Mateu Baylina and Xavi Ayala interview Benedetta Tagliabue, architect and principal of EMBT
In 2007, the Barcelona-based studio Miralles Tagliabue EMBT won the public competition to design the Spanish pavilion for the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Now that the event will open in less than a year, Mateu Baylina and Xavi Ayala talked to Benedetta Tagliabue about the ideas behind the pavilion, being part of an international exhibition, and her impressions of Shanghai.
MB: The difference between your studio and others is that you take risks in everything you do, following a very precise discourse, or at least that is what it seems from the outside.
BT: Yes, it’s true. I think that is why sometimes I don’t sleep. [Laughs]
MB: You take risks to the point that some of the things you do might become economically reckless, although it has provided you with great results. How do you approach a competition for an event such as the Expo 2010 in Shanghai that is expected to receive 70 million visitors? Historically, the Universal Exhibitions have been pivotal points in design, forming new episode from a creative perspective.
BT: When you think about the 70 million visitors… sometimes it is better not to know about it. When you are not fully conscious about the implications of what you do, then you do it in a playful and intuitive way. You have ideas in which, as you say, you assume certain risks. When we started the competition to design the Spanish Pavilion in Shanghai, we started to think: what is a Universal Exhibition? Is it a topic in itself? The level of attention that people have is minimal, everything goes really fast. You have to be able to communicate immediately and impact at different levels. I don’t think you can establish a message, because you don’t grasp it. You have to be able to understand it intuitively. We know there will be a lot of people, a lot of things to see and a minimum level of attention. Then, what do you do? You explain Spain, don’t you? Explaining Spain you can create some type of caricature: bulls, flamenco, wine, plazas, outdoor life, although they are such typical clichés that they are almost embarrassing (laughs). But in the end you know that in one way or another, you have to talk about those things. All that was on the table, like the Almodovar movies, and then we would say: we can hide that, right? Above all, we work on all of these with Makoto, a Japanese collaborator that is shameless. But all that thing of flamenco and carnations was not convincing. However, all that has a dynamism, a movement that has remained in the project. The idea of the plaza has also remained, an open space that welcomes people before they go inside the pavilion. And the idea started to take shape. After that, we thought that it had to have a powerful materiality, talk about the idea of globalization and a better city and also talk about Spain. We have used ceramic in Santa Caterina, and it was also used in the last Universal Exhibition and we thought: that’s it, with the ceramic we talk about something really Spanish. However, there is another Spanish tradition, beautiful, that is wicker, a tradition that is shared with a lot of other countries around the world, and mostly in China. It has a lot of implications. There is also the idea that is a tradition of craftsmanship that we are trying to bring to another scale, talk about a container that is similar to that used in the countryside, talk about a better city if you rediscover the existing traditions. In the end, we decided to develop this idea that is a little crazy.
MB: But it pays off and it is really good.
MB: As an experience, to be involved in a global event of these characteristics, what are the issues that have been present when thinking about the project? Do you think of this pavilion as an experiment or as a line of work that can be further explored, as it seems that the image and level of acceptance of the pavilion has been really good?
BT: It is part of a series of tests that we develop in the studio. For us, each project creates its own topics of investigation and that, as you said earlier, is a risk. Obviously, you have to take certain risks, knowing that you have experience and trust in a series of people, and that if you make things with logic, they will turn, out more or less well. I think it is really interesting because you also go alongside Spain, representing it, into a country that fascinates everybody, China. I also like this idea of going with someone, going on a trip almost as if holding your parents’ hand.
MB: Do you know the other pavilions, locations, and the relationship between all of them?
BT: More or less, but not really. Now we are starting to know more things: this one is good, this is not so good, but now it is too late to change our directions. Besides, I think that the best thing is to maintain the idea in which you believe, do not be influenced at this point by what other people do. When we started, we knew more or less the location of the other pavilions but that didn’t influence us. In this project, perhaps what is missing is the context, because it is an ephemeral context, unknown. What we have on our side is that we are in front of the river, under the great Lupu Bridge, that is very significant, iconic, and has been our way of approaching the project.
MB: Then you did have some reference in terms of the location.
BT: Yes, we did. I think now there are some organizations that are saying: “Being under the bridge is a disaster!” I really like it because at least it is something that you see. You can see it in this book,Shanghai Transforming, and it seems that you can see the pavilion. You know the pavilion is there, even that it is in another plane.
MB: This location will probably have more visits than the other areas.
BT: I don’t know, we’ll see. [Laughs]
MB: Your pavilion builds the space, the skin turns around the space and takes you to an unknown environment.
BT: Exactly. That is also a topic in itself, because I think there will not be too many pavilions that will have an empty space that welcomes. When it comes down to it, it is complicated. For example, tomorrow we are going to Madrid, to fight a little, as there are fountains and other things happening in the space. This space is full of activities, flow of people, and they want to reduce it. It is complicated to keep it open.
MB: Besides, in the exhibitions you always imagine a box, hermetic box, armored, where the main attraction to go inside the pavilion is always more deceptive than what it seems in the project. Your project starts from certain shapes, a morphology.
BT: At the beginning, we would have liked to concentrate on the idea of the wicker, the transparency, that the interior was the exterior, the exterior was the interior, create a confusion doing exactly the opposite of other pavilions that are like a closed shoebox, where you cross the door and you enter a world that you later exit. We wanted to do something different, although it is really complicated logistically.
MB: And to incorporate the exhibition material in the pavilion has to be an argument, as Sònia [studio colleague] said earlier.
BT: In the end the exhibitions are like cinemas. You always try to have some type of transparency, create the illusion of being inside, outside…
MB: That is also our climate, inside-outside, outside-inside…
BT: Exactly, our climate that is wonderful and you can’t compare it to a city like Shanghai, because Shanghai is tremendous. That is why all the fountains and the air that we have located in the entry patio are a “bet” to see if also here we can generate a microclimate, apart from the one in Shanghai. An exterior climate that also becomes the preamble to enter [the pavilion].
MB: A project as morphologically complex as this one, in which moment does it go from abstraction, from the internal or group creative process, to its materialization, to drawings? How did you get to the ideas? Which mechanisms help you to move from abstraction? I guess it is working with models.
BT: Yes, although not always is working with models. There is always something, as you say, that takes an idea to a more abstract level that can allow you to give it another measure, another dimension, another function later. You work with elements that can transform.
MB: They can change in scale.
BT: They can change in scale, they can change in function and that is something that we do a lot, but I don’t think we have a system. In various other projects, this process has been done in different ways, and I think that is what we try to do. We try not to always apply the same things, not to have the same method. That was a word that Enric [Miralles] hated.
MB: As you mentioned earlier, it is more intuitive.
BT: Yes, I would say so. There are moments in which you say: this can work, we could try this path, and you follow it the best you can.
MB: Was it difficult or was it clear from the beginning how to get to the idea?
BT: No, it was difficult indeed. In the case of this pavilion, there was a really beautiful model. It was a model of a patio, the patio that we wanted to create, because we wanted the pavilion to be semi-transparent, we wanted the patio to have other patios inside the pavilion to emphasize the transparency. Initially there were three. Then, we started with this cardboard model because it was really easy to make this shape almost “flamenca” or like a flower with this material. As a result of the ceramic, when we were looking for a material, we thought about wicker and the idea basically revolved around that.
MB: Did you decide on the wicker directly or did you try other things before?
BT: There was a moment in which nobody believed in it. I recall perfectly, two days before submitting the project, when we had already ruled out the wicker, sitting down with the lead designer and saying: and the wicker? It’s absurd, how do we build it? We can do it another way and I thought: do we rule it out or do I insist? And I said, I insist. Wicker is really easy. We go to the shop right by the office, we take pictures and that’s it. Besides, we are not going to win so there is no problem. (laughs)
MB: I am sure one of the requirements from the SEEI (State Agency for International Exhibitions) was to keep the wicker, that you could change anything except for that.
BT: No, that’s not true. Wicker was a complicated issue; it also created a lot of doubts at the SEEI. They had doubts about the stability of the pavilion, if it was going to get damaged, if it would take a typhoon… (laughs) They always mention the typhoon.
MB: Having worked with wicker in this project, is the studio interested in researching it further? Because it seems that it is a material that adapts easily to the shapes developed in the studio.
BT: Yes, it is true, but so far we haven’t done any other project with it, maybe because we are only investigating it for this building.
MB: Maybe it is a starting point.
BT: Yes, it can be a starting point and I would like to see how it performs here and maybe after we can do something else with this specific material. We have other buildings done with wicker, permanent buildings, residential buildings… They are testing it a lot in Germany, where they are investigating a lot with alternative materials, more traditional, more ecological and all that gives you strength. It is a topic of interest for everybody who has been researching lately. We all want to do something else, more in the lines of… I don’t like to say the word sustainable, more natural.
MB: The studio has always paid special attention to details, creating a really local architecture but reinterpreted, mostly because of the level of detail, and I would say it is a detail that adapts perfectly to the philosophy of intuition.
BT: I think so; it is a material that we have used in other scales. The chairs have been ruined but the small tables have lasted. We have always gone to that famous shop that later we have photographed, to buy things, it was our supplier. Now it is a change of scale and we will see if it works.
MB: Oh my God. (Benedetta shows the tests for the panels)
BT: These are the tests to see how the panels will be. We want them to be more tridimensional, so it is not a flat façade. If you place them like ceramic tiles, then it would be too flat. That’s why we wanted it to have more volume.
MB: Like scales…
BT: Yes, they are similar to scales because, of course, to knit it directly would be impossible. We could make a small symbolic object but otherwise it would be impossible. The panels had to be manufactured offsite and placed in another way. That is why we thought about tridimensional panels that overlap. Even if you don’t want, it resembles scales.
MB: In terms of the design of the pavilion, what are you going to explain about Spain in China, apart from the wicker?
BT: There is the idea of dynamism, the patios, the transparency between exterior and interior that is quite clear. The strongest symbols, such as flamenco and carnations, begin to disappear. I think those are things that remain in subliminal levels. It is curious because I am friends of the architect that placed second in the competition, Izaskun Chinchilla, that submitted a proposal almost opposite to ours, that is, used all of the recognizable symbols of Spain that were extremely obvious. It is not easy.
MB: You have to avoid the clichés.
MB: Maintain the character but not the clichés.
BT: Yes, you have to work with the clichés, because you have to, you have to be able to recognize the country from far but in our case they are subliminal, not physical.
MB: What type of experience do you want people to have when they enter the pavilion?
BT: I don’t know, an experience of surprise. It will also be a surprise for us to be in a space very welcoming that it has character on its own, because it is really easy to enter a pavilion where there is not space but a series of things that explain it. Our pavilion explains itself, without words, without concepts, it’s a beautiful piece and of quality, and that is why you will remember it.
MB: I think the biggest virtue of the pavilion is that it represents a very attractive shape and attracts attention to itself without the need to have a sign. The pavilion itself might even outshine whatever is exhibited inside.
BT: I don’t know, it depends.
MB: I mean that the figure is so spectacular that, despite all the things that Spaniards can do, probably the best representation is the pavilion itself.
BT: I think that you always remember the exhibitions more for the pavilions than for the content inside them. If you are interested, you can take your time and visit some of the exhibitions and have more information, but in the end, pavilions must take that role, they must communicate something immediately. That is obligatory.
MB: What is it going to happen to the pavilion after the Expo? Is it going to be dismantled, maintained, moved…? What would you like to happen?
BT: It has been designed so that it can be reassembled in another place. The entire pavilion can be dismantled, it is a big effort, but all the connections are riveted. You can disassemble all the pieces and reassemble the pavilion if Spain decides to do it in Shanghai. If China chooses the pavilion as one of the three that will remain, that would be something incredible and fantastic. If that happens, we are ready. We have a full maintenance and substitution protocol.
MB: Have you made any durability test or do you have a prediction?
BT: It is really difficult to know. First, it depends on how they treat the wicker. As the wicker is manufactured in China, we hope that they apply the same treatments that we know must be done here in Spain. Often, they sell products that they say have been treated and in reality, they haven’t been treated at all. That’s one thing. And also, we need to know how it reacts to the climate. What we know is that it is not a durable material. It is not stone, but it is a material that you can replace easily. In case they really want to keep the pavilion permanently, we have studied the possibility of adding a type of metallic mesh on the back.
MB: Finally, you just came back from Shanghai. What type of impression did the city leave on you? What type of impressions do you have of working there? What impacted you the most? Did you have any pre-established idea?
BT: For me Shanghai is Toccata and Fugue, which is how I always travel, to work, and therefore the impressions are immediate. It is a city that has me really fascinated. I remember the first time I went there, I was coming from Hangzhou, I was in a cab and I was really impressed. You really feel its presence when you enter in an imposing, big, dynamic city. It is transforming heavily and at an incredible pace. After that, little by little I began to value its international characteristics. It is a port city and you feel that incredibly. You feel that it has an old area, the European area, the French Concession, the British and German Concession, all the western world influence from the beginning of the past century, and then the reciprocal influence. That is incredible in a city that I think is the city of the future, a city with capacity of future. And I love that about Shanghai, that it is open. I have also visited several times in Beijing and I think there is a conflicting relationship (laughs) and, of course, I like much more Shanghai, because I am closer to places that are open, able to receive outside culture and transform it. This is the type of world that I am interested in. We work in a lot in places with ports and water, for example Hamburg, which is a sister city of Shanghai and where I have met a lot of people from Shanghai. It is a German city and at the same time it is not, because it has a port and it is able to be influenced which is what makes these cities have a distinct identity, a very peculiar identity.
MB: What can the Spanish cities learn from Shanghai and vice versa?
BT: I think the openness is something that everybody is interested in. Here in Spain the city that has this openness and the port is Barcelona (laughs), but there are a lot of other cities that have it. Be able to be influenced is a magnificent quality. You have to be very open, have a personal identity but also offer it, be willing to change. That is the base for communication, transformation and movement of the current world.
MB: Can Shanghai incorporate something from Spain?
BT: Probably. Shanghai is a Chinese city that, as well as the country itself, is going through frightening transformations. Spain has already gone through a transformation, at another scale, more recently than other European countries. For example, I am Italian and Italy has a big influence and connections with countries such as Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland. Here you can notice that, for not having been involved in WWII, you haven’t lived through the freeing of the allies. All that has made the transformation different and perhaps, that is why it is more similar to that of China. I do believe that China can look at Spain and learn a lot of things, taking into account the size difference, of course, because China has disproportionate dimensions.
MB: I haven’t been to China, but last summer I was in Tokyo and I was impressed when I got to a city that has a population bigger than whole countries.
BT: It’s incredible.
MB: They have also achieved a great quality of life.
BT: Yes, yes.
MB: Japan is one of the countries with the best quality of life, although they work a lot.
BT: I would say that when Japanese come to Spain, they don’t want to go back. It seems to me that there are a lot of architects, for example, the group of [Arata] Isozaki, whom we met and have had a great relationship with, that when they have to go back to Japan, they miss everything: the pan, the blood sausage… Instead of having a great apartment, they live in 30 m2. (laughs)
MB: That is also true. Sònia has told us that there are 50 people working in the studio from 20 different countries. That will also provide the work with a great richness.
BT: Yes, that is true.
MB: For some of us, universities, especially those in Spain, educate in a really simple way, very stationary. Someone from here begins to enrich with the relationship with foreign work. Foreigners mostly provide you other ways of working, other ways of looking at things. I guess that the education and life experiences of each one of the people [working in the studio] end up influencing the way of thinking and designing.
BT: I am sure.
Benedetta Tagliabue is an architect and principal of EMBT in Barcelona. She has taught and lectured internationally, and received multiple awards, such as the Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Napier University (2004), The RIBA Stirling Prize 2005, the Centenary Medal from Edinburgh Architectural Association and the 2005 Spanish National Architecture Prize for the Scottish Parliament building.
Xavi Ayala works at BAMMP Arquitectes i Associats in Barcelona and is a collaborator in MAS Studio. He is currently finishing his degree of Architecture at Escola Tecnica Superior d’Arquitectura del Valles (ETSAV) in Barcelona after a period of studies in Rome (Universitá degli studi di Roma Tre) where he focused on urban planning and landscape.
Mateu Baylina is a partner of BAMMP Arquitectes i Associats in Barcelona were he develops architecture and urban planning projects. He is also a regular collaborator in MAS Studio.