October 27, 2011

Spanish architecture firm SelgasCano has made significant progress as a practice, despite tough economic times. From the team’s Madrid office pod, Jose Selgas shares his current outlook.

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On seeing the striking office of SelgasCano, curiosity immediately beckons the viewer to find out more about this design practice. SelgasCano is a small architecture firm founded by Jose Salgas and Lucia Cano, comprising just the two principal architects and a supporting team of six others. In 2009 they decided to redesign and build their new headquarters on the outskirts of Madrid. The result was not only a clever workspace solution, ideally nestled within bush and shrub, but a rather impressive job at self-promotion and publicity – even if the latter of the two wasn’t really planned for.

By early 2010 the new office space had quickly gone viral thanks to a collection of photographs by Iwan Baan and a blog post on Treehugger. However, design blogs generally offered minimal coverage with little insight beyond Baan’s photography and a short, poorly translated, brief by the practice. We were charmed but left hanging, curious to know more of the practice’s work.

Now judging by its most recent achievements, and plenty of impressive projects currently underway, SelgasCano is still up to good things in this self-made bubble of creativity; a warm yet comfortable environment surrounded by pleasant trees and plenty of daylight. The curved acrylic glass is a massive shield-turned-tubular bunker that lies within a secluded patch of foliage, found in La Florida, a suburb in the far north-west of Madrid. Enclosed in the openness of a well- groomed natural landscape, the office has not only endured the seasons physically but figuratively as well – a rough few years in Madrid, in particular. Within this pod, SelgasCano have maximised the potential of the small practice, shaping it into one of the country’s most notable architecture firms.

“We don’t work for the critics of architecture – although they have been very nice to us,” says Selgas. “Instead we work for people who really need architecture. We are driven by the social demands of our contemporary culture, and it’s the modesty of our more utilitarian approach that seems to be finding a new place within these times.”

According to Selgas, the new workspace has also enabled them to see things a little differently. While Europe seems to complain of a longer work week across the continental region, SelgasCano has become used to it. “The place has been good to us,” he says. “It’s a long, flexible open space, so almost anywhere within it is perfect for a collaborative meeting, a coffee break or even a little rest. We often go outside, into the garden here and take a break under the trees.”

Calm and humble as to where Spain stands today, a time when the rest of Europe could seemingly care less about the country’s struggling economy, Selgas is at ease. “Somos lo que somos,” he says – “we are what we are” – and by that he means not so rich these days. “But there is always lots to do, and as designers we can only be bothered so much by the economy or politics.”

The reality for SelgasCano is that they stand against the odds of a tough economic break lately (one of the most threatening cases within the European Union at the moment), and surprisingly so, Selgas says: while things have not been so good in terms of overall climate, they have only grown stronger as a practice. “The budgets we have been used to have always been tight around here, and we think that’s good. For us at least, we think the days of lavish architecture are no longer in demand. People and cities, our cultures, need smart architectural solutions that reflect an intelligent approach to the future. I can only speak for SelgasCano, but you can expect to see a less disciplinary approach, with a heightened sensibility for cultural relevance and functional needs.”

Projects that embody this sort of ‘relevance’ and functionality are those such as the Factoria Joven (Merida, Spain), a much-needed community and recreation centre for the city, or their most recent convention centre in Cartagena (Spain), soon to be completed. A bit older, but still a marvel, is Palacio de Congresos in Badajoz (Spain) – another major convention centre completed in 2006.

As a clever experiment, the practice’s unusual workspace has become something of an iconic bastion of its own design philosophy. Representing a modest yet mindful approach to modern architecture, the office of SelgasCano registers as emblematic of the group’s ideals and principles – representing everything a good workplace should reflect.

According to Selgas, “what was being sought with this studio is quite simple: we just wanted to work under trees”. Think of it like going to work and taking a long picnic for lunch – except you are actually working with a compelling sense of nature (a specific sliver of the outside world), that can generate productive energy throughout your day. Considering the unabated light that often shines through the north side of the pod, the natural energy of the sun might have something to do with their sense of optimism, regardless of tough economic times.

Selgas confesses they have brewed slowly as a practice, but in that time (going on 17 years now) SelgasCano has also realised some significant work, much of it adding to the cultural and urban fabric of cities across Spain. He refers to a consistent calibre of work, of which the local design community has begun to take notice. It’s about time. Having won the 2011 Architects of the Year award from AD (Architectural Digest), the SelgasCano pod and its core group of designers is now considered a part of Spain’s architectural vanguard, boasting its own take on contemporary architecture while refocusing a need for a more sensible and austere form of design functionality – perhaps at a time when the country and Europe may need it most.

“Many things are inspiring us to practise this kind of simple philosophy, found in nature, literature, theatre, sociology and urbanism,” Selgas says. “All good architecture has not only cultural context, but I think an inspired sense of relevance to the needs of a society in that specific moment in time.”


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