1. Challenging the critical
The buildings that we recall today as masterpieces of the first half of the 20th century –the Bauhaus in Dessau, the Barcelona Pavilion, or the Ville Savoye– have been so imitated and so distorted after they were popularized and integrated into the market, that it is difficult to see their experimental character, risk, and contradictions. From the perspective of a century, we can understand that Le Corbusier made a blunt class critique of bourgeois architecture and that Eileen Gray made a genre critique of it even before it was fully developed. It is this challenging of the questioning view what makes, in my opinion, the Ville E1027 go further than other works in imagining what is possible and what is yet to be done. It is precisely because it could not be popularized as a masterpiece that the know-how it contains is still critical. Gray’s re-imagination of architecture as building technology was not assimilated by architecture as a culture of techniques, nor was it integrated into the industry and the bureaucracy that, like the costumes of Schlemmer’s danzers, accompanied and conditioned the development of architectural praxis after the 1920s.
2. Support for the impossible
Experimentation, risk, criticism, non-assimilability, depth of vision, violence, irreversible loss, are the key ideas in which I personally find support for the impossible task of identifying a contemporary masterpiece that Viceversa launches. “Impossible” because we still lack the perspective and the tools to detect where that kind of challenging of the critical is today, but “support” because these ideas connect with the original meaning that Viceversa’s call rescues to soften the task with which it torments us. Without risk, experimentation, contradiction, and controversy there is no way to integrate what we learn in our ways of doing. We would only replicate a model, working with a repertoire of techniques to exploit ludically, like the active players of a passive entertainment…
But there is still a second challenge, because: how can we propose a contemporary masterpiece if there is still no proposal or consensus for the second half of the 20th century? Personally, I have no doubt about it. It is OMA’s Jussieu Libraries project, a socialized Melnikov’s garage, a giant promenade architecturale urbanized with domestic facilities like the E1027 or Rodchenko’s “comradely objects”, a sandwich stolen from New Babylon, a project that was never built but yet embodied, like a shadow full of ghosts, in a good part of OMA’s production (and that of many other offices). But Jussieu cannot be signed as a masterpiece without thinking of the Berlin Wall as a new promenade architecturale or the bleeding texts that emanated from that wound: Imagining nothingness, Whatever happened to urbanism, Junkspace, Bigness,… From this still unexploited minefield, I collect more controversial ideas: the cosmetic is the new cosmic, an urbanism of the surfaces, many unfocused and unattended needs, no place for active voids or barricades, nothing new, architecture as the scrapped surface of a thick oil painting…
3. Running swiftly
Risk, criticism, friction, invisibility, non-assimilability, violence, bodies against bodies, recycling, mixing, cosmetics… A leap from the spatial to the corporal, from health to matter, from objects to virtuality, from exposure to invisibility, from building to editing, from an oxygen molecule to a black hole, what we live with surprise today has been already seen, suffered and thought many times… So, above all, intersubjectivity, because if we do not question the idea of a masterpiece as an intellectual alibi to cover up the sale of individual genius in the neoliberal cultural market —whatever the story to be sold— we would ruin everything we can learn from this collective experimentation that runs swiftly along the broken spine of the twentieth century, to finally impact on the heart of any work that seeks to propose itself as worthy of offering some teaching in the midst of such uncertainties.
4. Something in the stomach
I am going to let these ideas —hastily gathered, but long-time guests of my over-stimulated neurons of cultural nomad— accompany me to justify a choice that is visceral and intuitive, more felt than thoughtful. Because, if I can be honest, it is my stomach that tells me: this work, Paula, she is the contemporary masterpiece, this work, the whole of her, is a “Yes”, a place where a lot of what is pushing today is confronted and embodied!
Since its inception in 2005, the EJHNMC (Edificio Jardín Hospedero Nectarífero para Mariposas de Cali) has had the great merit of outwitting victoriously the sweet song of sirens from the media, despite the fact that it arrived long before to point and collect, with much greater certainty and less merit, everything that we should attend, confronted to the challenge of continuing reconstructing our tools and our praxis. Many of it, it must be said, was already hinted at in those cursed and enigmatic texts from the 80s and the 90s with which Koolhaas (and Rodchenko, Le Corbusier, Melnikov, Gray, Tafuri, Bo Bardi,…) do not stop chasing us. In Husos’ building, however, we might have been chased by a slight and beautiful Cali butterfly.
Husos designed the EJHNMC for an unlikely client, the glocal ecosystem of Cali, and for five women and their clothing and decoration business. At once housing, sewing workshop, sales, marketing, cultural and socializing space, this building is a hosting and nutritional garden for Cali’s butterflies. Husos Arquitectos worked with the uniqueness and cultural difference of this region of Colombia, which at that time concentrated the greatest diversity of butterflies on the planet. This trait was indicative of its environmental quality, although their survival depends on the existence of biological corridors, which the project aims to reinforce.
The building questions the identification of architecture as building technology, but far from detaching itself from it, it works with its underexplored possibilities. It was built in progressive development, following a process similar to that of informal neighborhoods in Colombia. But this is only one of many traditional local pieces of knowledge —related to the ways of building and living— that the project repositions, merging it with other pieces of knowledge. Thus, the open ground-floor front, under the exuberant, free-standing plant façade, recreates the blurred limits of domestic space in traditional Colombian neighborhoods in Cali, which burst outwards in the so-called “antejardines”. As in these spaces, used in Cali’s business-houses to attract and exchange with passers-by, the building seeks a permeable relationship between the interior and the urban space to foster dynamics of relationship and enjoyment.
Built as a defensive and decorative trellis, the freestanding façade that supports tropical climbing plants is also inspired by elements of the local culture, such as arches and pergolas. The chosen plants are not commonly used in gardening. Divided into hosts and nectariferous, some of them accommodate specific species of butterflies in their different stages (egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis), and others nurture them, attracting them back to the center of Cali.
The perimeter circulation in the plant allows the variability of uses and facilitates the constructive remodeling to adapt over time to different needs. In addition, it separates the building and its plant membrane from the dividing walls, creating a cooling strip that allows the air to circulate. The urban plant façade extends throughout this strip, and the interior is immersed in the local flora. It also has a bioclimatic function: it regulates the temperature and humidity inside, generating a comfortable microclimate that helps reduce energy consumption. The organization in the plan and the section, colonized by domestic artifacts that merge furniture, display and particular programs, are designed to multiply the visuals inside so that the productive and reproductive work becomes visible.
Another interesting aspect is the way of understanding the social and urban meaning of the building. Since, in a city that has few means to plan on a large scale, private promotion predominates as the engine of urban and economic development, it is sewn with spatial strategies and actions promoted from responsible self-management, aimed at transcending the strict scope of built land and property boundaries. Activities such as the distribution of seeds in the workshop generate new affective links with inhabitants, visitors and the local ecosystem. With them, the aim was to transfer knowledge, to influence the level of collective imagination and to encourage the formation of a network of sustainable gardeners, raising awareness about the exceptional value of the biodiversity ecosystem in which Cali is located and the need to preserve it.
5. More than butterflies
The caring for the unique existing biological, social, spatial and material forms of life guides the design process of Husos Arquitectos. The multiple layers of knowledge and meanings intertwine with the involvement, before and after construction, of the inhabitants and various institutions and communities: from the zoo or local schools to citizen platforms, the worker in charge of cleaning or the butterflies themselves. The coexistence of butterflies and humans is not easy and requires a high degree of commitment, both for the care of the plants and for accepting the presence of eggs and caterpillars. They eat the leaves of the plants in their growth phase, leaving cavities in the vegetal facade until it is covered again, which is far away of idealized greenery. However, for more than a decade the project has functioned as a heterogeneous and multimedia assemblage, focused and at the same time dispersed, which has fostered symbiotic and affective relationships between the workshop house and its surroundings. The building recognizes them as entities that function on different scales from the closest to the most distant, mobilizing changes in other enclaves and temporal strata, changes that should be understood also as architecture.
In this building, I believe, not only would the butterflies chase us.
Perhaps we would be assailed by the desire to connect architecture with ecosystems, any kind of them… to dignify bodies, beings, and work, to take care of them all, even though they may disgust us a little bit.
We would maybe be assaulted by the idea that gender criticism, class criticism, ecological criticism, or poetic criticism can go hand in hand in an open form reassembled by otherness.
Or the suspicion that the body of architecture is a true reflection of the bodies that inhabit it, that it is the image of the architects themselves, of the praxis of the inhabitants, of the world that we so often dream about over the white paper, with cunning naivety.
That Rodchenko was right when he said that design could teach us how to laugh and enjoy and converse with things…
That sensuality and conscious bodily pleasure, from which we enjoy the pleasure of being alive and being together, makes us stronger.
That it would be possible to edit buildings and make architecture explode, capable of infecting everything like the laughter of a child or the joy of lovers.
That architecture, or anything we design, could be warm and welcoming like a brotherly embrace, soft, tense, and vibrant like a longed-for kiss.
A breathing lap or a cast shadow, very close to the ground, in which to snuggle up and dissolve our fears to be clear in the face of the returning sun.
Authors: Husos architects
Place: Cali, Colombia
Photographs: Manuel Salinas, Javier García
Paula V. Álvarez is an architect, editor and researcher with experience in architectural design, education, publishing and curating. She studied architecture at the University of Seville. Together with Ana Fernández and Jose Maria Galán she was founding partner of the Seville-based architectural design and research practice sin|studio (2003-2012). From 2006 to 2011, she was coeditor and co-director of Neutra, the review of the College of Architects of Seville. In 2010 she founded the independent editorial practice Vibok Works. She regularly collaborates with articles in different specialized media and publications. She is currently a collaborator professor at the School of Architecture of Seville and invited professor at the University of Malaga.