AN in conversation with Andrés Jaque

An Architecture of Transscalarity

AN in conversation with Andrés Jaque

Andrés Jaque (Miguel de Guzman)

The Architect’s Newspaper’s year-end Best of 2022 issue honors the winners, honorable mentions, and editors’ picks from our three awards programs: Best of Practice, Best of Products, and Best of Design. To open the Best of Design section, AN’s Managing Editor Jack Murphy sat down with Andrés Jaque, Columbia GSAPP dean and founder of New York– and Madrid-based Office for Political Innovation, to discuss his practice, climate, and his new educational role.

2022 was a big year for Jaque. Major projects have been completed by the Spanish architect, including the Rambla Climate-House (featured in AN Interior 21) and the Reggio School, which the Best of Design jury selected as the Project of the Year. In August, Jaque was named Dean of Columbia GSAPP, where he has taught studios since 2013.

Reggio School by Office for Political Innovation, selected as Project of the Year by AN’s Best of Design jury. (José Hevia)

Jack Murphy: What are the most important design considerations for architects when making architecture today?

Andrés Jaque: Every design is a redesign. At a time shaped by ecology, architecture is no longer something that can be understood as a new beginning or a tabula rasa. Materiality cannot be understood without considering the histories it is part of, and the way it comes to be available, mobilized, distributed, commercialized, regulated, installed, removed, and recirculated. Architectural materiality operates though societal, ecosystemic, and climatic realities—it is entangled within them. From this perspective, architectural projects are not objectual, but relational. Our Rambla Climate-House is a device developed to repair a landscape damaged by mass urbanization. The house is not self-referential, on the contrary, it works so that the water used in its daily functioning can be recirculated to repair a rambla ecosystem through a digital-sensing-based autonomous management. Here the architecture operates as an artifact that offers an alternative to over-urbanization.

JM: What role do materials play in design? How should architects consider material flows in their work?

AJ: There is no divide between the world of ideas and performances and the material world. Every performance is a material enactment. Architectural materiality is enacted; it is the result of the societal settings that allow it to emerge as existing. Wood, concrete, glass, and rammed earth are all constituted as human and more-than-human alliances. We are now working on a project on the bank of the Guadiana River, which defines the border of Portugal and Spain. The site is only accessible by boat. We are working for its construction to be the mobilization of what can be found right there, which means a transformation of the existing earth and reeds that’s as simple as possible. In the same way, we intend to temper the interiors by rechanneling the breeze and water from the river. This shows how there is no difference between physicality and performance, or between materials and mechanical systems: They both can be understood as material flows.

JM: What can architects do to better address the climate crisis?

AJ: Architecture faces two options now: One: Architecture keeps operating in a “modern” way, meaning based on massive extraction operations that turns ecosystems into “resources” and “waste,” colonial globalization, and consumption. This situates ecological and climate crises as problems to be resolved through the same logics that created them. Two: Architecture understands that these are crises that require reloading the foundations of our practices as non-anthropocentric, and so our practices should create alliances based on mutual care among humans and also among different forms of life. I definitively believe the second option is the one that allows architecture to be relevant and effective in facing these unavoidable crises.

Rambla Climate-House (José Hevia)

JM: Is design political?

AJ: We call our practice Office for Political Innovation because design is always political. Design is a compositional practice in the way it produces bodies and how it connects bodies with other bodies, territories, objects, and technologies. Architecture is not about space, but about composition. Architecture is a cosmopolitical practice dedicated to operating on the way bodies, technologies, and territories are constructed as interconnected and interdependent.

JM: How does your office balance issues of global flows and operations with the local realities of communities and contexts? How do you navigate the global-local spectrum?

AJ: Often the notion of what a community is is simplified as something shaped by naive notions of proximity. Our research on Grindr (Intimate Strangers, London Design Museum, 2016) or Mediaset (Sales Oddity, Venice Biennale, 2014) helped us track how proximity is deeply affected by global infrastructures, migrations, histories of displacement, and regulations. The distinction between the global and the local often persists as a way to work through abstraction and general assumptions that have nothing to do with the way specific realities unfold. Architectural practices can only be relevant if they are situated. By a situated practice I mean one that is making the effort to build itself as entangled and growing from the specific presences and tensions that constitute an existing society and ecosystem. This necessarily implies that the realities mobilized are distributed in different temporalities and territorialities. I insist on using the term transscalarity to refer to the way architecture—and by extension societies and ecosystems—translates across scales of time and space.

In the past, architecture was understood as the art that acted at the scale of buildings; now architecture is necessarily transscalar. As we tracked in our architectural performance Being Silica (Performa Biennial, 2021), it acts in the way the grains of silica from Illinois are melted by the gas extracted by the regional-scale transformation of Susquehanna’s underground realms through fracking, and to the cellular scale of how the making of the embryos of those to be born as international high-end-dwellers. The political agency of architecture is in its transscalarity.

At Rambla Climate-House, systems of cooling are on display; for example, misters irrigate the courtyard plants, water is heated on a coiled “crown” above, and, below, a marble floor offers cooling for inhabitants. (José Hevia)

JM: You recently began your tenure as Dean at Columbia GSAPP. How does your institution train architects for the future?

AJ: At GSAPP, architecture is explored as a fundamental player in the evolution of the tensions and evolutions where the present and future of the world is shaped. This requires design to be understood as a practice deeply rooted in research—historical, technological, material, and ultimately political. Columbia GSAPP gathers a multicultural ecosystem in which outstanding graduate students and faculty, deeply connected to threads of societal and ecological defiance, work together as a form of creative and political engagement. An engagement that understands the built environment as the site for justice (material, technological, historical). For me, I cannot think of a better community with whom working to reload the foundation of our field.

A rendering of the Office for Political Innovation’s installation for the second phase of the Ocean Space, to be installed within the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice. The architecture is intended to promote “the intersection of art, science, politics, storytelling, and activism.” (Courtesy Office of Political Innoavation)

JM: Can you tell us about the Office for Political Innovation’s current projects?

AJ: In 2021, we won an international competition for the design of the Babyn Yar Museum of Memory and Oblivion in Kiev, a center for the research and visibility of the atrocities committed by the Nazi armed forces in Ukraine. With the current ongoing war, the project became more important than ever, since this history was weaponized by the Russian propaganda machine. But, of course, the destruction that the war has brought and the extreme need obliges the project to become something different, much more a network of collaboration and activism than a building.

We’re also working on a project for the Ocean Space in the Church of San Lorenzo (Castello, Venice). This is a commission by TBA21, and it is intended to become an architecture that allows humans to sense and renegotiate our coexistence with the non-human forms of life in the oceans. A first phase of this project is already completed.