The lessons of the crisis: The architect as foreigner

The lean years seem to be a thing of the past. Design and construction activity are in full swing again. But is it business as usual? Or has the field of force fundamentally changed for architects? What is their playing field? What roles do they intuitively or strategically assume? And what opportunities does this open up for the future? In the third instalment in this series of interviews, Helena Casanova analyses the position of Casanova + Hernandez Architects.

Casanova+Hernandez office / photo Petra van der Ree

‘We’re always the foreigners,’ says Helena Casanova coyly, half in jest. She and Jesús Hernandez, her professional and private partner, welcome us to their office. Choosing to be foreigners was a conscious decision by the Spanish couple. A prize-winning entry to Europan (the international competition for young architects), design commissions in the Netherlands, and the desire to engage directly with clients were the reason to open an office in 2001 in Rotterdam. More opportunities came their way in the shape of research subsidies, seats on committees, and teaching positions.

An important ingredient in the work of Casanova and Hernandez right from the start has been the research office C+H Think Tank. That’s where all projects start, with drawings, models and mock-ups. Casanova herself likes to call the office an ‘atelier’. Commissions are secured through competitions. ‘We started out with the fresh perspective of outsiders.’ Their habit of questioning the seemingly obvious was welcomed, and the atelier grew in size to eleven employees. ‘We thought that we’d made it.’ But the crisis interrupted progress. While competition designs and research remained the core activities, attention shifted to projects located outside the Netherlands, which meant that the idea of competing as an outsider became stronger: Spanish architects with a base in the Netherlands making designs for buildings in Romania and South Korea and building in Albania and China.

The art of the conversation
Conversation plays a key role in the practice of Casanova and Hernandez, and this too results from a keen sense of being different. Conversation means more than angling for information. Even during this interview, I detect a genuine interest in exchanging ideas. Indeed, in this series about the lessons of the crisis, Casanova is the only person to ask me questions.

During the lead-up to a design, Casanova and Hernandez talk with clients and others involved, but perhaps of greater importance are the chance encounters on site. ‘Because these people speak candidly,’ explains Casanova. ‘Only by gathering information in this way can we firmly root our inspiration and the eventual project in reality.’ An example is the design history of the Shkodra Lake Museum and Visitor Centre (Albania). Casanova + Hernandez Architects were also responsible for the contents of the exhibition arrangement. ‘It’s actually odd. Through the exhibition, we tell visitors what fishermen, chefs and rug weavers have told us,’ says Hernandez. The position of the outsider, who at the outset knew nothing, laid the foundation for their spatial creativity.

Casanova+Hernandez office / photo Petra van der Ree

Casanova and Hernandez suspect that they visit their building sites more often than other architects do. Not only out of a classical ‘sense of responsibility’, but also to talk directly with construction workers. That generates trust and synergy on site. ‘There’s an art in being able to listen,’ says Hernandez. ‘The art of getting people engaged.’ Personal contact is a priority during the design process too. ‘If a client wants to speak to me, I’ll hop on a plane tomorrow,’ adds Casanova. ‘Our clients appreciate that we go all out on a project.’ The atelier works on three to four projects at the same time. That’s why they deliberately keep the organization small. I ask Casanova about Hernandez’s observation that ‘eleven employees were too many’. She explains: ‘We work with a small and variable group of people here and close to the site, tailored precisely to the job at hand. Both of us want to design and take all decisions.’ There’s no management layer in the office; delegating responsibilities does not suit their way of working.

Learning from Barcelona
‘A small outfit,’ Casanova points out, ‘is perfectly capable of carrying out complex projects. It’s a misconception among Dutch clients to think that only big architecture firms can take them on.’ Besides a variable staff policy, the flexibility of a small organization allows for a targeted phasing of work. Casanova and Hernandez believe in focused interventions. Important influences have included Oriol Bohigas and Ignasi de Solà-Morales. In the run-up to the 1992 Olympic Games, they elaborated the idea to fundamentally transform the coastal zone, and to design spaces such as parks and pavilions at strategic points in the city, a procedure you could term ‘urban acupuncture’. Casanova + Hernandez Architects has developed this strategy of local reactivation further. Acupuncture interventions reflect the complexity of the whole and facilitate a phased way of working. An example is the design of public and cultural spaces in Tirana, Albania, where the first completed acupuncture point was the renovation of the Marubi National Museum of Photography.

Casanova+Hernandez office / photo Petra van der Ree

Now that I think about it, you could also consider their own atelier space an acupuncture point. From the outside, the attentive passer-by sees nothing more than two big square windows with a sturdy, opaque strip curtain with leaf motifs. I recognize wine leaves and ginkgos. The sleepy Lombardkade, just a stone’s throw from the city centre with its must-haves and lattes, looks unremarkable: three floors of apartments above commercial spaces behind grey-brown brickwork. Not an address many architects would choose. But once inside the atelier, all is different. A light and largely empty space with models, mock-ups of furniture and material studies and, at the end, behind a generous passageway, Hernandez’s exhibition of photographs. Incidentally, the architects found this literally and figuratively isolated atelier by talking to people.

The competition as earnings model
How does an office survive on just research and competitions? ‘The Think Tank is an investment that gradually leads to collaborations and paid studies,’ explains Hernandez. And it is an excellent way of promoting knowledge. An increased reputation in turn leads to invitations for lectures and teaching positions. However, the majority of their income is generated through competitions. ‘Limited competitions are our way of earning money,’ says Casanova. Clever formats in terms of drawing style, lettering and colour composition ensure efficiency and structure and are applied in competition entries repeatedly. Costs are minimized: low staff expenses thanks to staff on demand, temporary alliances with other designers, and a low atelier rent. Continuity is guaranteed because Casanova and Hernandez do not delegate and therefore know all the ins and outs of every design.

This business model means that taking part in unpaid competitions is not an option, just as it is impossible to take part in European tenders because of the way they are interpreted in the Netherlands. ‘To be able to take part, you have to be hyper-specialized,’ explains Hernandez. Young offices and small offices cannot meet the requirements in terms of portfolio, human resources and turnover. They remain the outsiders, though not in the creative sense. ‘This adversely affects the Dutch architecture climate,’ argues Casanova. Other European countries employ tender regulations that give younger and smaller offices a chance. That’s why Casanova and Hernandez will focus for the time being on limited competitions – outside the Netherlands.

Casanova+Hernandez office / photo Petra van der Ree

Casanova+Hernandez Architects, the facts:
2001: atelier founded

Employees in 2008: 11
Employees in 2018: 5-8

Number of directors 2008: 2
Number of directors 2018: 2

Main focus in 2008:
Limited competitions and design research, both in the Netherlands. Development of efficient formats for entries.
Main focus in 2018:
Limited competitions and research outside the Netherlands. Since 2014: actual construction of projects.