In conversation with selgascano

Lush Hints

Spanish practice selgascano finds joy in material economy, a critical skill at a time that could use a lot more of it. Though José Selgas and Lucía Cano founded the firm back in 1998, the studio is only now getting widespread recognition in the United States.

Part of that is because the duo’s first U.S. project, a Los Angeles outpost of the British co-working company Second Home, opened late last year—but it’s also because the architecture world is finally catching up with the firm’s tectonic explorations. Few contemporary offices have played so deftly and on such a large scale with color, flexible materials, and plant life. Projects that ten years ago may have been considered outré for substituting lightweight plastics for glass or incorporating hundreds of indoor seedlings now look prescient as designers search for new ways to leave lighter footprints. AN managing editor Jack Balderrama Morley spoke with Selgas about how the studio developed its approach.

José Selgas and Lucía Cano founded the Madrid-based firm in 1998. (Courtesy selgascano)

The Plasencia Auditorium and Congress Center in Plasencia, Spain, features translucent plastic walls and a mix of orange and red tones. (Iwan Baan)

The Second Home location in London’s Holland Park features a covered atrium with an otherworldly ceiling. (Iwan Baan)

AN Interior: How would you describe your firm’s design philosophy?

José Selgas: We like to be open to every possibility in every project. We come with open eyes and with the possibility to go in any direction. We are architects, not artists. We always try to bring something to the table that is beyond our personal thoughts. All of our projects incorporate different inputs that come from different directions, but typically, they’re always related to nature, climate, society, history, scale, and—more than anything—economy.

Economics are always fundamental. More and more, we have to deal with economics. When we look at how to produce a certain part of a project, we have to ask where it is, who’s paying for it, how much it is, and how we’re going to cover our costs. We avoid making expensive moves or choosing expensive treatments. The simplest solution is always best, but that doesn’t mean we pick the stupidest one—it has to be the most appropriate option to achieve whatever idea we are trying to develop.

The lightest material is often the best solution for whatever problem we’re faced with because less energy is needed to produce it, move it, transform it, and install it. We typically use ETFE plastic as an alternative to glass, for example, because transforming and installing glass is more expensive.

The dimensions and scales of most buildings right now are off. Everything is too big. We try to make spaces as small as possible. Why create a space that is 32 feet tall if that space can also function at 10 feet? Fifty or 70 years ago, houses and commercial spaces were smaller. Even cars were smaller in Spain.

For an auditorium in Cartagena, Spain, selgascano used polycarbonate as a wall material partly because a large polycarbone factory was located nearby. (Iwan Baan)

AN: Why do you think everything has gotten bigger?

JS: I don’t know, but we are conscious of the scale of things. The scale of things is fundamental in our architecture. We believe in going down, not going up, and in degrowth. Can certain elements disappear a little more? Can we give more space to nature? In whatever project we’re building or working on, these questions are fundamental.

The problem that comes with this way of working is that you don’t see anything. You just see nature or a garden. And some clients are kind of upset about that. They want to see what they are paying for.

A good project for us is one that incorporates as much nature as possible. When we talk about nature, we talk about a lot of different aspects, but in general, adding greenery to a building makes it better.

For example, we just finished the Second Home project in Los Angeles. It is probably our most successful project in that sense because we planted 6,500 trees and plants within a space that used to be a parking lot. As you walk in, you don’t feel that it is architecture. There’s no building. You’re just in the middle of a garden.

The firm’s exuberant 2015 Serpentine Pavilion was moved to Los Angeles in 2019. (Iwan Baan)

AN: Something else that gives your projects a richness is color. How did you decide to work with color the way that you do?

JS: We’re often asked about our use of color or plastics. But in general, we don’t really care about either. We actually use a lot of white and black. But color, for us, is very direct. It represents physics. In that sense, you need to use it. We never really decide on the right color until the end of a project. It’s complicated because we’re now getting more recognition, and there are some clients who call with special requests for color. I remember, for example, doing the Serpentine Pavilion and going forward with the idea of creating a little mall that could be completely transparent, but the curators were like, “What the hell is this? There’s nothing.” They were expecting something very colorful. For one reason or another, we moved in a different direction and the color came.

There has to be a reason for using a certain color. A project doesn’t look good unless the right color is chosen. It’s a challenge to test and select different colors. When a project is almost finished, you need to think, “Okay. Well, now, I need to paint the structure, because it’s metal.” Most people would just paint it white, black, or gray. White might be more visible. So, you need to have that in mind. There is always a reason. We often test out a lot of different colors to see which one can communicate the ideas behind the project best.

AN: How has working in L.A. influenced your practice?

JS: L.A.’s been a great school for us. It’s more complicated in many ways than it used to be because of regulations. For example, the Second Home project was complicated because it is one of the first buildings in L.A. to use cross-laminated timber. We had to get a special permit. I think when Rudolph Schindler was practicing in the city, there was a lot more freedom. On the other hand, there are more materials, factories, and skilled people to work within L.A. than back home in Europe. It’s a trade-off.

The firm also designed a location for Second Home in the Spitalfields area of London’s East End, which used a range of tones, textures, and materials to create a flowing, ethereal space. (Iwan Baan)

AN: What sorts of materials are you experimenting with in Europe?

JS: Typically, we use the materials that are available in or around the places we develop projects.

We always try to ask the same question: What materials and factories can be found nearby? For the auditorium that we designed in Cartagena, Spain, polycarbonate was the best solution. The entire interior and facade of the building are covered in this material, but in different ways.

We think that the future will be all about using the biggest range of materials possible. We need to use everything that’s available. We can’t just use timber. There is no way that the planet will survive like that. The only way to survive is to use the least amount of material or no material at all.

If a building has good bones, there’s no reason to knock it down. This is another way we work, and how we worked with the existing Paul Williams building for the Second Home Los Angeles project. I think that’s one of the ways to move in the future—to be more sensible about what we have and how we implement the new if we really need to or not.

Header image: Second Home, a co-working company, hired selgascano to design a space in the heart of Los Angeles. The result is a brightly colored field of pavilions surrounded by plantings. (See The Architect’s Newspaper, September 2019.) (Iwan Baan)