Going Slowly: Cadaval and Solà-Morales

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #39]
X House, near Barcelona. Photo credit: Iwan Baan.

“Young architects” is a culturally loaded term, often conjuring notions of rebellion, utopian idealism, gravity-defying flights of fantasy and trendy theoretical posturing. But while Eduardo Cadaval and Clara de Solà-Morales are definitely young, their unpretentious, beautifully built work is planted firmly in the ground of common sense, which is precisely why it caught my interest. Why shouldn’t “young” architecture also be about building – and building rationally?

Having seen only images of their work on the internet, I’m looking forward to seeing a real Cadaval and Solà-Morales building. Eduardo and Clara gladly agree to show me a house they have just completed on the coast north of Barcelona: Casa X. On our way to the site, I wonder: What’s with the X? Is it a reference to House X by Peter Eisenman? A house for a secret agent? Or is the client’s name Xavier? In any case, I’m willing to let X equal X; the name of the house is of no great matter.

Sure enough, the first thing Eduardo and Clara tell me, as we approach the motorway that takes us out of Barcelona –- one of the few benefits of Spain’s disastrous economic crisis is a noticeable reduction in traffic –- is not to mind the name of the house. Why? “Because we don’t want you to get the wrong idea. We are not formalists.”

Eventually, we drive through a small town and up the side of a steep hill dotted with villas that enjoy privileged views of the Mediterranean. These homes seem to occupy the rugged hillside haphazardly, but the random pattern they make terminates cleanly and abruptly at the top. ‘That contour line represents the highest permissible building elevation,’ says Eduardo, pointing up while manoeuvring around sharp hairpin turns. I notice one house that looks nothing like the others: a flat-topped, concrete-and-glass structure with two angled arms cantilevering out of the slope, seemingly embracing the horizon. No confirmation required –- architecture is always identifiable by process of elimination.

We stop and get out of the car. The house lies below the level of the road, permitting views of the distant landscape over a roof terrace shaped like an X in plan. A driveway descends at an angle parallel to one of the two intersecting bars comprising the X, terminating in a tidy two-car garage. “X is the shape we arrived at after trying out all sorts of configurations to best optimize views, light, circulation and privacy on a rather small and very steep site,” explains Clara. “X is simply the shape that worked best.”

I am surprised by how small the house appears to be, especially in comparison with others in the area. “We worked hard to make the house as spatially compact and efficient as possible, as well as to convince the municipality that the house didn’t need to sit atop a plinth,” which, given the steepness of the site, would have exposed immense foundation walls. Instead, Casa X cantilevers out of the hillside, lightening its volume. “Interesting,” I remark, thinking of all the gratuitous and conspicuous cantilevers being designed just about everywhere these days. What I’m looking at here is a cantilever that actually makes sense.

Although the exterior gives a compact impression, the interior of the house does not feel small at all, thanks not only to generous views of the surroundings through the living room’s double-height glass curtain wall, but also to an interior organization that avoids boxed-in spaces and reveals something new around every corner. Indeed, it becomes evident that every detail has been very carefully considered: the fine, uniform texture of exposed concrete; the positioning of vertical curtain-wall mullions on the exterior to assure a smooth, uninterrupted surface on the inner side of the glass; the mitred joints of acutely angled corners in the millwork; and more.

Back at their office, I ask Clara and Eduardo whether, for them, architecture is essentially a building art, or Baukunst, as the German language so succinctly puts it.

Clara: “Architecture can be many things beyond building, but when a design does get built, there’s a responsibility to build well. It’s an insult when things fall apart or noise passes through apartment walls. Architecture is human, and mistakes can happen, but architects need to do their very best to make sure they don’t happen. Building well is a way of building sustainably. There you have it – the S word!”

Eduardo: “We love the adrenaline rush that comes from built work.” They show me other recently completed projects, as well as those not yet finished, including two in Mexico: a lounge and bungalow for a rural resort in Tepoztlán, and urban housing in Mexico City. What I’m wondering, though, is how their building ethic can be maintained when such operations are in progress on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lounge in Tepoztlán, Mexico. Photo credit: Sandra Pereznieto

Eduardo: “We may work on two different continents, but we are not one of those ‘global’ offices. We run two local offices. We know and understand the Mexican context. We work there as a local office and charge our clients accordingly. We also work here in Barcelona as a local office. We have been invited to do work in Dubai, but we said no thanks – if it’s difficult to do a good building three blocks away, imagine how difficult it would be to do one without knowing local construction techniques, let alone local culture. That doesn’t mean we’re not interested in designing buildings for other countries, but it takes time. We believe in going slowly, step by step. We really like working on residential and other relatively small projects, but that doesn’t mean we plan to do the same thing forever. We are interested in doing medium-scale projects and in making public architecture, especially in Mexico, but little by little. We want to be able to have successful results, and to do that we need to take our time.”

The discussion shifts to landscape, which seems to play a central role in the work of Cadaval and Solà-Morales. In addition to distant views of tectonically framed scenery for visual enjoyment – an important feature of Casa X – landscape is often a more visceral, up-close component of the architecture. One example is the Tepoztlán lounge, in which space is created as much by landscape as by artificially built elements, while earth and vegetation seem to be building materials for the first Tepoztlán bungalow.

Clara: “For us, landscape is not just a view but a part of the programme. We don’t see a line between inside and outside, but a space – and it’s that space that interests us.”

Eduardo: “An environment is an environment, whether it’s architecturally built or not. We believe in environments. We don’t build things that just invite users to admire the landscape; we want our work to become part of the landscape – to interact with it. Yes, in the case of the Tepoztlán lounge, the terraces, patios and vegetation are just as important as the concrete. Our design of the lounge includes the environment as a whole, not just the building.”

But at the same time, I reply, the ‘hard stuff’ in these environments takes on strong forms: X-shaped or triangular plans, rectangular frames…

Clara: “Form is the result of a long process. We try to find a single shape or idea –- an idealistic or utopian form –- that can solve everything. In Casa X, the shape of the plan shields the house from very closely situated neighbours while providing views of the surroundings.”

Such a search for optimization sounds a bit like the discourse on parametric design, but parametric forms are typically very complicated and convoluted, whereas Eduardo and Clara’s are scandalously simple. I ask them whether they are into using the latest digital technology in their search for optimization.

Eduardo: “A worker on a construction site in Mexico would shatter current parametric discourse in three minutes flat. We feel a closer kinship to his concerns than to those of the digital-technology discourse. We concentrate on simpler issues: how to build reasonably economically and where natural light and ventilation are going to come from. We are more into human parametricism.”

Clara: “If we were into parametricism, we would find our own way to build these designs. We are more interested in people and in the urban and social aspects of architecture. Right now, parametricism seems to be concerned solely with formalism and not with how people actually live.”

After saying “Adéu”, I realize I was wrong. Eduardo Cadaval and Clara de Solà Morales are, in fact, polemical –- and in true “young architect” style, no less. They are making a point –- a very timely point, I might add –- which is that architecture cannot lose sight of its most essential and primordial aspect. Ultimately, architecture must serve others and not just itself.


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