by Georgina MaddoxSep 06, 2019
Santiago-based architect Matías Zegers is on a mission to make architecture disappear. The principal architect at his eponymous firm, Matías Zegers Arquitectos, believes that the most successful architectural forms are the ones that don't demand attention. His practice has fewer than a dozen built projects to its name, but each one portrays a Matías Zegers signature—a deep sensitivity towards client and context.
Zegers began his career in 2002, when he got his first commission right after graduating from Santiago’s Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. “I had a partner at the time,” he says, “and we went together on this adventure”. The firm was F+Z Arquitectos, and the commission was to design a lake house for Zegers’ uncle. “In architecture school they teach you that you are the great genius,” he says. “They don’t really put the note that the design is not for you, it is for the client,” he adds. F+Z Arquitectos was active for about three years, during which Zegers had the chance to undertake a range of projects. Each one, big or small, only went on to reiterate that first lesson: that the key to good design is understanding the client.
In 2005, Zegers was invited to work for Rick Joy Architects in Arizona, in the United States. One of his biggest takeaways from that time was materiality—specifically the materiality of earth. “Working in Arizona, you work with dirt and rammed earth walls,” Zegers says while adding that, “it is similar to colonial architecture in Chile, since they were building out of earthy concrete”. Working with dirt, which is susceptible to humidity, encourages architects to separate, or distinguish, structural elements. Most constructions see foundations in stone and concrete rising out of the ground, with the mud bricks layered on top. Zegers prefers to highlight rather than mask this structural tendency. “I really like the feeling of the weight of the architecture. Sometimes we separate the plinth of the house from the walls. Architecture is heavy, construction is heavy, and I love to it express that way," he states.
Zegers returned to Chile and began his own practice, Matías Zegers Arquitectos, in 2010. The firm’s first project was an earthy concrete guest house called Casa Mirador. The structure sits atop a hill, overlooking a vineyard and a valley beyond. It is located about 20 km from the Pacific Ocean, and enjoys a consistent cool wind through the day. Right behind the house is a Mesquite tree that has been twisted and contorted by the winds, and stands against the tableau like an eerily evocative natural sculpture. “What we wanted to achieve, was that when you come up to this place, it feels like coming up to a monastery or ruin, to a sacred place,” says Zegers. “There is wind and there is silence”.
A few kilometres from Casa Mirador is Casa Tapihue, another vineyard-facing home with a very different story. Designed in association with Catalina Pacheco, Casa Tapihue is a country home for a family of city natives who were looking for a retreat into the countryside. “They have this vision of living in the country, of being people of the country,” states Zegers. To create a sense of that experience, he fitted Casa Tapihue with a colonial-style patio. “You open this big wooden gate to enter the house, and you go into another exterior space. It’s a very strong moment. The way the house makes you feel is that you find places unexpectedly,” mentions Zegers.
Zegers’ design philosophy, which is emphatically “anti-style", is to first understand what the client wants—often without them even saying it. His firm was recently invited to participate in a bid for a vineyard in Argentina. “We were the only architectural practice that didn’t know how to design a vineyard,” he informs. “But I read up on the clients, and realised something they didn’t even tell us. They wanted the property to remind them of something that they had never experienced: growing up in the country. Our project was the worst, because you couldn’t make wine on the vineyard we had designed. But we won the competition, and we were commissioned—because the idea is just what they wanted, even though they didn’t know it,” says Zegers.
Oftentimes, studying the client pushes Zegers far out of his comfort zone. For MSporthorses, a horse stable in Santiago, he had to go against his penchant for heavy forms and earthy concrete, and instead build in wood. “It was a big building, and there was not much of a budget for it,” he says while adding, “but secondly the client was in the wood business, and there was never a question that this was going to be made in wood”. Zegers’ inspiration was Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd Church in Denmark, in which a softly curved ceiling filters in natural light. “I had a design for this bending ceiling with a skylight at the centre, and I was going to build it on a steel structure, and use wood for veneers,” he says. That was when Zegers realised that CNC machines were advanced enough to create the entire structure in wood. “I realised I could make it a little more complicated, so instead of having a straight skylight, we pushed it wider in the centre,” he adds.
Zegers' newfound fascination for wood carried forward onto Hare Unahi Ika, an Easter Island home made of pre-fab wood and red concrete. Easter Island is called the “belly of the world” with good reason—it is five hours from the nearest coast, in the heart of the ocean. “There is no technical labour or workers there,” Zegers explains, “so we had to divide the house in two parts”. The concrete foundation, stained red with Easter Island’s volcanic dirt, was built on site. Meanwhile, the wooden structure was crafted by machine in Chile. “Once the concrete walls were ready, we shipped everything and built the structure in one month. The technical details of that construction are beautiful, and very defined. It’s something that you wouldn’t previously have been able to make in a place like that,” says Zegers.
A look through Zegers’ portfolio reveals an unmistakable signature—a rich materiality, a strong sense of structure, and an almost haunting sense of familiarity. Still, Zegers is hesitant to use to word ‘style’. “I wish I had a style so I could do the same thing all the time,” he laughs, “I guess our way of working makes it a little harder, because you have to face the challenge in a different way”. Zegers reflects back on a conversation he had with a friend, who had asked him whether he had shown an inclination towards architecture even as a child. “I never did architectural things when I was a child, I never built toy houses,” he shares, “but I enjoyed building blanket forts, and imagining that I was someone else, somewhere else. That’s the way I try to design in my studio. I want life to be important, not architecture. If I can make architecture disappear, that’s great—and then, as you are slowly experiencing the space, it comes back”.