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Ensamble Studio: Between Play and Representation

Ensamble Studio: Between Play and Representation

Model studies for Structures of Landscape, Montana, 2016. Courtesy of Ensamble Studio

Founded in 2000, Ensamble Studio —led by Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa— is a cross-functional office that fuses architecture, engineering, landscape design, and material research. It is based both in Madrid and Brookline, Boston. Becoming a ‘Master Builder,’ as they prefer to be called, is a hands-on commitment that combines meticulous planning with childlike curiosity. Opposites do unite in their practice, where prefabrication and onsite experimentation merge in a poetical outburst.

Pablo Gerson– You think of the digital as a tool for something else, and I remember a comment you once made: “do not 3D print a model!” How do you conceive of model-making in your practice?

Antón García-Abril– For us, models are the capacity to play. The model is based on play. [García-Abril points at some paper models in the back of the room]. From those models over there, we could not distinguish the ones made by us and the ones made by our children. It’s game that leads you to a process and an analysis that later becomes architectural. When I say “please do not 3D print a model”—by the way, we have never 3D printed—I do not want to seem dogmatic but…

Débora Mesa– For an exhibition, the organizers asked us to send by post a file to print instead of the physical models. That left us completely in disarray.

AGA– Models are the only thing Debora and I exclusively do. In all architecture offices around the world it’s the intern who makes the models. In Ensamble Studio it’s the principals instead.

DM– We propose a thinking process and then we ask people to start playing: sometimes we ask the whole office; sometimes we collaborate with some people on a certain topic; and sometimes we invite our children.

AGA– For the Big Bang Towers project (2017), we proposed the game of building a spear. At the count of three, all members of the team had to accommodate a spear inside a space. That was the first approach to indeterminacy. However, the game is not worth anything if you don’t interpret it architecturally afterwards. That is how we operated in Structures of Landscape. We did not know very well what we were doing but this unconsciousness was neither fearful nor ignorant, it was creative: we did not know we would do an arch with the stones like we did. The process leads you to different circumstances, some happy and others unremarkable.

DM– For us, the model is a tool to think and ‘un-design,’ which has become very useful. The structural and spatial component of it offers a lot of information.

We honor the model, if not you start to deform it right away. For us, it is a matter of presentation rather than of representation.

Antón García-Abril

AGA– These lecterns you see here are our toys. Now we are playing with clamps, before we were playing with cut up papers, before that with masses that would break—we continuously invent games. The model is essential to produce an abstract space with an operable scale. We honor the model, and by that I mean that our design will be read and decided through the model. It’s not just a moment of revelation, the model carries the freshness and the content that probably lasts a decade, which is the time it takes to make a building more or less. We honor the model, if not you start to deform it right away. For us, it is a matter of presentation rather than of representation. That game I was playing while we were having coffee this morning is not a project, but to turn it into architecture implies a reading, an interpretation. If a client would ask us for model to display in a vitrine, we would 3D or 4D print it. Anyway, we do love doll houses. The MOMA kept one but it wasn’t abstract at all. We did the chair, the faucet, every single detail. What we don’t like is to be stuck in the middle: either a doll house or completely the opposite because once it carries so much detail it becomes abstract again…

DM– The models have different utilities. We like our process models because we return to them over and over again as inspiration and to provoke new ideas for other projects.

AGA– They condense so much information. I have the need to bring a model of the Truffle [AGA brings models]; look how nice.

Towers of Landscape, Orléans Architecture Biennial, France, 2017. Courtesy Ensamble Studio.

PG– Was it produced with the same criteria?

AGA– No, this is a classical one. It contains everything that the Truffle has. It expresses the harsh concrete, the cut, the material. On the top is an abstraction of an oculus, which is similar to what we did in the project for Ca’n Terra ten or twelve years later. The same obsession: an oculus. The truffle doesn’t have an oculus but it is intuited. For us the model is like a totem.

DM– The Truffle or Hemeroscopium House are not dead ends, they’re not perfect, finished works. They’re stones on a path: the crystallization of an experience we keep on developing in other projects. All in all, it is a learning process.

AGA– Exactly that is what a company calls ‘stock.’ Hemeroscopium House is basically an abstract plan. The other day, we started to imagine a house on a plot in LA, and we realized that we had already done it.

DM– Just in case. You never know.

AGA– We do not work with commissions. If somebody offers us to build hospital, we wouldn’t know how to. But if somebody comes and picks up something from the models we would already have done it. If somebody wants us to build a house unrelated to its context, which is the case in most suburban plots in the world, the idea would have been rehearsed. In Madrid we have some beautiful models. We have a big office and around the time we moved to the US we sublet it and decided to buy the plot next to our house and we rented a pair of containers, and moved the office in there whilst we were doing the office here. Since we did not have a proper enclosed space in Madrid anymore, we started building models that would resist the outdoors. Imagine: here we have about fifty small models, in Madrid we probably have fifty to sixty huge ones.

PG– I would like to ask you about the musical background of the videos you make because it’s something that both Florencia and I find very interesting. Does the name Ensamble have to do with music as well?

AGA– A lot. In music there is the author, the composer, and the ensemble. The ensemble is the vehicle that conducts the music to the audience’s spirit. The author is basically us: sometimes one of us takes the lead but usually it’s a mixture of both. In Architecture the ensemble is the vehicle, the instrument, the orchestra, the team that as a result conducts and constitutes an open system. Authorship is not an open system. In architecture the author cannot be a team, it can be a couple at most and that is already troublesome. There has to be a special artistic and physical communion, almost spiritual. For human beings this can only be achieved through the couple—no need for marriage, of course—but authorship is something sacred. The vehicle, however, is an open tool and that is what we learnt from music. Music is as much a part of representation as is a drawing, and therefore we embrace the audiovisual document to express an idea. In 98% of the cases we use my father’s compositions.

DM– We have it made our own. It’s his as much as ours and of a particular architecture. We use music as an instrument, this vehicle, to communicate. For us, architecture is very difficult to communicate solely through an image, which is how everything is consumed nowadays. Conveying the processes through music transports you to another dimension of our sensibility. It is a way of amplifying the message.

AGA– That takes us back to the world of music, because life without music is very sad. Audiovisual language demands music in order to define time: on the one hand, slowness is the poetry of the meteor shower, the Big Bang, the violence required to give birth to space; in the video of Hemeroscopium House, on the other hand, we are talking about robotics and prefabrication in a mechanical language. That is pure representation.

PG– The logics of construction in the Truffle or Structures of Landscape in technological terms are traditional but the processes are not, and if that isn’t properly documented then it disappears. That is why the time-lapses portraying the system of beams is so important.  

AGA– We are scientists and artist, i.e. architects. The artist picks up emotions, keeps and hides them. The scientist documents each and all steps of a process—except in exceptional circumstances—because his method is to guarantee that each experiment is replicable and transmissible to a third party.

DM– The work of art can be reproduced but it remains unique. The scientist produces experiments that lead to another one and another one and so on. Our practice cultivates that dialectic

AGA– We are the Master Builders. It’s a pretty nice expression, it’s what the architect used to be. Borromini and Bernini were Master Builders. Our profession is architect but our objective is to be Master Builders.

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