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Towards a Naturalness Architecture

Conversation with Iñaki Ábalos

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been many reflections on the current situation of crisis and the changes it could generate within the architectural discipline. What is your analysis of the current situation?

I’ve spent the last few months in silence, and this is the first time that I’ve spoken about these issues. My initial analysis of the current situation is surprise at the way the world of architecture has addressed the situation and at seeing this kind of overwhelming innocence or naivety that has given rise to hundreds of super optimistic and positive fantasies about architecture and the city. Perhaps I’m a radical pragmatist, but what I see is that we are faced with a situation of hopelessness, sadness, silence and ruin. I believe that the situation is serious and doesn’t promise many utopias, and that there is a huge distance between the good intentions of some and harsh reality.

There are two references that I find more interesting than this kind of letter to Santa Claus. The first is by Juan Luis Arsuaga, paleoanthropologist and director of the Atapuerca excavations, who, when asked about this issue, said that if humankind has survived so many misfortunes it is because of its vast ability to forget.  It’s a very interesting stance, and he knows what he’s talking about. The only way we can get over this situation is, precisely, by forgetting. The need to look ahead is so great that the only hope—once there is a vaccine, of course, and we have tamed the pandemic—is that we will forget about it. The other reference I’ve thought about since the day this situation began is Julio Cortázar’s fantastic short story “La Autopista del Sur” [“The Southern Thruway”]. (1) It tells of an immense traffic snarl-up lasting days and days on the south Paris expressway, during which a micro-society begins to form: there are the people who complain, those who want to reach agreements, there’s love, hate, friendship. Everything starts coming to a head when, suddenly, on day five or six, the traffic jam begins to move; of course, each car moves at a different speed, and in a few minutes it’s all over. It seems to me that these two references offer a very accurate description of human psychology and what could happen to us in the current situation.

And what references do you think architecture could offer?

I also find it interesting to study how similar situations have been overcome in times of darkness. I’ve been working on a book called Palacios Comunales Atemporales [Timeless Communal Palaces] that has just been published. (2) It’s a study of the existence of large spatial structures designed to house collectivities united by alternative ways of life to the family lifestyle, be they ideological, religious, hippy or communist, or primitive peoples, some of which have prospered and others failed miserably. Although it explores the spiritual and/or political principles that breathe life into these structures, the research focuses on the coherence between their impressive architectural beauty, their spatial organization, and their economic and ecological strategies. The study is the result of academic work carried out with students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the ETSAM under the title “How to Live Together”, taken from the book of the same name by Roland Barthes, (3) an author whose ideas and ways of working illuminated ours. In response to Hashim Sarkis’s invitation to present the results of this research at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2021, How Will We Live Together?, I decided to republish all the documentation in this future publication as a visual essay, full of quotes. I think it’s important to know how different ideas and ways of life have emerged in times of crisis, and hope it will be a contribution to thinking about the current situation from another perspective without trying to solve a particular problem.

Moments of crisis have also served to question our relationship with the environment and nature. Do you think that the pandemic will help to raise awareness of this relationship, and perhaps influence the evolution of architectural discourses and practices in this sense?

I think so. Maybe it is a proselytizing way of seeing things, but I hope that many of the issues that we have been working on in recent years in professional and academic fields will be regarded as more relevant from now on, such as the importance of thermodynamics, of ceasing to be so iconic—or exclusively iconic—and the fact that we have forgotten that buildings breathe; they are living beings—inanimate, but living beings. Today, we have scientific knowledge and parametric instruments that allow us to introduce the time variable into the design, which we didn’t use to be able to do. Before, there was an abstract thermal conductivity coefficient for the whole year and for all buildings; now, it can be specified according to sunlight, rainy days… it can be modulated. This enables us to adapt the way we think of buildings to thermodynamics rather than to tradition—though traditional architecture was able to adapt, despite having fewer instruments, unlike the use of air conditioning and the commercial logic of capitalism. At present, something of what I would call naturalness in the way we see construction is, I think, very important. We have to understand that the point of construction is not just to produce a building in the shape of a dog or to be published on the front page of a Sunday supplement because it’s the most bizarre in the world, but to have a sense of adaptation.

It is true that faced with this hope or this desire to make the most of scientific advances to work in a more rational way, we are faced with regulations that prevent or limit the possibility of experimenting. I believe that there is still a, let’s say, “20th century” false technical culture and a huge mistrust in the ability of architects to address these issues. In Spain, for example, the technical code follows the northern European Passivhaus model, where the only thing that matters are insulation values, which, in a Mediterranean climate, is nonsense. Insulation is, of course, important, but it is relative and it often doesn’t take into account geographical and climatic peculiarities, setting a limit on the consumption of kilowatts, but not on frequency of use throughout the year. The regulations leave the door open to other experiments that are justifiable, but always on the responsibility of the designer, and this is not paid by the architect’s fees.

In view of your extensive teaching experience at an international level, do you think these issues are sufficiently covered in teaching at architecture schools?

The force of the image is enormous. Architecture has an iconic power per se, and understanding that environmental issues are not at odds with issues of composition, aesthetics, beauty or even surprise is quite difficult to convey. They are, conversely, at odds with aesthetic and technical banality. What we have to try to do is differentiate between the bizarre and the appropriate. I think it is difficult to reverse the way the iconic has, since postmodernism, been perverted to the point that in recent decades it is almost the only thing seen as important. However, we must insist and make people understand that there are different ways of doing architecture.

The pandemic has brought about the sudden acceleration of the virtual in all private and public spheres, and highlighted both the potentials and the limits of housing. How do you think this situation could impact ways of envisioning housing and collective spaces in the future?

We have arrived at a housing canon, at absolute uniformity, which means that today there is no difference between a house plan built in New Zealand, Mexico or Stockholm. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the importance of terraces, or having a place at home where you can isolate yourself for telework. They are interesting ideas but the point is being able to afford the luxury of having an extra space in the house. However, there is less talk about other things that I do think will change in the future, and a lot, which are the ground floors, roofs and basements of buildings.

Commerce no longer exists: digitization of the market is destroying the atmosphere in the street, even in fully commercial big cities. I believe that the only way to enable the environment or the typological structures that we used to have to subsist is to bring offices down from their first floors and return to the medieval idea of the workshop in the street, or streets specialized by guilds. The problem right now is the price, because it’s more expensive to be on the street than on an upper floor, but if the rents of commercial premises continue to come down, it will be possible and profitable to work at street level. As for roofs, there is talk of greening them, but the need for space to accommodate photovoltaic or air conditioning installations practically excludes any other use. I think that the wonderful idea of creating three-dimensional green corridors on the roofs is the most interesting change that can be made today, but it has to be compatible with the reality of all the infrastructure needed for facilities. And, finally, what about basements? What can we do with the huge parking areas of shopping malls in urban centres where traffic is limited? I turn buildings around; what interests me least are balconies and extra rooms, because I don’t believe that the real-estate market is going to change anything substantially, and budgets are going to be just as tight when it comes to constructing these elements.

At the urban scale, do you think that the pandemic will question former models of urban development and possibly influence the definition of new urban paradigms?

As regards the existing city, the pandemic has visibilized the problem of poor quality housing. To solve this problem calls for resources that should be used much more rationally. It is much easier and far more visible to implement what we might call more demagogic measures, such as removing traffic from cities, the so-called “smart city”, than to end ghettoization and these pockets of poverty that continue to weigh on many cities and demand certainly strategic and high-quality projects.

At the same time, I see that the pandemic has spurred the movement of small groups of people, especially young and educated people, as opposed to former generations who imagined an urban professional future and development, seeing rural life as something without interest, but also older and middle-aged people, who are self-organizing to repopulate rural areas where housing and land are cheaper, close to important transport links. I believe that alternative, communal lifestyles, linked to an economy based partly on the digital and partly on agricultural activities, are proliferating and emerging as a serious, clearly expanding alternative to the dominant real-estate model.


Cortázar, Julio, “La Autopista del Sur”, en Todos los Fuegos al Fuego (Editorial Sudamericana, 1966)


Abalos, Iñaki, Palacios Comunales Atemporales (Barcelona: Puente editores, 2020)


Barthers, Roland, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. Notes for a Lecture Course and Seminar at the Collège de France (1976-1977) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012)


Interview with Iñaki Abalos realized by TRANSFER editor Isabel Concheiro on November 4, 2020

03.Dec.2020 1520 views
Iñaki Abalos Iñaki Ábalos

Iñaki Ábalos (San Sebastián, 1956) is a Ph.D. in Architecture (1991), professor in residence in Harvard University GSD and Chaired Professor of Architectural Design at the ETSAM (since 2002). He was Kenzo Tange Professor (2009), Design Critic in Architecture (2010-2012), and Chair of the Department of Architecture GSD Harvard University (2013-2016). He has been Visiting Professor in Columbia University, Architectural Association , EPFL Lausanne, Princeton University  and Cornell University. He was Founder and Director of Abalos & Herreros (1984-2006) and of Abalos+Sentkiewicz since 2006. His work has been widely published in journals and monographs, such as Abalos+Sentkiewicz arquitectos. Thermodynamic Beauty, 2G (nº 56, GG, 2011), and Essays on Thermodynamics, Architecture and Beauty (Actar, 2015). Ábalos is author of Tower and Office (The MIT Press, 2003) with Juan Herreros. On his own he has written La Buena Vida (GG, 2000), (The Good Life, GG, 2001), Atlas of the Picturesque (vol. I, GG, 2005 and vol. II, GG, 2007) and Naturaleza y Artificio (GG, 2010).

The stopped present could be a good place from which to look at the near past and, most of all, the future.

TRANSFER NEXT aims to invite shared reflections on the new scene that coronavirus will probably usher in.

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