A conversation with Andrés Jaque. On the importance of the remote control and other small things.

Among boxes and after moving, we contact Andrés Jaque, who leads two architectural practices in Madrid, with very different approaches. Two practices where themes of different nature are analyzed and elaborated, considering the social processes that take place during the daily life…

Andrés, you are leading two architectural practices in Madrid. Can you explain how they are organized, how many people work with you and how the two offices are interrelated?

Actually its two different offices: the first is Andrés Jaque Arquitectos and the other is Oficina de Innovación Política (Office for Political Innovation). They share the same interests and goals, but they use very different and specialized socialization strategies.

The main difference is about risk management. At the OIP we maximise the risk, meaning that we try to exploit the most uncertain aspects of everyday life. This also means conceiving architecture as a political activity, not ideological, but political as a reflexion about the processes which allow people to live together, with a certain guarantee, although permitting an open discussion. The guarantee is, for example, a people share-out, which aims at the equality, agreement durability and legal transparency.

The second practice is Andrés Jaque arquitectos; it is an architecture office working on specific projects: competitions, public or private commissions. In this case we need to keep the risk under control and make sure that what we are designing is very likely to be successful.

This is the main difference. Also the Boards are completely different. Andrés Jaque Arquitectos is organized as a conventional practice. There are now 6 people working in it, as well as a network of external consultants, collaborators, partners, which are not only the typical contributors of architectural practices. We work often with economists, publicists, journalists, marketing experts, sociologists, political scientists. The same way as architectural practices work with engineers or sustainability consultants.

However the OIP works as a trust network.  Our approach is that of total transparency in the debates we are working on, and of course we try to bring the relevant experts to each one of the investigations, people who also have a polemic opinion on the subjects treated. What we do is to propose a discussion.

For example, one of the discussions we are working on is “Ecologizing is not greening”, a slogan we have invented. We are advertising it a lot, so people who have something to say about it can come to us and become partners of the OIP. Another slogan we invented is “What´s  architecture in a technologically rendered society?”. This allowed us to contact the team of Michelle Callon and Bruno Latour and start with them a quite lasting research.

The Office for the Politic Innovation is a kind of discussion club.

The main aims are to destabilize the certainty the architects normally work with and the invasion/connection channel with the rest of society.  We use the web (a blog we update quite frequently), but also the encouragement of open debates is important. This usually starts with slogans that instantly destabilize an idea which was, until then, crystallized in a non critical way. We also organize workshops, classes, meetings, including a platform for thinking and transforming Madrid, together with Ariadna Cantis in the Casa Encendida: Piensa Madrid. (http://www.lacasaencendida.es )

These are the two Boards, with different approaches, but they are constantly in a promiscuous relationship.

Many of the concepts we studied in the OIP have became working subjects for AJA. The two of them are not divorced. En AJA we treat exactly the same topics, but when they arrive at our architectural practice, we know already a lot about them.


Are AJA’s collaborators the same of OIP?

Not necessarily, some of them are. For example Pablo Hurlé is a sociologist taking part in OIP, but he also worked in AJA.

It is promiscuities or transversal ties that are normally planned, it is not anything automatic. And of course time and organization are completely different.

So, there is an internal exchange, but they are still different practices. Do you think this depends on the fact that our profession is still not ready to take such innovative elements in, is it still anchored to a traditional perspective?

No, I think it’s simply a way to socialize the innovation, which I think optimizes somehow the possibilities of either success or failure, both of them can be monitored and useful to generate systematic knowledge.

Innovation requires different but connected spaces. Spaces where everything can be tested and   results can be precisely measured. It also needs spaces where reliability can be developed, where reliability has to be developed, or others where destabilization or breaks happen, like OIP pursuits. Deep breaks with ways of thinking which are burdening the innovation. And finally, we need spaces where assemblies can happen. It means spaces where alliances between the existing and the desired are possible, in a process including precaution measure. This is what we mainly do in AJA.

These are the different faces of innovation and I think the existence of institutions specialized in each one of them is fundamental. It is really important to keep the connection between them and allow channels for the exchange of experience and knowledge between these agencies.

How do these processes or experimental projects arise? For example projects like a Dress for a Techno Geisha or the Tupperhome? What kind of client do commission projects like these and how do they contact you?

We always design our own clients; we do not wait for them to contact us.

That is a basic difference and I think it is something generational. Even when a client knocks on our door, we re-design him. Because, for example, if we are designing a private house, we are actually working not only for the house’s owner, but we are taking as client also the environment, the ozone layer, the next generations…

All this involves that we architects in this moment are designing our own clients, and in this way we are also finding them.

We are now developing two projects where we have been obliged to build new ranges of possibilities representing the clients.

The first one is a research project, and at the same time a design issue, about sharing flats. It is a really interesting phenomenon, probably one of the most important cases happening in EU during the last 20 years. Elements like the international market of professionals and the new way in relocating the university courses (like Erasmus or Seneca scholarships) have produced a direct effect in living the city. The flat sharing presence is expanding exponentially. Nowadays more than 80 million of people live in shared flats. The shared flats, with the lifestyle they promote, are the real capital of European Union. It is a fragmented city, but connected by Easyjet, Messenger and Western Union.

The lifestyle in these homes challenges the Sweet Home principle, because the home is not anymore a non-political place, but it is the centre of the political arena. Every controversy or big public trouble passes through a shared flat. In this case we are designing our client because we are taking a client that does not have any architect and it is shaped by a changing mass of 80 million people.

We realized that designing shared flat is not really the big issue, what we are interested in is studying the phenomenon and use this experience as a capital for architecture. We managed to involve Fundación Mies van der Rohe, Costrumat, and a lot of other companies that are working with us, including developing specific projects. For example Escofet, Grandhermetic or Industrias Navarrete. Also our final goal is that it becomes a European Union Project. 

Another example is “All Age City”. It is a project following the second phenomenon that I think is unavoidable nowadays. We have been working on it for a long time now: the ageing of the World’s population.

The progress in medicine, diet, health and city lifestyle have strongly influenced life expectancy. These elements, together with the fall of the birth rates, mean that in the next 20 years the number of elderly people in the World will triplicate. This is going to be a structural transformation, especially considering that nowadays the social integration of the elderly is awful. It is based on an idea of spatial, economical and social segregation. It is a spatial segregation because senior citizens tend to be enclosed in their homes or special resorts, geriatric centres, depending on the individual economical situation or the country where they live. It is an economical segregation because they are no longer productive and quickly they suffer an overwhelming devaluation. And of course it is a social segregation. Senior citizens experience the reduction of their interpersonal interaction, emotional relationships, network connectivity, their involvement in public processes, and also in the family relationships.

It is necessary to intercede in these processes and this is what we are doing, together with MOHO office, with the idea of creating new clients. We aim the conversion of Murcia as a pilot city for a network of cities whose commitment is urbanizing the old age; we called it “ALL AGE CITY”. We are starting having contacts to convert this in a development project in Europe, creating a network of cities where an elderly person can move easily between cities in the EU and find in all EU the possibility of taking part in public life in an intense way, and moving to live in another city, in the same way as students.   

Of course, all these are projects in which we first plan the association network we need to settle them in the daily life and then we try to involve them, and that’s what fascinates me, this way of working. In my opinion, architecture consists nowadays in creating this society where the connection is a commitment or a project of shared quality. One of the slogans we have spread is “Architecture is the making of societies experimenting what quality is about”. We learnt this from the Tupper Homes project.

Hunting clients is also a good solution in this period.

 Of course, this is the way to work, there are actually a lot of situations that require the architect’s work, so we simply have to start working and when reliability has been developed, the contracting opportunities or the converting a potential project into an economically sustainable one is something relatively easy, if you put enough effort.

The person who has already studied a situation is in a privileged position to reach an agreement with other agents to step into it. I have observed many architects of our generation and we do not want to be small pieces in the mechanism of an organization driven by master architects, we don’t aim for that, what we want is to take part in the issues of the society, the problems and situations we read about in newspapers front-pages and we are all worried about.

Nowadays many collectives are standing out, architectural, but also multi-disciplinary groups that are challenging the distance between architecture and politic management of our cities. What is your position, do you think is necessary to mark this distance?

I think in this moment we are working with very structured societies. To think about society as a shapeless mass lead by a black hand is a completely misinformed vision of what is happening today.

Our societies are heavily built, formally and informally at the same time, but still built. So there are a lot of options to intervene on them. Of course I cannot deny we are surrounded by an unfair and immoral situation, but in a political world the access doors can be challenged. For example: the visibility, the manifesto, the proposal, the association, the intervention in delegation organisms, the denunciation, the prize or the acknowledgement, all these are tools in the hands of architects. But the long-lasting effect of the “How” is normally more lasting than the “What”. Our work should strengthen the representation of social agreements, not destroy it, even if it is in claim of seemingly right actions. The true revolution is a complete and guarantying institutionalization of the daily life.

 We can design devices showing the realities that need to be improved, we can make proposals, we can denunciate, we can also transform an issue into a public priority. We architects have a strong visibility and count with a certain social prestige. It is possible to take part in the processes that build the society. Of course it is really hard and not profitable in the short term, but this is the citizens’ action and I think we can decide between small exception which are already made up, like designing only contemporary art museums, or take part in the construction of the present time. If we go through this, we have to work with the existing public action tools, same as the ONGs or activists do.

In this sense you mentioned something which is important to mark: in architecture we are talking a lot about collectives. We identify collectives as people who work more or less together, in teams, I wrote a lot about them and I am really interested in them. But it is necessary to look further because the solo architect concept simple does not exist.

It does not exist an architectural action which does not involve the construction of a society; any architectural action involves an investment of money, an association with other professionals, involves the fact that an entire society is in charge of defining a programme and work with the architect in developing it, it will affect the life of many people and groups that will transform in the course of time what the architects thought.

It involves a lot of elements that finally make that the architectural action a collective action, and I think it is important to insist on it, because it’s important that we explain that this collective quality involves many elements: the goals of the intervention is something which is defined by a group or a collective, the final assessment needs the promotion of this same collective, involving it in the evaluation of the results, also the posterior transformation has to be a collective work. So it will result to be always a hard-fought work. The concept of the collective, the discussion, of something not solved, is taking a new background to our profession and I think it will have interesting consequences.

In your works you insert small elements, or devices, that produce new relationships between the users and the building, but also between the users. For example the wheel-bench or the numbered garden in the Casa Sacerdotal… they have a direct influence in the way the users live the building and create discussion between users. How does such an attention for details arise and develop?

Yes, I agree with Mies van der Rohe that if God would exist, he would dwell in the details. For me the important thing is the socio-politic dimension of the decisions in detail. The detail is where we build the relationship among the different agents which contribute to create a situation. I think it is fundamental to work defining fully what is controlling a situation: if the timber comes from companies committed with the compensatory reforestation, if the stone had to be imported with a high added cost, if the plumbing supply damages the vegetal tissue or if the system will be adaptable to a reality we can not know today.

All these elements establish in many cases the construction of a situation. Coming from a culture of metropolitan dispersion, with the spreading through the construction of the suburbs in the last 50 years, there are still these spaces where we can develop urban programmes.

Talking about how to achieve it, I think that we architects have to make clear our work method and pursue it.

In this sense the design and construction strategies can be built in a way that marks the point. In the Casa Sacerdotal case, we made very clear that we could do a relatively simple structure, but then many of the elements had to be drawn with a special attention. It does not mean that they had to be valuable, as many of them were produced in small workshops, but they are designed to generate relationships between people and between the objects themselves, enhanced connections, and they have to take to politic discussions, debates,  decision making and expression.

All these objects, to be used, have to become subject of a discussion between humans, and every person has to express his way to think. This is what I like to call “Parliament Architecture”. I really like it, because even if some of these devices did not work, other of them have become subject of controversy, which is what I am interested in.

And it is also the funniest thing…

Yes, it is the funniest thing. I really like to talk about the TV remote control.

If I had to chose the Central Park of the suburb where I had to live, a meaningful space, I think it would be the TV remote control. Because it is an object which generate much controversy, many arguments at home;   exactly because it represents the origin of the expression, because when someone wants to watch football on TV, he has to defend why football has to overtake the National Geographic documentary, he is showing a scale of values, a way to see the world, and he has to argue with his sister who wants to watch the National Geographic documentary or with his father who wants to see a talk show. These arguments are, for me, a daily Parliament, that only exists because of the existence of the remote control. 

How do you see Spanish architecture in comparison with the rest of Europe? Can you feel the same interest in other countries about the sociologic and politic face of architecture?

First I have to say that I think the national distinction has lost some of it’s validity. It is true that we use it in the daily life, but being strict in my office probably more then 70% of the people working with me since I started are not Spanish and many of the projects are not for Spanish clients and not in Spanish territory.

I studied and taught in many universities in UK, Germany, Colombia, Argentina, I gave as many talks in Spain as abroad, I read books and blogs and chat every day with people that have never visited Spain… so it really difficult to say that an architectural practice, which I insist is a small society, can belong to a specific country. I think it is a very interesting situation because it has a wild aspect, as any action group is necessary trans-national. It is one of the big themes in this moment.

However it is true that every office has a postal address and we can make a short thought about it. I think there is a generation of young architects from Europe, South-America  (I know especially the Colombian and Argentinean cases), USA, which I am really interested in, many are completely anonymous. I simply think we are living in a  challenging time, full of new aspects, situations that were unthinkable before; the development of communication and collective networks are leaving us an action boundary full of challenges and skills; it is also true that there are a lot of new public controversies and urgent issues making it hostile.

On the other hand, our practices cannot forget about the different crises we are going through: the oil crisis, the climate change crisis, the environment crisis, the colonial and eastern crisis, and of course the financial one. We are living in a moment in which our profession is really needed; there are specific fields with work teams developing socially useful plans in very different locations, and this should be recognized.

It is also true that in some countries these interesting people is really visible and have a main role, and I think this is what is happening in Spain, while in other countries they are more hidden or  they find it hard to find a channel to the visibility on the media.

It is exactly what happens in UK, where the big companies make it quite difficult for smaller practises.

Yes, and especially because in many cases the big companies monopolize the public image of architecture, making people think that “architecture” is what these big companies do; but the truth is that architecture is also what Jason Griffith does, as an example of a young British architect who works in a really interesting way.

You are a person who read a lot. Can you tell me 3 books that you think are essential for an architect?

Yes, I love reading. Reading and writing, which in my case are connected activities.

I think everyone should build their reading, there are no rules, but for me it has been really influential Bruno Latour’s work, for example the book “Reassembling the Social” or the Tv studies of David Morley or Omar Rincón. Also recently Slavoj Zizek’s work, for example “Ein Plädoyer für die Intolleranz” [there is no English edition of this book].

How do you find the time to read so much?

I organize my day in a curious way, I work intensively in the office from 8am to 3pm, working on drawings, management…then in the afternoon I stay in the office reading, writing, thinking, drawing, but I do not answer the phone.

It is a way that works well with me, to divide constantly, create specify spaces. It is, in a way, a non-optimised formula, but in the long run it is very useful because it gives you time to make ideas clear, to propose things. The afternoon time is a non-optimized but very helpful time, it helps me to think that the work can come out better, because there is a calm and time to step back and re-think everything without any rush.

I think it is really important to rethink the work protocol. People who work here have the same time as well, they work hard in the morning, but then they have their own hobbies, music, reading… For me it is a lifestyle which I consider socially useful; reducing working time means to bring up citizens more active in other fields. I think it could be helpful as a strategy to revitalize for example a city with a weak public life.


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Space, Form, Words is an initiative started by Silvia Polito, Ciriaco Castro and Enrique Ramos as a multilingual, open canvas for thoughts, images and ideas on architecture, art, design, video, and every sort of creative process in general

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