the creators of the Helvetica typeface, and was a gift from some New York clients, but what’s important is that anyone in New York or Tokyo or here has access to all the information, anytime. This has changed the world of research. Some days ago, at the Royal Academy, we were talking about doing an exhibition of Goya prints, and I said we should digitalize his entire oeuvre. I myself have digitalized all my drawings, scanned all the plans, notebooks, everything, and I’ve donated it all to ETSAM, the Madrid School of Architecture, my alma mater. Anybody can now look at my work directly and easily. The digital has huge advantages because, among other things, it lets you make corrections. My latest project is a book to be titled Rewriting. I am going to get texts I’ve written and correct them all I can. Rewriting is a great exercise, like being born again. And this is possible thanks to Word, where it’s easy to correct.
BMC: I have to ask you to describe your architecture, which maintains a register in such a way that while seeming to stay the same, it is always surprisingly different.
ACB: It’s radical. Last year I wrote a book on Alejandro de la Sota and titled it Laconic Sota. My architecture can be exactly that: laconic, radical, sober, and logical, with common sense.
BMC: When Sara de la Mata and Enrique Sobejano interviewed Julio Cano Lasso, the latter said that if he had dedicated his life to a discipline other than architecture, he would have persevered in his studio and the dedication would have been equally gratifying. For him, dedication to work was the important thing. Can you picture yourself doing something other than architecture?
ACB: No, and in fact at architecture school I had Alejandro de la Sota as teacher, and when I met him, I thought “I want to be like him.” Every day, I learn something new. At the Prado Museum is a pencil drawing by an octogenarian Goya. It shows an old man walking with two canes, luminous, as if coming out of darkness. In the upper right corner Goya wrote: “I am still learning.” I consider myself lucky and keep thanking God for my life. I go swimming twice a week and I walk up five floors to my apartment (there is no elevator), and like Goya, I’m still learning.
We leave his studio feeling we’ve just been in a place removed from fashions and contemporary pressures, almost like the atelier of a Renaissance man, a workshop where the most modern architecture is born out of reflecting about humankind, about place, about light. In Alberto’s atelier reigns silence, and time for thinking. It’s an aspirational studio, of the kind one wants to return to, to find the peace radiated by a man who has taken in the world from the angle of a personal story that has brought him from Cádiz to an orb without borders, and who imparts it through his writings, his teachings, and his architecture.
© Javier Callejas