Grandeza is an architectural collective that operates between the fields of spatial practice, design, cultural production and pedagogical exploration. Their research and creative practice detects, denounces and challenges the transformative violence that late-capitalism practices apply over subjects, spaces and ecologies. They started collaborating in Madrid in 2011, were they graduated together as Masters in Architecture at the Polytechnic School of Architecture (ETSAM). Since then, they have been developing a multidisciplinary practice based upon collaborations with several architects, collectives, artists and institutions in Madrid, Berlin and Sydney. Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Jorge Valiente and Gonzalo Valiente are currently Lecturers from the Schools of Design and Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney.
What are for you the architects’ ultimate tools?
Friends, debates and imagination.
A professor at the Madrid Polytechnic School of Architecture (ETSAM) used to say that architects have an ocean of knowledge of one-centimetre depth. Eight years later, thinking of these shallow seas, still allows us to navigate oceans of uncertainty without being afraid of sinking while deep diving into unknown waters. While navigating these oceans, the ultimate “tools” are the endless conversations, debates and collaborations with people surrounding us. Therefore, we would like to start acknowledging our friends and collaborators (Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas, Bana Hankin, Leo Cappetto, Carmen Blanco, Shoufay Derz, Guillermo Fernández-Abascal, Urtzi Grau and many others) but also our friends and students at UTS, from which we also learn every day. Out of all of them, we would like to point out Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas (Bajeza), who has collaborated with us and co-authored our last three projects, including two of the three works discussed here.
In fact, thinking and debating together with artists, scientists, activists, philosophers is necessary if we want to imagine alternative, healthier and more equitable and ambitious political systems. As Rosi Braidotti states, “We need more conceptual creativity, more theory rather than less, and a renewed trust in the cognitive and political importance of the imagination.” In a state of planetary civil war, environmental annihilation and perpetual economic crisis, we believe that it is the “crisis of the imagination” what is perpetuating our schizophrenic march towards extinction. The greater success of the current economic and political system is perhaps its capacity to self-portray as scientific and natural rather than ideological and imposed. As designers and thinkers, we feel the responsibility to open-up fissures in the discourses and aesthetics that shield the neoliberal common sense, and to propose new epistemological frameworks in which the imagination can flourish and dissent.
As an example, our last commission deals with a very urgent matter: the plausible death of the Australian Great Barrier Reef (GBR), and it has been selected as the Australian Pavilion for the ‘XXII Triennale di Milano Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival.’ Our proposal, called “Teatro Della Terra Alienata”, addresses the urgency raised by the United Nations IPCC report, published in 2018, which frames the decay of the GBR as part of a wicked problem that demands radical political actions, along with new imaginaries and aesthetics. Inspired by the Xenofeminist Manifesto, the ‘Teatro’ stages the re-appropriation and resignification of pre-existing technologies and infrastructures of natural preservation and mineral extraction. It displays a fictional scenario of territorial secession of the GBR and its catchment areas from the domain of extractivism and imagines its reterritorialization through an economic rationality centred upon the decolonization of notions of joy and desire.
The Pavilion consolidates two years of research and pedagogical projects led by Amaia Sánchez-Velasco (in collaboration with academics and students from the schools of Design, Architecture and Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney), with the critical body of work of Grandeza Studio and Bajeza (Miguel Rodríguez-Casellas). It also curates the voices and testimonies of scientists and the audio-visual works of six incredible artists: Cigdem Aydemir, Liam Benson, Madison Bycroft, Shoufay Derz (also Photography and Art Co-Director of the project), Janet Laurence and Patricia Reed.
What prompted you to work and explore the 1:1 scale architectural model (an XL scale within the space of the room/enclosure)?
We see a specific connection between our ideological position and the production of one-to-one models as they can be inhabited and therefore position the audience at the core of the work. We are living a crisis of political representation that has a clear reflection in the contemporary production of images. Mainstream politics have replaced ideology by images that evoke quick and superfluous emotional impacts in the audience. In the case of our discipline, the image has become extraordinarily seductive, easy to enjoy and swap. There is a hyper-production of sexy, likeable and swappable architectural images in both universities and professional practices. We’re witnessing the consolidation of a post-political scenario, a culture of spectacle on steroids that leads to a dramatic crisis of meaning and criticality in architectural representation and communication. Even projects with political and counter-hegemonic aspirations, like ours, are under the constant threat of becoming just consumable images.
One of the main aspirations behind our production of one-to-one models is to impact our audience actively beyond the ‘instagrammic’ instant or the ‘wow’. The one-to-one model can trespass some important limitations of the drawing and the small-scale model. For instance, it allows the audience to inhabit our project and perform roles. The model achieves a condition of a stage. Objects, architects and audience become part of a performance where information is not just displayed but also negotiated and discussed. This was the case of “The Plant” a project that staged the infrastructural backstage of the Australian and global agri-food industry. “Margarita” (Daisy in Spanish), a cow table on wheels performed, together with twenty polyester foldable Merino-Chairs and a media Cattle-Crush, the complex agenda of displaying information and facilitating a political arena to debate urgent territorial, political and environmental issues in Australia from a global perspective.
In summary, a one-to-one model is a performative, narrative and relational tool of presentation and representation. Contrary to the closed condition of images and small-scale models, the one-to-one model is alive, incomplete and open to multiple interpretations. Ultimately, it allows for the intersection of disciplines (visual arts, literature, law, politics, science, etc.) and tools in one project.
What role do the various elements play within the installations? How often do you use the concept of “Synecdoche” in your work?
Regarding the synecdoche, contemporary philosophers like Byung-Chul Han describe the discussed crisis of representation adding an accent on the erosion of narrative through the means of hyper-communication. In this case, more than the isolated use of the synecdoche, we believe in the urgency of putting grammatical and literary figures in the foreground of any form of communication. In that aspect, we play with figures like the synecdoche, the metonymy, the metaphor, the allegory, etc. But we also pay careful attention to the role of grammatical elements like the verb -that defines action- adverbs, or adjectives. They allow us to achieve conceptual depth, ideological rigour and spatial-lexical complexity. Somehow, we are concerned about the relation between contemporary hyper-communication and the erosion of complexity and criticality from the civic sphere, the architectural debate and even worse, the spaces of supposed rigour and excellence like academic institutions. As we mentioned in the previous question, every element adds a layer of complexity to the narrative of each project. For instance, in the case of “Valparaiso Post-Liberal”, a mural of postcards -archived and organised within sixteen categories- displayed a total of 272 political policies. But all of them together, as a mural, simultaneously composed a nocturne and luxurious version of Valparaiso’s typical heritage postcard. Each postcard was playing a communicative, symbolic and performative role while physically constructing the space at multiple scales. Within the same project, a second hand ‘bureaucrat style’ desktop -painted in gold and surgically shot at the headquarters of the Chilean Police of Investigations- played the symbolic role of a re-imagined bureaucracy and the performative task of being a ballot box. The audience, encouraged by the voice of retired journalist -and victim of Pinochet’s violent coup d’état- Alejandro Arellano, deposited their favourite political postcard inside the desk through a gap meticulously opened during the shooting performed by the architect and police officer Renato Roman. Every element plays several roles within the production. They perform, interact, communicate, provoke and carry calculated loads of symbolism.
What is the power of the 1:1 as political and spatial tool?
We construct architectural installations as models that dislocate, decontextualize, and relocate the objects and subjects that configure our environment. We create spaces that invite to actively and critically respond to our provocations.
As Olafur Eliasson explains in his short essay “Models are Real”, “we need to acknowledge that all spaces are steeped in political and individual intentions, power relations, and desires that function as models of engagement with the world. No space is model-free.” The awareness of simultaneously inhabiting multiple forms of real-size models (social, political, environmental…) should not generate a sense of loss or disempowerment. On the contrary, “the idea carries liberating potential as it makes the renegotiation of our surroundings possible. The conception of space as static and clearly definable thus becomes untenable – and undesirable.”
Do you think that the model 1:1 is the contemporary evolution of “Paper Architecture”?
No. There is a large amount of historical precedents of one-to-one models in architecture: the Smithsons’ projects such a “Patio and Pavilion” or “The House of the Future”; or Portoghesi’s curatorial project for the 1980 Venice Biennale “La Strada Novissima” are just some examples of it. We believe none of those experiments ever had the ambition of becoming an evolution of “Paper Architecture”, nor our projects do so. It is perhaps more of a response to specific crises of representation in which the use of immersive techniques has helped architects to better illustrate or test certain ideas, discourses and intuitions.
Do you envision a development of your approach to the 1:1 from project to project across time?
No. In fact, the idea of describing our installations as one-to-one models comes from a retrospective critical analysis of those works, rather than from an agreed design identity or self-branding exercise. It is true that throughout our last three projects, the one-to-one model has played an essential role. However, even if it’s not something that we plan or enforce, we definitely discuss the way it takes form and analyse its consistent presence in each one of our projects.
How important are the context and site of an installation? To what extent do these influence the very essence of the project and how it is perceived?
Our work is extremely site specific. The commissioners, institutions and audience are fundamental factors that our work targets or incorporates at the core of the questions that each of the projects raise. The projects aim to challenge them and establish uncommon -sometimes uncomfortable- conversations.
How and to what extent does the artefact change once it leaves the space of the gallery? What role do the various visitors/performers hold in attributing value and in activating these models?
When artefacts travel outside of the gallery, they mutate to respond to the context. For instance, in the case of “The Plant” (2017), the merino-chairs (“Pelusillas”) and a cow-table (“Margarita”), were designed to travel from the gallery to the closest Travelling Stock Route (TSR) to incite political encounters and debates about the future of the Australian routes. These paths still conform a vast network of public spaces that crosses the whole country, and that are being poorly maintained by the government and sometimes illegally privatized by farm owners. These cattle trading routes -that used to operate seasonally- have been partially abandoned after the implementation of more sophisticated and industrialised systems of exploitation and global transport of livestock that run on a 24/7 temporary basis. Currently, the TSR are subject to a controversial redefinition of use and land ownership that are exposing an amalgam of issues -ranging from aboriginal legacy and farmer’s interests to colonial memory and ecologies involved- that would require a serious national political debate that is still not happening.
On the last day of the opening weekend, “Margarita” and the “Pelusillas” had acquired autonomy and had been accepted as part of a community of artists, architects, curators, lawyers and activists that gathered around them to discuss the past, present and future of the Travelling Stock Routes. Travelling outside the gallery with them, they proved to have the tactile qualities of living creatures, the gracious appeal of domestic animals and the sensual qualities of carefully hand-crafted pieces of furniture. As in a Fellini film, people in town knew “Margarita” by name, and the local kids played with her as if she was indeed alive.
In the case of “Valparaiso Post-Liberal”, the one-to-one architectural model was simultaneously a space designed to promote the foundation of a parallel state, and a clandestine nightclub inspired by those dissonant atmospheres expelled by the Chilean port-city’s UNESCO heritage project. Through their participation in an electoral process, the new-citizens would collectively define the agenda of an alternative political apparatus. On the back side of the postcards, 272 political proposals provided the epic tone of the political aspirations of Valparaiso Post-Liberal (ranging from short poems exacerbating Valparaiso’s social and aesthetic contradictions, to exhortations to dismantle the neoliberal common-sense). Here, the visitors were invited to select their preferred political proposals and send them to the Chilean government. The civic mobilisation took place in a setting that reflected the features of both a luxurious boutique and a bohemian nightclub. For the good or the bad, we believe that most of those postcards ended-up stuck to the fridges of the visitors. However, we are aware that some of these new-citizens personally handed their preferred political proposals to Valparaiso’s major Jorge Sharp.
However, our audience is not always the visitor, it might also be the hosting institution in which the work is produced. A central element of one of our last artworks, “Revel after the Curfew”, was an improvised performance inspired by some of the most absurd passages extracted from the lockout laws (The laws that are criminalising and killing the nightlife in Sydney). It was executed with Dadaistic irony by our friend, artist and dancer Bana Hankin. In an act of calculated profanation, Bana kissed and wrote the word ASSIMILATION onto the wall with red-lipstick. It was an assertive act to denounce that lockout laws are just another step in a perpetual process of cultural assimilation and colonization of desires and behaviours.
The original idea for the exhibition was to project during the opening the video of the performance onto the wall, again at a one-to-one scale. Allowing for a perfect alignment between physical space and digital projection, the phantasmagorical presence of the recorded performance would coincide, in a looped atemporality, with the red-lipstick material traces left by the dancer.
Unfortunately, the word and kisses were erased the following morning at the request of the curatorial team and without previous consultation with the artists. The whiteness of the wall recovered its unspoiled institutional condition. Paradoxically, an artwork that criticised the censoring of difference and dissonance in the behaviours of bodies in the city was itself censored, thus incorporating the erasure as the ultimate material evidence of a negative attainment.
As you can see, the audience always plays a key role, whether by populating or activating the installation, converting it into a travelling parliament, or by delivering (or not) ideologically loaded messages to political leaders or institutions.
What is for you the threshold between art and architecture? Does it exist?
The question for us would be “who defines those boundaries?” We find that intersectional thinking is a mode of resistance. We find the disciplinary fragmentation and the outcome-driven research encouraged by neoliberal universities very undermining and disempowering.
We studied at the Madrid Polytechnic School of Architecture (ETSAM) where urban planning, landscape, territorial planning, art history, structural calculation, physics, mathematics and design were intertwined as architectural disciplinary components of our education. As educators, we always try to teach from a perspective in which the boundaries are questioned by bringing artists, scientist, philosophers, etc. to the classroom.
Your installations have a strong and powerful impact, but do you use other medium to “narrate” them? (are there other tools employed in these narratives?)
We always have the ambition of incrementing the impact of our works, not because of intellectual narcissism, but because we feel the urgency of contemporary political challenges. Any medium -from this interview to any interaction with students in the classrooms- becomes an opportunity for us to work in the endless task of inventing alternative and fairer ways of living together in a fast-changing world.
When José Luis Pardo describes the impact of the Situationists’ practices, he states that they didn’t produce art that aimed to be interpreted. Rather than transcending the instant of the emission (to posthumously become part of art collections) their artistic interventions aimed to produce an impact and perish in the collision. In recent years, the word “impact” has gained relevance again -to the point of becoming a meme- in the discussions about academic research. Its influence on the computable accounting of individual performance seems to be just another threat to the increasingly bureaucratic existence of academics. We use this impasse (in which the academic apparatuses are still debating the meaning of the word) to rescue the Situationist reading of the term and re-politicize its meaning. Moreover, we embrace their avant-garde ambition of blurring the boundary between life and art, by embedding ourselves in collective research processes that celebrate discussion, difference, dissonance and joy while questioning the prevalence of individualistic and competitive forms of knowledge production.