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Interview: Luis Mansilla

November 10, 2011

Luis Mansilla, director of Spanish firm Mansilla y Tuñón, talks about the practice’s design process, and the punishing regime of architectural competitions that has made its success possible.

David Neustein: Your office seems accomplished in finding a very simple form that clearly communicates the idea of each project but also sticks in peoples’ minds. Is it as easy as it looks?
Luis Mansilla: Well, I think that it is very difficult. We are not just working with a site in physical terms when we make a project. There are a lot of different sites. I think there is a personal site, a physical site, an intellectual site, there is a material site and a cultural site. You have to work with all of these elements and try to extract from the work something that forms the project. So for instance, when we were working on the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon (MUSAC), we were just playing and we scaled up the Roman pavement, which came to shape the museum plan of squares and trapezoids. Leo?n was founded by the Romans. So you take part of the city and you make a scaling transformation, with the means of our times, and then it has the possibility of entering the project. And, for instance, when we were dealing with the colours, we took the colours of the other [major] space of the city, which is the cathedral, and then we made a pixelisation, and then it could be entered in [the design]. So the idea is that you take parts of this discussion, and then you choose these parts to be transformed, and then arrive to one form. The Roman pavement wasn’t just interesting because it was a Roman pavement and was therefore a link to the city, it was also interesting because it allowed us to enter into an intellectual discussion, which is: what is the importance of the hand of the architect in the final decisions of the project? Since Peter Eisenman first started trying to explain that architecture is no longer able to inform architecture, we have spent 25 years looking to other devices for defining formal things. The scaling is an internal joke of this first movement of the present moment, which is computers, of buildings where the plan comes from flows of people, or the charts of Greg Lynn where the form comes from the speed of cars, or diagrams, or this use of parametrics in American universities. All are concerned with the same problem: trying to make the form not by the personal belief of the architect but by something outside of architecture. With this idea of, let’s say, squares and rounds, the architecture is based not on an axis but at zero/zero, it becomes more like a mathematical camp. The museum therefore can be bigger or smaller, you can make more squares or fewer trapezoids, but the museum remains absolutely the same. So in a way the form becomes indifferent, but also becomes the result of necessities. If you need more storage, then we will add more storage, no problem. The building will be absolutely the same. So we were trying to achieve a form in which we were able to insert different content or different layers.

DN So if I understand correctly, it is not so important what you begin with, it’s the process…
LM It’s the process. And for instance this project started at another point. It started when we spent eight years travelling every Thursday to make the Zamora Municipal Museum and the Leo?n Auditorium. This part of Spain is very nice; it’s the least densely populated part of Europe. So you can see fields in which there are traces of people working, preparing for planting by ploughing the fields. We were fascinated by the idea that when the internal order of the ploughing is established, the boundaries of the field don’t matter. So that was the first idea of the museum: it would be nice to make something in which you make an order so that the perimeter becomes absolutely independent.

DN What’s your relationship to modernism? Because it seems that you are working within the context of modernism.
LM I think we are moving to more organic models. But I think that from the beginning we had these references or these influences from working with Rafael Moneo. In Spain everything arrived late – or later than in other parts [of the world]. So when we finished school it was the moment of fighting against Franco, connected with the idea of recovering modernism, which had been forgotten elsewhere. And construction was very good in Spain but very simple. It was a poor country, so we started thinking in more rational terms. After a while, around 15 years ago, we realised that it was very strange to divide the work between minimalist and expressionist. We started thinking that maybe we could create systems of expressiveness in the interior of very controlled groups. This was also the origin of MUSAC, when we started to think like that. Before Enric Miralles and the Guggenheim Museum, the panorama in Spain was absolutely homogenous. And I think that it’s a very interesting movement because at the end it’s referring to the conditions of nature, which is something that is always very interesting, very deep. So the idea for instance, in this competition for the Kunsthal, is the idea of growth, the idea of dynamism, of change, which is related to a lot of things, particularly with the moon, the sun, the movements of the every day.

DN You studied in Madrid and you worked for Rafael Moneo for many years. So where does the interest in nature come from?
LM I think there are two interesting things for us. The first one is from Moneo himself. We learned the idea of showing honesty in our work, which means that there is a value in the work, which is not just a matter of being a genius or having good ideas or whatever, it’s a matter of work, not just thinking the projects, but also building them. This is one of the reasons we have decided not to grow, we are happy with 12 [staff], and having time to take care of the things we are doing. And then construction is a way of doing the project. This honesty is very important.
The second thing is that when Moneo was awarded with a prize, he said, ‘I thank architecture because it permits you to see the world through its eyes’. In a way, we thank Moneo, because he permitted us to see the world through his eyes. I think the most interesting part is that architecture has three legs: the world of building, the world of teaching, and the world of research. We always try to keep these three legs. We normally teach in the autumn semester in Madrid and the spring semester at different schools in Lausanne [Switzerland] and Harvard University, and we are teaching in Princeton University for the next three years. And also, doing research, making a continuous research on others, is a way of doing research on us. For instance, with this small magazine we have called Circo, once a month we stop the office and produce an edition for 500 people all around the world. It’s like a continuous conversation that permits us to keep thinking. You have to think, not just produce, maybe there are some geniuses who fortunately for them don’t have to think, that would be wonderful, but we have to work at it.

DN I understand that in the 1990s you and Emilio were editors of Architecture magazine in Spain. How important is publication in your strategy?
LM Absolutely important. At the very beginning there were six people working on the magazine of the Association of Architects. It was this group, the generation, including Abalos and Herreros, that were fired because we were too left wing. That was the problem. So we spread and then each one of us then produced a magazine. Ours is very different, it has no design. It has continuity, it’s the only one that has run for 13 years every month, 37 numbers. It’s a representation of us. Whoever sends us a postcard will receive it for free, but you have to make an effort, a physical effort.

DN I understand the European Union is trying to bring Spanish architectural education into line with the rest of Europe, losing the engineering component. Will this have a big impact on architecture in Spain?
LM I think yes, because the Spanish model comes from the French model of the Polytechnic. Spanish students are forced to work during seven years and then have a complete knowledge of structures, metal piping, tubes, lighting, because the model is that the architect is the only one responsible. I am making this Convention Centre project for instance, where the project will be 400 million Euros, and there will be just my signature on it. There will be no signatures of engineers, just my signature. So this is something ancient we will have to change. But in Spain, you make your own structures, and when I made my first work with Emilio we calculated the beams. This is a model that is not possible anymore, now we’re concerned with controls (which is good), but before we had all the power and all the responsibility. Personal responsibility. You go to jail directly, but you also have all the power. That’s why Spanish architecture sometimes feels so entire, so complete, because it’s you who thinks about what you will do with this pipe coming out of here, and what will be the size of the beam, and what will be the connection with that. You have to think how that will appear: in the MUSAC for instance the space, the structure and the finishes are the same thing. That was the fight with that design.

DN It’s really interesting to be hearing all the conversation that is going on in your studio. Is this normal?
LM We actually believe in this model. There is no one who is usually in charge of this or that. What’s very important for us is that all the work we have is through competitions. We never had a client, well, once, and for a small thing. At the very beginning we were very serious and said that, as we are good, nobody should ask anything of us! Let’s do competitions. So during the years we made about 10 competitions each year and won one. Well, if you win fine, but if you lose you are close to the tenth one, you have to lose nine to win one! If you lose it doesn’t matter, you’re just nine, just eight away. Right now we prefer this model. We’ll always go through a competition in which you have the freedom and the time to express your ideas. And if those ideas have a coincidence with the next ideas it’s perfect, it’s better not to stop. It’s a bit like a laboratory. We are not in a sect, not monks in a cave isolated from the world. Every two months we make a proposal to society. Let’s think about that. If they say no, it is not the fault of the society but of the architect. It’s a model of training. Because you never know when the race will be, but you are training because sometimes you realise, well, the race is today.

DN So many architects express fatigue from too many competitions. Why don’t you?
LM We just finished one competition a week ago, and we believe in this formula from the social and political point of view, so there is no other alternative for us. We cannot say, no, I am tired of doing competitions, I cannot even think about it. We will keep doing and keep doing and keep doing, and we will always learn. A competition is not just for winning or losing, it is for learning something. It doesn’t matter if I lose; well, it matters, but this is not the most important thing. Otherwise you get tired of competitions. But if you see competitions as models of research, of an approach to something, then you are not losing your time. Forty percent of the time of our people is dedicated to competitions, dedicated to research.

David Neustein is the Sydney editor of Architectural Review Australia.

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