By Anita Malhotra
Spanish architect Alberto Veiga and Italian architect Fabrizio Barozzi began collaborating in 2004, making a name for themselves with a series of award-winning submissions to architectural competitions in Europe. Their unique and strikingly beautiful buildings and designs, often inspired by the surrounding environment, embody their philosophy of a simple architecture based on fundamental principles like light and scale.
Their works include an auditorium in Águilas, Spain that echoes the shape of a nearby rock; a dance school in Zurich, Switzerland featuring a series of inverted triangles; and a symphony hall in Szczecin, Poland that is inspired by the verticality of the surrounding buildings. The latter, completed in 2014, has won numerous prizes, including the prestigious 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Alberto Veiga about the work of Barozzi/Veiga at their office in Barcelona on September 3, 2015.
AM: What is your background in architecture?
AV: I studied architecture in a small city in the north of the country – in Pamplona. After I worked there for 5 or 6 years, I decided to move to the south – to Sevilla. And in Sevilla I met Fabrizio. We were working there together in an office. He studied architecture in Venice, but he moved because of the Erasmus Programme, this European exchange program that permits students to move around the continent.
Our background was the approach of a student trying to learn as much as possible of the classical view of the architectural office. Of course, our studies were different. What Italian architects understand by architecture is something more linked with history, the past. It’s more rhetoric, more narrative. I studied in the north of Spain, in a small city. The vision is more technical, it’s more functional. But we had a similar approach about what we wanted to do from the beginning.
AM: Was that approach one that was against the classical view of architecture?
AV: The approach was not against the former generation or against the classical vision of architecture. It was more like the feeling that we have with things we like. When you start to work with somebody, this is what you can test: “Do you like this or not?” And that’s why we started to feel comfortable speaking about architecture together. And then, in these 10 years, the approach has changed because we didn’t know exactly what kind of architecture we wanted to do from the beginning.
AM: What types of architecture did you both like?
AV: From the beginning, we were both interested in this kind of honest architecture, an architecture based from the essence of the discipline – very, very simple things. We wanted to transmit simple messages to the users. We were not very interested in the adjectives of architecture. We were not green, we were not technical architects. From the beginning we tried to focus on the fundamental elements of what architecture means – the scale, the light, the proportion, how to transmit something in a simple way.
AM: You mentioned “messages to the user.” What do you mean by that?
AV: Well, it’s not a message, but what we try to do is to always transmit something. We don’t believe that you can change the world with architecture. But you have to try to transmit something, at least so that the people who are going to use the building feel something – in terms of feeling comfortable, feeling the beauty of something or the light inside. Or just starting a reflection about why they did this in this way, why the light comes in in this way. Or try to activate the memory of people by linking the building with some context or some tradition that they can experience inside.
That’s the difference between being an architect and being just an engineer that tries to solve problems. The power of architecture is to transmit feelings – feelings about beauty, feelings about memory, feelings about feeling comfortable inside. That’s what we try to do.
AM: Why did you choose Barcelona as the city to establish your firm?
AV: We had no roots in Barcelona, but it was more personal factors. My wife now was living here in Barcelona, and Fabrizio’s wife was in the States but she wanted to move here too. So we decided to move to Barcelona. And then because it was more linked in terms of connections with Italy, with France.
AM: Are there any particular architects that influenced you?
AV: We admire a lot of architects. We admire Siza’s work and we admire Peter Zumthor. But if you ask me for just one influence I can’t tell you just one. And even nowadays you can access a lot of references from all around the world. But I think that we always liked this kind of classical approach to the work.
AM: One of your early works is the auditorium in Spain that is next to the sea. What thought process went into the design of this building?
AV: That was the first building we did. It’s in the south of Spain – Águilas – and it’s just in front of the beach facing the south. It is an interpretation of what we thought the place needed. It is like a rock. The natural end of the bay is a huge rock, so the building is a reflection of this element. It is a massive volume worked with these curved surfaces that try to transmit to the citizens there how the shadow moves around the curved surface. You can see the sunlight over the building during the whole day, so you can see how the sea changes during the day, and you can see how the light changes over the building.
And then it’s solved in a traditional way with the traditional finish of mortar. And it’s white because the traditional architecture of the south of Spain is white. It is a work that we tried to solve without vanity, because when you are young, when you can do an auditorium – a huge building – you always try to do everything you know. And here we tried to avoid that. We wanted to do it in a simple way but in a very expressive way.
AM: Your most awarded work is the Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin. How did you arrive at that design?
AV: Usually we go to sites a couple of times during the competition. We always try to feel the key points of the site, sometimes with a tourist’s vision. And of course we didn’t know anything about Poland – it was our first time there. In Szczecin, we discovered this influence of Germanic architecture because this is West Pomerania. So you can see these massive volumes, these steep roofs in the houses. You can see this verticality in all the main monuments and the churches.
And then you have the Philharmonic Hall – something devoted to classical music. So we started to play with how to compose something with elements that could reflect the memory of the site in terms of architecture. And we started to work with this idea of repetition with the volume.
Inside, the idea was to work with the light, with the scale of the space – to transmit why when the scale changes something is going to happen or not, what a public space means inside the building, what the idea of movement means inside the hall, because when you go to a performance everyone wants to see who’s going to come, who’s crossing the hall.
And then inside the concert hall it is a special space so we knew that the contrast between the concert hall and exterior should be huge because outside the actor is the user; inside the actor is the music. The outside is glass; inside in the public space it’s just plasterboard – something very simple. We did the concert hall with fake gold leaf so you can perceive how it is linked with the tradition.
AM: Was this building built on the site of another concert hall?
AV: Yes – formerly on the same site there was a Philharmonic Hall that was destroyed during the war. And we tried to mix all these things. Of course you always filter through your eyes, through your obsessions and through your feelings about the place. It is something very subjective. It is complex, of course, but the secret is to achieve a good relationship with the place and with the users.
AM: What are you working on now?
AV: At the office we mainly do public competitions. The way to get jobs in Spain and in Italy is through competitions. It is hard to do them, but if you have success then it is a very good way to propose the kind of architecture that you like. So now we are doing a couple of competitions – one in Switzerland and one in Denmark. And at the same time we are developing the projects that we have in Switzerland. And then we are starting building on-site in Brunico – a city in the north of Italy – a music school that we won a couple of years ago.
AM: How does an architectural competition work?
AV: If you win competitions, most of the time you have control of the whole process from the beginning until the opening of the place. The control that you have is much bigger here probably than in the United States because in the United States there are more companies, more contractors, more things in the middle, and you are just another actor. The building is just an idea, and the architect is another player, and sometimes you have to work against the rest of the players. Here, in Europe, you are still the main actor in terms of architecture. That’s why you can see more personal works.
AM: How do you see your work and its impact on future generations?
AV: Well, we live in such a complex world that it is difficult for us to think about the future in terms of being an architect in the next ten years. Because the market is so complex, nobody knows if you are going to survive being an architect.
I think that in every work we try to do something that is a personal vision, but is something that can at least survive. And that sounds a little bit dramatic, but it’s true. You can only survive if you somehow achieve the beauty of something, or if you achieve something that can be atemporal: that is not linked with the passage of time, that people can understand. And if you achieve that, you can be universal like a painter. To use the word “beauty” in architecture nowadays is dangerous. But finally it’s what permits you to survive: to achieve the beauty of something and try to be atemporal with it.
AM: What are your favorite places in Barcelona?
AV: Barcelona is a very nice place to live, and this neighborhood, Eixample, is very, very nice because everything happens in just 100 metres. You have a supermarket, a bar, an office, a house – the density of the place is very nice. But the main references for me here in Barcelona are the markets. Because if you go to a market, you understand how the neighborhood works. This open space permits organization of not just the market but the social life around it.
Of course, there are very good examples of architecture. Gaudi is a good example – not the Sagrada Família, because that’s not Gaudi – that’s a mix now of a lot of things. I understand that people want to come to Barcelona to see Gaudi’s work, but for me it’s more interesting just to experience this idea of the neighborhood markets – the social life that you can have here. Because here everything happens on the street – in the market and in front of your house. And that’s very nice in Barcelona because the weather is fantastic the whole year. You can go to the market, have a coffee outside, cross the street and go to another place. And you can do it in December.
AM: Do you have a dream building or a dream project?
AV: Not really. We have done public buildings, but I think if you are an architect you need to enjoy doing just the simple house or a church. And even the place is not so important. That’s why we try to work in any place, because the place is not important and the kind of building is not important. What matters is your attitude to the work.
For more information about Alberto Veiga and Barozzi/Veiga, please visit barozziveiga.com.