Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats have run the Barcelona practice Flores & Prats for 22 years now. Working out of a 19th-century former residential building, which they refurbished into their studio – their “first exercise of adaptive reuse” – the pair have become adept at transforming old spaces into new ones, while keeping the historical value intact. In fact, they celebrate and call attention to the past in their bold renovations, the most famous being the Sala Beckett International Drama Centre in their home city. Now, with a new book out about the process behind that project and another adaptive re-use endeavour underway in Brussels, the two took time to chat with Azure about how they visualize space, while straddling the past, the present and the future.
How did the commission for Sala Beckett come about and how did you come to the design, in which you create such a bold contrast between the historical context and the new interventions?
- Eva Prats
It was a public competition. Sala Beckett is a centre for drama – with a focus on writing – that had been active in Barcelona for 20 years; they knew what they wanted to be and prepared an ambitious brief and a big budget. But it was up to us to decide what the building would be. And the building was in a very bad state – it had been abandoned for 30 years – and now it had to adhere to new codes for safety, structure and acoustics. We were like, ‘okay, will this building support all the extra weight we had to build into it?’ So, this is how we made a risky decision – to make a future combining the old building with Sala Beckett programming and the kind of architecture that we like to do.
- Ricardo Flores
The building was not listed: That’s a very important fact to note. You could really do whatever you wanted, even demolish it and start from scratch. In fact, two other design teams decided to propose that, because they felt the building couldn’t resist the exigencies of a contemporary drama centre. For us, it was quite normal and natural to think in terms of taking up the building as an inheritance. You inherit it – you use it because you like what you see and you think there is a treasure there. And not only as regards the material qualities. The social inheritance was as important as the physical inheritance.
What was the social history of the site?
When we got the commission, we started to register the story of the building. And we discovered that this building, which was once a workers’ cooperative, was built by the workers themselves, on Sundays. One day a week. It was rooted in the neighbourhood of Poblenou, which is a former industrial area. In Barcelona, there were many workers’ association, co-operatives, and they all had beautiful names. This one was called Pau i Justícia – Peace and Justice – words we’d be embarrassed to use today, but it was all about fraternity.
And for us, it was love at first site. It was such a generous space. In a dense city like Barcelona, to find such big rooms – seven metres high and 11 metres span! Keeping it meant that we could draw with these rooms. For instance, the bar we created kept the ceilings at six metres high. So, we fell in love with the dimensions of the building and then later the elements, the tiles and the doors.
It was interesting because the Sala Beckett program takes its inspiration from the community, the news, what’s going on in the streets. It’s very much rooted in the social character of the spaces, so it links very well to the building that they inherited. And the neighbourhood – when we explained that we were going to keep it, they were just delighted. Even the program has a lot of affinities and a continuity in the life of the building now with its original uses – including the bar and a school for the workers’ children, which is now the drama centre’s school.
Was the client surprised with how you approached the brief?
The centre’s director didn’t put any pressure on us to keep the building. Because if it didn’t work on a technical level, it would be his responsibility. But it’s really the architects’ responsibility to keep the structure or not, and if they do decide to keep it, they have to ensure that it works. So, it was a very risky bet, because you weren’t sure that the building could go on. That was the beginning of the project – all the design decisions came after that.
In the process of designing, we had a great client who was providing information in good doses, but we soon realized that the relationship was both with the client and the existing building, which required a lot of attention. We spent three months drawing it, trying to inventory everything we found inside it. Because we knew that during construction all the floors for instance needed to be reinforced. So, everything would move out of the building and then come back to it – all the tiles, all the doors, all the windows. We wanted to be sure that we registered the building so that we could draw with it and draw the new program of Sala Beckett with the building. It was great to have these three months of getting to know the building.
You still do hand drawing. How does that influence your architecture – its form and aesthetic?
I think it influences us, for sure. We’re very interested in the articulation of space, when one space becomes another or how a handrail becomes a bench. How things get transformed. Probably all this articulation is more intense when it comes to the circulation areas of the building, the natural light and the public areas. Hand drawing is more intricate – when you have all the program in your head, suddenly you can synthesize it more intuitively with the hand. Then we get into the computer to communicate with each other and develop the project.
Even if we use the computer to communicate with our fabricators, we open up the idea by hand again. We print out and continue to draw on top of the printout with transfer paper. One of the qualities of hand drawing is also the capacity to see and control all the space, whereas with the screen, you focus on one area at a time. It also makes visible all the complexity of the project, including all the circumstances that allow change and adaptation: what’s going to happen when the doors open, for instance.
Is there an aesthetic or formal language that you’re working with at this stage?
It has more to do with this idea of “situational architecture” – feeling yourself walking in the building and seeing what you are seeing. If someone opens a door, will everyone turn to look at them right away? How will it feel to use the space? All these sensations you bring into the drawing of the building: When you draw you are thinking with your hands and making your thoughts visible. Is this too planned? Is this space too obvious, should we make it more of a mystery, a surprise? It’s also about making an architecture that feels like it was always there.
Did the project influence the subsequent projects you designed?
It actually synthesized a lot of experience we had before with other clients and buildings. But Sala Beckett came in a moment where we had a certain level of maturity and an open client, and the building was still in a beautiful state and the society and the politicians were ready to see a heritage building re-used. Twenty, thirty years ago in Barcelona it would not have been so easy. But it’s impossible to not bring forward what we learned. The social factor of place, for example, is more important now.
Your work shows that adaptive re-use can be replete with creativity – it’s about introducing an interesting new language and not just about preservation.
We love cities, and cities are made of time. Sala Beckett is not our project – it’s the project of the workers, plus our work, all together. The building demonstrated how it could be adapted to a new generation, and the program is a place of coincidence – a new program inside an old building. It was about using the heritage and the right to inherit it.
And about adapting the program to the building. The building was saying, ‘I have this and this and this quality,’ and the programming team was listening to the building. When you have this attitude, you are really open to what can happen, you don’t need to have the solution from the beginning. Even though we won the competition with our brief, we knew that we would be able to adapt it as the conditions became clearer, and as they became richer and richer.
The Sala Beckett project was completed in 2016. But you’ve just released a book about it, one that can stand as its own feat of creativity. Why create a book about the project?
Because the Sala Beckett theatre group is so popular in town, as well as being beloved in the theatre world at large, we had to explain the project many times to the theatre community and the larger community. It’s a huge story and it was difficult to make it visible – after explaining it once and again and people not getting it, we thought of creating a slow-motion movie about the doors and windows, which we did end up doing. There’s also a pop-up piece we made, as well as our installation for the Venice Biennale.
So, when the book came about, we had the experience of explaining all these things. And we had had a photographer document the project from the beginning. So, it’s a cinematographic book, but also filled with our drawings. We used the capacity of the paper from end to end to make the drawings very big. It’s a manifesto of what we think adaptive reuse should be.
Tell me about your next major adaptive re-use project, the Ancien Theatre des Variétés in Brussels.
It’s for a creative arts and performances centre, a “collaborativo” for civic expressions that does often-invisible work, dealing with the margins of society, but that a few years ago began organizing a big festival and become a bigger part of the society. The local government is helping the arts centre to purchase this building.
It’s another abandoned theatre – this time, in the centre of Brussels. It was occupied during the Second World War and then became a cinema in the 60s – so it’s very present in the history of the city and in its show business. It’s now in a terrible state. Sala Beckett was much more fragmented, whereas this is just a big empty space; the project for us is how to keep that huge unique place and not ruin it with a big program. If in Sala Beckett we were inventorying all the materials, here the element to bring forward is the void.
The façade is listed. It’s white and modernistic, very Corbusian. Inside, it still has its old ceiling and the big fly tower – other pieces that will remind you of the original space. We are working with the Brussels office Ouest Architecture; our partner there still remembers going to the cinema to watch “Star Wars.” It’s opening in 2024, so we’re at the beginning stages. We’re still drawing the building and will keep drawing it until the end of next year.
A conversation with Barcelona’s Flores & Prats, as they release a book about their renowned Sala Beckett project and embark on another theatre commission focused on preservation and revitalization.