ARQUITECTURA-G

ESCRITOS-G: “THE HELLSCRAPER”

Posted in ESCRITOS-G by ARQUITECTURA-G on noviembre 28, 2016

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Conversation between Lola Botia, José Manuel Ábalos and ARQUITECTURA-G

Published in Apartamento Magazine #16

Photography by Nacho Alegre

Archival material courtesy of the Fernando Higueras Foundation

Intro:

Fernando Higueras (Madrid, 1930–2008) was an architect of powerful temperament. Over his lifetime he generated an extensive body of work with a radical personality—one that kept him on the fringe of trends. Despite having an overly mischievous and uncomfortable character for the strict environment of the academic world, his work drew global attention. From such a large body of work, in which projects that remained on paper stand out just as much as those built, we have chosen to focus on his home, leav- ing the projects he created for clients to one side. The house, which towards the end of his life doubled as his studio, is a hidden underground refuge, without windows, lit by means of a large skylight, and built in the garden of another house. A home that penetrates the depths of the Earth, one that he dubbed El Rascainfiernos, or the ‘Hellscraper’. To discuss the Hellscraper, as well as Fernando’s personality, we have spoken with two people that shared many years of their lives with him. On one side, we have Lola Botia, photographer and partner of Fernando. In 1972 she started working in his studio as manager of the photo laboratory. Over time, her role in Fernando’s life grew. After his death, the house was converted into the headquarters of the Fernando Higueras Foundation, of which Lola is in charge. On the other side, we have José Manuel Ábalos, architect and painter. While still a student, José Manuel turned up at Fernando’s studio one day and said, ‘Whether you like it or not, I am going to work with you’. Fernando smiled and accepted him into the team, where he remained for many years, not only
becoming his right hand man but a lifelong friend.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

To put things into perspective, we would like to say that Fernando was an extremely passionate man. Many of his decisions were controversial, but let’s hone in on the most important one: when he decided to bury himself.

Lola Botia:

He always used to tell the story of how one day, in a meeting, he had his tarot cards read by his friend Paco Nieva, and the card of death kept coming up. Fernando wasn’t a fan of these kinds of things, but it affected him a great deal. He even checked to see if the deck of cards was rigged, but it wasn’t. His friend, seeing him turn pale, said to him, ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to die, I’m only saying that I can see you six feet under with a cypress tree on top of you!’ I don’t know if that’s what pushed him to bury his house or not, but anyway, he ended up buying a little house with a garden in 1972. It was in that garden where he would later build his house below ground.

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Fernando’s underground living room, illuminated by four large skylights.

José Manuel Ábalos:

At the time, Fernando was married with five children. However, it got to a point where the marriage became unhealthy, and they separated. When he bought that little house, the relationship was already on the rocks. It was in bad condition, and later on I ended up managing its renovation. It’s where his ex-wife and his children went to live after the separation. When the project was completed, it occurred to Fernando to build a kind of basement in the same garden, his very own underground home. Any normal person who separates from his wife and five children—especially after a traumatic separation such as theirs—would go and live somewhere sensibly far apart from his family. I mean, they were at a point where his children would throw the Christmas presents he gave them out the window. But Fernando, who was a special kind of guy, decided to go and excavate a basement annexed to the house of his ex-wife for him to live in—against the advice of everyone else, of course! As incredible as it may sound, he thought out the entire project in the space of three minutes. I can assure you because I was there at the time. Fernando was reflecting on the house’s garden and he asked me for the dimensions of a specifi c model of skylight. We looked for it in a catalogue, and the biggest was 2x2m. Without me knowing what he was talking about, he said, ‘2×2, good. If we put four of them together then that’s 4x4m. If we put a space around it, in the shape of an L, then we’ve got a square of 8x8m. We can make the hole for the skylights two storeys high, the upper fl oor can be for eating, sleeping, and living, and the lower fl oor for lounging, playing music, for having friends over… Joder, chaval, ¡de puta madre!’ He always drew on graph paper, so he drew the house and showed it to me. Even though it was crazy, it seemed beautiful to me. That said, I had to remind him that his children were very angry with him, and surely they would end up jumping all over the skylights when they were in the garden—which ended up happening later on [laughs]. Anyway, that was how the idea was born, and it truly is a great space.

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Fernando Higueras

Lola:

At the end of his career, Fernando told the story of how his parents suffered during his childhood due to his dedication to the arts. He was very gifted at playing the guitar, he was even given a scholarship by Andrés Segovia. He had a great interest in painting, too, and was also very talented. He was awarded the national prize for watercolours, and he exhibited his work a lot in collective exhibitions before enrolling in architecture school. His mother was scared that such a brilliant mind would get lost on the way, and she pushed him to study something ‘with more of a future’, as she considered the art world very diffi cult. She never stopped saying, ‘If you dedicate yourself to the arts you’ll die of hunger!’ Fernando liked to say that he’d ended up building houses for all his artist friends—those that were supposed to have been ‘dying of hunger’—but he hadn’t been able to build his own. For him the Hellscraper wasn’t dignifi ed enough to be shown, it was a simple underground cave.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

It must have been extremely complicated to excavate such a large amount of soil. Especially due to the fact that all the necessary machinery had to be brought into a small garden in a residential area. What was the construction process like?

José Manuel:

We began by excavating small sections, at fi rst with a smaller machine as well as by hand, with shovels and pickaxes. The retaining walls were also constructed in sections. The four corners were constructed first, but the poor quality of the soil made the operation very diffi cult. In fact, they ended up excavating a little bit more than what was necessary. They even excavated enough to allow for an air chamber beneath the ground floor. Originally, on the plans, it was supposed to be an excavation of 8x8m, but it was extended to 9x9m. Then one of the four retaining walls fell down—the one closest to the original house— so they had to excavate a further two metres on one side, which created an extra space in which to store things like water heaters, drainage pumps, and so on. He even intended to build a small sauna. I witnessed all this first hand, because Fernando didn’t dare come to the house throughout the entire construction period. He just didn’t want to run into his ex-wife, so I managed all the construction work. Fortunately both parties involved were very respectful towards me and they accepted the decisions that I took. I hadn’t even finished my architecture studies! I was very young.

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ARQUITECTURA-G:

Not only is it a complex operation due to the difficulties of excavating in a garden surrounded by houses, but also from a legal point of view. What were the regulations like?

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Above: A painting by Joaquín Sorolla on the left.

José Manuel:

Well, from a legal point of view it was very easy, simply because Fernando didn’t request a construction permit. It was done on the lowdown and all the neighbours lodged complaints. It’s hard to excavate nine metres deep and build retaining walls without attracting a lot of attention. Fernando told his neighbours not to worry, that he was building an archive for his architectural plans, and that it would never be inhabited, there wouldn’t be any noise. The irony of it all is that later on we realised that the council’s regulations allowed for us to do the project after all: we could have asked for permission! Either way, at the time things weren’t as highly regulated as they are now.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

In the previous issue of this magazine, we talked about the house of César Manrique in Tahíche, Canary Islands. He was a great friend of Fernando’s. We spoke precisely about the idea of living underground as a deliberate choice. Sáenz de Oiza always spoke of the importance of stairs inside a house, how the ascent upstairs somehow symbolises entering the world of dreams, and how the descent downstairs symbolises the descent into hell. In the same line of thought, Fernando baptised his house the Hellscraper. We find the symbolic idea of a hellscraper, in contrast to a skyscraper, extremely interesting. How did Fernando inhabit his hellscraper?

Lola:

He thoroughly enjoyed this house. He filled it with books and films because he loved reading and cinema, but his great love was art. It was like a small museum. There were paintings and sculptures all over the place. Pieces of work, some by good friends of his, that he had accumulated. A lot of shenanigans took place in that house, as well as more serious meetings. At first glance people were shocked to be in a house buried underground, without windows. But what they ended up liking the most was the pleasant light that came in from the skylights. It was delightful to come in here. He hosted a lot of friends, here in his house as well as in the two studios he had in the city. As it came time for lunch they started to appear and they would all go to a place down the road called El Chiquito. Fernando had a tab there and he liked to treat people to lunch or dinner; he was very generous. Later on, in 2001, he fell on some very difficult times. The lack of commissions meant that he had to close both studios, and they moved in here. We put up some tables on the ground floor and he began to use the house as a home and a studio.

José Manuel:

It’s funny, but the first person to actually spend the night here was me. In 1974, with work on the the Hellscraper almost complete, I left Madrid and I went to live in San Sebastián, although I continued to collaborate on various projects with Fernando for years. I came and went to Madrid when necessary, according to those projects. One of the times that I came back to Madrid, it would have been 1976, Fernando told me, ‘I need to ask a favour of you’. He said that all the work on the house had been finished for quite a while, and it was fully furnished and ready to be inhabited. He’d had the place cleaned a thousand times, according to him it was impeccable. The thing is, he didn’t dare go and live there. I asked him if it was due to his ex-wife being next door, and no, as it turned out she had rented an apartment elsewhere and had left. He came to tell me— without actually saying so—that the idea of sleeping underground gave him the creeps. I gladly accepted his offer. When the time came he took me over to the house, filled the fridge for me, and arranged everything so that I was comfortable. Drinks, gin and tonics, everything. He treated me like a prince and that’s how I slept. The next morning he came around at 9am and brought me croissants for breakfast. He asked how I’d slept. I said that it was the best place in the world, there was no noise and the temperature was fantastic. It seemed to convince him and the next day he moved in permanently.

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Vegetation cascading down from the building’s skylights.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

The house could be seen as a place for someone that wants to disappear, someone who wants to withdraw in some way. However, we get the impression that it functioned as the centre of a lively social life.

Lola:

To be honest it was a place that was very open to receiving people. He liked to hold lunches in the garden, but there were also times when he liked to withdraw and work on his bits and pieces. He was obsessive with his work.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

In an old interview we read that he lived with a heavy heart because he’d had to abandon everything for architecture. His passions, like music and painting.

Lola:

Not exactly: he was passionate about architecture. But it was difficult for him to accept that, unlike other professions, the architect has the necessity of a third party in order to work, the need for a client. The painter, for example, does not. That generated a great sense of helplessness in him.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Even so his body of work is extensive.

Lola:

Yes, it is. He was a passionate and tireless worker, that’s what got him so much work, but there was very little that was actually constructed in proportion to that which was produced.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

The first time we saw photos of Fernando Higueras we saw a man of an imposing character and strong complexion. Bearded, untidy hair, wearing sandals; he possessed a special magnetism. As we began to delve deeper into his work, we saw that nothing was gratuitous and that everything was very connected. In the same manner, there are many images that exist of the Hellscraper that go
further than the house itself, creating myths. The fact that the house is a hole, a subterranean space, opens the door to many stories that may well go beyond reality, mixing falsehoods with truths. Articles have been written in which Fernando says that there were over a thousand pornographic films filmed there. Pure provocation? How much truth is there to all this?

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Hotel Las Salinas, Lanzarote, Canary Islands. Completed in 1977. An aerial view of the hotel. Its gardens and pool were designed alongside architect César Manrique.

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Fernando Higueras in the hotel lobby.

José Manuel:

I can’t tell you much; in fact, all that started to happen when I had already left—or was leaving—the studio.

LB:

We all know how these things can be taken out of context. It’s true that he always had sex on his mind, and there was a time when he freed himself from all restraints, and they did make these films, but they were never pornographic. It was cinéma vérité, which was all the rage back then. Basically he would press record and whatever happened ended up on film.

José Manuel:

As a small anecdote, I can tell you that he didn’t like to drink—he didn’t like the taste of alcohol. When at a party, what he would do was order a whiskey, block his nostrils, and skull it—it livened him up. He was a very peculiar guy.

Lola:

He had a very strict education and he was obsession of religion—it was a real burden for him. He went through a very difficult time growing up in Franco’s dictatorship, very repressed. The idea of sinning tormented him. But eventually he managed to get rid of this deadweight, and he went from one extreme to the other. Everything that he hadn’t experienced beforehand he ended up experiencing later on. And by the way, there is some truth to all of this, he was always surrounded by very beautiful women who accompanied him in his life and on his travels.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

This brings us to Fernando’s obsession with beauty. When asked what interested him more, function or beauty, he would categorically reply, ‘The function of beauty’. This led  him to treat beauty as a life objective, as a search for truth in everything that he did.

Lola:

His environments were always beautiful— the studios he worked in just as much as the houses he designed. They were fantastic spaces which didn’t go unnoticed. He designed all the furniture and paid very close attention to detail. Vegetation always had a strong presence, he loved hanging plants and to see vegetation cascade down from the skylights. Nature fascinated him, and he had a deep respect for it. You can see this clearly in the projects that he collaborated on with César Manrique in Lanzarote.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Nature is present in his architecture, but it’s not simply the introduction of vegetation, nor the exuberant, decorative use of it; it represents his search for a ‘superior order’. This can be seen in the structures of his buildings. It’s as if they follow nature’s very own laws of creation. Over time the vegetation that he planted would completely take control of these unblemished, symmetrical, and radial concrete structures.

Lola:

The use of vegetation was a constant in his work. In this house, for example, the skylights were open for many years without interruption. They do have a mechanism for opening and closing, but Fernando left them open so that the plants from the garden would sneak in. And that’s exactly what happened: in the winter ivy came in looking for heat and light. It had sunlight during the daytime of course, but at nighttime it followed the artificial light. This space below the skylights was full of hanging vines. At one point, to get from one side to the other you’d have to push aside the leaves and vines that hung from above. The vegetation mixed with the paintings that hung on the walls, as you can see in photos from the time. Inside the house there were also plants that had a strong presence. It was like a jungle. In normal conditions, with the skylights closed, the house would naturally maintain a temperature that fluctuated between 16 to 26 degrees. But, of course, with the skylights open, they functioned as a chimney and the heat escaped. We had to put the heating on 24 hours a day in winter. That wasn’t the only thing: when it rained the rainwater ran down the hanging vines and drenched the walls and the paintings—among them a magnificent Sorolla. Even the carpet got soaked. When the time came to sell them, some of the paintings needed to be restored because they were full of water stains. Living with Fernando was a case of constantly having to ‘tame the beast’. He had strong convictions, which in turn gave him a lot of strength and an attractive personality, but of course, every now and then things got to a point where you had to put your foot down and let reason prevail. He wasn’t prepared for that.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

In an interview with Fernando conducted by José de Castro Arines, when speaking on the beauty of things, he said that, ‘All Fernando Higueras’ ingenuity feeds off idealistic thoughts’. This holds a lot of relevance to what you’ve told us. We find beauty in the fact that there are people that aren’t tied down to a common reality, they live in their own as a consequence of what they preach.

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The bedroom looking onto the shaft below the skylights.

Lola:

Yes, it was delightful, but at the same time living with him became very difficult. I was the one that had to put things back in their place, and I was always on the lookout to see if I would need to put my foot down, just so that things didn’t get out of control. He didn’t have a mind for the smaller things in life, his was always focused on the big ones.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Ornamentation is very important in Fernando’s architecture, but not a type of ornamentation that could be understood as an added extra, but as an element that gives structure and order. This makes his work very beautiful; dense, but full of subtleties. In this house, for example, even though it’s comprised of much more essential and sober lines than his larger projects, there is series of details that reflect this way of understanding space. To give an example, the small metal rib-like fixtures you can see on the outer walls of the balconies of the mezzanine level that hold small worktops in place. They create rhythm and order on what is a blank plane.

Lola:

He always placed a lot of importance on volumes, light, and shadow. If you look closely, those little rib-like fixtures throw subtle shadows on the walls as the day goes by. They disrupt the scene and they provide a transition from the white walls to the black gap between the worktops. This way the transition doesn’t go straight from black to white, but passes through tones of grey. Furthermore, in this case, as in the rest of his work, ornamentation takes on the function of structuring: those wooden worktops rest on top of the metal ribs, creating a small gap that acts as ventilation for the radiators that are hidden below.

José Manuel:

He said that the phrase ‘less is more’ was a lie; his version was ‘less is less’. When I’m in a city and I look at the rooftops of the older buildings, something that Fernando said to me always comes to mind. It’s like his need to have a transition from white to black that Lola has mentioned. He hated buildings with an outline that cuts into the sky on a straight line. He said that, all over the world, all architects in the history of humanity have looked for a way to work that line, the one where a building ends and the sky begins. From a purely functional point of view it’s the most useless thing in the world, but anyway, lots of classical buildings have pinnacles that finish off their cornices, leading towards the sky, and breaking that line. He said that, ‘In the 20th Century, the most we’ve been able to do in this respect is TV antennas. We’re useless!’

ARQUITECTURA-G:

He had an unpublished book that he called his ‘CV’, in which he compiled all of his work in chronological order. In it there is a very small interior design project completed in 1963 for his friend Dimitri Papagueorguiu and his family. This project can be defined as the beginning of other interior design projects. It’s safe to say that, from that project on, there is a series of constants that are repeated in all of Fernando’s houses, including the Hellscraper. It is the presence of a fireplace surrounded by built-in bookshelves, defining and maintaining a specific height. This provides a very comfortable and human scale. These spaces also tend to have lower ceilings, but are usually related to larger, high-ceilinged adjoining spaces. These features provoke a sensual contrast between the horizontal and the vertical. Also, here in his home the furniture is a lot lower than standard measurements.

Lola:

These are dimensions that are repeated in all of Fernando’s work, but not only in his houses, in his public work, too. You can see it in Las Salinas Hotel or in the Centre for Artistic Restorations. The maximum height of those built-in bookshelves that you mentioned was always 2.1m, which was the height of the interior doors. It allowed you to walk under the shelves, with or without a door defining the height and scale of the interior. He always called for a cut of 2.1m, but that doesn’t mean that the ceilings were always 2.1m high. The same thing occurs with his façades; there were always big planes cut in at this height. As for the furniture, it was the same in his studio. Everyone worked on low tables and chairs. He felt an admiration towards those images of Japan where you see people sat on the floor, where the furniture doesn’t bulge out in the room because it’s low down to the ground. His tables were 67cm high and the chairs 38cm, which is significantly lower than average.

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El Centro de Restauraciones Artísticas [The Centre for Artistic Restorations], Madrid, Spain.
Better known as La Corona de Espinas, or the ‘Crown of Thorns’. Completed in 1970.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

We’d also like to mention Fernando’s sensibility towards Spanish vernacular architecture. When he was asked who his architectural references were, he’d say nobody, that his school was vernacular architecture.

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Avant-garde mixed with the traditional: A ‘70s curved screen TV next to a chair of traditional materials.

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Lola:

Vernacular architecture for him was the most pure and subtle. During his studies he travelled all over Spain with his friends discovering towns and immersing himself in the vernacular.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

This mix between avant-garde and tradition can be seen in his house. His work cannot be categorised and it doesn’t belong to any ‘ism’. Just like the artwork of his friend Antonio López, it is beyond labelling.

Lola:

Fernando always did what he wanted. He didn’t pay attention to trends, and he was very critical. It irritated him to see cities filling up with what he called ‘cellophane buildings’. He blamed the architecture schools for a large part of this. He was vehement, but recognised that, at the end of the day you end up paying a price for everything in life. Always saying exactly what is on your mind without thinking of the consequences leads you to ostracism. He was always an uncomfortable person, and overly transgressive for the prevailing academic world. His school of thought had a lot of followers, but a lot of opposition, too.

ARQUITECTURA-G:

Oteiza said that one must have great friends, but also great enemies. When we held our conversation with Ricardo Bofill a couple of years ago, he told us the same thing, that he too has remained on the outskirts of the academic world. At the end of the day they are both people that are above all that—they decide to adopt their own path.

José Manuel:

One day, while speaking with Fernando towards the end of his life, he told me that he was sick of what was said about him. That he was such a controversial type, that he was against the Architects Association, and so on. His plan was to write his own obituary and publish it in the newspaper. That way everyone would leave him alone. When my brother called me to tell me that Fernando had died, I wondered, did he do it?

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Fernando in his garden above ground.

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