‘We need more Conceptual Creativity’

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 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 waters, still allows us to navigate oceans of uncertainty without being afraid of sinking. While navigating these oceans, the ultimate “tools” are the endless conversations, debates and collaborations with the people surrounding us. Therefore, we would like to start acknowledging our 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.

In fact, thinking together with artists, scientists, activists, philosophers is necessary if we want to imagine alternative, healthier and more ambitious political systems. As Rosi Braidotti says: ”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 strongly believe that the humanity is facing a crisis of the imagination and as designers we have the responsibility to act.

Our last commission deals with a very urgent matter: The death of the Great Barrier Reef. Our proposal has been selected as the ‘Australian Pavilion for the XXII Triennale di Milano Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival.’ The exhibition will narrate current and speculative relationships between scientific research, fishing industry, tourism, natural management, technology, and environment. We aim to bring together a network of scientists, artists, architects, activists, academics and students to examine it from a cultural, multidisciplinary and multi-scalar perspective. Ultimately, the display will serve as a platform to interrogate how design should respond to current and future environmental and social challenges at the GBR. The proposal consolidates of a two-year research and teaching project that Amaia Sanchez-Velasco has lead at UTS-Architecture.

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 project and the production of the 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 ambitions, 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. This was the case of ‘The Plant’ a project that staged the infrastructural backstage of the agrifood 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 tool of representation and or presentation. 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 various 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. It allows us to achieve conceptual depth, ideological rigour and spatial 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, 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, while postcards displayed and archived within sixteen categories a detailed set of 272 political policies, they also staged a nocturne and luxurious imaginary of Valparaiso’s typical heritage postcard. Each postcard was playing a symbolic and a performative role.

Within the same project, a second hand ‘bureaucrat style’ desktop, painted in gold and surgically shot in the headquarters of the Chilean Investigations Police, 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 reporter and victim of Pinochet’s violent coup d’état Alejandro Arellano, deposited their favourite political postcard inside the desk through a gap meticulously opened on the by the shooting performed by the architect and police officer Renato Roman at the Chilean Police of Investigations headquarters. Every element plays several roles within the production. They perform, interact, communicate, provoke and carry calculated loads of symbolism.

Valparaiso post-liberal (XX Chilean Biennale of Architecture, Valparaiso, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente) & Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas
Valparaiso post-liberal (XX Chilean Biennale of Architecture, Valparaiso, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente) & Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas

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 and it we see precisely “critical thinking as the ultimate tool political emancipation.

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-scale models (social, political, architectural) 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.” We embrace this conception in our work.

The Plant (Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Australia, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente)
The Plant (Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Australia, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente)

Do you think that the model 1:1 is the contemporary evolution of “Paper Architecture”?

No. As previously suggested, there is a large amount of precedents that have dealt with the one-to-one model in architecture, from the Smithsons various experiments (such as Patio and Pavilion or The House of the Future) to Portoghesi’s curating of the 1980 Venice Biennale La Strada Novissima, among others. We think none of these experiments ever had the ambition of becoming a contemporary evolution of “Paper Architecture”, nor our projects do. It is perhaps more of a response to specific crisis of representation in which the use of immersive techniques has helped architects to better illustrate certain discourses or address urgent questions.

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 (two of them in collaboration with other architects and artists), 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 and analyse the way it takes form and consistent presence in each one of the projects.

  Revel after the Curfew (Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 2018): Bana Hankin, GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente), Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas, Leo Cappeto, Miguel Valenzuela & Laura Touman
Revel after the Curfew (Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 2018): Bana Hankin, GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente), Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas, Leo Cappeto, Miguel Valenzuela & Laura Touman

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 project raises. The projects aim to challenge them and establish uncommon conversations.

  Revel after the Curfew (Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 2018): Bana Hankin, GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente), Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas, Leo Cappeto, Miguel Valenzuela & Laura Touman
Revel after the Curfew (Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 2018): Bana Hankin, GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente), Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas, Leo Cappeto, Miguel Valenzuela & Laura Touman

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 project ‘The Plant’,(2017) the ‘Pelusillas’ merino-chairs and ‘Margarita’ (Daisy), the cow-table, were designed to travel from the gallery to the closest TSR (travelling stock route) to incite political encounters and debates about the future of Australian Traveling Stock Routes. These cattle trading routes used to operate in seasonal terms and that have been displaced by new and more sophisticated systems of exploitation and global transport of livestock that runs 24/7. Currently, the TSR are semi-abandoned and subject to controversial redefinitions of use and land ownership affecting aboriginal legacy, farmer’s interests, colonial memory and causing environmental issues.
On the last day of the opening weekend, ‘Margarita’ and the ‘Pelusillas’ acquired autonomy and were accepted as part of a community of artists, architects, curators, lawyers and activists that gathered around her 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 a living creatures, the gracious appeal of domestic animals and the sensual qualities of a carefully hand-crafted pieces of furniture. As in a Fellini film, people in town knew her by name, and the local kids played with her as if she was indeed alive.

The Plant (Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Australia, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente)
The Plant (Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, Australia, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente)

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 club 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 to the political aspirations of Valparaiso Post-Liberal (ranging from short poems exacerbating Valparaiso’s social and aesthetic contradictions, to exhortations that dismantled 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 stuck to the fridges of many visitors. However, we know that members of the audience personally handed some of the political proposals to Valparaiso’s major Jorge Sharp.

Valparaiso post-liberal (XX Chilean Biennale of Architecture, Valparaiso, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente) & Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas
Valparaiso post-liberal (XX Chilean Biennale of Architecture, Valparaiso, 2017): GRANDEZA (Amaia Sanchez-Velasco, Gonzalo Valiente & Jorge Valiente) & Miguel Rodriguez-Casellas

However, our audience is not always the visitor. In our last project, we filmed and projected over the same wall in the hall of the University of Sydney, a lipstick graffiti with the word ASSIMILATION. The objective was to project a one-to-one version of Australian performing artist Bana Hankin on the same wall where he painted the lipstick mural. However, two days after, the graffiti was erased with no previous consultation or authorisation. We can’t say that the erasure was unexpected. In this case, the audience wasn’t the visitor but the curatorial team of the event. And they decided to play their role of censors. In this case, the graffiti, an essential part of the model, left the space of the gallery before the event started.
As you can see, the audience always plays a key role, whether by populating the installation and 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 and design where intertwined as architectural disciplinary components. 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 an 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 alternatives 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 an art that to be interpreted. Rather than transcending the instant of the emission (in order to posthumously become part of art collections) these “works” 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 meaning of the word is still being debated by the academic apparatuses) 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 while questioning the prevalence of individualistic and competitive forms of knowledge production.