Grafton Architects and Aleph Zero discuss the importance of context for their very different RIBA award-winning schemes
‘With globalisation, sameness obliterates uniqueness.’ Yvonne Farrell, co-director of Grafton Architects, set the tone for an evening of conversation, cultural exchange, and architectural insight with this remark on the particularity of place. Farrell was at the RIBA with Gustavo Utrabo and Pedro Duschenes, the duo co-directing Aleph Zero. Grafton Architects and Aleph Zero, winners of the RIBA International Award in 2016 and 2018, respectively, presented some of their work before a conversation headed by Ellie Stathaki of Wallpaper* magazine. Discussing cultural complexities, the particularities of place and global crises, the designers were as forward looking as they were reflective, looking back with incisive wisdom and ahead with refreshing optimism.
Intergenerational dialogues are the focus of this discursive series of RIBA Vitra talks, the idea being to put well-established practices like Grafton Architects in conversation with more emerging practices such as Aleph Zero to see what we can learn from architects across generations. But the notion of inter-generational architecture is tricky – ‘the world is complex’, as Farrell noted, and technologies that architects use evolve faster than we can keep track of. As the dialogue progressed, however, it became clear that it is not a toolset we can pass on but a mindset; having an awareness of ‘the uniqueness of place,’ as Farrell called it, is an attitude that doesn’t become obsolete the way technology does. It is a timeless mindset that, paradoxically, works anywhere. It is not attached to a specific place – except the place you are in, right now, making it both particular and universal. So the particularity of the local is both inter-generational and inter-national, and as these well-versed architects conversed, we were caught in a verbal journey through a series of intriguing cultural complexities around the world.
Farrell started us off in Lima, Peru. As she described Grafton Architects’ award winning project for the UTEC University Campus, it was immediately clear that the project is at once intellectually thorough, pragmatically grounded and poetically poignant. She couldn’t have been more emphatic about the design as a response to the local idiosyncrasies of Lima, citing the 18th century geographer, Alexander von Humboldt as an inspiring figure in their research. His drawings, highly detailed environmental sections through volcanoes (strange marriages of art and science) are a testament to the uniqueness of place, and the work resonates closely with Grafton Architects’ project, being a response to specific set of climatic and seismic conditions. Farrell described the UTEC campus building as a direct response to the strange climate of Lima. Situated in what is essentially a desert, one would expect Lima to be extremely hot. But cold coastal currents keep the temperature steadily around 20°C, creating a benign climate with a twist — coastal winds shroud the city in a mysterious fog, creating a peculiar quality of light that was very important for the architect. The building itself, a staggered, sheer and complex concrete ‘man-made cliff’ emerging abruptly from the urban fog, responds to the climate by creating an unusual relationship between interior and exterior – only functions requiring specific air conditioning are placed ‘inside’ in enclosed conditions, while others, like social spaces, sit in threshold spaces open to the air but still partially enclosed by concrete. This foggy blurring of inside and outside creates a building where the users are constantly in conversation not only with each other but also with the specific landscape and weatherscape around them. Further, being in a seismic zone, the vast concrete architecture uses a ‘seismic section’ to respond to the common occurrence of earthquakes throughout. Not only is this highly pragmatic, but also creates a materially poetic structure in which the occupants are ‘held by the mountain’ — at once ‘intimate and vast’.
At first glance, Aleph Zero’s winning project for a Children’s Village in Formoso do Araguaia, Brazil, couldn’t be more different. Where Grafton Architects employed a weighty, vast, vertical structure, Aleph Zero’s design for an accommodation block as part of a secluded boarding school used a lightweight timber structure on an orthogonal grid. ‘We seemed to have the opposite challenge to Grafton Architects. Rather than how to deal with such a heavy material, we had to bring presence to a very light material. And rather than dealing with the downward force of gravity, we were dealing with the wind, that wants to take the roof away.’ The roof effectively became an expansive parasol on an arid landscape, creating ‘shadow as free space’ to provide relief from the heat: ‘there are two seasons: one is summer and one is hell,’ joked Utrabo. They described how, paradoxically, the building’s rigid adherence to the grid is precisely what gives the children freedom to be themselves in the spaces. Both Utrabo and Duschenes exhibited unabashed sensitivity for the children they designed for. They had asked them to draw their hopes for the new building — ‘and they produced such beautiful drawings,’ says Utrabo earnestly as he puts up a slide of a charming crayon scribble of a five-person bedroom in plan. Before, each child shared dorms with around 20 other students, which they found really difficult. ‘The notion of home and belonging to the place was important to them and it wasn’t happening.’ Farrell applauded Aleph Zero for its approach to people and place, and for making itself as architect visible to the end user early in the process. ‘People don’t know what architects do,’ she said. ‘The building industry separates architects from the world.’ Aleph Zero had become increasingly socially oriented as its work has progressed, moving away from smaller installations where they could experiment towards socially engaged projects that have a real impact not only for the end users but on the wider community. In Brazil, said Utrabo, ‘we really need this’.
The danger of the local mindset, however, is losing a global conscience. However, when questioned on the architect’s role in the global climate crisis, Farrell was firm: ‘The Earth is the number one client.’ She urged architects to remember that they are ‘part of a collective,’ and that ‘the role of the architect is small. The world is like a big ship; you can change parts of it, a little at a time’ – but to really make a difference, ‘you need companions.’ Duschenes also encouraged architects to keep pushing themselves to solve these issues: ‘it’s not just about the world – it’s about you. It’s about how deep you go, how much you can push yourself to deliver a better space.’ With this in mind, all the architects remained hopeful about the future, Farrell stating that ‘architecture is a very optimistic profession because it is dreams made reality.’
Winning the award was itself ‘a dream’ made reality, said Utrabo just before he and Duschenes accepted the trophy from RIBA president Ben Derbyshire. One of the challenges of an international architectural award is to resist an ‘international style’ of architecture — that ‘sameness’ and homogeneity described by Farrell. Thankfully, these two inventive projects demonstrate there is no ‘gold standard’ when it comes to the award: ‘We don’t have a style. Each project is an investigation.’ Farrell emphasised that finding a winner isn’t about ticking boxes, ‘it’s about finding the best of something — you don’t know what it is until you find it. It’s like falling in love or something.’ Hence, while these two ‘first-place’ projects couldn’t be more different, they do have one thing in common: they put place in first place. Perhaps the clue to winning an international award is closer to ‘home’ (or notions of home) than one might think.
Rosie Milne was winner of the RIBA’s Dissertation Medal 2018