Metrovacesa - Juan Trías de Bes

Entrevista, Interview

Juan Trías de Bes: We think of spaces that are transformed alongside the requirements of the people

In his opinion, architecture equals relationships and service. His housing and tertiary sector projects are bringing innovation in critical areas of Barcelona. He seeks the balance between the urban and local. He talks about innovative social housing in which customisable environments meet modern demands through data analysis. He states that spaces have to offer authentic experiences to those who inhabit them.

What defines TDB’s architecture?

Our work is based mainly on providing a service for the client. We put a lot of thinking into how a space is going to be used. Usually many questions arise: How should a space be built, how will it be maintained over time, how will feel the user the spaces, how will they perceive the light, how will they be able to take ownership of the space by interacting with it or the furniture. We need to create buildings that can be transformed and changed over time.

There are many subjects that have influenced architecture in the last decades: From environmental awareness to the importance given to spatial design. What is the impact of research in these subjects?

We should first differentiate exploration from research. These are two paths towards innovation, but they differ in terms of methodology. For example, in some projects we explore new solutions for building using a traditional element in an unprecedented and customised way. In this case there is exploration, but no research. Research goes a lot further, while exploration takes place as part of the building process itself. Research requires a lot more stages: Identification, solution thinking, implementation, and then behaviour observation to draw conclusions. Research tries to identify existing social needs in order to find new solutions. The university environment highly promotes research.

Clients usually welcome exploration but it is harder to bring research to the table.

Exactly. Research requires a methodology and, therefore, a particular environment. That does not mean that it is not an option for clients though. Taking into consideration the dimension of the undertaking they face, you can offer a research based approach. Research in our country is not very well developed. There are very few offices like ours that are trying to generate more, and they do so with great effort. In the case of Metrovacesa, for instance, there is a young team of highly qualified architects with a mindset focused on making a social contribution through architecture.

What kind of contribution?

In social housing for example. Our research tries to understand how information, technology and communication can facilitate the construction of spaces. We use statistics to detect what the real housing needs are. Who are the people who actually live in a home? What is their purchasing power? What kind of mobility do they have? That, in the end, is what tells you how many homes you need in a certain place, what size they should be, what costs can be afforded. Young people are no longer interested in having a very expensive kitchen, what interests them is having spaces that can be used to work from home.

So, spaces can not only be adapted to whatever needs arise but these can also be predicted?

Of course, otherwise you may find yourself creating homes which people can’t afford or which age very quickly because they aren’t adaptable to a changing use of the house.

This research will lead you to creating social housing. What will characterise this project?

There will be two basic elements. One are very simple and luminous spaces for the user to customise, the other a software that makes the consumption of housing something more collective. Laundries, car sharing, co-working spaces.

Avoiding mobility within the city will become a need in a short while, and we cannot afford spending so much time on mobility for things that are not essential. Barcelona is a relatively small city, but the same issue in big metropolises is impressive.

Let’s talk about the projects you are developing in Barcelona.

Poblenou is one of those neighbourhoods that is redefining the concept of European cities: Industrial neighbourhoods that are quickly becoming technological and creative hubs, attracting young people and new families. What is Poblenou today? And what could it be tomorrow?

I think there are many “Poblenous”. It is a very heterogeneous district. Poblenou’s branch has nothing to do with the end of the Pere IV or with the Torre Agbar. The interesting thing about Poblenou is that it is in formation right now, and that is why we must pay attention. Companies like Metrovacesa have a lot of responsibility in regard to the actions they are going to develop, because they will be the architects of the core configuration of these neighbourhoods. And, of course, we, the architects, are also a part of that. But, as I said before, without a good client, it is impossible to have a good architecture. In the case of Metrovacesa, I think their success lies in doing things gradually. When they analyse a project, they work as if it were something exceptional and unusual. They are open to the opinion of the city council and to studies carried out on their subjects of interest.

You worked with Metrovacesa on two projects that have helped design the core fabric of Poblenou.

For the housing project I am developing in Poblenou, at the end of Pere IV, we have had the opportunity to design an entire block of the expansion district. Instead of a totally closed alignment, in our project, the public space extends towards the inside of the block within the private area and without any limitations. Although there was no obligation to do so, Metrovacesa has offered to make a passable space, even if it goes through privately owned areas.

On the other hand, we are developing a new project within the tertiary sector. The office project intends to bring together both local and urban aspects to conceive an architectural approach and a character that brings value to the properties of the neighbourhood so they get integrated with the flow and the use of the building.

The character of a neighbourhood and its organic evolution is essential in modern cities.

We must be able to combine the local with the urban. It is the challenge that 22@, the technology district, is faced with. Poblenou is a neighbourhood with its own identity but, at the same time, with a global character. The companies, the architects, and the City Council are aware of this.

No one wants to live in a house or work in an office that feels like an outsider in its own territory.

No one. The clothes we wear try to fit our character. If you can choose between two places, the identity and the character of those places will also be considered within the variables to assess.

People are looking for authentic experiences now, more than ever.

A sculptor used to say that when an element is perfectly placed in a given landscape or city, even if it has just been finished, it will feel as if it have always been there. Things that are done well tend to adapt itself and become part of the memory of a place very fast. This happened with well-known buildings in Barcelona; the things that have been done properly have been accepted quickly too.

I think it is a great challenge to know how to generate such spaces, making them customisable and adaptable to the changing needs of a person or family.

The buildings that achieve these goals are not the most desired ones in the media, because they are usually quite discreet. The perception of quality occurs when you visit a building, when you actually see it and get to experience the whole situation. It’s not the same as a limiting photograph or an image in a magazine or on a website.

That is why it is also a challenge for communicators, who must be able to become aware of this and comment on it. Buildings that are published in the press are usually the most spectacular and visually striking, yet the buildings that really change cities are others. It shouldn’t be necessary to educate people. Maybe it is just that the way these buildings have been communicated so far has failed to be attractive. It is important to look for another way to tell stories about these spaces, and make them just as interesting and attractive.

You shouldn’t have to educate anyone. That is very interesting because you acknowledge that, in any case, the challenge is in the way you communicate and explain the concept. The problem is not in the receiver. The receiver, in the end, consumes what they are given. This is a very important intellectual and cultural aspect, and Metrovacesa has worked with it very well.

In 1987, the concept of sustainable development linked to urbanisation and the need to find solutions guaranteeing human well-being and reduce environmental impact is presented for the first time at a United Nations session. What is sustainable architecture?

Sustainability can change reality, and it is happening. It has become a social value equal to honesty or professionalism. Everyone wants to be sustainable, just like everyone wants to be democratic. Being considered as a social value, it is easier to put sustainability into practice, because it is already seen as inherent to the architecture itself. It is not something that can merely help you certify that a construction element has no CO2 emission or that it can be recyclable, there is a balance between the use of the materials and the construction. What must be sustainable is the architectural approach itself.

Are some materials more sustainable than others, or does it depend only on practices?

Sustainability requires a lot of understanding of the whole process. It is all about the durability of buildings, a ratio between factors. Quantity is also important. We must look for sustainability, but also look after the buildings, and make sure they offer comfort. As long as it is considered a value, it can be emphasised even more, and we have to be educated in this by people who know better. Sustainability is one of the criteria being applied in the 22@ project, not only at the level of materials and practices but also in a more general way. For example, no one can be working here more than 7 meters away from a facade or a window. That is an environmental criterion.

It’s very interesting to see how systems are increasingly incorporating space, perception, light, and user aspects. It is exciting because there are many topics that are just arising and representing the beginning of a new era. We all are pioneers in this regard. Little by little, we are learning and getting to know more about this.

An important element of contemporary architecture is the relationship construction works establish with their surroundings. How important is the relationship between construction, environment and indoor areas?

The relationship between architecture and environment is very typical of the Barcelona school. We defend an architecture that many times comes across as a manifestation, revelation or interpretation of a place. It is also present in Italian architecture and in Mediterranean and Nordic architecture. In the end a project is the staging of a stance towards the location, the environment, and especially, towards the city. The construction of a building should take into account how the structure will have to adapt to its surroundings over time, understanding, also, the rhythms of the city. I understand architecture as a relationship.

Delving into a deeper level, how do you translate this network of relationships into the architecture of indoor areas?

The relationship between outdoors and indoors can be established in multiple ways simply by using the same materials that are present in the environment or by establishing a contrast between indoors and outdoors.

I highly value so-called “tectonic” interiors, that is, those that use materials which are not superimposed as something that has been added after the construction, but which are inherent to the project itself and, therefore, blend in as a part of the structure and enclosures.

Almost as if they were a counter form of the building itself.

A comprehensive architecture means that the construction itself is capable of manifesting an external expression as internal through the materials and the building system itself. It is very difficult to achieve. Another aspect is how a relationship can be established between matter and geometry; the shape. There are a number of architects, masters, who are able to establish these clear relationships that we all perceive. It is like a musical symphony; an elegant proportion, a clean melody. Those are the masters that change architecture.

Do you think that in terms of materials, details, shapes and finishes, there is a particular grammar your firm uses when conceiving a building? Beyond its functionality I mean.

The word grammar is fundamental because it is the structure of language. There are two structural or grammatical aspects that are constant in our project. On the one hand, we try to maintain structure as an element that serves the conformation of space. On the other, we try to filter, control and design the light to enhance that space.

Designing spaces that can improve the lives of those who inhabit them, whether residential or working areas, seems to be a common denominator in your work.

Let me tell you an anecdote I always share with my students: Woody Allen used to say that a director could make any kind of film, under one condition: from the moment people sit down in the cinema until the movie is over, the audience has to be captivated. The film has to capture their attention. That is the purpose of any film. I believe something similar happens with architecture. We try to make people feel at ease with the works that we maken. You can do whatever you want but, in my opinion, it is a must that the building results in a pleasant place to be in, even over time.

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