Confessions of a Green “Starchitect”

By Emilio Ambasz

Award-winning green architect Emilio Ambasz asks himself the questions nobody else has dared.

Which of your works do you consider the most important and why?

One of the most important is La Casa de Retiro Espiritual, aka, the “House in Cordoba.” Contrary to everybody’s expectations and hopes, it was built and stands quite proud and handsome.

Another important project for me is the one in Fukuoka. This building is, for me, very strong evidence that the prevailing notion “the cities are for the buildings and the outskirts are for the parks” is a mistaken and narrow-minded idea only favorable to commercial architects. The Fukuoka building demonstrates, once and for all, that you can have a building and the garden.

How do you see your work in relation to the global environmental movement? Does architecture matter here?

In my view, architects will stand far behind in the line of those sent to Hell for their environmental sins. But they will go, inevitably, if they do not honor their ethical responsibility to propose alternative models for the future. I believe that any architectural project not attempting to propose new or better modes of existence is unethical.

Where do you place yourself within the context of current architectural production?

I know it sounds presumptuous, but I lay claim to being the precursor of current architectural production concerned with environmental problems. If there is any strength to my architectural ideas, it comes from the fact that I believe that architecture has to be not only pragmatic but also move the heart.

I rejoice immensely when I come upon somebody else’s work that touches me, even if it is the architecture of someone like Gehry, for example, whose work is so different from mine, and whose concerns are totally unrelated to mine. What matters to me is that he sings his own song. His birds may not alight often in my garden, but I’m sure they will pollinate my flowers.

Does your architecture have a universal subject?

The architecture I create is steeped in mysticism. On the one hand, I am playing with the pragmatic elements that come from my time, such as technology. On the other hand, I am proposing a certain mode of existence which is an alternative. My work is a search for giving architectural form to primal things — being born, being in love and dying. 

With every concerned environmentalist and sociologist in the world telling us that vegetation, urban agriculture, garden spaces and forestation are essential components of a city (for reasons of health, well-being and psychological stability), why do you think the mainstream design world still resists the use of landscape—or, at best, sees it as some kind of peripheral décor?

As you well know, he-men architects look down patronizingly on interior architects and exterior ones (meaning landscape architects). They feel very strongly that theirs is a true embodiment of the normal and natural and that those other two categories are just, at best, craftsmen or hairdressers. They have been taught that small little square windows, or that twisted and tilting planes (depending on their schools) [are] architecture. Their professors rewarded them handsomely for towing the party line. How can you expect them to utilize materials that are not the traditional ones; how can you expect them to try to integrate a building with nature when they are the proud heirs of a Greco-Roman tradition of mastering nature, standing above it and distinct from it?

How has your thinking about architecture and its role in social and environmental reform changed in the past few years? Are you still as idealistic and as hopeful as you were twenty years ago?

For me, the definition of courage is not that of someone who marches into battle unconcerned, but that of someone who, trembling, nevertheless, marches ahead because that is what they must do. The lucidity of fear, if it doesn’t paralyze, is a badge of honor. 

I always knew that my pursuit of alternative models for a better future would be rejected, mocked, or, at best, I would be left alone to bark to the moon. But I always remembered that the madman who threw stones at the moon never hit her, but, in the end, no one else in the village could throw them as high. I still feel idealistic.

Emilio Ambasz is an award-winning green architect and designer.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *