Barcelona-based architect Elias Torres isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easy to pigeonhole: his work traverses architecture, landscape, urban design and furniture and can be found in his native Spain, Japan and the USA. Report by Rachael Bernstone.
April 29th, 2008
The fact he isn’t known for instantly recognisable icons doesn’t detract from the quality of his work. It just takes a little longer to comprehend his creative genius, according to Rachael Bernstone, who thinks she has worked it out now…
Elias Torres is a charming European architect with an engagingly open manner, who seems highly attuned to place: our place and his place. He visited Australia to deliver a Black talk for the Australian Architecture Association in 2006. Meeting beforehand, I was disappointed that I couldn’t derive a ‘soundbite’ to define the man and his work, but I hoped his lecture would provide the enlightenment I sought.
Later, as I sat in the nearly-packed auditorium for his lecture, my frustration mounted. His work was beautiful, but not especially striking, I thought. First up: the Villangomez and Vicent (NB – this is not a typo) Mari Houses (1987 and 1992 respectively) on Ibiza, where Torres was born and raised. “I come from a few generations of boat builders on the island of Ibiza, and I liked to draw, and something came to me that I should be an architect,” he explained. “There were none in Ibiza at that time, but we were living in houses: architecture is all around us since the time we are born.”
Torres moved on to Villa Olimpica Apartaments (1991) for the Barcelona Olympics, where 138 units were elegantly configured to provide views of the sea from most units. Then the Sant Pere de Roda Monastery Museum and Residence in Girona (1990), a project his firm devoted 14 years to, only to be ultimately ‘fired’, he said.
“We decided the best thing was to show was the ruin itself, to protect only the roof of the nave, and the upper layer of stonework with copper, by putting a very thin layer like cloth on top,” he explained. “We were never trained in these techniques, we learned from the Italians – BBPR, [Carlo] Scarpa, [Franco] Albini – from looking at images of their interventions. We are always trying to make these [old] buildings breathe again, giving them a transfusion, rather than keeping them like a mummy. To restore to them, in modern times, their essential things, their souls.”
That sounded great, I thought, but I couldn’t discern any ‘wow’ factor, and my desire to be astonished was still unsated. Torres displayed more restoration projects. The 13th century Bellver Castle renovation in Palma de Majorca (1983), where a tight budget decreed the architects should “repair some cracks” and insert some minor additions, including a twisted stair which he described as “very Scarpa”. The 17th century Hospitalet Church in Ibiza (1981), which was threatened with ruin before being restored for worship and exhibitions.
“Inside, nothing was good anymore, not even the pieces of art, everything had been ruined by humidity,” Torres asserted. “This project reminded me of Gaudi, one of the most inspirational architects I know: starting with garbage he was able to transform things into jewels.”
I appreciated the Gaudi references and Scarpa-inspired quirky details, but my pulse didn’t quicken nor my heart race. I’d experienced those visceral reactions in the past when architects presented their projects, and I yearned for a repeat dose.
Only as Torres introduced the Ibiza Castle Renovation (1986) did my revelation dawn. I was in the process of witnessing a more subtle approach to architecture, different to the kind that often makes my breathing shallow. I needed to listen more carefully, assess more cautiously, question more curiously, and comprehend Elias Torres in a fresh and unusual way.
As he segued to the Paseo de Ronda Walls renovation in Palma de Mallorca (1986), which I’d seen in photos and dismissed as far from spectacular, my epiphany was complete. So I dissolved my prejudices and relaxed into the stream of his lightly accented descriptions, to appreciate his work in its entirety.
When Torres touched on La Granja Escalator in Toledo (2000), which I must admit I found intriguing from the first moment I saw it, I was hooked. As an architect, Torres is able to succinctly and carefully assess context before arriving at a solution to the problem presented there, with minimum effort and without superfluity. As a result, his architecture blends in seamlessly and faultlessly, without showmanship or false bravado.
Rather than creating flashy, iconic structures that shout “Look at me!”, Torres and his colleagues at Martinez Lapea – Torres Arquitectos start with place, interrogate function, and then develop aesthetics, whether the site is a vacant terraced lot overlooking the sea, or an historic sandstone plaza in the centre of a bustling centuries-old city.
Many architects profess to work this manner, but a closer inspection of their body of work tells another story – they rely on an underlying ethos or philosophy to drive each project, so that a sameness or theme can be discerned in every example. With Torres, the opposite is true. There are no styles or aesthetics that connect one project to another.
Following my epiphany, a quote from his website that had intrigued me suddenly made sense: “Man conceives architecture as a permanent protecting veil against his own frailness and transience, in order to survive with dignity in his natural habitat. Architecture explains a way of being in the world and helps us build universal values, both spiritual and symbolic. Therefore, it contains an ethical commitment that should be conveyed by aesthetics.”
What did he mean by that last sentence, I’d asked him. He elaborated thus: “When aesthetics becomes a pattern, it’s fake, superficial and banal. What I’m saying is, there is a specific formal expression to the way you think. When I talk about ethics, I’m talking about responsibility, and not doing unnecessary things.
“I’m not saying we should be very sober or not, but I think things should be essential,” he continued. “It’s difficult to explain. Decoration is about building up scenarios, or platforms, and it’s good sometimes: you need new skins to touch or wear or stay in, but luxurious things I don’t agree with.
“It’s very important to spend the money on very important parts of the building,” Torres concluded. “There is no manual to form, but you need some principals to believe in. Architecture is about finding solutions, and your way of thinking and the principles that you use allow you to refuse things, to focus on things, and also be open to new things. There are no formulas, even if people use those formulas to build up careers.”
A summary of this stream-of-consciousness appears on his firm’s website. “Each work of architecture is the result of an experimental process of acquaintance with and transformation of our environment by means of a specific response to particular and existing social needs. An architect must build and design with responsibility, generosity, sense of justice and balance (avoiding the unnecessary), with flexibility, independence, taking chances and challenging the unknown, with the desire to change and improve.”
I’d read all that before I met him, but it took me a while to ‘click’. Having finally comprehended the man and his approach, I was reminded me of a new theory on creativity I’d recently devoured. David Galenson claims that creative genius comes in two guises: quick and dramatic, or careful and quiet. He first tested his concept against painting, before applying it to poetry and literature, economics and architecture. His book, ‘Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity’ was published in 2006.
Summing up Galenson’s theory, ‘Conceptual Innovators’, such as Maya Lin who designed Washington DC’s Vietnam War Memorial at age 23, make bold, dramatic leaps in their disciplines and achieve breakthroughs as young practitioners. On the other hand, ‘Experimental Innovators’ develop their best work later in their careers, after proceeding through a lifetime of trial and error. Galenson puts Frank Lloyd Wright in this category, pointing out that his masterpiece, Fallingwater, was designed when the architect was 70.
From my experience of Elias Torres during his visit to Australia, I would place him in the ‘Experimental Innovator’ camp. Which is lucky for me really: I like to sort and organise in my mind, but I have no other way of classifying this endlessly inventive, anti-formulaic and eternally creative architectural and urban thinker. The only other way I can categorise Elias Torres is to nominate him as an architectural enigma.
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