by Nadezna SiganporiaJul 18, 2022
For Sancho-Madridejos Architecture Office, the built form is a constant investigation into spatial concepts, solo edifices, and structural beings of quiet beauty and function. Free-spirited and grounded, the architectural oeuvre of S-MAO, based in Madrid, Spain, shines in its intended simplicity. The firm is led by co-founders and principal architects Juan Carlos Sancho and Sol Madridejos who “fold” concrete to build singular, sweeping edifices, where solid grey surfaces and strategic, geometric voids come together in a built chorus, at once, explorative, thoughtful and sculptural.
STIR speaks with the Spanish architects, who elaborate on their practice of almost four decades, highlighting their inspirations as well as their process of creating buildings as single units where structure, envelope, light and shape unite. Excerpts below:
Jincy Iype: Something I read about you – “S-MAO is a nuanced and committed practice rooted in investigations in plastic arts and aesthetic theory”. What are your thoughts?
Juan Carlos Sancho: Throughout the years, our work has focused on the investigation around space, an investigation that has resulted in different lines of work, in different concepts that in some cases come from other artistic or cultural areas, sometimes different from the architecture itself. We live in a time in which specific approaches related to space, such as a void, a fold, a tone or the “density of space”, have already been explored in fields other than architecture, like in sculptures, painting... or even thoughts. These are all concerned with space, and are, therefore, much closer to the field of architecture than to other disciplines.
Sol Madridejos: We focus often on using in architecture certain themes that derive from other artistic fields and from diverse times in history and culture, understanding them with means that are specific to our architectural practice. Architecture has unhurried and complex processes. Sometimes certain concepts appear faster and more directly in other fields of art or thought, which in turn offer an almost limitless investigation. Throughout our career, we have taken it upon ourselves to transfer these concepts to the architectural field, with its times, particularities and peculiarities.
Jincy: Tell us how Sancho-Madridejos Architecture Office came to be and describe your architectural journey over the years. What are some learnings garnered along the way?
Sol: We started our career as an extension of our work in the Higher Technical School of Architecture in Madrid, Spain, establishing our office even before we had completed our degree. From the beginning, we participated in competitions, even winning a few, which in turn allowed us to develop and build some works. This was not the case with the majority, which now are a part of our knowledge and experience, of ideas, themes and solutions that have never been developed. This tremendous amount of work has, on the other hand, helped us to create the foundations of our future projects. In any case, we have had the opportunity to work with briefs and scales of all types. Ranging from very singular, small-scale projects to major urban developments, across countries, cultures and situations.
Juan Carlos: All of these projects, whether built or not, along with our theoretic reflections and analysis, teaching endeavours, trips, reading and investigations have transformed the context in which our career has developed.
Jincy: What would you cite as inspirations for your architectural practice?
Juan Carlos: More than a direct inspiration, our architecture is part of a process developed from an overlay of variables that intertwine, coming from different backgrounds and have an impact on our architectural look. These variables can be classified into three facets: history, plastic arts or technique. This approach does not reflect in specific styles or forms, but rather in ideas, as ideas are transferable from one discipline to another or from a historical time to another, whereas shapes are not.
For example, we had the opportunity to meet Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida in San Sebastian and to have several conversations with him about thoughts and ideas that were of interest to him and that opened new paths for us. These conversations made us regard concepts such as folds or voids from a new perspective through art and history. We were able to make them ours, to elaborate and transfer them into architecture.
Sol: Also, Juan’s investigation for his thesis about the cubist sense of Le Corbusier brought us closer to the artistic and architectural procedures of the acclaimed architect. Some of his ideas and postulates have contributed to our way of understanding and proposing architecture.
Along with these examples, travelling and having the experience of visiting the works of architecture built throughout history, has been a non-stop learning process and a means of connecting with the thoughts of architects and creators that have practised before us.
Jincy: These buildings can be interpreted by a viewer as “built origami” – what do you have to say about that?
Juan Carlos: That’s an interesting way of putting it Jincy! Our works try to create a series of tensions in a plane with the intention of creating space, which may be perceived aesthetically as “built origami”. This process starts from an initial fold, a single action that keeps the unit intact, even when folded. The result and final shape depend entirely on the transformations that occur; in the case of a plane, that is the transformation of a flat element. A transformation that is still a single unit in itself.
For instance, the Chapel in Valleacerón develops around the study and manipulation of the “box-fold”, strained focally. The variable scale of the fold is responsible for presenting a volume that is compact at times, but breaks occasionally, offering a series of spaces - closed-compact, open-fragmented - in constant change.
For the Chapel in Sierra La Villa, the curved fold is a response to complex external stresses of a topological action. It is not just origami, it is a formal topological expression - in structural equilibrium - that responds to outer strains. It is conceived with an ample entrance, that welcomes and leads towards a compressed end.
Jincy: How is an architectural fold first conceptualised by you, and then brought to life in construction?
Sol: The fold interests us for its capacity to generate space and for the theme of the unit, that is always present. A unit that this at the same time formal and spatial, but also structural and material. Our work focuses on how to transfer these "folding" concepts to our architecture and how to build it with the circumstances that belong to it.
Jincy: How do you typically approach a project?
Juan Carlos: Our approach comes from ideas or previous concepts that we have worked on or developed as part of our line of investigation, that are mostly materialised in models of several scales and materials. As a result, we start by working in three dimensions. These ideas and concepts, along with the variables inherent to each place’s reality, economic and cultural situations, the client and their brief, produce specific responses.
In the case of folds, each of the base folds is developed through a series of layouts, sections and models until the complete definition of the particular piece has been accomplished, both in terms of geometry and perceived realisable space.
Jincy: Seemingly straight planes angle and collide to form decorated ceilings and surfaces – how do you come up with these reliefs?
Sol: The final form of our buildings is the result of the developed spatial operations – the folds playing with voids and solid surfaces. We do not seek a specific form, as this is produced as a result of the strains and forces applied. The form itself makes the volume structurally stable, creating a single volume that does not require external elements to support itself. The models of the projects would give you a better comprehension of this.
Jincy: Across your oeuvre of contemporary architecture, there is a steady witness of clean geometries and monolith forms perched upon stretching landscapes – is that done intentionally? How does this landscape influence the buildings, and how do you ensure a dialogue between the two?
Sol: We have had the opportunity to work in different environments, both natural and urban, with their own characteristics and consistencies that influence the decision-making and initial intentions of the project. We always start with a meticulous study of the existing circumstances and an analysis of the specific situation for each project. From this genesis, our works insert themselves into the site, based on these initial decisions, to generate a new reality, as they are now capable of modifying the environment, creating new urban situations, of organising and improving the landscape. Thus, they become their own, integrate themselves into the landscape, to create a harmonious setting that does not encroach upon each other.
Jincy: There are either acute corners or an absence of them in these works, as well as few, strategically placed windows – is that deliberate?
Juan Carlos: All the elements that are present are part of a specific approach, an approach that concerns the entirety of the work, its scale and its relationship with its environment. All these elements are, as such, related to one another and respond to an intended coherence and as a unit, and not different elements that are pieced together.
Jincy: What are some materials and colours you are fond of and use, to achieve structures that seem strong yet airy at the same time?
Juan Carlos: The materials we employ try to give a clear and coherent response to the initial approaches, as well as to achieve an efficient constructive logic. We always seek to use durable materials that are sustainable in their entire life cycle.
In the case of folds, we normally use concrete, as it is able to express the solitary unit we seek to create, a single material that achieves the required continuity between the different planes. We also use stone, glass or wood, varied, durable materials that respond to the place, orientation and use of the buildings. These coupled with strategically placed voids and natural elements of water, sunlight and air lend these buildings the duality of seeming robust yet light concurrently.
The Chapel in Valleacerón is conceived as naked, without artificial lighting, as a place in which the indoors-outdoors spatial relation establishes its sense: only a cross and an effigy in the focal point reinforce the symbolic aspects of the project. Here, light is used as a second material, a material that contrasts with concrete, that is fragile, changing, mobile and unstable, one that rules or disappears.
Jincy: Do you approach religious projects such as these the same way you do others, say, a library or a housing block?
Juan Carlos: Throughout history, religious architecture has always manifested as unique, powerful works, that seek beauty as something inherent, that become a reference point in the city and that are always pioneers when it comes to the technical advances of their time. Monumentality, scale and sizes are explored at length, laced with human emotions and becoming built pinnacles of our skills and techniques.
Beauty is not dispensable in our life; it has not been so throughout history, nor is today. Architecture, which defines the habitat in which we move, is not dispensable either; it is an attainable art form that everyone can have access to. We consider chapel architecture to be living examples of expressions of beauty, signifying the immeasurable value of architecture in our lives.
Sol: The approach, as charted out above, remains more or less the same for buildings of other typologies – the process, the site, the client, the climate, and so much more come into play that inevitably, every piece of sculpted material becomes unique in their approach and final result.
Jincy: What is the one piece of architecture that remains, for you, perpetually inspiring?
Juan Carlos: Within the manifold history of global architecture, arts and culture, there are a series of works that remain key to us, as unending inspirations, that have opened paths for us and are now a part of our investigation processes, forming our own history within history.
One of these pieces is the Pantheon in Rome, in which everything develops from a single concept - a single unit – to mathematical perfection and precision. In this building, form, space, and structure respond to exactly the same generating idea. We have always approached our work with this same concept of unity, and continue to do so.