WhATA interviews the Colombian architect Alejandro Piñol

by WhATA, 2.06.2009

Alejandro Piñol is a young architect from Colombia. He designed Villanueva Public Library, together with Carlos Meza, German Ramirez and Miguel Torres.

How comes that a Bulgarian architectural blog interviews a Colombian architect, living in Madrid?

Well, we stumbled upon Villanueva in Archdaily and featured it in a post about stone facades in Bulgarian. We liked the gabions very much and also the frank, cheap and real sustainability of the building situated in a poor, conflict-striken region.

Alejandro, in his turn, stumbled upon our blog and not knowing a word in Bulgarian asked us to translate the post for him. We did so (here is the post in English).

It was a wonderful chance for an interview and we, enthusiastic as we are, jumped over it. Our second chat-interview (first one was with Bjarke Ingles from BIG)

Alejandro turned out to be our kind of guy — wears Camper, believes in the social role of architecture and likes sustainability. It was a fun Friday-evening interview. Thanks, Alejandro!


WhATA: Tell us something more about you — favourite brand of sneakers, most hated architect, best live concert you’ve been to?

Alejandro Piñol: Camper sneakers, pricy but simple. I cannot read anything about Zaha. And José Gonzalez is a music machine without comparison with a plain acoustic guitar.

WhATA: Super :) We invest in Camper too

Alejandro P: Ha ha

WhATA: You have graduated Javeriana University in Bogota, right? How did you come to live in Madrid?

Alejandro P: Well, I’m half Spaniard so I took advantage of this. Also, because my brother who is an artist lives here and we wanted to collaborate and live together for a while. A third reason would be that I’m preparing to move to the UK but I wanted to work a little in Spain, just to taste the water, but the water is already to my neck…

I got out from the Javeriana school and immediately began working with a fellow, doing anything that would come across us. It was mainly interior design and its construction. I learned a lot.

Then we moved on to try our luck by participating in contests with other friends, and luckily we won on our first try (note WhATA: The Villanueva Public Library).

In the meantime I was offered a part-time teaching job to freshmen students of architecture at the Javeriana. It was a dream job because all I had to do was tell them how I was doing in my professional daily life in a class named “Introduction to Architecture” (of course plus some readings and all of that)

WhATA: Aha… Where is it more exciting to make architecture — in Colombia or in an European country? Have you built something in Spain?

Alejandro P: Yes, I have built here, nothing like the library, of course. Nobody my age could build something like that here, in Spain, mainly because everything is so tied up together. When we won in Colombia we didn’t even have our own computers…

Here I’m learning different things and carrying on big projects where I collaborate but they aren’t mine. What I do have built is rather small but mine, again retail and interior design.

So for me being here is like a fake start-over because I carry on working with my Colombian fellows and my own commissions (for example I recently finished a house in Colombia supervised via Skype talking directly to the clients and giving them “instructions” from photos they uploaded in Picassa). I have also travelled to NY for an interview and that sort of multi-scalar activities.

The adventure keeps on going but in a different fashion, may be it’s more exciting back in Colombia because through the work I’ve re-learned things I thought were “made of stone”, those old professional attitudes and people’s resistance to alternatives in architecture.

Colombia is delusional but without it everything kind of flows and there seems to be space for chance and invention, that’s adventurous. Here in Spain may be too but my gun powder is wet for the moment.

WhATA: No computers in Colombia, but good architecture. That’s a dry powder :) As far as we read blogs and architectural magazines… We come under the impression that in Colombia architecture is used as political and social remedy. Your Villanueva Public Library is part of a programme by the Colombian Ministry of Culture to build edicational and cultural centre in a region of political unrest and guerilla fighting. Do you see some actual result of the “healing function” of architecture?

Alejandro P: Yes. The initiative to re-conquer public spaces with cultural facilities, landscape architecture and educational projects is driven by the need to regain the general public realm, which is deeply eroded because of the conflict, so architecture has played a major role and many architects have engaged this task.

I think that architecture has the responsibility not only to meet this but to overachieve it by going even further, further than the architect himself and reaching a hand to the real people, to the real situation of every single project, not just throwing designs and entering contests hoping to win with a render. This whole issue can only be successful if architecture and everything that surrounds it are willing to risk a bit more and be more optimistic. There’s nothing more terrible than fear and censorship and that has to be taken down too.

WhATA: Can an architect build his career on public competitions in Colombia? Do you have problems with competition corruption, lobbies, etc? (‘Cause here, in Bulgaria, we do, a lot)

Alejandro P: Well, from our experience I can say that the architecture competitions are transparent, the official institutions in Colombia are trying hard to build a design democracy and as a result the architecture it produces varies in result. Regarding lobbies I can also say that of course there’s always something smelling funny in the kitchen, but architects are far away from that.

It is possible to build a career on competitions, absolutely, I know a couple of architects that in the turn of 5 years went from small local offices to the cover of Abitare (or something like that) or gained the attention of Iwan Baan (note WhATA: One of the most influential architectural photographers. Not only shoots the best and the stars, but also discovers good architecture).

So things that aren’t so tied up together offer these shortcuts. I see the disorder as possibility, if you move a little bit faster you can oversee the mess and focus on your work.

WhATA: So that’s the reason why (thanks to public competitions as well) so many good Colombian buildings have been circulating the web… congrats! Villanueva Library is a fine example of sustainable architecture in the right way, just where it is needed. Was sustainability part of the competition brief or it was your idea because of the tight financing and harsh reality in the region?

Alejandro P: Sustainability never was part of the competition, and I should be honest, we didn’t intend it to be “green”, we intended it to be “local”, and that meant logically local materials and local handwork, all in the simpliest building possible for the rectangular site we were given.

Five years ago the word sustainability wasn’t part of the Colombian agenda, I think it isn’t as of today, maybe because it has become the token for “new” architecture. Villanueva’s intention was more intuitive.

Vanguard isn’t on the image, it’s on the values, and public architecture values are function and technique. Villanueva’s strong ideas are precisely there and the image is almost a result.

WhATA: What is the climate in Villanueva? How did you ensure thermal insulation and construction stability? Drop something more about construction of wall, drainage, layers of the wall?

Alejandro P: The moment you set foot on Villanueva you understand its climatic conditions. It’s very humid and the sun hits you vertically. It can be Arizona-dry with sudden heavy rain.

[Pastes a photo:]

I’m uploading a 5 a.m. photo from one of the many rivers that descend from Los Andes mountains to this valley of sun where Villanueva is.

The essence of the building was to always keep it open and never, never, have a direct window to the outside. The water demanded a special roof design and we had to collect the water in different areas to disperse the rainfall, and in the perimeter of the whole building we created a natural drainage surface left as a garden.

WhATA: We like your photo material about the library because you present not only the result, but also the whole construction process. This is both useful and fair. Not directed images of a dressed-up building, but the bare truth behind the curtain. How did you get along with the local workers? Was it fun?

Alejandro P: Fun? It was a lesson of a lifetime.

WhATA: :)

Alejandro P: I was there from the moment there was nothing, in the middle of the local workshops we organized to build the wood facade and the gabions (both our “inventions”) and in the end giving a tear-drop speech

[Pastes a photo of the library — a fish-eye 200º picture of inside:]

This is my, our, opera prima and I think the building and it’s reception are giving us more than we expected.

WhATA: Worth it :)

Alejandro P: Yup

WhATA: Ah, btw, have the locals already nicknamed the library – e.g. the shed, the bunker, whatever?

Alejandro P: The local used to call it the “prison” because it had no doors or windows and it seemed to be wrongly oriented.

Now I don’t know how they call it, but I have checked the local web page and many events of the town are taking place there: cinema projections, meeting points for lessons, starting points for festive parades, etc

It’s a cultural meeting point, may be because it’s a library but also because of it’s gigantic shaded plaza, which is a popular architectural element.

WhATA: You did simple but efficient details of both the walls with the gabions and the timber construction. How do these details stand the time?

Alejandro P: It’s too early to say, but for example the stone facade is growing plants on its lower part, giving it a bound-to-earth effect. The wood facade is showing the effect of the sun, some parts are greyish but that’s normal, the wood is guaranteed for another twenty years, then we’ll see.

WhATA: Now one yellow question for finale grande. In Bulgaria corrupted thugs used to make architects design their houses in a kitsch baroque style. How do the homes of Colombian narcobosses look like?

Alejandro P: Bulgarian

WhATA: Haha, great. Well, thanks a lot for this interview and good luck! Hope we can meet some day in live

Alejandro P: Sure we will. Thank YOU and we’ll be in touch.

WhATA: Bye and have a nice Friday evening!

Alejandro P: Already did!


Several days later Alejandro mailed us 135 photos of the construction site, of details and interior views of the library.

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