Since the economic crisis, one question has dominated all others in architecture: How should the profession remake itself? From that question flow several others. Does architecture bear any responsibility for the overbuilding and false confidence that spread across the United States, Europe, and much of Asia before 2008? If so, is some kind of penance required for the damage done by the resulting collapse, or some radical re-imagining of the architect's role in society? Or it is simply enough to pick up the pieces and get back to the business of designing buildings, perhaps ones that are slightly less flashy and oversized than before?
There has been no shortage of meaningful, persuasive answers to those questions in the last five years. Most of them have included one or more of the following words and phrases: bottom-up, tactical, temporary, user-generated, makeshift, ad-hoc, social, sober, anonymous, communal, or open-source. In addition to adding new language to the architectural lexicon, many of those responses have provided attractive new models for making cities, not to mention for doing more with less. Still, virtually all of those answers have shared one major liability: They haven’t really qualified as architecture. They have had a lot more to do with urban design, technology, planning, politics, or transportation.
All of that probably explains better than anything else why I find the work of the 42-year-old Spanish architect Andrés Jaque so significant. Jaque, who runs a Madrid firm and teaches for much of the year at Columbia University in New York City, is deeply interested in analyzing the ways architecture went wrong before 2008. Of course, few countries have paid a higher price for financial hubris or speculative construction than Spain, where according to recent estimates nearly 4 million houses sit vacant and unemployment among adults under 25—the country’s so-called Lost Generation—hovers near 55 percent.
What makes Jaque's response to those familiar statistics unusual, and important, is that it is fundamentally and unapologetically architectural. Though his work is steeped in subjects like interior design, opera, the movies, punk rock, and surfing, he wants to use architectural tools to find his way through the rubble of the crisis and toward a new way of working. He is not marginalizing architecture in an effort to save it. He thinks architecture is perfectly capable of saving itself.
I first met Jaque—pronounced “HA-kay”—in 2010, at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He'd been invited by Kazuyo Sejima, the director that year, to contribute an installation to the large first room of the exhibition, inside the Italian Pavilion. On the first preview day I came into that room and saw him standing there, a short, smiling figure with thinning hair, wearing skinny green pants with a Thom Browne hem. His piece for the Biennale was called "Fray Foam Home." It was a huge wall hanging, made of wire covered with colorful bits of fabric, plastic flowers, and tiny paper umbrellas, that represented, among other things, the carbon footprint of a single apartment shared by five people, in Madrid.
At its base, this was an attempt to turn a series of measurements and diagrams into an object that could be hung on the wall—to make a chart beautiful. But it was also a commentary on sustainability and the way that in a networked age there is no realm more politicized than the domestic one. The shared space of a city apartment, and the daily decisions its residents have to make about how to get along with one another and how their own behavior might affect the water supply or global warming—this for Jaque is the heart of the political sphere, rather than a neoclassical parliament building or town square."There are no agoras any more," Jaque wrote in a description of "Fray Foam Home." By which he meant: The agora is now inside our apartments and houses, in our living rooms and kitchens, and on our iPhone screens.
When I spent a few days with Jaque in Spain earlier this year, I discovered that those principles have continued to shape his output. One afternoon I took a cab to his firm's office, located on a quiet street 3 miles northeast of the center of Madrid. On the windowless metal door were painted two names: Andrés Jaque Architects and Office for Political Innovation. In general, Jaque does architecture work under the first name and research and art-world projects under the second. But the lines between the two parts of the firm often blur.
A half-dozen young employees were sitting at computers when I walked in; around the edge of the office were models of projects at various stages of completion, including a restaurant and art-fair campus for Madrid and a low-income housing block for Stockholm. Like "Fray Foam Home," Jaque's models are colorful and delicate, and look more Japanese than Spanish. Jaque and I walked into his modest office and sat down to talk, a conversation that wound up stretching more than three hours.
Born in 1971 to a wealthy and well-connected family—his father, descended from a long line of prominent naval engineers, was an executive for the Renault car company—Jaque grew up in Madrid. As a teenager he had a range of somewhat eccentric hobbies, including studying bonsai, the Japanese art of growing and pruning miniature trees. He spent the last two years of high school, in the late 1980s, as an exchange student in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
When he returned to Madrid to study architecture, Jacque found that the legacy of well-known Spanish and Portuguese architects like Rafael Moneo, Álvaro Siza, and Eduardo Souto de Moura loomed large. He found suffocating their interest in precision and tectonics—in the craft of building raised to a kind of holy perfectionism. Though he excelled as a student, he also executed a series of minor rebellions, producing work that was willfully, even stubbornly, imperfect. His senior thesis project was exuberant and brightly colored: more Cedric Price or Charles Moore than Moneo or Louis Kahn, who was also exalted in the department. "Believe it or not, this was the first time someone had ever used bright colors in the school of architecture in Madrid," Jaque told me. "I was called into the director's office. He said, 'I don't understand why you have such good marks and then you present this kind of funny, not serious project. What you're doing is not architecture—it’s painting.' "
A fellowship took him to Dresden, Germany, for 18 months after graduation. When he returned he worked briefly for established Madrid firms and started entering design competitions on his own time with two school friends, Enrique Krahe and Miguel de Guzmán. They were shocked when they won one of them, to design a retirement home for priests and nuns inside a renovated seminary in the Spanish town of Plasencia. Finished in 2004, the project is full of neon lighting and spaces painted cherry red and fluorescent green. The bright colors are meant to bring some youthful energy to the interior as well as provide way-finding for aging clergy through the building.
Jaque's best-known built work is the "House in Never Never Land," a vacation retreat on the island of Ibiza. The day after we met in his office, Jaque and I made the short flight to Ibiza. Joining us was Miguel de Guzmán, who has become a successful architectural photographer and often shoots Jaque's work.
Ibiza is a mixture of new wealth and the vestiges of 1960s counterculture and hedonism. "House in Never Never Land," finished in 2009, reflects that combination. Perched on a downslope hillside lot with a view of a wide bay below, it is made of a steel frame filled in with corrugated metal, glass, and rubber. The main house is raised on spidery steel legs emerging from the sloping ground; a pair of guest rooms occupy separate small wings near the bottom of the site. The color scheme is familiar Jaque: placid blue, light purple, and fluorescent green. The architecture owes more than a little to Southern California. There are echoes here not only of Frank Gehry, FAIA, but earlier hillside projects by Albert Frey and John Lautner.
Like a lot of work by young, media-savvy architects, the house looks fantastic in photos. It is more impressive in person. The qualities that make it work—the balance between private spaces and dramatic views, and between the upper house and the lower guest rooms in particular—grow from a generous, even old-fashioned belief in architectural technique.
In September, Jaque flew to Los Angeles for the opening of "Different Kinds of Water Pouring into a Swimming Pool," an installation he'd designed for the REDCAT Gallery, an outpost of the California Institute of the Arts. The installation takes its name from a drawing by David Hockney, long a favorite artist of Jaque's. The product of several months of research that the architect conducted into L.A.’s residential spaces, it takes the form of four fountains festooned with plants and made mostly of ordinary objects from the kitchen and garden: plastic cups, strainers, laundry tubs. Each fountain represents a household whose members he interviewed over several visits. The central idea is that these residential spaces make room for all kinds of negotiation and political activity. The installation is meant to commemorate that activity, to create a series of everyday Trevi Fountains made of the kind of household goods you can find at Target.
Walking through it, I was reminded of something Jaque had told me in Madrid: "Most of the time when you see a public square there’s not much that could actually happen there. But when you see a house, you see that the possibilities are far greater: You could watch TV, you could cook, you could read, you could listen to music, you could talk to people or argue with them, you could swim in the swimming pool."
Ruth Estévez, who became director of the REDCAT Gallery earlier this year, told me she chose Jaque as the subject of her first show primarily because of the social and theatrical nature of his work. "Andres belongs to a generation of Spanish architects that is proposing platforms for public participation," she wrote in an email. "A generation that is more interested in process than in product."
When I called Mark Wigley, the outgoing dean of the Columbia School of Architecture, he was even more effusive. He said he'd hired Jaque as a visiting professor in large part because he is "one of the least boring architects around." Wigley said that Jaque's first Columbia studio was on the nail salons and funeral parlors of New York City and how those spaces, threaded though every part of the city, organize the social lives of many of their employees and patrons. "That was typical Andrés," he said. "He has fantastic peripheral vision. The best people in any field always pay attention to the things that get overlooked. When you go to the margins a whole kind of garden emerges."
Importantly, Wigley said, "None of this implies that he's not an architect. If this was all a kind of escape from the world of building or from the world of decisions, it wouldn't have the same political impact. The political impact comes from the fact that he’s saying, 'No, I make buildings, and here is where I see the energy.' "
I asked Wigley what role he imagined Jaque playing as his career progressed. "I think he has the potential to be a pied-piper," Wigley said. "To play some strange sort of music and lead architecture somewhere more interesting."