DOUBLE WINNERS: Partners in life and in their architectural practice, Enrique Sobejano and Fuensanta Nieto are the perfect example why two are better than one; winning international design competitions is their forte
Living out the expression that two are better than one, Enrique Sobejano and Fuensanta Nieto are partners in life, as much as they are partners of their firm Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos.
Seeing how they met while pursuing their Masters degree at the Columbia University in New York, the United States, destiny must have worked overtime to ensure that as they started to work together, first as editors of an architectural magazine and thereafter teaching at the university, they were meant to start their architectural practice and continue entering design competitions.
Their growing architectural practice now boasts offices in Madrid, Spain and Berlin in Germany. “Our work has become more international,” quips Nieto.
Balance between memory and invention:
“Inspiration comes from all our personal experiences, travels and reading. Architecture is always the result of an interpretation of multiple and apparently unconnected circumstances that end up resembling one another (as) the projects are the reflection of one another. All our projects are in a way, a balance between memory and invention,” reflects Sobejano.
Attributing architecture to an adventure of sorts, he shares that an architectural project – regardless if it comes from a competition or a direct commission implies for the firm, a “deep understanding of a place, culture and programme.”
“We always try to see what makes each case different. A good project is always the result of many different layers and (it) takes time. But every project is a consequence of many others before it: Like those literary structures that include a story within another story, within another story,” agrees Nieto, illustrating the rich complexities involved in any given architectural project.
The couple who will be speaking at the Malaysian Institute of Architects’ (PAM) international conference,
DATUM: KL 2012 in early July following the theme “Roots” will be “transmitting” their architectural approach – “a combination of space conception - through concepts, references and the way they are expressed in their recent projects”.
The metaphorical unearthing of an archaeological architectural gem
It is this indefinite ability to see beyond and unravel the mysteries of architecture that saw the firm approaching the design of the Madinat al-Zahra Museum in Spain with an architectural reverence, borrowing from one’s approach to archaeology.
“The Madinat al-Zahra Museum was the winning entry of an international competition in 2000. The concept started with a simple idea: We should not build in that beautiful landscape but metaphorically, act as an archaeologist would. Not building a new structure, but finding it below ground, as if the passage of time had been concealed until now.
“The project therefore became a reflection about the passing of time in architecture and represented the start of our interest and research into the relationships between contemporary and Islamic architecture,” enthuses Sobejano. So moved were they that they share, “Our first reaction when we arrived at the place would determine, from the very first moment, our proposal: We should not build in that landscape.”
Treading lightly on the remains of the old Hispano-Muslim city that has witnessed the arduous and patient work of archaeologists unravelling the mysteries of those who built it a thousand years ago, the surrounding agrarian landscape only serves to heighten the sense of “geometry of the ruins”, lending it its “unexpected abstract quality”.
The juxtaposition of the terrain of the archaeological site for the museum overlooking the “disorderly growth of new constructions (lurking) over the old city” reinforces a sense of “yearning for a remote past yet to be discovered” that pervades the entire landscape stretching to the mountains of Córdoba.
The new Madinat al-Zahra Museum is best described as an “introverted building with no outward disclosure of the sequence of its spaces” that appears silently in the history-steeped landscape, as if it has just been discovered underground. Bearing the secret remains of the ancient city with vast tracts of land still awaiting excavation, Sobejano likens the remains of the ancient Hispano-Muslim city to the discoveries taking place in the old city of Umayyad Caliphs.
Designing with a competitive edge: “Competitions have been very important to us: Many of our buildings up to now came from competitions. This allows us to maintain a continuous experimental research in the office, developing concepts and projects in different countries, cities and cultures. Participation in competitions encourages the intellectual development of a way of thinking,” reaffirms Nieto.
Keen on designing projects that can become a challenge or force them to develop new ideas, they say most of the competitions and buildings they have designed “deal with public space (and) with complex urban situations.” Essentially, the eventual aim is to “establish a dialogue between contemporary architecture, the memory and (the) traditions of a place”.
“Every new project that we do for a competition becomes part of a continuous, ongoing research. At the same time, we are also now working on different commissions that came directly from clients in different parts of the world who have seen our previous buildings and are interested in our architectural philosophy,” he maintains.
Both are graduate architects of Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura Madrid and the GSAP Columbia University in New York.
They currently teach at Universidad Europea de Madrid (UEM) and Universität der Künste of Berlin (UdK). Their similarities in terms of education and experience do not end there for both have been visiting critics and/or referents at various Spanish and international universities and institutions since 2005. They continue to actively travel the world, imparting their knowledge to countries as far as Germany, France, the US, Japan, China and to their home country, Spain.
The couple were editors of the architectural journal Arquitectura edited by the Architectural Association of Madrid (Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Madrid) from 1986 to 1991. Their work has been published in various Spanish and international publications besides being exhibited internationally.
Consultation for the International Urban Development, Baisha District in Zhengzhou, China made up its most recent first prize win to date.
The firm has also won first prize at competitions including the National Centre for the Visual Arts in Madrid, Spain in 2009 besides emerging first prize winner at the Competition for Urban Development of Offices and Hotel Building in Munich, Germany that same year. Additionally, it has to its credit a long list of impressive first prize wins throughout the years.
Getting to know Enrique Sobejano and Fuensanta Nieto:
There was incredible publicity for the Aga Khan Award in 2010 for the Madinat Al-Zahra Museum. What impact did this have on your firm? The Aga Khan Award is no doubt one of the most prestigious awards in the world. The work of the jury members is much more serious and dedicated than most of the other international prizes and the award refers not only to a successful architectural result but to projects that really transform the urban conditions, the landscape and the relation to history.
For us, the Aga Khan Award has been a turning point in our career, both professionally and intellectually. In the first case because we have been asked recently in different countries of Islamic tradition or culture to design new buildings,
on the other hand, because we are now committed to understand(ing) the incredibly rich possibilities of the Islamic architectural culture and contemporary thinking in architecture.
Our project for a Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba - finishing construction – or new projects starting in India or the Gulf countries represent a challenge to the work that we have been doing up to now.
Your success rate in terms of winning architectural competitions? We never counted the number but as you can imagine, most of them are not winning entries. Only a small percentage finally gets built.
Why does your firm place such an emphasis on competitions? We are not particularly interested about entering or not entering competitions: we are interested in developing our own architectural thinking. The most difficult part is transmitting an idea that becomes the leitmotiv of the whole process: from the concept design to the materiality, construction and physical perception of the space.
Your approach to the practice of architecture? We think we have been very fortunate to be able to practise architecture the way we learnt it at school and the way we teach our students.
The works we have done in those years are the result of varying conditions, places, programmes: in a first approach undoubtedly more attentive to what sets them apart than to what may unite them. Only when grouped together, they seem to reveal what unconsciously connects them and that makes us aware of belonging to a continuous process.
Describe a worthwhile project: A project is worthwhile if it allows you to develop an ideological proposal, an architectural idea capable of crossing all the different scales of the building.
Portrait pic courtesy of Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos. Pics of the Madinat al-Zahra Museum in Spain are from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Datum: KL 2012 will be held on 6 and 7 July 2012 at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. For more information, visit www.pam.org.my or call 03-26934182.