Benedetta Tagliabue

This dialogue takes place with Benedetta Tagliabue, founding partner, together with her husband Enric Miralles, of the Barcelona-based EMBT studio and one of the most interesting and vital realities of the Spanish and international contemporary scene.
The occasion is the major exhibition just opened in Rome and dedicated to the public works of the studio as well as to the role of Miralles, who died prematurely in 2000.

LM: This is a dialogue between me, you and also with our beloved Enric (always, BT comments). It gives me pleasure to hold this dialogue just a few days before the opening of the exhibition Trame della memoria. Architectural interventions on the heritage of Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue, 1992-2022. Would you tell us a little about this exhibition, its soul, what it is about, what it is made up of?

BT: It is an exhibition on the theme of “continuity”. It’s at the Spanish Academy in Rome, on the Janiculum Hill, where there is the Bramante temple, which is a fantastic, fabulous place, and it’s a place where, among other things, we have already exhibited with Enric in 1995 and then exhibited again in 2011, so it’s a place I love so much, and remembering our whole trajectory, from when we started with Enric to now, was a bit of a nice exercise to do at the Spanish Academy, where we did these works together many years ago. By the way, our daughter Caterina, who was in my belly in 1995, is the curator of this exhibition, she did all the preparation, so it is a living continuity, absolutely true. But the continuity is not only in our studio, in the fact that we started with Enric, who left us in 2000, and we continue to work as if he were always with us. It is also a continuity in history: the Academy of Spain in Rome is trying to renew itself, to expand its facilities, and doing this in Rome or in Italy is extremely difficult, because the theme of heritage is a wonderful theme, but sometimes it gets in the way of architecture, so the request from the Academy of Spain’s clients was “tell us about your attitude as architects when you deal with heritage”, and so there are all projects that deal with heritage in different ways.

LM: As an Italian who trained between Venice and Milan, for you the word “continuity” is also a word full of meaning. If you think of Ernesto Nathan Rogers with his Casabella-Continuity experience, “continuity” is a word that for us Italians, Europeans, Mediterraneans has a very deep, dense meaning; it is not just a generational or linguistic continuity, but a way of belonging to places.

BT: It’s true, it’s a necessity. It’s a word that I also learned with our architectural tradition with Ernesto Rogers. And it is a word that I have had to experience first-hand, so I believe in it very much because it has really been the strategy that I have used over the years, always. Trying to put things together, trying to have continuity with the place, with the past, with the moments. For me it is a very keyword.

LM: It’s true that you have a series of projects that have a history with places, so in my mind there are a lot of them, but which are the projects that somehow define the traces in this exhibition, the headlines?

BT: With Caterina we also made a consideration, which is that every time I talk about projects that have to do with history, such as St Catherine’s, the Parliament of Scotland, Utrecht, which is in the historic centre of the city, for me the place of the experiment, where all this was tried out, is our house, so our house, in the historic centre of Barcelona, which we had promised not to publish because we had made it just for us, has instead become the seed, the generative part of a series of public projects. With our daughter Caterina we managed to imagine an exhibition where the house is on all the walls of the halls of the Spanish Academy, it was put up by people who usually put posters in the street (they were very nice). And all these posters with images of the house are broken, as happens in the street, but when you break the poster you find another image of the house and another one. This reminds you very much of what happens in the street, this palimpsest of historical layers that we have found and lived with. This becomes the backdrop for all the other projects, and against this backdrop of the house, which is like our continuity, our reference, we present the St Catherine’s project, Utrecht, the Parliament of Scotland, all with original drawings, many of which have never been seen or even published, and then we follow up with projects done without Enric, such as the port of Hamburg, which has another kind of historical reference but is just as important, or the new church in Ferrara, which also has the presence of the Italian city. Then, outside in the courtyard there are fragments of the Rimini seafront, the building we did in the modernist hospital of Sant Pau in Barcelona, the Shanghai Pavilion in China, something we did in Paris and many small things in Rome.

LM: By the way, your house, I know, as for many architects and for you even more special, has been a place of continuous experimentation. Your house is in the Gothic quarter, in a part of the city that has been colonised over the centuries, so I imagine that working on the walls means finding traces. Can you tell us, since we will then see the images torn on the walls, what constituted the project of the house where you are now?

BT: Yes, I’m here with one part painted, another left as it was with the old paintings. For us, the house was a bit of a discovery of the old part. I had come to live in Barcelona because I had fallen in love with Enric and I had lived in Venice and New York. Enric and I had met in New York in these wonderful lofts, which were the new way of living at the time, and here, in Barcelona, Enric offered me to live in places that were used more, like the Eixample, those places that were very organised, but I didn’t feel comfortable there, I needed a bit of history, something more to discover, and together we discovered these abandoned buildings in the old part of the city, that’s how it was in the nineties. We found a house that they told us was ready to be pulled down and instead of pulling it down we discovered it and it was a really wonderful job for the two of us because together we made this discovery of what this house meant, what was underneath the destroyed walls, removing all the elements of the warehouse because they had turned it into a warehouse. To think that if it had been an old house we could have used it as a loft because the walls were no longer there, how to put furniture, how to make these strips of paint and not paint on the wall so that there was both the contemporary and the historic, and here we found many things that we thought were not important but were actually very important.

LM: Would it be fair to say that your house was one of your first design workshops?

BT: I think so, and before that I would say the workshop, which gives us the chance to work on many different projects, bigger, more important, more public, but where there is this strength of the house, of what we discovered in the house below.

LM: What was it like working with Enric? I knew him, I saw him working in the studio, teaching at the university, I had fragments of his incredible ability to work with others and to use his genius to relaunch each time, but on a day-to-day basis, at the work table, what was it like working with him? On projects that were real challenges?

BT: That’s fantastic, yes, and we all look for that. We are looking for a type of architecture that is always there, and that would be wonderful. Working side by side with Enric was something very special because he conveyed this special ability, this special attention. He really enjoyed making architecture, but he had a wonderful thing about it. He was very individual, very special, but he always needed someone by his side with whom he could share all the time, and it was important to have this point of sharing. His hand was so unique and artistic that I never wanted to put another line on Enric’s lines, but you could offer alternatives, comment, he had an incredible sensitivity. Even sometimes, and not just with a word, but with a glance, he would change because maybe the glance hadn’t gone well, he hadn’t seen enthusiasm, and with Enric it was really a very subtle dialogue.

LM: That interests me a lot. One of the things that can’t be said about your architecture is that it lacks personality.

BT: That’s true. I’m a big believer in the personality of things. I believe that things have an individuality and they have to reveal it, to tell it in order to become universal. I think that’s the way it is, so we try to make our architecture based on this concept without being afraid that it will have too much personality. In fact it is a personality that tries to admit the voices of others, to understand, even made collectively with intelligence and choice, it is not that you admit everything, so I really believe in the importance of having your own personality, just to be part of society. Otherwise you are not.

LM: Architecture can have a strong personality and be very welcoming at the same time. It is not true that responsibility is rejecting, there is this thing that is the disease of the twentieth century, which is that architects’ architecture is always a little narcissistic, keeping people away, and yet if architecture has the capacity to be welcoming, it is warm, unique and domestic, and becomes a place of wonder, a place where you feel welcomed and embraced.

BT: Actually the voices of others, of other architects, of the influences we have had, are present everywhere. They are made architectures, that is, the image was always this. When Enric was drawing, he always had 1 or 2 or 3 books open in front of him, so it means they are always made in the company of many voices, and you can see that, and sometimes I still discover it. When you do something very personal you are actually also very much in communication with many other voices.

LM: I’d like to go back to Italy for a moment. In addition to your relationship, you and Enric have had a very strong dialogue with Italy, and this continues today, for example I was thinking of the San Giacomo church project in Ferrara, the project you are finishing at the Centro Direzionale in Naples, and the unfortunate competition you won for the IUAV extension at the end of the 1990s, and many other things you have done. What was the relationship between Enric and Italy?

BT: Enric’s relationship with Italy started when he started doing architecture. During the years when he was studying, which were the 1970s, there was a migration towards Italy as a place to buy books, to get in touch with new trends because here it was still a Francoist world or one that was slowly coming out of Francoism, so there was a very big limitation of knowledge. For Enric, really finding out more about the world of architecture was through Italy because he came to the Andrea Palladio course, for him the CISA course was a wonderful teaching experience, or even the ILAUDs in Urbino, Siena. Then he read a lot and some colleagues told me about these trips they made by car just to go to the Cluva bookshop in Venice, and they came back with the car full of books, a different world where you could see that Italy was an important world. Then he found me and I was Italian, so we started to speak Italian, he experimented with this language that he had learnt from the books he had bought and we started to get these references from the world that was more mine, more Italian. We did the competition in Venice really as an opportunity to return to the place where I studied, it was very nice and then the importance of having Italy as a place I know continues for me. Now, for example, the church in Ferrara, you don’t know how happy it made me. The Church of Ferrara is beautiful, I like it a lot (I’m very curious about it, comments LM) and Ferrara is also where I went on my honeymoon with Enric, because Ferrara is a magical, beautiful city, it’s neither Venice nor Bologna, it’s in the middle, it has its own personality, it has fantastic artists. Even, for example, walking along the Rimini seafront seems like a wonderful opportunity to get to know more about the city, to see Roman Rimini, Leon Battista Alberti, even going to see Fellini, watching his films, it’s wonderful. And now in Milan we are doing two projects, one for the Salone. We are bringing these pieces of furniture that you mentioned and that we designed for the house. They are pieces of furniture that move, that come from this world of the home that we wanted to occupy, but with respect; therefore, what better than something that can move so as not to invade too much, that is, if you don’t like it put it here, if you don’t like it put it there, and this is a nice thing that we had never considered, we have never shown them, we have never presented them in their detail. But now at Interni we are going to present these pieces of furniture, the ones for the house, the ones we made for other occasions, such as for an Alvar Aalto congress, there is a wonderful piece of furniture. And then there is a very special piece of furniture, a table that Enric had designed and left in his notebook and had never told me about. I found it by chance, thinking that it was one of the pieces of furniture we had at home, and then I looked at it more carefully and realised that it was a piece of furniture that might have been ready to make a present to me twenty years later, all measured up, and it is a fantastic table, so on 6 June, when the Salone opens, there will be a big presentation of this dancing furniture.

LM: The issue you will be on the cover of is linked to one of the senses, because this year we are dedicating ourselves to the senses, and your issue is linked to the sense of smell, of odours, of the smell of places, because every city, every place has its own smell. In your work, you give enormous importance to the use of materials, shapes, decorations and the sensory dimension that takes shape. What does it mean for you to work with all the senses in your projects? What does it mean for you to apply this in a circular design, as you often do?

BT: It is very important. Actually, when we said we were collaborating with Enric, it wasn’t really about drawing on it, it was more about having experience together, communicating on many levels because at the end of the day what a drawing is for is to get an element that has to serve all the senses, all those that we are able to understand. I really like the fact that you have given us smell as one of the senses, and one of the senses is also feeling good, and this is one of the senses that we are looking after the most at the moment. It’s a sense of comfort, of feeling accompanied, which belongs to things and places, and to drawings, and this is a job that obviously needs to be done very carefully, very humbly, because it’s not at all easy to transform what is a concept indicated by the lines of a drawing into something that can then give you all these sensations. For example, one of the sensations that I tell so much about in the church in Ferrara is a sensation that the liturgist told us, this fantastic character who has to lead the architect or the artist towards the interpretation of the ritual. He says that one of the fundamental things for the architect, when he has made the church, is to know whether he has managed to achieve this sense of the “sacred”. Smell is something very volatile, but the sense of the sacred is even more so, and so he used to say that it is very simple: for example, if a child with a ball loses the ball in church and runs to get it back, when he crosses the threshold he stops because the space has given him a sensation that he can no longer play ball, this is the test of whether the space works as sacred or not, but you understand that you build it and right up to the end you say “I hope it works”.

LM: And does it work? Don’t the children come into the church to play ball?

BT: I think it works. Now we have to really prove it by giving the ball to a child.

Text by Luca Molinari

Captions and Photo credit (from top to bottom)

– Portrait of Benedetta Tagliabue, Photo © Ferran Nadeu
– Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh – Ph. courtesy of EMBT
– Centre Kalida St. Pau – Ph. Luc Miralles
– Interior of the Miralles House – Ph. Wianelle Briers
– Metro Station Napoli – Ph. P. Fassoli
– Public spaces in Hamburg – Ph. Thomas Hampel
– Church San Giacomo Ferrara – Ph. Marcela Grassi
– Mercado de Santa Caterina – Ph. Roland Halbe
– Mercado de Santa Caterina – Ph. Alex Gaultier

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