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A Strange Bird

Asceticism or festivity? Rationality or fantasy? Common sense or extravagance? Straightforwardness or anilignity? Morality or immorality?


Architectural design in the world and especially in Sweden has during most part of this century been characterized by the first adjectives of these dichotomies: asceticism, rationality, morality... We have had to seek the opposite qualities through escapes in time and space: old environments, exotic travels, art nature, theatre.


The architects have produced buildings with the smallest area, the cheapest constructions, the shortest distances, with the correct insulation, the correct temperature. Everything well calculated and that’s the end of it.


It has been forgotten that architecture should also be an emotional machine to satisfy our need for beauty, to create poetry, to protect or expose, to dispose to serious or merry mood, to awe or through symbols awake memories or hint at futures. Such things were possible during past architectural epochs, consciously or unconsciously. Remember the Stockholm Town Hall! Besides, neurophysiologists have pointed out how our destitute, barren, sharp-edged architecture under stimulates the children, probably resulting in future psychic deficiencies and injuries.


And right before this swedish common sense, their presumed honesty, a strange bird tumbles down all the way from South America, Abelardo Gonzalez, bringing his rich architectural vocabulary. All possible shapes for their own sake, all possible materials from gravel and rusty steel to shining gilding, from sackcloth to leopard furs, from sharp edging to sensual, even sexual softness, from black and white to the reddest purple, from practicality to almost confusing illusionism, from the hardest high-tech to all the world’s gaudy styles. Luxe, calme et volupté, or at least luxe et volupté. Gonzalez has a huge palette.


Quite naturally Gonzalez unreal realities come to their rights ofar mostly in recreation and entertainment contexts, not for nothing is half background scenography. His larger projects, for example competition proposals, lie sofar, often in archive drawers, a common resting place for advanced architecture that differs too much from the Swedish practice and the apprehension of competition juries.


An honest Swede can maybe sometimes question some of Gonzalez' deconstructions and capers; jokes and funny stories can’t bear repeated confrontation as buildings have to do. If ordinary unspiced fare may be boring, one can hardly satisfy one’s hunger exclusively with spices.


Gonzalez' strongest contribution to the development is partly exceptional interiors like the nightclub Tunneln in Malmö, partly his already noticeable function as an important catalytic for a liberation process in architecture and interior design in the Nordic countries. We look forward with expectation to a realization of his larger projects, which now seems to take place.


Lund, May 1991

Hans Asplund


I always head into Malmö with a smile on my face, which is not so much a reflection of the biting wind that might be blowing up the channel, nor of the rattle of luggage wheels over the cobbles of the old streets but of the sure anticipation of the enthusiasm for architecture and for people that Abelardo exudes. The parallel sustains: his various projects and buildings are as his well chosen friends: characterful, responsive and full of depths that become revealed with time - and never pompous.

It is hard to believe that this very positive thinker and witty designer is a worthy Doctor of Philosophy, a highly experienced academic, a careful and thoughtful teacher and all of that… or is it? For his genuine enthusiasm and support of many students is couched in a real love of life and ability to see the positive side of things. In design terms, this means that he is able to grasp the mood of a client, sense the spirit of the age, sniff the air around an ambience that may be ready for one of his venues of houses or devices and movie into the project with a freshness, lightness and colour that is characteristic of his work.

Such spirit is rare in Sweden, for, nice though they are, the locals take their lightness seriously. They are scared of form and suspicious of eccentrics. Yet they act as a suitable foil for Abelardo’s sensibilities. Imagine that he had remained in Córdoba, Argentina. Dealt with the tragedy and paranoia of late 20th century South America, grappled with the memories or imaginings of Europe? Better to respond to a very quaint nook in the part of Europe that is neither fashionable, decisive nor definitive. Funny old Malmö is a place that surprises us by rattling along at quite an agreeable pace - cashing in on its luck as the landfall of a useful bridge, post-rationalising some old docks and giving space to eccentrics from all parts.

The serendipity of all this has not weakened his resolve, rather has it focused his talents. The latest work - the gamers’ paradise or the newer houses are increasingly focused, tighter, more discriminating than hitherto: yet they are still “juicy”.

Juicy - yes that’s it: Abelardo Gonzalez is a juicy architect who distills that juice through a very resourceful ear, nose and ‘eye’. The last is still too rare a commodity for us to disregard. The extraordinary interiors of the 1980’s were a provocation to Malmö. In some cases it fought back and they disappeared, in other cases they survived to become somewhat like merry old broads in a bar: full of stories and creased smiles. They were full-bloodied investigations. Perhaps the later work has benefited from those inevitable conversations with students and critical architect friends where the seemingly preposterous idea can be honed and layered and perhaps refined so that its progeny has the power of the proposition without the wastefulness of excess.

His good company, his genuineness as a person and as a designer prompt these thoughts and prompt the anticipation of further smiles around which I will happily stretch my face.

Sir Peter Cook


One of the main questions architects and critics have been asking themselves during the last years concerns the possibility of finding a way out from the ascetic modernist design, a way which would not lead necessarily to postmodern kitsch or to pseudo-philosophical lucubrations. Many answers have been essayed: some architects have looked towards technology, others have tried to discover the traits of their local cultural heritage or to attend to regional circumstances, etc, etc. For AG the answer has been to lean on art oan d on theater. To appeal to imagination, to leave aside any conventional stereotypes, trying to design spaces charged with dynamic qualities, the qualities of people and city life.

In his practice in Malmö, AG has had the opportunity to develop these ideas in several works of interior design, most of them for entertainment places. To design places for fun has allowed him to display his remarkable ability to masterly combine the most strange imageries, using rich materials, and creating illusory spaces by means of reflecting surfaces - polished marble, metal, glass, mirrors, etc.

Dematerialising the limits of space, multiplying the images - among which one must think of people dancing or just wandering about - is a way of of dynamising the environment, to free it from stability, from the sense of permanence. And that is one of the ways of putting into work AG’s general premise; that of departing from stereotypes.

These ideas he has applied both to his entertainment interiors and to more permanent works such as houses or office buildings.

In his Villa Widiksson, while taking care of all the usual functions of a house, he plays with the idea of a shining knife penetrating aggressively into the sea: the glass covered swimming pool, acting as a great mirrored surface, is in the meantime a source of light and reinforces the strong axis that pierces through the whole site and is directly perceived from the entrance. Such an axis has nothing to do with the usual prototype of a house: here it serves to direct the attention towards the sea, to strengthen the relationship between the house and the sea. The interior spaces are handled as a totality, with gentle articulations among the different rooms.

One can find also in this house an usual trait in AG’s design: that is, a strong contrast between a blank wall and the surprising spaces behind it through the entrance.

The Tunnel is one of the most intense examples of this rather baroque way of handling spaces, which, for the architect, has its origin in the stage, in the succession of unexpected events provided by the falling and raising of curtains.

Considering these qualities of his works, one may ask how does AG succeed in persuading his clients to accept his unusual projects. There is an explanation, at least according to AG. He says that the architect must give the client enough credit concerning his capacity embrace an open minded view on architecture. But to attain such an attitude from the client he has developed a particular way of handling the relation architect/client: after having talked with the client and taking account of his necessities, his desires, even his dreams, he creates for himself an interlocutor, an imaginary, client, one who would have the same necessities, the same desires, the same dreams of the real one, but who would be free of stereotypes, of any conventional ideas about spaces or images, and would therefore be able to accept and even to encourage any kind of fantasy.

Then he designs a project for this new client, and presents it to the the real one. Of course this proceeding is very risky. It might be very difficult for a person usually charged with conventional images to understand such a proposal, and the situation might end with the rejection of the project. But until now this has never happened to AG (strangely enough, it was only a jury of architects who eliminated his presentation from a competition for a student space at Lund University, considering it unbuildable or too expensive…). His drawings have been always accepted - even if not totally understood - by those “real” clients, who would afterwards go every day to look marvelled at the progress of the works. Of course, before working on the final drawings there would be a phase of compromise, in order to reconcile the product of fantasy with the practical circumstances.

In this way AG demonstrates that the limitations for architectural creativity do not lay upon the client, as is usually claimed by architects. It is possible and necessary to widen the views of non professional people, thus turning them able to accept and to enjoy new imaginative solutions for their living or working spaces. Limitations to creativity, says AG, do not lay either on building codes or on strict budgets, on functional or technical requirements. Every one of these restrictions can be turned into challenges for creativity by the architect. (An extreme case had to be faced by the architect when designing the buoyant pizzeria O'Vesuvio in Lund: in a very tiny site, it was necessary to provide special access to all levels of the place for handicapped persons. AG says that the ramp he had to design, which at the first moment seemed almost impossible to include, enhanced the interest of the project creating a wholeness that had not been previously imagined).

AG thinks that the real limitations come mainly from the architect himself, either from his training at schools where function and technology are the main - or even the only ones - lines of thought; or from his own attachment to fixed typologies, or from his rejection of an artistic point of view.

For AG there are several sources of creative inspiration: the life of the city, the objects of daily life, the memories, people moving - people that will become protagonists of the new spaces and will change their images as they move within them, creating a particular atmosphere, introducing color with their clothes, movement with their walking or dancing… It would be a kind of experience that would transform a “user” into an “inhabitant” (as Hertzberger likes to call him); an experience that would change the idea of “consuming” space into one of “living” in places, into the act of giving life to space.

To allow such vital or dramatic experiences to take place, it is necessary to design the spaces in a special way, and AG has recourse to scenography. Scenography is not conceived as mere decoration, but as the conscious design of a series of visual and spatial events, of openings to interior landscapes. Sometimes, he will be able to go further into the dramatic atmosphere and to narrate some story by way of these scenographies. But anyway he will try to create situations where the inhabitant will feel the pleasure of the spaces, where he will enjoy being there, traversing those corridors, discovering those views.

This kind of treatment of space is realised by means of mentally walking through the future building, imagining and planning carefully the different spatial and visual experiences at each articulation along the interior “journey”. In this minute planning, where mirrors and mirrored surfaces play an important role not only cancelling limits but also as a means of communication, some effects are possible to foresee while others are unpredictable. And that is why the architect, as much as the owner, keep being happily astonished at each new discovery while the works progress. The architect is no more the designer, the master of the building: he becomes a part of the audience.

But there is in AG practice one point that is not mere illusion: for all this imagery, all this fantasy, all this scenography, are solidly sustained by the most careful detailing, by the most careful control over the building process. AG is an obsessive builder. He would stay all day long surveying the exact realization of his working drawings, the exact choice of materials, the exact color and finishing of every surface, the exact quality of every element put into the building, enver accepting a compromise, never yielding to the demands of the working team or even the owner himself, if it would affect the perfection of the building.

I think that it is not usual to find in one architect this strange association of qualities - the respect for the inhabitant, a fantastic imagination and the love for the building craft - May he be the cosmopolitan origin and training of Abelardo could help to understand it. I prefer to think that he is, no more and no less, an Architect.

13 sept 1990

Prof. Marina Waisman

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