One of the very first Pezo von Ellrichshausen projects to capture widespread attention — including Azure’s — was Poli House, erected on the Chilean coastline in 2005. With its extreme cuboid form and irregular windows, it automatically signalled a new voice with something particular to say — not only about residential architecture, but also about the experience of living itself. Based in Concepción, Chile, Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen (he’s Chilean, she was born in Argentina) founded their art and architecture studio in 2002 and subsequently built a home-cum-studio for themselves in the shape of a small tower on a plinth. Cien House, as it’s known, allows them to easily transition from paintings on canvas to project sketches, their figurative work informing their practical output.
In addition to experimenting with residential design, the couple has also created awe-inspiring installations for biennials and fairs worldwide — in Milan last year, it amplified the majesty of the ornate Palazzo Litta with the stainless-steel-clad Echo Pavilion — and is teaching at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. In a recent conversation with Azure, they described the philosophical — even existential — ideas that drive their work.
Through your projects — completed and not — it seems that you’re using single-family residential architecture as a field of experimentation, for both the practice of architecture and the act of living. Are you actively challenging your clients — the occupants of the houses — to reconsider their notions of “home” or of “lifestyle”?
- Sofia von Ellrichs-
You’re right. From the very beginning, residential architecture has been central to our architectonic enquiry. We have always been fascinated by the fact that a house, or a place to live, implies the origin of architecture. A house is, in fact, the primordial response to a vital human necessity: shelter. Over time, that basic function evolved into a mirror and a lens. A mirror since the house has the capacity to express certain values, from an individual character to a social bond. And a lens since a house has the capacity to amplify the world within and around us.
- Mauricio Pezo
To us, a house is the ultimate embodiment of our human condition. It is an existential problem by definition, a problem without a solution. A house is both visible and invisible, comfortable and intense. The role of architecture is at that precise edge between figure and ground, object and landscape. A home is that subjective universe, a collection of individual moments we can only help to frame.
Do you have any hopes for how the houses you create will be lived in?
In general, we would like the houses to be lived in naturally — and by that I mean with a degree of informality, spontaneity. Even if we are extremely careful about the sizes, proportions and sequences of the spaces we propose, we like to read them as mere stages for a unique and ever-changing ritual to be performed. We might predict some movements of that scene, but the reality of life always exceeds our predictions.
Seen from a certain distance, our work is indeed very specific. Every house has been calibrated for particular circumstances, not only for a predefined program but also for certain weather, topography, economy, technology, et cetera. From another perspective, we believe there is both reciprocity and disjunction between a form of life and a spatial form. So even if we try to articulate the practical, mental and emotional needs of someone else, we also know there is always a degree of misalignment between those needs and the built form. Fortunately, the architecture of a house is not the only factor that determines a quality of life. There might be a beautiful life lived in a horrible hut and a miserable life within a gorgeous palace.
Poli House was one of your first projects to attract widespread attention. It’s both a private home and an artist’s workspace, and you’ve noted that it had to be both “monumental and domestic.” This duality is what influenced the program, with the intimate area at the core of the home and the perimeter used for services such as kitchen and bath. How has that duality worked over time?
The house has kept that problematic nature, not only in its internal function as an ambiguous space confined within a thick perimeter, but also in its external cultural function. After more than 10 years, the house has become a reference not only for the local art circuit but also for the community at large. Today, it’s even more difficult to explain that this is actually a private property whose residents need to maintain their privacy and don’t want to be interrupted by selfie-seekers.
I suppose the monumentality is not so much due to the building itself, since it is rather modest in size, but by the way it articulates the diagonal presence of the cliff [it sits on]. This is something we can hardly describe through photographs or videos — that tension, even the sense of vertigo. In its simplicity, the house works as both a magnifying glass and an echo chamber.
In many of your houses, from Poli House to Fosc House to your own home, you use openings in both the concrete fabric of the buildings and in the interior walls, cutting out apertures to provide a multiplicity of views and to visually connect rooms. What does the idea of a view mean to you?
Yes, we have explored openings in several projects. There are at least two conditions that captivate us. One is the possibility of imposing a soft system of relationships, and the other the possibility of reducing the singularity of the elements that inform that system. Since we are interested in a sense of totality, of a building that expresses a strong degree of integrity, we like to think of windows as an abstract unit, a moment of interaction that allows for a reciprocal exchange between exterior and interior. In that way, we aren’t interested in composing facades, but in placing perforations in places that make sense for an internal spatial experience. The external result, while seemingly random, is the informal consequence of those relationships.
Likewise, the square shape of the individual opening can be described in terms of its neutrality. We prefer to understand that openings are discreet entities and should not draw attention to themselves but to the worlds they connect.
Shaped like a tower on a podium, your own house, Cien, also inverts a typology: It feels like an office building, but the scale is much smaller. How does living and working in one of your own convention-challenging designs influence how you create homes for clients?
The building form acknowledges the fact that this is a detached building at the very edge of the city centre, hence its elusive scale, opacity and compactness. Even if the tower on a plinth tries to separate the functions — and duplicates the accesses and vertical circulation — the double format promotes an overlap between living and working. In fact, in our case, the separation between labour and leisure doesn’t apply; our practice is too intimate for that. We like to jump from painting to drawing, from sculpture to writing, from gardening to reading. Every activity is an extension of our artistic practice. The only distinction is given by the vertical strata: the domesticity relating to the ground, down to earth, and the studio relating to the sky, somehow floating above other houses’ roofs. This distinction is also highlighted by the house’s white walls and wooden floors in contrast to the studio’s grey walls and polished concrete.
As you mentioned, making art is a major part of your lives and practice. Sometimes your paintings are simply artistic expressions in and of themselves, but they also allow you to explore ideas of scale and context that inform your built works. One of your designs, the Ines Building in Concepción, has been depicted in several paintings and is evocative of the repeated forms you explore — especially the slicing of planes with circular or square cutouts, akin to Gordon Matta-Clark’s work. How do you create these paintings and how are they integrated into your work?
We paint as much as we draw or write. The transition from one field to the other has been constant since the very beginning, almost as continuous research into the possible ways that we can perceive and read — and eventually understand — the world in which we live. Some of the paintings refer directly to the buildings we are developing, so they become an internal communication tool, a device for us to agree on certain qualities. Some other paintings are also architectonic, but without a connection to a concrete reality; they are invented realities that help us to accelerate — or to anticipate — potential realities. There are still other paintings that don’t even refer to architecture, but to more traditional genres, such as still life, landscape or portraiture.
In every case, we paint together onto the same canvas or paper. This is by definition another existential problem, since that abstract plane becomes a dramatic field of action, inevitably loaded with our subjective reasons, emotions and beliefs. When it comes to architectonic representations, the act of painting becomes a form of delay in our own thinking process. As opposed to today’s efficient and highly accurate digital production, we prefer to slow down and take a long time to make a single picture. Along the way, we believe, we allow ourselves to contemplate, to reflect, to be moved by its reality. Both paintings and buildings are intensive realities.
There’s also your project for the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial, which expressed in watercolors a research into repeating forms – or formats. Can you explain what you mean by “formats” in the context of your architecture – and how does program get worked into these formats?
We have developed the notion of format as an alternative to the notion of form. It is a personal tool, perhaps instrumental to the way we produce architecture. In our view, a format is a general form. It is the outline of a building, not its figure but its formal tendency. In architectonic terms, there is a clear distinction between a tower, a plate or a block. Each one determines a particular spatial extension, in these cases, vertical, horizontal or centralized. That spatial extension, which comes before size, and therefore scale, has a direct consequence in the definition of its internal spatial structure. The format, thus, determines a field of action without prescribing a precise ratio. If form can be defined by compositional methods, a format is somewhat non-compositional or deterministic.
The sequence of watercolor paintings we presented at the Chicago Biennial is one of ten series of formats. It is based on an inverted “T” figure, a figure that can be described with five dimensions. By multiplying every dimension by three distinctive sizes (small, medium and large), the figure results in a closed system of 729 unique variations. The fact that we know the amount of dimensions and sizes, allows us to anticipate the total series, thus the name of theses paintings is Finite Format. We have developed more complex figures, with more dimensions, that result in thousands of variations, which we paint or draw by hand, one by one. This is indeed an obsessive production that has allowed us to explore notions of formal character, singularity and the limits of architectonic identity, since there is a point in which the number of factors is increased and the perception of a significant difference is virtually lost.
The Fosc House actually looks like a painting in some photographs. In a talk you recently presented at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty, you discussed this layering of subjective perspectives. What role does photographic representation play (if any) in your thinking about a project? How do you feel about the dissemination of photographs of your works through the media when it’s often the only way people can experience these private projects?
We always tell our students, and also remark in our lectures, that the photographs we show are reductive mediations for the complexity of the architectonic space. A building cannot be depicted with a fixed viewpoint, with the classic perspective, with a fancy collage or even a well edited motion picture. Any of such depictions erode the temporal dimension of the architectonic space, since buildings happen simultaneously within an ever changing natural light, temperature and season. Any representation of a building is no more than a frozen moment in time. Any narrative about a building, like anything we could tell on a lecture, is articulated as a linear sequence. But, aside than for analytical purposes, a building shouldn’t be reduced to its parts alone.
The documentation of a building responds to a different purpose. For many years now, we photograph our own work. The very act of visiting the building right after the workers left and right before the inhabitants move in, has become a fairly symbolic ritual for us. We understand it as a nostalgic form of celebration. Of course, the photographic record of a building then follows a rather predictable media path. A route that is relevant in so far as it becomes a contribution for a disciplinary discussion. In opposition to painting or literature, architecture is bound to a place. The documentation of the building, then, becomes another form of presence, a representation, that exceeds its physical location.
You have often referred to the hinge moment — the transition from one place to another — as it relates to many circumstances: You are both architects and you are a couple, so there’s the transition from professional to personal. You both teach at Cornell University and practice in Chile, so there’s the transition between private practice and teaching. You divide your time and your work between projects in South America and projects in North America. How do these tensions play into your architecture?
We embrace the tension in a positive way. Today we are working on projects in Greece, Australia, South Korea, Germany and the U.S., yet we feel that our different fields of action are always moving in the same direction. We see ourselves going over and over again through the same ideas, looking for new forms to express almost the same intentions. As we already mentioned, our artistic practice is an existential endeavor — that is, a complex problem without a definite solution. Every project — despite its location, size or program — is an open problem.
Perhaps the only subtle distinction between a purely artistic and a purely architectonic project lies in the direction of the vector indicating that tension. We always like to think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where the Queen demands, “Sentence first — verdict afterwards!” We believe that lesson translates well into the work of making art, where an arbitrary motivation finds its way to a factual reality. In a work of architecture, the factual reality determines the particular case, but the sensitive author, an artist in the broadest sense, always infiltrates a personal sentence.
To me, the most divergent of your projects is your latest, Rode House. Although it seems to draw from your exploration of circles, it also seems to originate from a new kind of perspective altogether. Even the materials used — an abundance of wood, rather than board-formed concrete —feels quite different. Was this house a departure for you or a refinement of ideas that you’ve long been exploring?
Despite its singularity, Rode House could be related to a family of ideas. There is the functional width, the inhabitable wall, we explored in Poli House or Solo House. There is the circular room we explored in Vara Pavilion [at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016] and in Quil Building [a large cultural centre, now under construction, near Santiago]. Its section seems to be a gesture based on context, since the house is located on a rainy southern island with a strong local tradition of wood construction. Yet its form results from a fairly schematic formal articulation: the intersection of half a cone with half a cylinder. This creates a massive wall toward the prevailing winds and a shallow courtyard, with deep shaded terraces, toward the inner bay, protected from the wind.
The interior is a fluid transition from compression to expansion, according to the proximity between the inner or outer walls. The house becomes almost a counterweight to the landscape. One bedroom faces north, to direct sunlight; the other faces south, to indirect blue light. The house is for a single man, so there is an element of choice embedded in that horizontality.
It seems that the person who would approach you to design a house is the daring type. Is there a specific type of client who seeks you out?
First, we never approach our projects with the notion of “client.” The very idea implies a hierarchical agreement — that of buyer and service — and we’re not comfortable with it. We prefer to consider a more horizontal relationship with two parts trying to make sense out of a particular circumstance. Whether a private individual or the representative of a company or institution, the person who commissions a project is, in our view, more of a “customer,” someone trying to customize a future reality. That quickly shifts the positions from a top-down relationship to a horizontal one, with many individuals aligned in the same direction.
Having said that, we have to admit that today we only receive commissions from people who already know what we do. It seems that our work becomes a kind of natural filter. I guess that helps, since we don’t want to waste time convincing anyone about the way we understand architecture, art or life. We only accept invitations to imagine houses in which we would feel comfortable living. But it is not only a matter of craft, sensibility or experience; it also implies an ideological and even ethical dimension.
Where do you see your work in the tradition of modern Chilean architecture?
In the same manner in which we don’t work with references, metaphors or concepts whatsoever, we do not refer to any tradition. Our perception of modernism has been prejudiced by its lack of authenticity – and by knowing that, even in the best modernist cases, they were copies of a copy. In opposition to Barragan in Mexico or Niemayer in Brasil, we had no fathers to kill in Chile. So we feel, following Borges’s advice, that there is still room for “bad-translations” and that we have the right to read Europe or any ancient culture without really understanding it.
Informality and spontaneity are among the domestic virtues prized by Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen, the globetrotting South American architects whose experimental practice is pushing the limits of residential design.