Quietly Brilliant: Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #35]

Centre for Creativity, Cordova

Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano are truly architects’ architects. They may not be a brand name known in ordinary households the world over, but they build fine buildings for which they have gained respect and admiration from peers. The record speaks for itself: Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos has won first place in 25 Spanish and international competitions, and come second or third in another 20. They also received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2010. Not bad for a firm that’s only been around since 1999.

I meet Enrique at Nieto Sobejano’s Madrid office (the firm has a second office in Berlin) one Monday in late August, as the city is slowly returning to normal after the summer holidays. I figure the topic of competitions, and the importance of winning them, is as good as any to kick off with on a Monday morning marked by post-vacation depression syndrome. ‘Competitions are very important to us,’ says Enrique. ‘Up to now, 90 per cent of our built work has come from competitions. I say “up to now” because currently – thanks to the economic situation – Spain has far fewer competitions than it did some years ago. We opened our Berlin office as a result of winning a competition in Germany and have since won some in Austria.’ He goes on to tell me – in fluent English – that he grew up speaking German in addition to Spanish, and that he is also a professor in Berlin. Internationalize or perish: that seems to be the mantra for Spanish architects these days.

Do you believe that competitions lead to the best architecture?
Enrique Sobejano: I know of some offices that don’t enter competitions and that do very good work, mostly for private clients, with whom they enjoy a different kind of relationship. However, competitions can provide architects with certain advantages. In a competition, architects state at the outset what it is that they want to achieve. It gives them a stronger starting position in the relationship with the client. Apart from that – and even more importantly – regular participation in competitions encourages the development of a way of thinking. Competitions are conducive to intellectual development; it’s not just about getting jobs. Every new project that we do for a competition becomes a part of our ongoing research. The drawback to this way of working is that we are not linked very closely with a particular place and a particular community. We have only a few built works in Madrid. Most of our work is elsewhere, but I find that to be liberating. It frees us from local politics.

San Telmo Museum extension, San Sebastián

Does the competition system shape the way your office is organized?
We are not a big firm, so we don’t have one part of the office that does only competitions and another that does everything else. But we are not a small firm either, so we are often working on several competitions at the same time, especially since we opened our office in Berlin. Sometimes it’s complicated having to be in two places at the same time.

Your work seems to share certain affinities with the work of Team X and Dutch structuralism as practised by Aldo van Eyck, for instance. Is the study of architectural precedent part of your process?
Yes, we are very interested in the movements you mention, and in combinatorial ways of thinking. But ultimately we’re interested in a kind of economics of the conceptual. I’m not speaking about money here, but about not always over-designing things. We prefer to base a design conceptually on only a few building elements, and to repeat and combine these in different ways, exploring different possibilities. We are all aware that this is how life works; everything is based on modules, atoms or cells of some kind. Yet when I studied here in Madrid in the ’80s, this kind of approach was completely rejected. There were some Spanish architects from the 1950s and ’60s, such as Corrales and Molezún [designers of the Spanish Pavilion for Expo 58 in Brussels], who were also into the ideas we’re talking about – along with others, of course, including Bakema, Van Eyck and Louis Kahn.

Which Nieto Sobejano works do you consider paradigmatic, and why?
Exactly ten years ago we won the competition to build a museum and offices at the archaeological excavation site of Madinat al-Zahra, near Córdoba. That project represented a turning point for us, because Madinat al-Zahra made us aware of the incredibly rich tradition of Islamic architecture, which is – paradoxically – so contemporary. The thousand year-old geometric patterns of Islamic architecture are highly comparable to contemporary philosophical thought, to information technology and to open ended systems. And yet this museum was built very slowly, taking almost ten years to complete. Not because the builders were slow, but because archaeologists work slowly and methodically. For them we were too fast; their work is never finished. Contemporary architecture is often about speed, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to build this work slowly, to really be able to think it through thoroughly. Most of our work is in the area of public cultural programmes, especially museums – buildings that receive a lot of attention. Museums have to be exemplary; fortunately, most museum directors understand this. But we are also able to meet tight deadlines: the Expo Zaragoza Congress Centre was completed in very little time, thanks precisely to an economics of the conceptual.

Your office is now completing a second museum in Córdoba, the Centre for Creativity.
Yes, the Centre for Creativity is a space for contemporary art. It is just across the river from the Great Mosque, one of the best architectural spaces in the world – a building full of lessons for architects. The system used for the Great Mosque is based on a module that is repeated, and in its present state it is also about transformation and hybridity. The Centre for Creativity is similarly related to the idea of a repetitive module, in this case one that is based on the geometry of a hexagon that has been separated into three unequal parts. A rearrangement of these fragments then becomes the pattern of both the plan, at the large scale and, at a smaller scale, the openings in the screen wall. Berlin artists realities:united collaborated on the screen wall. The surfaces of the small openings are illuminated by LEDs, and each opening acts as a pixel.

The San Telmo Museum Extension in San Sebastián, on the other hand, features a green wall.
No, not entirely. The San Telmo Museum Extension was conceived as an extension to the mountain that it is built into – Monte Urgull – as much as to the existing historical museum, which we restored. Intended to act as a buffer between the two, the extension has only a partially green façade. Plants grow in some openings, and others emit artificial light from the space between the double skin. The wall is transformative: during the day it looks more like a green façade – a landscape extension – while at night, when illuminated, it looks urban, becoming an extension of the city. Artists Ferrán – Otero worked with us on producing a standard cast-aluminium panel that could be combined in a number of ways.

Has Nieto Sobejano’s approach or process changed since its beginnings? Where do you see the practice headed in the future?
I don’t know. Some years ago we may have been looking more for the object-like qualities of buildings, whereas now we are clearly more interested in open-system geometries without a predetermined form. The museum we’re building in Graz, Austria, for example, pursues a similar line of thought to that of Madinat al-Zahra, as well as to our history museum in Lugo or the art centre in Córdoba: low, horizontal structures in which a series of patio-like openings become the defining elements of the work. I would say that our work has probably not changed all that much over the years, but it has gradually evolved. Regarding the future, as a consequence of the changing situation in the world, our field of activity might also extend outside Europe. In 2009, for example, we were among the five short-listed participants for the National Museum of Fine Art in Québec City, which OMA eventually went on to win. We are also starting to get involved in other countries, a move that is sure to introduce new perspectives to our approach, since we believe that architecture is always the result of a personal dialogue with the place – a balance between memory and invention.

As I leave Nieto Sobejano’s office and walk past the nearby Santiago Bernabéu Stadium – home of the Real Madrid football team – I am encouraged by the realization that architects can still gain international recognition quietly and through intellectual rigour, without making a lot of noise.


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