The Quest for Abstract Architecture: Alberto Campo Baeza
Similarly, the big metal frame unifies the composition by, on the one hand, solving the problem of the roof and providing support for the tiered classrooms fitted into the profiles of the reticular beams, and on the other, by using a characteristically urban facade to resolve the difference of level between the existing school and the road. De la Sota’s unusual deployment of structural elements is also symbolically charged: though clinically objective it is placed on view without superfluous comment- the frame in fact makes a complex emotional statement in which light, texture and color enhance perceptions of ambience and space.
The stereometric basis of the design -the absolute geometry of the cube- is both emphasized and nullified by the building’s dual institutional and residential role.
Campo Baeza’s relation with Julio Cano Lasso was much more direct. Having taught him architectural design at the Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid, Cano Lasso employed him as his assistant while he was still a student.
The three vocational centers are similar in layout and functional design, and have a kind of rarefied austerity wholly appropriate to buildings which are. in effect, factory and school rolled into one.
In the Universidad Laboral de Almeria, some of the influences on Campo Baeza’s later development are rather easier to recognize. Chessboard layout and bright white lime plaster enhance the impact of its starkly unadorned volumes, which are blind on the outside but give inside onto internal oasis-like courtyards open to the sky or illuminated from above with skylights.
Of De la Sota’s many influences on Campo Baeza, the most important – and the most evident in his projects over subsequent years – has been the ‘idealization’ that has driven him ever more obsessively towards an architecture in which forms, functions, volumetries and other standard components of architectural design are synthesized and therefore sublimated in a unified statement charged with theoretical implications. And yet, the actual content of the statement is neither an erudite historical, but an intrinsic feature of the constmction itself which identifies, communicates and authenticates the quidditas of what the architect intends to achieve.
Campo Baeza makes the point clearly enough in the introduction to the anthology of his most important writings, La idea construida. La arquitectura a la luz de las palabrns (Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos, Madrid, 1996; 1998), from which the quotations in this essay are taken. “Architecture is idea expressed through forms … idea in constructed foim Far from being a history of forms, architectural history is really a histoiy of constructed ideas. Forms are destroyed with the passing of time; ideas remain and are eternal.”
For the architect, homofaber’s ultimate aim in undertaking this daunting task can only be the creation of a ‘beauty’ necessarily located ‘outside’ time and space, a yearning for a kind of classical perfection or ideal knowledge limited only by the epistemological constraints of the architectural model itself. Significantly, Campo Baeza locates the raison d’etre of architectural process and product in transcendental values that lie in the world of the beyond, and whose physical materialization therefore transcends the geographical and temporal constraints of chronological history. “Architecture must offer human beings that mysterious yet tangible ‘other’ which is beauty. The intelligent kind of beauty that emanates from constructed ideas. This is something- much, much more than construction in the normal sense.”
Since gravity -an invisible static force- and light -the invisible electromagnetic radiation that makes objects visible to the human eye have by definition almost no contingent attributes in the philosophical sense, Campo Baeza tends to see them as absolute. So we must now try to see what these ‘superior categories’ mean in relation to historical events and places, the specificities of time and space.
Campo Baeza himself gives some idea of their meaning when he says, for example, that modern inventions like plate glass and metal framework are directly related to gravity and light.
In other words, Campo Baeza’s kind of architecture is by definition inclusive of inescapable realities like context, function, composition and construction, but claims to be exclusive in formal terms. Paraphrasing Mies van der Rohe’s less is more, Campo Baeza defines his concept of “more with less” (mas con memos) as .. a more which keeps human beings and the complexity of their culture firmly at the center of the created world, at the center of architecture. And a less which, leaving all questions of minimalism aside, distils the essence of a design by using a ‘precise number of elements’ to translate ideas into physical reality.”
The radicalism implicit in all this is already evident in Campo Baeza’s competition project (1978) for the redesign of a public square in Almeria, which creates an “architecture without buildings” of twenty-four palm-trees planted to resemble the nave of an imaginary cathedral whose roof is the sky. The sunlight entering the enclosure is filtered and spiritualized not by high windows and Gothic columns, but by palm fronds and tall ti*unks that create an unmistakably ‘architectural’ effect.
From the early 1980s, the formal restraint and volumetric simplicity of buildings like the Town Hall in Fene (1980) and the nursery school in Aspe (1982) began to cohere in a recog- nisably personal language. In the nursery school, the ostentatious ‘purity’ of what is an essentially inward-looking structure forms a marked contrast with the general dereliction of the context, while volume has been carefully pared down by bending and excavating the walls to produce articulated sequences of spaces. The brilliant white surfaces -another element in the separation from context- are offset by the natural hues of the slender palm-trees in the two courtyards. The increasing assertiveness of these early 1980s buildings has been described by some critics as ‘neo-rationalist’.
The San Sebastian de los Reyes public school (Madrid, 1983), a linear arrangement of freestanding prisms along a connecting axis, was followed by the San Fermrn public school (Madrid, 1985), which reshuffled the same basic elements to produce a north-facing, win- dowless brick wall and open, south-facing classrooms. The cylindrical stairwell is jointed onto the main structure as a light well, a sort of radiant crystal which allows light to penetrate the tectonic solidity of the building.
Though the Turegano House exemplifies several basic features of Campo Baeza’s method, the most noticeable thing about it is the stress it lays 011 the theme of the ‘house’, or rather, the archetypal dwelling, which in its primitive, unadorned state formalizes a set of architectural values that can be transferred to other functional contexts. In tliis particular case, Campo Baeza’s repertoire of compositional motifs translates into primary geometrical configurations, while the archetypal ‘cube’ of the primitive hut achieves greater prominence through a carefully balanced contrast between cool expanses of glass and brilliant white cladding. The same principles are also at work in the sequence of detached houses that followed – the Garcfa Marcos House in Madrid (1991), the four villas in Algiers (1992), and the Gaspar House in Cadiz (1992) -whose graphically etched volumes at last stand alone in splendid isolation. These eloquently introverted clusters of sun-drenched solids are so powerful precisely because they convey a sense of total separation, irrevocable detachment from the ‘other. Differences of level, self-contained courtyards, volumes delimited by boundary walls- everything is totally and systematically decontextualized. And yet, what looks like a starkly delineated set of closed, box-like prisms is, in fact, open to the sky.
What I have elsewhere called a “state of alienation” is more than evident in the much-published photographs of the Gaspar House patios, in which treetops -traces of external reality- crowd the borders of a ‘sacred compound’ like abstract presences forming the static backdrop to a sophisticated stage design. Inside the courtyards, brilliant surfaces sculpted by reflected light encircle, subjugate, enfeeble, reduce to simulacra the concrete manifestations of a physical world excluded from the initiatory rites that place the house apart from everyday reality. Trees, mirror pools, even some of the masses themselves, have a ghostly lack of solidity, while the natural landscape seems weirdly de-natured, subtly recontextualized and aestheticized as a decontextualized visionary setting for the house. The sense of solitude is heightened not only by this explicit segregation of attendant pseudo-natural references that serve to introduce the development of the architectural setting, but also by the isolation of the human figures who inhabit the house. Significantly, Campo Baeza’s drawings, models and photographs are peopled by solitary human beings. One in particular -a sketch of the Garcia Marcos House in their isolation- shows how central the notion of erosion, excavation, removal, reduction, is in Campo Baeza’s later architecture. Though the stereotomic, almost lithoidical nature of his buildings is never denied, the archetypal implications of mass are undermined, emptied, pared down, lightened, yet never wholly obliterated.
All this is a long way from continuity with context. Open, permeable, multi-dimensional space there certainly is and it is very important- but it is all inside the building.
Obviously and inevitably, Campo Baeza’s ‘mysticism of light’ is nostalgic in intent. In the harsh world of today, where every natural phenomenon has been irredeemably degraded and corrupted, and finding -anywhere on the planet a ‘virgin’ site to build on is simply wishful thinking, what ‘apparently’ could be more uncontaminated than the sky? Certainly not our countryside, our coasts or any other purely physical place, where human intervention has left not only indelible seal’s but often temble destruction in its wrake. There remains only our view of the sky, which for Campo Baeza is literally the place where “our physical world penetrates a world beyond”. Lost spiritual plenitude, for a “paradise of identities” ca- denced by the primeval dialectic of light and darkness, where the light of the sun, moon and stars makes visible the abstract space of possibility in all its power.
One of the most wonderful historical examples of light-redeeming’ architecture is the Gothic cathedral, whose very stone seems to emanate light. As Hans Sedlmayr says in Das Licht in seinen kilnstlerischen Manifestationen (Mittenwrald Maander, 1979): “The light inside a cathedral does not seem to come from the outside. To describe with any accuracy the effect it has, one would have to say: light is propagated by the walls themselves, the walls gleam.” On the other hand, sunlight filtering in through stained-glass windows draws architectural detailing and tracery (e.g. the leading of the windows) on the walls opposite them which often cannot be seen in the windows themselves because they are so far away. Commenting on one of the interiors of the Turegano House, Campo Baeza points to a similar effect in a painting by a disciple of Rembrandt, Man Reading at a Table in a Lofty Room (c. 1631-1650), in which an invisible window is made visible by the shadow of its frame and leading on the floor, and rays of sun streaming into the room contrast vividly with the darkness that surrounds the scholar bending over his book. The projections that invade the interiors of Campo Baeza’s houses are much more clear and precise because the window frames are unusually schematic in design, but this in no way diminishes their metaphorical impact. They become signs and dreams- of ‘something else’, so much so that, as in the Dutch painting, it would come as no surprise to walk into a room and find a scholar absorbed in solitary meditation. A genuine culture of the domus is also at work in Campo Baeza’s public buildings, most notably the ‘Drago’ school in Cadiz (1992). This is more than a standard patio configuration with all the usual domestic connotations, them; it is also an assembly of architectural features semantically polarized to form a densely meaningful threshold between town and house, public and private.
The concepts of ‘stereotomic’ and ‘tectonic construction -they are borrowed from Semper, and have been studied in some depth by Kenneth Frampton in Studies in Tectonic Culture. The two building methods they imply are exemplified in Campo Baeza’s project for the Dalmau House in Burgos (1990), whose ordinary domestic functions are grouped in a hollow, wdndowless base, wrhile an upper glass volume provides a setting for the intellectual activities the house also had to accommodate. This duality, which is also a feature of the competition project for the Philharmonic Hall in Copenhagen (1993), is virtually a paradigm of the process by which light can progressively dematerialize, both conceptually and physically. And it is literally a process of sublimation: the totally transparent volumes -pure, ethereal, crystalline boxes- offer vantage points over the surrounding landscape from insicje the body of the house.
The Caja General de Ahorros in Granada (1996), the most representative of Campo Baeza’s recent designs, turns the architectural concept of the light-trap’ into a thoroughly monumental statement.
Although the word ‘monument’ is etymologically related to ‘memory’, ‘permanence’ and ‘testimony’, and monumentality is certainly an instance of permanence, any interpretation of permanence and time in modern culture has to reckon with the fact that these terms are more restricted in meaning than they once were. Time is constructed by light “which slowly but surely eliminates the superficial trappings with which architecture is all too often bedecked.”
Architecture built of time and light is resistant to time and change, and aspires to classical permanence.
When seen as an attempt to raise architecture’s few basic paradigms to the status of absolutes, to extend the range and resources of abstract language, to reinstate the piimeval significance of human habitation, the enduring whiteness of Campo Baeza’s buildings is rather easier to comprehend. For him, “white is a symbol of permanence, of the universal in space and the eternal in time. Hair invariably turns white as time passes. So do buildings.” Time, the Great Executioner, turns buildings white, but who does this time belong to exactly? Is it the time of the gods on high, or the time of earthbound mortals? No one would deny that architecture is built on ideas, but isn’t it about time that these ideas became physical tilings, started dirtying their hands with the realities of the here and now?