Arvo Pärt Centre, Laulasmaa, Estonia. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2014–15. Project image by courtesy of the architects.
Arvo Pärt Centre, Laulasmaa, Estonia. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2014–15. Project image by courtesy of the architects.

Interview with Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano: Architects and the secret hidden agenda

The Alvar Aalto Medal, presented during the recent Architecture Day seminar on 3 February, 2015, was this time awarded to the Spanish architect couple Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. Architects Francesc Palomeras and Tiia Ettala interviewed the awardees in Hotel Klaus K in Helsinki before attending the award ceremony. This interview is a translation of the text “Arkkitehdit ja salainen missio”, published in Finnish in Arkkitehtiuutiset 3/2015.

The 12th Alvar Aalto Medal recipients Enrique Sobejano and Fuensanta Nieto in Helsinki. Photo: Juho Haavisto / MFA.

The 12th Alvar Aalto Medal recipients Enrique Sobejano and Fuensanta Nieto in Helsinki. Photo: Juho Haavisto / MFA.

Architects and the secret hidden agenda

Already at the very beginning of the conversation it became clear that Finland – and in particular Alvar Aalto – is close to the hearts of Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. This also became evident later, in their superb acceptance speech, in which the architects told that after graduating they had spent a whole month in Finland exploring Aalto’s buildings. Since then, they have returned many times, sometimes even with a group of more than a hundred students.

A significant part of the extensive production of the Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos office comprises exhibition and museum buildings, as well as challenging renovations and extensions. The commissions are often obtained as a result of winning an architectural competition. The works of Nieto and Sobejano are exceptionally high-quality architecture, yet at the same time retain a feel of experimentation and excitement, as well as sensitivity towards the user and the environment. The architect couple commutes between their Madrid and Berlin offices, and in addition both of them hold professorships in the academic world.

You are undeniably international architects. How does your cultural background affect your work? Can one talk about an Iberian architecture?

Enrique Sobejano (ES): – The cultural background inevitably has an influence. Viewed from the outside, one can identify something that can be described as Iberian architecture, even though to us it would seem that we are each very different. Mediterranean architecture would already be something else. Our approach to architecture is distinctly different from what we have encountered in recent years in, for example, Germany or Austria, and, inevitably, this is also reflected in the designs and way of building.
Fuensanta Nieto (FN): – Of course, everything has an influence: your place of birth, life circumstances, what you see around you, the way you look at the world. This outlook, however, changes over time, as you gain experience, along with the choices you have made. In good design one must understand the surrounding reality and create a building from it.

What in your opinion of the current state of architecture? Where do you see it’s future?

ES: – Undoubtedly every generation in turn feels it is living in a time of change. Spain was possibly the best place in Europe to be an architect, to create architecture, until all of a sudden everything came to a halt. However, also previous generations in Spain have gone through similar major upheavals, which have affected the composition of the offices and the way they work.
After this standstill – especially now when we see how things work in central Europe – it seems that the field of architecture will change, becoming increasingly more specialized, while at the same time including a diverse range of participants. The architects’ ability to control the entire process, which has been one of the most important prerequisites of great architecture, will be reduced.
FN: – There are projects that are unobtainable without an extensive multi-professional team. If the architect is able to lead this team and his or her views are respected, then the arrangement has the potential to succeed. It is, however, important to be able to exploit the resources of the multi-disciplinary group in the correct way. Problems arise if a particular group has an excessively strong influence on the decision-making process.
ES: – This is essential, creating respect. In today’s specialized world, the architect is the only one with a global vision. If you manage to communicate this, then you have already achieved a lot.

How do you find the limits of realism, the balance between realism and idealism?

ES: – It is like the boundary between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, continuous swaying from one side to the other. After working for many years in our own country, we learned what can and can not be proposed there. We learned to take advantage of the unique characteristics of the location and time.
For example, the Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo, 2013) was carried out at a time when it was still possible in Spain to do such things. I also believe that we could not have done the same in Germany – not because of the technology, but because someone at some point would have asked why it is necessary to make the concrete specifically in that way, and the solution would have been cut for being too expensive.
Now that we are working in several countries, we always try to make use of the site-specific characteristics of each location. Although in Germany we would certainly not have been able to do the same as in Córdoba, there nevertheless we have at our disposal a precision of work that we would not find in Spain.

Arvo Pärt Centre, Laulasmaa, Estonia. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2014–15. Photo by courtesy of the architects.

Arvo Pärt Centre, Laulasmaa, Estonia. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2014–15. Photo by courtesy of the architects.

We’ve been able to make choices – not so much regarding what we do, but rather what we do not do.

The majority of your projects are the result of victories in architecture competitions. What are the pros and cons of this?

ES: – Continuously working on submitting proposals for competitions proposals has the effectmeant that our office has always been rather like a school of architecture, especially as we both of us is are also teachers. From this also follows a certain ethos of experimentalism.
Another fundamental effect is that even though we are a Madrid office, the majority of our projects are located somewhere else, now also outside Spain. For some this could be a problem, but for us it comes naturally. In addition, a certain distance, not knowing too much about the site, has sometimes helped us to find a solution to a situation which has seemed unsolvable.
In addition, there is the advantage that after winning the competition the architect has a certain status in the eyes of the client. Things can be adjusted and modified, but the idea must not be lost!

An architectural competition was recently held in Helsinki for the design of the Guggenheim Museum. What do you think of this kind of competition?

FN: – In my opinion, a competition of the Guggenheim Museum type, where it can be assumed that there will be a huge number of proposals, should be organized in a different way. Such a huge amount of work, time and architects should be respected, and the proposals should be judged accordingly.
ES: – It’s possible that the winning proposal will be really excellent – let’s hope so – but the result will always have a slight feel of chance.

Are the architects given sufficient time for designing? Do you find the time to carefully think through all the issues?

ES: – We’ve had a lot of luck. Since the majority of our work has come on the basis of competitions, we’ve been able to make choices – not so much regarding what we do, but rather what we do not do. It’s not a case of, for example, housing design not interesting us, but rather, if there was at the same time the choice time between a housing project and a design task on a historic site, we’ve always chosen the latter.
When designing public buildings, time is understood in a slightly different way than it is in the private sector, where often each day costs the developer a certain amount of money. In our case, the use of time is often determined by elections and the appropriate timing of the opening ceremony. The design of the Madinat al-Zahra Museum took ten years, which was a luxury. But I certainly would not want all projects to take quite as long. On average, the projects have lasted around five years.

Madinat al Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2008. Photo: Fernando Alda.

Madinat al Zahra Museum, Cordoba, Spain. Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, 2008. Photo © Fernando Alda.

Is any one of your works particularly close to your hearts or important to you? Is it perhaps specifically the Madinat al-Zahra Museum?

FN: – Yes, I would say so. The way in which we were able to carry it out and the relationship to the location and the client made it special in many ways. The project evolved at the same pace as our office did, and through it we learned a lot of things that we were later able to use in our other projects.
ES: – Archaeologists, with whom we worked at Madinat al-Zahrassa, sparked our interest in Islamic geometry. It is evident, for example, in the Contemporary Arts Centre in Córdoba. Another very important work to us is the Moritzburg Museum situated in a German castle. As a result, the office’s focus turned more towards Europe. It was also the first project where the roof of the building took on an important role – a theme that has subsequently become very important to us.

Architecture always affects its surroundings, so if it’s possible to add something extra to the environment, even if it hasn’t been requested, one may have a positive impact on the urban environment and the life of the citizens.

From a previous interview I particularly remember how you said that improving public space is your secret hidden agenda. Is there a universal ethics of the architect?

ES: – The relationship between ethics and architecture largely relates to public space because consideration of public space is seldom requested. This is what I meant when I spoke of a hidden or secret agenda. Architecture always affects its surroundings, so if it’s possible to add something extra to the environment, even if it hasn’t been requested, one may have a positive impact on the urban environment and the life of the citizens.
This is not always possible, but there are some good examples. In the History Museum in Lugo we proposed that instead of a building, a park should be made. The citizens received a park, in the middle of which a museum is unexpectedly discovered. Another example is Joanneumsviertel in Graz, Austria. There, we decided to place the museum extension underground, so that in addition to the commissioned building, the city got back the public square that had previously been closed off.

What would you most like to hear when people comment on your work?

ES: – It’s hard to say. What we look forward to the most is seeing the building being used. It may not always be exactly the way we had envisioned it, but if the building is treated with respect, it means that our idea has been understood and that we have done something right.
In addition, it is very interesting how the buildings are aging. Here the choice of materials plays an important role. Sometimes one gets it wrong… On the other hand, there are works that look better every time on site. This is an additional value, which is very difficult to assess when the building has just been completed.
FN: – Yes, it is very important how the building ages. It is really beautiful when a long time has passed since the last visit and you notice that the building is doing well, it is in use, and even better than before!

Text by Tiia Ettala and Francesc Palomeras.
Translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.
Published in Finnish in Arkkitehtiuutiset 3/2015.

Please also watch the video recording of Enrique Sobejano’s and Fuensanta Nieto’s award speeches at the Alval Aalto Medal ceremony in Helsinki on 3 February, 2015.

The Alvar Aalto medal. Photo: Juho Haavisto / MFA.

The Alvar Aalto medal. Photo: Juho Haavisto / MFA.

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