interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and JÉRÔME SANS
photography by VALERIE SADOUN
from his architecture island, la fábrica, in the suburbs of barcelona, the prolific spanish architect continues to dream up future systems of construction, balancing his utopian ambitions with the reality of this unpredictable world.
JÉRÔME SANS — From Walden 7 to Les Espaces d’Abraxas and La Muralla Roja, several of your architectural projects take the form of little islands, like autonomous zones or retreats. They’re like new worlds. The notion of islands resonates throughout your work. What draws you to creating these spaces of isolation and retreat?
RICARDO BOFILL — In a way, I’ve built my life around that idea. I’m a nomad who has traveled the world trying to determine the logic of things, forever cultivating a critical standpoint. Architecture has helped me read into these various systems and politics. Every place has its own character, personality, and identity, but there’s a continuity to all my projects because I’m seeking to develop an interactive system. I tend to build off projects. My life as an architect is based on a perpetual critique of my old projects. This critical stance toward myself enables me to maintain a balance between utopia and reality. All of my projects represent the utopian ambition of a concrete idea, and this utopia sees its potential in a project’s emergence and realization.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The idea that your architectural utopias accept their own critique is very interesting.
RICARDO BOFILL — Projects are made to be criticized. Instead of a model, I propose a model that’s open to criticism.
JÉRÔME SANS — In the 1970s, you created La Fábrica, a repurposed cement factory in the suburbs of Barcelona. It’s an incredible place, a sort of fortress, and also somewhere you live, work, and exchange with friends and collaborators. It’s another world, a universe of its own, a perpetually developing place of experimentation. When you’re there, you feel cut off from things, like on an island, and at the same time, there’s a sense of a process of expansion, an island forever in progress. Does this place you’ve created influence the way you work?
RICARDO BOFILL — Yes, and even the way I live. The way you live conditions the way you work. Life at the factory abides by a very compartmentalized system of logic, a fundamental logic based on managing time. It’s a cerebral method of work that enables you to lead an organized life and thereby undertake projects, while also thinking about other projects. As you say, I live on an architectural island, a different place where I can think about and develop various projects in the world. At La Fábrica, I try to invent an architectural language, seeking to open up the potential and the perspectives of construction. It’s also an unfinished place, forever in formation, where different spaces coexist — spaces that correspond to the organization of my brain, our thinking machine. My deepest objective is to conceive of architecture in terms of space-time and to invent other space-times, the living, cerebral interaction between space and time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For me, this notion of space-time also evokes the paradox of your architecture. On the one hand, it’s highly spectacular because it stands out from its context, like a world apart. But it also brings the individual back to his own solitude, mentally and physically. Do you agree with this interpretation of your work, the idea that your architecture doesn’t so much structure social life as prompt an almost metaphysical return to human solitude?
RICARDO BOFILL — Indeed, my architecture has a double meaning. It aims to have an individual dimension, the construction of the self, which ties in with the idea of maximal liberty, and at the same time, in certain projects, it stems from attempts at community building, which in general tends toward quasi-failure. Walden 7 was built on the idea of a utopian community, but it never took on that form. In the end, it became a community of petits bourgeois. There’s a big difference between a community of free expression of the sort we envisaged in the 1960s and the subsequent reality. In this sense, I’m critical of my work.
JÉRÔME SANS — You witnessed the golden age of utopia, notably the radical architectural utopias of the 1960s and 1970s, when ambitions in the field were running extremely high. What meaning do you ascribe to the concept of utopia that imbues all your work?
RICARDO BOFILL — There were utopias in the 1960s: the Metabolist utopia in Japan, the Beatnik utopia in London… Here, in Barcelona, we had fewer technological means, but our strength lay in conceiving a social utopia. For years, we worked with philosophers, mathematicians, writers, people of various professions to try to construct a social utopia. I formulated this social utopia in the City in the Space. As I mentioned, however, while this utopia guided the design of Walden 7, it largely failed.
JÉRÔME SANS — Are you still directing your architecture toward a kind of ideal? Behind all these projects, all these fragments of a broken utopia, the overarching idea is still that of an ideal city. They make up a much vaster urban landscape. If one were to join them all together, would they form Ricardo Bofill’s ideal city?
RICARDO BOFILL — The ideal city is impossible to create, just as the ideal island is impossible to build. The ideal is forever in flux; it must always be evolving. From there, I thought, “Since total utopia is not possible, since total change leads to disaster, we’re going to divvy up utopia by theme and ensure that every architectural exercise is the development of one of those themes.” So, I changed strategies and tried to focus on concrete subjects to conduct partial experiments. I think each of the multiple projects I’ve done constitutes a part of a total city that has not been — and can never be — built. Each of my projects is a part of a possible city. These parts are the partial realization of what is possible in architecture, but not the manifestation of an overall utopia, as such utopias are always doomed to disaster and failure. This is the strategy that has stimulated me and enabled me to preserve an ambition, put forth my efforts, but with greater humility. I’ve abandoned my former conception of things, where I wanted to conceive a whole. A totality is impossible to conceive, so you instead conceive a part. Hence, paradoxically, my projects are the realization of utopia’s impossibility, of partial utopias, attempts to avert their inevitable failure, but with an inner logic.
JÉRÔME SANS — After the failure of “living together” — this idea of community you mentioned — might the new paradigm today be “better to live alone”?
RICARDO BOFILL — Let’s say that, now that social utopias have been broken, I was led to some introspection, a sort of self-analysis of my own brain. I try to analyze the workings of my brain to reach the source of my architectural ideas. In the end, I find, it’s solitude that gives life meaning. But I’m not developing a memory of the past. I’m always on the lookout for the future systems of construction. That’s what interests me: the new, at the very heart of introspection and solitude.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In fact, no architecture is an image. It’s much more than a construct. It’s a fabric of interactions, interconnections, exchanges, passageways. Do you conceive of architecture as a script, as a possible story or fiction?
RICARDO BOFILL — In architectural terms, my work consists of passing constantly from the scale of the individual to the scale of the city, while taking into account all the intermediary narrative levels, and trying to take into account all the intermediary passages and moments. At the same time, I try to invent narratives for different places or different worlds, which is ambitious stuff! I’ve accepted both very traditional projects and projects out in the desert. Unlike many architects who seize on a language and delve ever deeper into it, I try to change the language with every project, precisely to change the story of the place, and try to find a specific rapport with space-time for it. In the end, it’s the intelligence and beauty of places that interest me. That’s what keeps me going.
JÉRÔME SANS — Walden; or, Life in the Woods, by Henry David Thoreau — who also wrote Resistance to Civil Government, commonly known as Civil Disobedience — is a manifesto, a call to embrace a new way of life, a kind of spiritual retreat, and a work that you’ve paid homage to. How has this approach to nature and the philosophy of isolation influenced you?
RICARDO BOFILL — Reading Thoreau definitely left a mark on me with respect to introspection as a means to discovering our own creative potential. Every individual has creative potential at their core. We must each undertake as much introspection as possible to realize our projects and attain a position of constant creativity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is solitude in the face of nature inspiring?
RICARDO BOFILL — Nature is inspiring, of course. When it comes down to it, the natural settings I like best are the horizons of the sea and the desert. It’s in these landscapes that nature is at her most powerful, and where you can maintain an almost metaphysical rapport with her.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your architecture is like a voyage through space and time, from classicism to the future — there’s always this ambivalence. How do you see the architecture of the future? Would you be interested in designing, say, a space station or a base on Mars?
RICARDO BOFILL — If I’ve looked to the past, it’s been out of love for traditional architecture, in a deliberate departure from what was being done at the time. I wanted to invent a new classicism. So, for 10 years, I tried to rewrite a part of classicism because we no longer have a beloved city of the day; cities now consist of architectural chaos. We’ve lost the craft of writing the city, even as we continue to build and build. In my view, this is an urbanistic mistake dating back to the last century and continuing in this one. The great architects have forgotten the theme of the city because it’s too complicated. They’ve proven unable to take hold of it or haven’t known how…
OLIVIER ZAHM — They tend to think in terms of buildings, not cities.
RICARDO BOFILL — They think in terms of buildings, precisely. They don’t even think about lodgings. They think every building is special, a museum, a school, but they’ve abandoned the great subjects of the city and its design, the manner of proposing the city’s future.
JÉRÔME SANS — The emphasis today is on the local and the ecological. Every architectural program demands a serious greening plan, rigid environmental specifications, architectural self-sufficiency… What, for you, is the true vision of an ideal future?
RICARDO BOFILL — The ideal does not exist, but there are pressing needs in energy and ecology. Control of the energy system is, of course, primordial. Otherwise, at our current mad pace of construction, we’re headed for destruction. We’ve reached a point where man must seek out a deep balance between construction and destruction. It’s a balance we must strike at the individual scale as well as the societal and global scales. It leads us to reflect constantly on the future. Every certainty must be called into question, even the certainties most intimately bound with our persons, our relationship with others and with society. Everything must constantly be called into question so that we can try to make our way through time without destroying everything in our path.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the end, your projects, no matter how grand or outsized, are always a reflection of the individual, of intimacy. Do your projects permit the individual to see his reflection in the architecture?
RICARDO BOFILL — Absolutely. It’s the individual that counts. That’s my cornerstone, the heart of my architecture, face-to-face with it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you practice metaphysical architecture?
RICARDO BOFILL — The term “metaphysical” has always interested me, especially with respect to the way we invent the future, because it’s impossible for the world to function if we don’t try to reflect on its totality. Its survival is under threat by rising waters, the rise in earthquakes, pollution, and — even worse — man’s capacity to destroy himself. Man is at once a constructive and a destructive animal. And he seems, for the first time, to be confronted with a concrete notion of an apocalypse, a possible end. That is the metaphysical challenge for architects.
[Table of contents]
by Olivier Zahm
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