Giancarlo Mazzanti

Creating projects that have the capacity to accommodate what we cannot imagine for the future: Luca Molinari interviews Giancarlo Mazzanti, the Colombian architect who has placed social values at the heart of his work.

L: You once said something to me that I really liked: you said that the home is not functional but is connected to our rituals and our ways of inhabiting it. And every space you design for communities starts from an idea of rituality. Not so much from a strictly functional dimension, which is a kind of legacy of the 20th century that we are leaving behind, but from a sense of common life that we have to recover.

G: I am really a critic of the idea of functionality and effectiveness as the only way of thinking about a project. We continue to develop a project from a functional diagram, almost all of us, and that is why I am interested in certain strategies for developing a project such as play and anomaly. The home remains the space for family rituals. There is also a critique of those ideas that we have somewhat lost, namely of the home as a theatre in life. We talk, we do things, we have become too instrumental. Life has become an instrument for everything. We do “this” to get to “this thing”. In that sense, I would like to rediscover the idea of a much more theatrical life, of good manners and other things that I think will make us happier.

L: Your work has always unhinged the idea of form/function, taking this theme towards the relationship between form/pleasure, form/community, form/shared rules, form/physicality. This is very interesting because the great criticism that we can make of the past century is that it has left us a series of spaces that have aged immediately because they were tied to a function that once finished made the space completely unusable. Perhaps the great criticism we can make of the 20th century is that the spaces that were not as flexible as the spaces built before. So much so that today we are faced with the theme of regeneration because we have to rethink places that have aged quickly. So perhaps the theme of rituals, of play, of pleasure, of well-being, becomes a new way of thinking about the places we will inhabit in the coming years.

G: Architecture is an instrument of control. We always start by asking ourselves what we wanted to propitiate with the project. We always want to open up the discourse in which architecture is not really this idea of functionality. We are interested when we get into the mindset of a project like the Santa Fe Hospital where we put a garden, a game for dancing, other things that can open up this kind of reflection and perspective. There is a beautiful text by Fujimoto in which he talks about the nest and the cave. The nest is only made for one thing, so it can only have one use and then it has to be left behind. Which is a bit like the condition of modern architecture, which is only made for one function. Then there is also the cave, which you can use as you like: you can sleep, you can walk, you can do all sorts of things with it. But this brings me to a point that I am very interested in, which may also be part of my education. Which is the one from the 80s around the concept of typology. In the end I continue to work with the idea of a type that can have the capacity to accommodate the changes that will come in the next few years, using flexible module systems.
When we think of working with modules, we start with two because we only have the money to make two so we can respect even very limited economies. Then we can think of a system made of modules that can change over time and that can grow. For the Rome project, which for me was one of the most interesting works I have done in recent years, we worked a lot with a modular typology. And before you think that a project is finished, you think that it is also a type of unfinished project that others can continue. This is interesting, we like it a lot, when you go to university you have to be around thirty years old, conditions change, this pandemic has changed everything, especially the way we do teaching, learning all these things. So when you think of an architecture that can change, and you as the author have finished your work, others can also change it, put a different module, make a different arrangement of the architecture. It is an architecture that can be adapted over time. I always think of these projects not only as design, but from the point of view that they are almost an autobiography. We are interested in an architecture that I could almost define as “dirty”, that is, that others can also change, use and transform in an unexpected and future phase, knowing how to adapt to changes.

L: The project you mentioned, which is a competition for an international biomedical campus that you took part in in Rome, in which you designed a system that was different from the other proposals, with modular elements that could be combined organically, and each element had its own autonomy. The interesting thing is that you have designed an open system, which, as you rightly say, I start to make a project and then this project can change over time because conditions change, society changes, needs change, and today one of the great things about architecture is to think of projects that can accommodate what we cannot imagine for the future.

G: There is one thing that interests me a lot. An architecture that should be neutral, that doesn’t have to do more things than it needs to. It’s an architecture that doesn’t have to do more things, especially thinking about it in the crisis of climate change that we are talking about, an architecture that should be essential, an architecture that doesn’t have more things, doesn’t need to do more things. An architecture that could be said to have no gestures, no conditions. But the gesture is not a problem of form but also of function.

L: You make architectures that are formally very recognisable, with very clear geometries that are combined with the ability that Baroque architects had to use geometries in a very sophisticated way. They are architectures with a very strong personality. I remember the first time I saw one of your buildings, the “Biblioteca America” in Medellin, and I can assure you that I was very impressed by its formal and material capacity. Your architecture is also architecture that does not go unnoticed.

G: Yes, but facades are never composed, they are never made from a point and a line. The façade is not a point of discussion in our projects, as if it were a problem of composition. Because the projects themselves are closer to this idea of arrangement, of arranging the pieces on a territory, and not so much of composing or drawing a kind of architectural object. We are closer to this idea that there is of neutrality. Then now I am much more committed to a much more neutral architecture, which does not need to do more things. In this sense I am more interested in culture and a degrowth society. When we talk about degrowth and we put it in architecture, it’s a bit like this. An architecture that doesn’t need more, that is very clear. It is not a problem of ethics that should tell the truth because in the end we will never know what the truth is. Neither is postmodernity where the facade tends to have a meaning that no one can read. It is just a façade that has the capacity to be transparent or opaque, as in the hospital in Santa Fe where we wanted to make a hospital open to the city and we put a façade on it that looks like the veil of an Arab woman.

L: The other big word central to your work is “community”. All your works are strongly marked by the relationship between project and community. Schools, gardens, libraries, exhibitions, everything you do is in some way closely linked to the idea of a community that asks for spaces in which to feel good, that asks for relationships at all times of day and night, at all times of the day. A space capable of welcoming very fluid communities, very different from each other according to the different moments of the day and seasons. In relation to this theme, you have built some of your most important works, a whole series of schools, libraries, parks, and in this you have made a decisive mark on the quality of life in Colombia, but also in all of South America, and this is one of the things that has made you internationally recognised, regardless of where you have done it.

G: In the end, that’s the main objective of the architecture we do. How architecture changes your life, we are not the ones who tell you what you should do, but the work that opens up, that can change, is also thought of as an architecture of care. I am very interested in the architecture of care, of taking care. This idea of architecture that takes care of you, that welcomes you, transforms the city. We have forgotten that the city is not just a functional condition. Then the interest in common things also emerges: “what is the community?” the community is not a general thing, the community is made up of pieces, of differences, and so these different conditions can be put in place to have a life among very different people, which is not thinking that we are a community, but it is something much more abstract.

L: We move from the prescriptive city to the welcoming city basically. And then there is the idea of community, which Aldo van Eyck was already talking about in the sixties, which is not just an abstract place, the community is made up of bodies, people, desires, physicality, touching, being together, it is an extremely physical and concrete dimension that somehow comes into contact with architecture and puts us in a position where our bodies also condition and change architecture. There is a corrupting together, a touching together, a changing together of the body of architecture.

G: Even the definition of space itself has changed because we have learned a very modern definition of it, which depends on an abstract condition. If we change the way we can arrive at the idea of space, we can certainly create an environment made up of different agents, where people, animals, things are space, transforming it into a condition that is no longer abstract because it is generated by many different actors. This totally changes the idea that space is empty, as if it were an object made to be looked at, a bit of this idea of very modern objectivity, and then that changes for a much more performative architecture closer to contemporary art, where it is not only made by an object but also by a user, climatic conditions, more things that change the conditions.

L: The underlying theme of this issue of Platform is “touch”. Tactility overlaps very well with your work because it is a strongly tactile, physical, sensual work, in which the relationship between the material, the environment, the climate, the people, tells of all this. What does it mean for you to think of an architecture that is strongly sensorial?

G: In a society that is over-informed and where everything is digital, we are losing the ability to touch objects. Because objects are disappearing. It is not that they are disappearing because there are a lot of objects that come out all the time, they expire every now and then but we have lost the conditions. Photographs. You used to put old photographs on the table, there was an object to touch, to feel. Now we have four hundred photographs on our iPhones that are not objects, they have no relationship with physical life. The object is something to be touched.
Care is a tactile condition of being welcoming. An architecture of things, which can be touched in this case.

L: So architecture has a huge responsibility in this. Somehow helping us to get back in physical contact with things, don’t you think?

G: Yes, these days people think we could do a digital education, I’m sure we can get information, learn things, but what is much more important in education is that human condition of touching each other, making friends, having time to talk. These days I was saying something to my studio, why don’t I go to the studio in Bogota, I keep working at home and I was saying. I am much more effective working at home, but I don’t have the studio to talk. To talk about architecture, to talk about life, to have time to discuss a project together is more cooperative.

Text by Luca Molinari

Captions and Photo credit (from top to bottom)

– Giancarlo Mazzanti by Juan Pablo Gutiérrez
– Marinilla Educational Park, Colombia
– Spain Library in Medellín, Colombia
– Bio-medical Campus, Rome University, Italy
– Ciudadela 29 de Julio Park, Santa Marta, Colombia
– The wall from static to elastic, Triennale Milano, Italy
– Axonometry – La Ilusión School, Medellín, Colombia
– La Ilusión School, Medellín, Colombia

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