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Architecture without Paper

Focus on young Spanish architects

Lecture based on Spanish Pavilion Exhibition

Curated, Designed, and Presented at the X Venice Architecture Biennale

By architects Angel Fernández Alba and Soledad Del Pino Iglesias


Both Exhibition and Lecture were presented by: Vladimir Belogolovsky

at University of South Australia

in Adelaide, Australia on May 5, 2010                                                      

Angel Fernández Alba 


Graduated from Madrid School of Architecture in 1970, then lived in London and New York until establishing his architecture office in Madrid in 1976. Among many completed projects he has built Spanish Embassies in Stockholm and Helsinki, and a range of projects from single family houses to large educational and hospital complexes all across Spain. In 2009 his office had a large retrospective at Madrid’s Royal Botanical Garden and now this exhibition has been traveling in Europe. Angel is professor at Madrid School of Architecture and visiting professor at the University of Arizona.


Soledad Del Pino Iglesias


Graduated from Madrid School of Architecture in 1988 and joined AFA studio. Since 1993 she has worked in partnership with Ángel Fernández Alba. She has worked on design and installation of several exhibitions. Parallel to her work as architect, she has been active in the fields of art, painting, graphic design, furniture design, and fashion.


Architecture without Paper exhibition focuses on 15 projects by young Spanish architects. As a group these projects were a part of a much bigger exhibition of the Spanish Pavilion at the 11th Architecture Venice Biennale in 2008 curated

by Ángel and Soledad.

Spanish Pavilion, Model

11th Architecture Venice Biennale, 2008


The Spanish pavilion show, called “From building to architecture without paper” featured the work of 50 Spanish architects spanning two generations and included projects by such internationally renowned architects as Juan Navarro Baldaweg whose eloquent and engaging buildings feature soft forms, but imprint strong memories and Josep Llinas whose architecture tends to merge with the surrounding context in a very nuanced and personal way.

Juan Navarro Baldaweg, Teatros del Canal, Madrid

Josep Llinas, Library, Barcelona



The main focus of the exhibition was on the very young architects, still in their early and mid 30s who continue searching for their visions and means of architecture-making.


The theme of the 11th Architecture Venice Biennale was “Out There: Architecture Beyond Building.”

“Towards Paradise

Garden installation by Gustafson Porter Architects at Arsenale


The theme of the Biennale was proposed by the Biennale’s director, an American critic, curator, and the director of Cincinnati Museum of Art, Aaron Betsky who´s idea was to give a stage to practitioners exploring architecture beyond itself or rather beyond its limits. This implies that architecture as “mere building” has physical boundaries whereas architecture as a poetic art form has none. It was Nikolaus Pevsner, famous British architectural historian who said: “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture. Nearly everything that encloses space on a scale sufficient for a human being to move in is a building; the term architecture applies only to buildings designed with a view to aesthetic appeal.” When you see a building as beautiful as Lincoln Cathedral you don’t ask why its towers are so tall and why its ceiling is so high. You simply embrace what is in front of you.


Architecture as art position is completely embraced by Betsky. According to the director, “Architecture is not building. Architecture is something else. It is the way we think and talk about buildings, how we represent them, how we build them. Buildings are not enough. They are tombs of architecture. Architecture is that which allows us to be at home in the modern world.” The curator insists that what we are accustomed to think of as architecture is no more than mere buildings – not imagined by creative architects, but instead, conditioned and directed by codes – financial codes, building codes, life and safety codes, computer codes, codes of appearance, and behavior.

Typical setback diagram based on 1916 Zoning Law in Manhattan

A setback diagram literally implemented along 48th Street, Manhattan

(a view from my personal seat at a large corporate office)


Having worked in a number of commercial architectural offices in the United States I have to confirm that with rare exceptions buildings are defined almost entirely by codes. Ultimately, forms, materials, space arrangements, and the look of the finished building often are defined by prescriptive codes and not by architects´ imagination. 


I would like to dwell a bit more on Betsky´s ideas. His book “Landsrcapers: building with the land.” tells a beautiful story of architecture beyond building. He says: “Buildings replace the land. That is architecture’s original sin. A building makes something new, but does not do so in a void. What was once open land, filled with sunlight and air, with a distinct relationship to the horizon, becomes a building.”

“Landscrapers: building with the land” by Aaron Betsky

City of Culture of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, Peter Eisenman


This project negotiates with nature, but at a very high price. So high, that it could even qualify as architecture as sin. And so despite being a highly progressive theoretically, the act of realization makes this project not ethical. But it is silly to view all architecture as such. There are many examples that improve sites as opposed to destroying them. 


There are many meaningful and transformative architectural projects and they are the reasons for celebration by staging such exhibition as “Architecture without Paper.” The projects presented in the exhibition make up a compelling collection of built and non-built works. They are the efforts that prove convincingly that real buildings can be beautiful, poetic, and inspiring.


What is particularly important to point out when presenting contemporary architecture from Spain is that there are so many great projects to choose from. The selected projects are not just a few isolated cases. They represent a range of examples that collectively portray a distinct sensitivity and school of thought.


Spain is like new Japan and new Holland put in one. Here are some memorable works by Spanish architects built in recent years in Spain:

Murcia City Hall, Rafael Moneo

Torre Woermann, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Abalos and Herreros

Market Santa Caterina, Barcelona, Enric Miralles  

Valleaceron Chapel, Ciudad Real, Sancho-Madridejos


Good sensitive architecture did not simply fall out of the sky on blessed Spanish soil. So it is important to ask. Why Spain and why so many experimental projects are being built there now? The fertile ground was well prepared during the years of steady growth of the local economy and the rise of international tourism industry after 1975, the final year of almost four decades of the General Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship. In 1986 Spain joined the European Union. Since then Spain has received over 90 billion euros in funding toward the construction of new highways, bridges, railroads, train stations, airports, and other infrastructure crucial to sustaining an advanced economy. Events such as World’s Fair in Seville and the Olympic Games in Barcelona, both successfully held in 1992 had a key importance not only in Spain’s emergence as a laboratory for contemporary architecture, but also as one of the most modernized countries in Europe.


Since 1990s in addition to smart investments in infrastructure, Spain consistently has been wowing the world with amazing architectural projects that steer our imagination. Among them are:

The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Frank Gehry

This project started a whole revolution of Architecture as spectacle

Torre Agbar, Barcelona, Jean Nouvel

Barajas International Airport, Madrid, Richard Rogers

In a way this project represents modern Lincoln Cathedral. It is about celebrating the act of air travel and making such experience spectacular, glamorous, and beautiful.

Metropol Parasol, Seville, Jurgen Mayer (under construction)


After failed attempts for both the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics, Madrid plans to bid for 2020 or 2024. Meanwhile the city invests billions in its infrastructure and public venues which are being built by architects selected through international competitions, often giving a chance to build to those who are still young and unknown.     


In addition to masterpieces by so called star architects, many of who built in Spain more than anywhere else, which says how open and embracing the country is to innovation, there has been a strong presence of austere, well constructed, volumetrically expressive and tectonically nuanced architecture by a great number of young, not yet known native architects. This is architecture beyond spectacle on a spectacular scale. Great architecture is being built in the capital, as well as in cities and towns all across Spain.

Spanish Pavilion Exposition, 11th Architecture Venice Biennale, 2008


It was refreshing to see a compelling and a beautiful story in a form of a masked carnival that the Spanish Pavilion put up in Venice. The curators celebrated good, appealing architecture, the one that is not designed by codes, but imagined creatively and poetically. The projects presented here do not strive for unique inventive forms. They search for more meaningful and diverse spatial experience. These are the projects that occupy, define, and make up places. They investigate a kind of architecture that feels like it belongs to a particular place instead of being imposed on it. The place is the origin of architecture. These projects create a special bond with a particular place – nature or the city in various meaningful ways. But most importantly, the projects that are chosen are based on poetic judgment, which bring architecture closer to the realm of art. These examples present distinctive, organic architectural projects that successfully dismiss the idea of architecture’s “original sin,” that was mentioned earlier.


The following are examples by 15 featured architects:

UP Arquitectos

The work of these architects demonstrates expressionist and sculptural language with the use of faceted, organic, and informal geometry.

Barozzi Veiga

These architects often choose very radical forms meant to produce a powerful dialectic between the urban artificiality and nature. They imagine very enigmatic and sophisticated forms and playfully work with such ideas as porosity and materiality.

Coll Leclerc

Their work is characterized by expressionist organic language, which seems to be a hallmark of Spanish avant-garde architects. The architects´ Ordos House illustrates experimental way of working with both computer software and physical model. 


Architecture’s origin resides both in drawing and in the building. ”Architecture without paper” celebrates the transition of architecture from being conceived on paper to being fully developed in digital world. The possibilities have now multiplied. There are so many more dimensions, capacities, and ideas to be explored. No matter how architecture is conceived it is important to showcase great new buildings – from tiny houses to theaters, libraries, and other inventive building types. These projects explore such ideas as revealing means of construction, experiment with bold colors, defy the law of gravity, avoid orthogonality, and what is particularly important continue to reinvent prototypes for social housing, which surely represents the most experimental building type in Spanish architecture.


The architects whose projects are presented here are interested in complex, mixed, hybrid, composite systems as opposed to pure systems and the use of basic materials used in modernist architecture – steel, glass, concrete, and stone. The new materials are more robust, adaptive, responsive, and intelligent. We are living in transformative times. So architecture as well should be a part of this greater culture.


The following are three examples of social housing projects:

Solid Arq

The architects designed social housing in Madrid that assumes figurative and personal form that seems to be free from any tradition.

Dosmasuno Arquitectos

The architects imagined a social housing project in Madrid that projects dynamic urban character. The project picks up ideas in works by MVRDV and SANAA.

Picado Deblas

The architects produced experimental social housing project featuring faceted, oblique, rational, and very plastic expressionist language.


The “Architecture without Paper” title of the present exhibition refers to the process of architecture-making beyond traditional approach from a visionary sketch on a piece of paper by a solitary creator. The younger generation values more the process than finished product and they strive for creating stimulating environments, not what is associated with a traditional building. What is pursued is often unpredictable and unknown even to the architects themselves who seem to be in the driving seat position, but without necessarily clear sense of direction. Nevertheless, they do it consciously and they like it that way. Already at the level of conceptual design they start working directly with computers and derive particular geometry from various project conditions. These architects try not to work with preconceived ideas and they use the computer generatively. This approach takes many of the presented here practices away from following historical precedents. They simply strive forward without much care for Wright or Mies. They themselves know what is right and their dynamic projects don´t seem to miss any relevance.  

Suarez Santas

The architects offer reserved, austere forms, as well as very selective, controlled palate of materials and colors.


The architects focus on rigorous, reserved forms, appropriate scale, and character with immediate surroundings. Their projects seem to have a link with neoplastisism of the 1920s.

Antonio Jimenez Torrechillas

This single practitioner constructed a beautiful porous brick wall intervention in Granada displaying curious ambiguity between modern and historical methods of construction and materials. His exquisite projects mesmerize and surprise. They seem to float in mid-air. This quality is achieved with particle-like and pixilated aesthetics.


Forms and their juxtapositions alone cannot effectively describe most of the exhibit’s projects. They are as much or more about the materials and their power. Such materials and spaces need to be tested and experienced firsthand. Buildings are understood not only from the point of view of the materials used, but also from that of their tectonic appearance.


Humorous projects:

Cuartoymitad (means ¼ and ½ of a kilo - Architecture comes in all shapes and sizes)

Playful, humorous. Their projects are wrapped in skins that seem to evoke continuous, complex, multilayered spaces.

Murado Elvira

These architects work on projects in sensitive and analytical ways, but also have a very playful character.

Langarita Navarro

The architects experiment with archetypal forms, but reinvent them in every way. The architects´ presentations are very artistic and rich in their choice of materials and color palette. 


Many of the presented projects here take advantage of the latest technology available to designers today. They rely on such techniques as analog and parametric geometry. Of course, these techniques are not exclusive to Spanish architects, but such concentration of good examples of architecture there, suggests that Spain is more open to innovation and experimentation than most other places. However, technological innovations alone cannot replace the aesthetics of architecture. No matter how drastically the world changes, no matter what level of technical advancement humanity achieves, architects will always be confronted with the same eternal mission–to strive for harmony among architectural form and landscape, city, society, and nature as a whole. Technology used by architects now is very sophisticated and almost anything is possible. What is important for practitioners is to be critical in their work and stay relevant to both local culture and site.


Performative projects:


These architects try not to limit themselves to building from scratch. They seem to be equally comfortable by adding temporary decorative features to existing historical buildings. Their work addresses many aspects of perception of architecture – visual, audio, temporal, and so on. 

Estudio Motocross (4-runner, can drive anywhere and so the architects can do anything)

Organize parties, happenings, theater performances, and other artistic events. Again – imaginative, performative, multidisciplinary, humorous, beyond ideas of functionality in traditional way. Their installations reflect and comment on contemporary culture and life.

Camp da Vellaners (a place in Catalonia)

Embrace culture and life, as well as daily rituals as crucial part of architecture. Life all around informs their projects and in return, these projects become part of life.


Architecture is not just about form and matter, but it is also a vessel for human interaction and many possibilities. All of this is very clearly visible in the projects we have seen today. Perhaps the main lesson is that the beauty of these designers´ architecture is contained not in the achievement of a particular idealized and perfectly balanced image, but in the infinity of the process leading to its creation. Their work is elusive, unstable, and undefined in its search of the unknown. There is constant engagement in a process of renewal and non-stop progress which is characteristic of modern condition. This architecture is indifferent to eternity. It is too much infatuated with the time in which we live in. This is the kind of progressive architecture that restlessly tests and broadens the limits of what is possible. 


Here is a quote from young Danish architect Bjarke Ingels: “Architecture is art and science of continuous refurbishment of the surface of our planet.” This is exactly the approach of young architects working today. Bjarke Ingels is not Spanish, but he represents a global generation of contemporary architects. They learn about Rem Koolhaas before Corbusier which explains why invention matters to them more than history.


Architecture is an optimistic profession because it is about constructing the future. Oscar Wilde said: “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Let us experiment with the visible and get these experiments built! Please join me in celebrating the vitality of recent projects from Spain. We all eagerly anticipate architecture that will come next.