ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “The Spirit of Gòtic Sud”

Posted in Discurso-Conversaciones, ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on diciembre 21, 2012

Conversation between Iñaki Baquero, Francesc Pla, Gonzalo Milà, Ekhi Lopetegi and ARQUITECTURA-G

Published at Apartamento Magazine #9

Photography: Adrià Cañameras, Eva Serrats

INTRO (ARQUITECTURA-G)

In 1995, Iñaki Baquero, who together with Josep Bohigas and Francesc Pla forms part of the architecture studio BOPBAA, came across a building in a state of ruin in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona. Together with various acquaintances and friends, they decided to buy the building in order for each one to build their respective apartments and become neighbours. This adventure resulted in apartments as exceptional and diverse as the community they housed.
To have a chat about the project and its materialization, we arranged to meet with Iñaki and Francesc of BOPBAA, and industrial designer Gonzalo Milà —the only remaining original occupant of the building— in Barcelona at the cocktail bar Milano. Also present is musician and PHD student of philosophy, Ekhi Lopetegi.

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Founders of the studio Gòtic Sud, Francesc Pla and Iñaki Baquero, in their studio BOPBAA.  Photo by Adrià Cañameras.

ARQUITECTURA-G

From the photos we’ve seen from back then, it seems like you guys were all always partying.

FRANCESC PLA:

Yes, as a matter of fact, the image of my bathtub that I remember most clearly is when it was full of ice!
That’s the consequence of the communal life that had its roots in the studio Gòtic Sud, that was our shared space just below the place where we used to play basketball when we worked for Enric Miralles.
After Enric stopped working with Carme Pinós, he found this inner city mansion in the Avinyó Street that was a real pigsty. This mansion had a terrace that was on top of the building on the other side of the street. You got to it by crossing this small footbridge. We installed a basketball basket there and we used to go up there and play between drawings.
One day somebody asked what the building upon the roof of which we bounced our basketball actually was. It turned out to be a 500m2 warehouse that had been abandoned since the ‘20s. After a bit of asking around we found out who the owners were and, amongst a few friends, we rented it as a workspace thus founding the studio Gòtic Sud.
In order to fund the whole operation, as it was such a pigsty, we opted for a European entrepreneurs grant. The grant was really meant for more traditionally structured business and to be awarded it, we had to complete a series of prerequisites. The business had to appear as an association in which each member fulfilled a function. In all honesty we didn’t really have a very defined business structure, so each one of us made up with his own role: administrator, accountant and so on. But it was really a bit of a joke. So then, with our new ‘roles’ we went to the INEM [Instituto Nacional de Empleo] and presented our case in front of a kind of jury so that they could judge the validity of the project. We had all learnt our roles so well that not only did we manage to win the grant, but we were given the highest mark out of all the projects that had been presented.
Later on, work on the studio started to get rolling and for quite a while we kept one eye open just in case the inspectors came and discovered our little secret, but luckily nothing ever happened and the work continued.
I think this attitude was a defining aspect of the spirit of Gòtic Sud and was really important for what happened next with the Escudellers Blancs project.
So, one day, Iñaki appeared in Gòtic Sud all lit up with excitement. For a while, he had been looking for a top-floor apartment, and had talked to a real estate agent asking that if they came across one at a good price to let him know. That day, Iñaki told us that the real estate agent had found really cheap top-floor apartment in Escudellers Blancs Street in the Gothic quarter. The only ‘but’ was that he had to buy the whole building, and that it was in ruins…
Rapidly he tried to involve all of his closest friends in order to be able to buy the building collectively. He ended up managing to get together eight people that were into the idea of buying a building this ruin! After some time, as a minimum of ten people were needed, he was able to get two more through the real estate agent.

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tres posicions

tres fotos

The entrance to the building, formed by pieces of doors found in the original apartments mounted upon a metalic frame; the infrastructure that houses the community’s diversity

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

It’s incredible that the whole thing was based on verbal agreements. Up until the day that we went to the bank asking for credit, there was no sign of a written contract. So all of a sudden all ten of us with our respective guarantors appeared at the bank – 20 guys in one office to sign the loan! We probably ended up getting it because as there was so many of us we offered more collateral as a whole.
At that time we were all in our early twenties and we still hadn’t finished our degrees, so no one was a real architect yet. So the project was officially signed by another friend who was also in the mix, and the only one out of the whole building that was actually an architect. Apart from that, it was Francesc who above all was in charge of battling with the city council and municipal regulations.

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Iñaki Baquero on the terrace during the construction 

FRANCESC PLA:

There was a moment in which it seemed that the project wasn’t going to be possible. I remember this tense meeting with the town planning people from the city council who, on regulative grounds, said that we couldn’t have so many apartments in the building – the building originally had five apartments and we wanted to split them into ten. It looked bad until the boss of the department gave up and, banging his fist on the table, said to the town planners that having a higher density was more important than this specific regulation. So after that we could go ahead. The work was split into two phases, the common areas of the building and then each person’s apartment.

GONZALO MILÀ:

The first part —the common areas— took ages, like a year and a half. The existing beams – that were made of wood and in many cases rotten- were cleaned up, the whole structure was reinforced, and we put in an elevator. We arranged a bigger electrical power supply than the one that existed, and we installed gas. The companies made us dig up the whole street at our own expense to connect the tubes to the general supply thus being able to bring them all the way to the property. Once this was all done, each person began making their apartments how they wanted.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Being students with no incomes, how could you fund the operation?

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

It was a cheap building, even for the time. We were talking about mortgages of 20-25 years. I’ve just finished paying mine off now, and I paid €150 monthly which included the rennovations of the apartment.

FRANCESC PLA: 

Very cheap means really very cheap. In my case I didn’t even have a guarantor. It was a moment in time when the banks gave you anything, and if we were able to do it was precisely due to the fact that the building was a total bargain – a building that the local council wanted to palm off to someone else and forget about. At that time really good deals still existed without having to go to the outskirts of the city.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

When the time came, was there any type of criteria involved in deciding who ended up with which apartment?

GONZALO MILÀ:

Iñaki got the top-floor apartment and the rest of us divided up what was left amongst ourselves. It was decided that we would build two apartments per floor. Some apartments looked out onto the street and were 45-50m2, and others looked out onto the block’s inner courtyard and were 90m2. The elevator was placed in the middle of the building which really ended marking the split of each floor into the bigger and the smaller apartments. I was one of the last to join the project and the majority of the apartments had already been chosen.

EKHI LOPETEGI:

Were the construction and urban planning regulations the same as they are nowadays?

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Urban planning regulations were the same. But construction-wise, besides obvious structural stability regulations, it was totally different back then. The regulations that did exist were very minor, that’s why some of the things we ended up doing were pretty outrageous by today’s standards. On top of that, apart from the essentials, we didn’t even fulfill the regulations that were in place. Back then, these types of liberties still existed. Not one of the rennovations made to the apartments totally fulfilled what today’s housing regulations demand.

FRANCESC PLA:

It’s not only that regulations haven’t made architecture any better, but they don’t benefit anything. Not a thing. They’re abominable!

ARQUITECTURA-G:

The fact that this matter seems to be an internal debate strictly amongst architects is an issue. We always find ourselves fighting against and suffering from these superfluous regulations. We try our best to see how we can get around them in order to obtain a good space or a good project in accordance to the demands of the client. No one knows about all of this, they don’t know that regulations exist that end up making their houses poorer. We think that architecture in itself is above any regulation and if for a project to be better you need to skip a regulation, then you just skip it.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Yeah, and they don’t know what these regulations demand, for example, fat and ugly window frames, that according to regulations have to be thicker and thicker every time, end up making the window panes themselves smaller and smaller. At the end of the day the actual window becomes more frame than glass… Still, all that we did back then resulted in those exciting apartments. Either it was due to the fact that regulations weren’t so strict at the time, or simply that we just skipped them completely.

FRANCES PLA:

The local council awarded us one grant to renovate the building, and another one to renovate each apartment. Initially every one of us received the grant for the apartments except for me; because I had a bathtub in the living room! Regulations dictate that a house that is understood as a house has to have the bathtub separate from the living room. So, in order for me to receive the grant, an inspector had to come to my apartment to approve that it complied with the regulations. So, I had to construct this grotty polycarb room in my living room that surrounded the bathtub. We pulled out the same Gòtic Sud spirit from the INEM proposal and everyone helped out to quickly build that little sham. When the inspector came he freaked out, ‘¡Que cojones!’… But we said to him, ‘both spaces are separate right?’. He didn’t have any other option but to approve my apartment. Once I’d gotten the approval, we obviously took it all down. We had to do then we still do today all the time; a masquerade.

GONZALO9

Gonzalo Milà, the last of the original occupants of the building in his living room. Photo by Adrià Cañameras.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Yeah, but it wasn’t the same… today it would be impossible.

FRANCESC PLA:

You’re right, it’s not the same, but had we done the project today, we would have done the amount of masquerading that was necessary, and that’s all there is to it. The urban planning manager that ended up permitting the realization of the whole project, by telling his technicians to skip the regulation, was a guy that believed that regulations are adaptable to each case… Those type of people don’t prosper in politics.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

That reaffirms that today the same thing couldn’t happen, which I think is the reason that we’re all here today talking, because today it wouldn’t be possible for it to happen again. The general outlook was different, and the regulations even moreso. The rules of the game allowed more liberty.

FRANCESC PLA:

I want to clear up something important. When we did all this, it wasn’t something that was seen as normal, it was just that you didn’t do it. Today we would have another reailty, but the key is to have the balls that we had to just do it.

4

GONZALO MILÀ:

But for us it didn’t it seem like the most normal thing to do?

FRANCESC PLA:

Yes, it was normal for us, but the whole thing was super unusual. To us it seemed normal because we had just the right dose of irresponsibility and enthusiasm to do things, just like we did in the beginnings of Gòtic Sud. I’m saying this because this idea that there was a ‘better time’ in which everything was possible is a cheap excuse to hide behind for overly conservative youths. Before, the times were what they were. Today, they are what they are. Each person deals with what’s they’re given.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

For us this is obvious and nobody here’s denying it. That’s why we say that the conditions we live in today will never allow what happened with this project to happen again. Because, amongst other things, we simply couldn’t get ten guys without incomes together in a bank to raise the money. We couldn’t do it because that’s how it is these days in this economic climate. There’s no need to be naïve about it.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

I totally agree.

FRANCESC PLA:

We don’t represent a generation of people that did things that today aren’t possible… What we did was something that was exceptional even back then. I didn’t even have a salary! It’s not that it was an idyllic moment in time or anything, we just did it.

EKHI LOPETEGI:

I think that the important thing about all this is that it was a moment where you could make a collective decision through a verbal agreement, turn up at the bank and get some money. The difference today is that these types of relationships have changed. I’m not referring to relationships and agreements made between friends, but the relationship with the one who puts down the money – in this case, the bank. Today these things are more complicated. But it’s true that this shouldn’t serve as an excuse not to strive for interesting projects.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Yeah, the energy that was put into the whole thing so that it could become a reality and the importance of verbal agreements was something really quite beautiful. These days each person’s word seems to carry less and less value.

EKHI LOPETEGI:

When you guys thought of doing all this, with meticulous planning on one side and rash impulsiveness on the other, what was on the horizon? What was it that you were all looking for?

GONZALO MILÀ:

We all were looking for a place to go to so that the ones that still lived with their parents could leave their respective ‘nests’. The rest of us wanted to get out of the chaotic shared apartments that we were in.

FRANCESC PLA:

It all began when the group took the initial decision to share the Gòtic Sud studio. We all really wanted to live in the Gothic quarter because the things that we all liked went on there, just as much during the day as at night time. There wasn’t any other place in Barcelona in which we were so comfortable. It was the place and we all believed in it. We also wanted to break the myth that friendships fall apart when living together.

GONZALO MILÀ:

We had just the right level of friendship so that when someone threw a party no one complained because we all went to it!

ARQUITECTURA-G:

One thing that’s for sure is that everyone in the building were architects. Did this have any influence as far as the planning and development of the project goes?

GONZALO MILÀ:

Except for me, everyone was an architect. We liked the suburb and we saw that with very little we could make the place our home. The fact that the majority of us were architects didn’t result in the vocation of totally transforming the whole thing.

FRANCESC PLA:

It’s true however that the fact we were all architects and designers allowed us to see an image full of possibilities instead of the ruin that it was. We were the only ones that saw its attractiveness.

EKHI LOPETEGI:

Besides the communal areas of the building, did you discuss each person’s apartment or space? For example, did you ask each others opinions? Did each person just do their own thing or keep in mind what his neighbour had planned?

GONZALO MILÀ:

No, not at all. Each person did what they wanted with total liberty. One thing we had however, was this sort of camaraderie between neighbours. For example, you agreed to reinforce one of your beams when the neighbour from upstairs installed his bathtub or something heavy. That kind of thing. We went about helping one another a lot.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

 In my case, as well as for most of us, it was my first project. I totally lost my mind. I was so excited to actually be doing things, and on top of that there was the double-edged sword that is having a client that continually encourages instead of stopping you in your tracks; myself!

It was crazy, and perhaps moreso in my case because I had the top-floor apartment. Upon arrival I had to demolish everything that was there and I was left with the perfect plot to build a nice little ‘cottage’; a nice little lot in the sky with the only regulation or condition being not to go over certain little guidelines.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Lots of things were built with your own hands. We find this very interesting because it has a lot to do with the act of physically being on-site, a matter that we’ve dealt with in other conversations in Apartamento. Architects being on-site much more than what’s normal during construction is a common factor in many of the projects that we’re interested in. It’s something to do with the act of making decisions in real time and in-situ, and not having a plan that defines exactly what’s going to happen the following day while being surrounded by the space that’s being transformed. We spoke a lot about this with Nestor Piriz and the Selgas Cano studio. All those on-site and semi-improvised decisions, on top of the tactile aspect of building with your own two hands, gives an emotional charge to the project. It’s something that’s almost tangible. It makes the connection you have with the house much stronger.

GONZALO MILÀ:

In my case there was an important decision making moment. When the structural reinforcement of the building was finished I was asked, ‘what walls do you want to take down?’ This was when I still didn’t have any idea of where I wanted to sleep or have the dining room or anything. In the end I decided to take almost all of them down. For that reason, once I arrived on-site, I had to decide where I wanted to put the bedroom and the bathroom and erect the partitioning walls myself. I also laid the hardwood floor with my own hands. I had this mattress so, as the construction was in process, I ended up half living on-site.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

It’s true that the relation with the materials —that aspect of do-it-yourself and investing energy in the creation— is very beautiful. There’s so much excitement put into what you’re doing. At that time I got really invigorated with the simple act of putting one brick on top of another. I really like the tangible part of it all.

GONZALO MILÀ:

Me too. I got really into is as well, but the fact that I didn’t have anything very clear in terms of planning allowed me to take decisions in more of a relaxed way as I went. There was also the matter of finance. I got a couple of quotes done that were very definitive in helping me decide to do the whole project with my own hands!

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Theres something that’s very interesting in all of the apartments, which is that each project is caught somewhere in-between being the result of fresh and semi-improvised decision making and a series of well thought out details that make up spaces of a certain level of complexity.

We think that the very thing that may seem contradictory is what makes these houses make sense and have such an emotional charge. It’s probably a consequence of being on-site all day long.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

A part of it’s that.

19

I_AKI4

I_AKIDOBLE

I_AKI3

A ‘cottage’ in the sky, photos of Iñaki Baqeuro’s apartment during and after construction. Last three photos by Eva Serrats.

FRANCESC PLA:

I think I speak for everyone when I say that, even though we’re talking about apartments, we were much more interested in ‘urban planning’ than design. I mean, we were really interested in the key decisions that affected how we would live in these space, in my case a bathtub in the living room, and less so in the more material aspects such as special finishes and so on. For example, Iñaki chose to do a curved wall and he did it with tongue and groove bricks because it was what he had on hand. But he could have built it with anything. There wasn’t that mindset of contemporary construction.

In those crazy Nineties, we didn’t worship precision and materials that say, our contemporaries in Madrid did. In our case ‘urban planning’ was more important – I’m talking about root decisions. After these root decisions were made, we built things in whatever way we could. At the end of the day the whole thing was constructed in a manner similar to what Luis Buñuel once said, ‘como el azar en aquel mismo momento te deparara’ [how chance strikes in a given moment]. If anyone had spare taps, tiles or whatever, well, we used them.

Also it was at that time that the selective rubbish collections began in Barcelona. Each week on a specific day people began throwing out their furniture in set spots to be picked up by the council. Thus began this type of Tuesday evening 9pm cult phenomenon in which people from the upper zones of the city threw out pieces of furniture —in some cases pieces of high value— and left them simply abandoned in the street awaiting the rubbish truck. It goes without saying that all our apartments were filled with these objects.

Our houses weren’t formed by the space between their walls, yet the atmosphere that was created by these objects that were within those walls. We were like this species of ‘recollector’. A wall or a door had just as much importance as the barber’s chair that someone had found.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Actually, before we met up today, I went pass Gonzalo’s apartment. It’s amazing to see that, even though our lives have totally changed and some of us are married and have kids, his house still breathes that same ambience.

GONZALO MILÀ:

All this began with Gòtic Sud. There, we were already going around collecting everything, it was like some kind of odd warehouse. One night, I don’t know how, we found one of those gigantic industrial bobbins —those ones that are used for cables and tubes— that was had nothing on it. It had a diameter that was taller than us. All eight or nine of us were having dinner in the area, and on the way home we found this thing and rolled it all the way back to the studio. Afterwards we carved out part of the inside and it ended up becoming a stairwell to the mezzanine.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

In the hands of a good photographer that night would have been a great series of pictures!

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Speaking of the ambience of Gonzalo’s apartment, when we visited, we found a baguette planted in a flower pot on one of the balconies. And then he showed us a dead woodpecker!

FRANCESC PLA:

A trip to Gonzalo’s house is always full of surprises.

GONZALO MILÀ:

Yeah, I’m really interested in ornithology. Sometimes when I’m driving I spot something dead on the curb and stop to pick it up. In the case of the woodpecker, I was especially taken by it’s feathers.

Woodpecker’s tails are really interesting. They act like a third leg when they climb trees. The baguette is to feed the birds, in the winter they don’t have much food…

FRANCESC PLA:

Staying alone in that community has made you go crazy!

ARQUITECTURA-G:

All this gives off a great sensation of community, like belonging to a collective. Did you lead much of a communal life? To put it another way, where your doors always open? And apart from that, were there any communal spaces that were pre-thought out for the project?

GONZALO MILÀ:

At the beginning we did, it was great. We were all always in someone or other’s apartment. As for communal spaces, we had the bicycle room on the ground floor…

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Bicycles are an important factor. We all used them to get around the city and it was a necessity to have a place to put them all.

FRANCESC PLA:

There’s an important issue here that is, there were people actually living on the ground floor. This was because we didn’t manage to buy the whole thing just us (there were the two extras that the real estate agent found). Perhaps in that ground floor space something interesting would have emerged. But it wasn’t to be. We thought about it, but it wasn’t economically viable. Furthermore, the regulations of the city council that prohibit ground floor apartments to be inhabitated by non-disabled people. So not only did we had to find someone to live in the ground floor space, but it had to be someone that was disabled or at least willing to pretend to be disabled! So, someone ended living there but we didn’t take it as a defeat. All doors were always open and we always had dinners with a lot of people.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Also there’s the overall entrance, which after all is the closest part to the street. We wanted to look for an element that had expressive strength – something that embodied all the shared energy that the place had. When we decided on it, we had to keep in mind the idea that it was the infrastructure that gave support to the whole collective. The door itself was a metal structure filled in with parts of the front doors of each of the old apartments mixed with pieces of glass – the wood we used was from the doors that were originally there when we bought the place. It was something a bit more special than just a simple entrance.

FRANCESC PLA:

I think that the entrance is one of the more celebrated parts of the building. Another would be the letterboxes. Gonzalo made them. The postman, when he got to understand them, asked us why all letterboxes aren’t like that!

GONZALO MILÀ:

It was a small piece that in a simple way represented a cross section of the building. The letters were put into the spaces that represented each house. Apart from that, we also put a blackboard in the hallway. In Gòtic Sud, Francesc had managed to find various blackboards that I think were originally belonged to RENFE (Red Nacional de Ferrocarriles Españoles). We took one of them to the building and we cut it in half and put it in an ‘L’ shape.

Imagen plantas EB5

Without paying much attention to what’s correct or incorrect when it comes to apartment blocks, each resident chose the function that each space would have based on specific qualities, lighting conditions and their personal habits. In contrast to what they show you in architecture schools, the lavatories nor the general plumbing was installed in the typical vertical manner, but desired locations were negotiated with the neighbours.

In the above image we see the same floor plan of the building repeated three times, each one emphasizing distinct elements. In the first, highlighted in green, you see all of the buildings bedrooms superimposed in one floor plan, showing that each resident put their bedroom in the place that they deemed suitable. The same occured with the kitchens, highlighted in red in second floor plan, and with bathroom elements, hightlighted in blue in the third. The floor plans display a superimposition of the individual decisions that demonstrate the diversity of the community.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

I think that a hallway is somewhere that a chalkboard makes a lot of sense. Instead of leaving bits of paper stuck to the walls, a chalkboard becomes this intimate instrument of communication. Apart front that, the piece itself is very beautiful.

FRANCESC PLA:

One summer we went to meet Jorge Oteiza in Basque Country. The chalkboard has a lot to do with that trip. In a corner of his studio he had this chalkboard cut into an angle. When we arrived at his house in Zarautz we saw a poster on his door that read ‘Oteiza is dead’. We asked after him to one of his neighbours, and they told us that he was actually in the bar next door.

GONZALO MILÀ:

And Iñaki lost the rolls! We had two hours of film recorded of the time that we were with him.

EKHI LOPETEGI:

What kind of relationship do you maintain with the building these days? Gonzalo still lives there, but you two don’t.

IÑAKI BAQUERO:

Both Francesc and I have our apartments rented out. In my case it’s been so for a long time now. She’s a textile designer from Zaragoza. She uses the apartment and takes care of it I think much more than I would have done myself. It’s in really good condition. I don’t even have a rental contract, it’s all by verbal agreement. In that sense the spirit with which the whole thing began still remains. To be a landlord and to have a ‘non-contract’ is a luxury.

GONZALO MILÀ:

I’m the last one left, and also I’m the president of the community now. Even though my dream is to one day be able to live out of the city.

Buzón

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