Riding on the cloud of innovation

Interview with Enric Ruiz-Geli of Cloud9 Architects

Architect Enric Ruiz-Geli is a busy man. His highly acclaimed Media-TIC building in Barcelona’s 22@Barcelona district was given the World Architecture Festival’s World’s Best Building of the Year award in 2011. Most importantly it has finally put architecture membranes on the map as an energy saving material and in his book Media Tic he tells us all in great detail how it was done.

Energy is central to the Spanish architect’s work in his Cloud9 practice. The Media-TIC building utilizes a solar powered inflatable Ethylene-tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) skin developed with Vector Foiltec that senses and responds to changes in the climate. The layers of ETFE move to create internal shade or allow light in. The overall design of the building is informed by the choice of material and its functionality. While Ruiz-Geli can express impatience with beauty, admonishing that it tends to make everyone sleepy, Media-TIC is a stunning building as is the private residence designed by Ruiz-Geli, Villa Nurbs, that also utilises ETFE.

I caught up with Ruiz-Geli this spring at SmartGeometry2012 held at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y., where he was delivering the symposium keynote. (See O’Mahony’s report in the July/August issue.)

Marie O’Mahony: How did you first come to work with textiles in architecture, and why textiles?

Enric Ruiz-Geli: At Cloud9 we have experience in theater; for five years we have been the designer of Bob Wilson theatre. This experience has an etherality and an interesting speed of performance compared to architecture. In theater we do vau probe (German), meaning that we build a prototype of what will be a final stage design in a wide range of materials such as paper, fabric, tape, charcoal, paint and light. Being on stage many years has given me the sensibility that textiles are light—therefore reality, therefore space.

MO’M: It seems not so long ago that architects were reluctant to use architectural membranes in permanent structures because of their poor climate control. You are not only using them, but utilising fabric to provide climate control. What has changed—textile technology, architecture, engineering or a combination?

ER-G: Firstly, architecture is one cause of global warming. We are the problem, we are the solution and this problem is about particles, scale. CO2 is a particle, Ultra Violet (UV) light, heat… It is all about particles, so today the use of textiles as architecture membranes is architecture that performs at a particle level. We work with artists like Pep Bou and he works with bubble membranes so our knowledge with him is aligned with the work of R. Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto; it is an alignment position. Architecture is about lightness and textiles provide lightness. You are interviewing me because of the Media-TIC building that has a membrane of three layers 600 microns all together which is 0.6mm of material. This is an answer; this is why textiles today are key.

MO’M: How did you come to work with ETFE and can you say a little about your working process with Vector Foiltec?

ER-G: We have a very long experience on inflatable architecture. We have been doing them all our lives from the first project to fireworks to the bio-bubble. The characteristics of PVC and polyester were okay 12 years ago, but the consciousness today is to go towards recycled and translucent materials. That is why we are very aligned with ETFE; we are the ETFE architects. It is the perfect material because it is a crystallized polymer. There are two industries, glass and polymers with ETFE in the middle. Suddenly we have the warranty, the transparency of glass, but with the lightness of polymers. It is a very “added value” material. We always work with the best—clients, innovation centers like Tecnalia, Vector Foiltec. The grandfather of Ben Morris, the owner of Vector Foiltec, his father built zeppelins. We look at companies and people with a lot of ‘density,’ a story and experience. Ben Morris and Terry Brandon are these kind of people.

MO’M: Many of the textiles appear outside the building. What about its use inside, or does that interest you?

ER-G: There is no interior and exterior. It is a continuous space of performance.

MO’M: Charles Eames spoke about how much industry and craft have to gain through collaboration, describing it as being to their mutual benefit and, importantly, to the benefit of society. Would you like to comment on this in terms of your own architecture practice and vision?

ER-G: First, architecture must be the platform of contemporary culture. Today contemporary culture is software, arts and crafts, steel, ceramics, music, visual arts, Arduino, technology, datascapes. So, the right relationship between architecture and arts and crafts is what Gaudi stated, that architecture must be the platform of arts and crafts culture. In the relationship between architecture and industry we as architects must perform as a positive virus to the lobby of industry. In the same way that Tim Burton is related to Disney, we architects are related to the construction world. The way to be a positive virus to the industry is by shifting towards pilot projects. So my point is that there is no industry relationship to arts and crafts, but yes, we architects are the bridge between industry and arts and crafts.

MO’M: In your talk [at SmartGeometry2012] you mentioned material honesty several times. How do you balance this with your exploration of material boundaries?

ER-G: We are social activist. We do architecture to transfer knowledge to society. A material’s performance needs to be well communicated to society. So that is why ethical performance of materials is important.

MO’M: In your keynote you said: “We will be measured by our performance in ethics.” What do you believe are the ethical responsibilities of the architect?

ER-G: The internet has made reality transparent. There is no other way to do it other than through transparency. We are moving towards empathy. Because society is operating based on consciousness, the closer we get to consciousness of building materials is by having empathy in our relationship with people.

MO’M: What impact do you think the Recast EPBD* in 2010 will have on architecture and the architectural fabric industry? Have you seen some changes already?

ER-G: Well, the leader there is Michael Braungart and Cradle to Cradle and there is also biomimetics [the extraction of good design from nature]. It is a good step to understand nature better. When we get to understand nature better, then there will be no fight between wood and fiberglass.

MO’M: What would you like to see from the architecture fabric industry over the next five years?

ER-G: The industry has to support, push and to build pilot projects. Today, the best way to advance the future is to create patents to do innovation. Open innovation is achieved by doing pilot projects that society gets to see and that sees all the industry aligned to that pilot project and that’s the way to move faster and more sustainably and more efficiently. The textile industry today does not have many leading projects out there in the city. That is the place to invest now, invest in research, reality.

MO’M: Investing in research. I think that is a good note to end on Enric. Thank you for your time and for your insights.

Marie O’Mahony is Professor of Advanced Textiles for Fashion + Design at OCAD University in Toronto and visiting professor at University of the Arts London. She is also a consultant and author of several books including Advanced Textiles for Health and Well-Being (2011). She will be speaking at IFAI Expo 2012 in Boston.

*EPBD (Energy Performance of Buildings Directive) an initiative of the European Union, was originally approved in 2003. The Recast EPBD was approved in May 2010.

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