‘Most architects are not the elite or complicit in property speculation’

Carme Pinós

Retrat de Carme Pinós © Martí Petit

Carme Pinós is a truly trail-blazing architect. In 1991, she founded her own practice in a field where women were the exception, and after countless obstacles and plenty of perseverance – and, in particular, hard work – she has become one of the most internationally renowned Catalan architects. She has just won the 2021 National Architecture Award of Spain, the most prestigious Spanish prize in her industry, which she adds to the long list of other accolades and recognition she has accumulated. For Carme Pinós, this art is a challenge, a game and, primarily, a way of being. Her work covers everything, from major buildings, urban renovations and public works all the way down to furniture. She is interested in all scales, because architecture is everywhere and makes the city. And, above all, because she believes that architecture ‘isn’t work, it’s life’.

Carme Pinós (Barcelona, 1954) shared the first phase of her career – and adult life – with fellow architect Enric Miralles. Together, they created their own, innovative language that would catapult them to international fame, with works like the Igualada Cemetery and the Olympic archery facilities in Barcelona. She then continued alone, with her own practice, developing her architecture freely and with great creative power, fulfilling her desire for risk and discovery. Since then, this passionate, responsible architect has built and taught all over the world. Her work includes the CaixaForum in Zaragoza, two skyscrapers in Mexico, and the architectural and urbanistic design for Plaça de la Gardunya in Barcelona.

After so many years of hard work, does your job still excite you?

Absolutely! Constantly overcoming challenges is an incredible incentive. I see architecture as both a service to society and an art. And that’s exciting.

Is that what fulfils you most day to day?

Yes. Working is a way of being in the world, of doing your bit. I feel like I’m part of the world through my role as an architect. On top of that, it’s a game. I enjoy it and share it with the people around me.

Would you like to keep working for many more years?

I’ll work for as long as I can. I love making architecture, but instead of just making, making, making, I would also like to reflect. I would love to end my career in some sort of foundation that promotes reflection, debate and critical thought. Because critical thought is in crisis at the moment.

This critical thought needs to be built. And we need to understand that architecture is culture.

Architecture is absolutely culture! It deals with transcendence, culture and art. What is art if not our need to transcend? I don’t know whether it’s a mistake or not, but that’s what makes us human.

It’s obvious that you’re passionate about architecture, but it can also be a tough profession. What about it frustrates or disappoints you the most?

There are too many rules and obstacles. They treat us like criminals! The rules are there to prevent malpractice, to control speculation, but those of us who do things right get punished too. There ends up being no room for creativity, and that’s very frustrating. I also get annoyed with how the market works. Architecture is a profession where, to work, you need to pay first. We’re working on a bid for a tender at the moment and it’s really complex. Many people work on it for many months, and we lose a lot of money… Then, out of the fifteen architecture practices that submitted a proposal, only one will get paid. The rest of the work goes to waste! It’s like saying to a doctor, ‘If you cure me, I’ll pay, but if you don’t, I won’t’. Or to a carpenter, ‘Make me four chairs and then I’ll decide if I want any of them’.

Has the profession lost its value?

Yes, it’s taken a nosedive. Architecture has become a commodity. And housing. All of it. Now, houses are built to make the most money possible, then the developer washes their hands of them as soon as they are sold. The love for the work has been lost.

Do we need more empathy?

Yes, definitely. We need to see work as an act of generosity. It’s a utopia, but work should be a way of being part of the world and thinking of others. 

You often express that architecture is your way of being part of the world. To what extent do you think that work has become your life?

It’s not work, it’s life. I don’t separate the different areas because for me, it’s all part of a whole. I give it all to be part of something that is bigger than me. I’m an architect 24/7, I don’t have working hours. But not in a ‘workaholic’ way.

Being in a profession that is also your calling and your passion feels like a privilege. But then you can run the risk of working away relentlessly and leaving the rest on the back burner. Has architecture required a lot from you? Have you had to give up other things?

I haven’t had children, and I don’t know what I would be like now if I had. I suppose I would have coped; I’m not the only woman architect. But it just went that way. I haven’t built a family, but in some ways, my family is much wider.

This profession has also brought you a lot of great experiences and successes.

I don’t like the word success, because it implies the existence of the opposite, failure. I don’t see life as success or failure. I just live it and enjoy it. Success is about how people see you, not how you feel. Enjoying or otherwise reflects what you feel.

Have you enjoyed life, do you enjoy it?

I enjoy it to the fullest, every day. I haven’t had an easy time, but I’ve never stopped enjoying what I do.

When you look back and see everything that’s brought you where you are today, how do you feel?

​Happy. And worried about the uncertain future that awaits us. But amazed by everything I’ve experienced so far. Who would have known?! (laughs)

You started building very young.

Yes, Enric Miralles and I coincided at a time when everything was possible in Spain. In the eighties, there was a desire to make and do things and pass the baton on to young people, and we made the most of it. Then I was on my own, and it was hard to carry on. I survived the best I could.

Retrat de Carme Pinós © Martí Petit Portrait of Carme Pinós. © Martí Petit

You opened your own practice in 1991, the year I was born. In these thirty years, between your generation and mine, a lot has changed.

Yes! I think things changed after the economic crisis of 2008 especially. It was a turning point, for the worse. We were coming from the time of speculation, of the real estate bubble, of spectacle architecture. And a lot of things came crashing down. Suddenly, it all fell apart, rates fell and our work was discredited.

Spectacle architecture damaged architects’ reputation. Are we still feeling the effects?

Definitely. A lot of money was wasted and the stars of architecture were promoted. And stars get built; they are not necessarily the best architects. A milestone was the Guggenheim in Bilbao, by Frank Gehry, which was a wise project that transformed the city. But then everyone wanted a Guggenheim, and that did a lot of damage. The speculation boom didn’t help, either. 

Over the years, the role of women in architecture has changed, too. Before, women architects were the exception. Now, women are the majority in architecture lecture halls.

Yes. But I think that has a lot to do with the crisis in the profession. Men always chase success, which I hate. And given that architecture is no longer lucrative, men have filled other, more profitable faculties and careers. Women are less motivated by success; we’re more generous, more empathic. Historically, we have always stepped forward to look after others. Why is why we’re resisting now in the world of architecture. 

But at the same time, we still need to celebrate that women have gained access to a historically masculine field, which is a step towards parity.

If women have space in architecture now, it’s because the men have left. That’s the feeling I get. I was at an architecture school in Madrid the other day and I would say 80% of the students were women.

If these women design the buildings and cities we live in, is this an opportunity to incorporate the care and empathy you think is missing in architecture?

Yes, and it’s not only needed in architecture. In politics, everywhere. Empathy shouldn’t be a female trait; men should be empathic too, but we women have more capacity for empathy genetically.

Retrat de Carme Pinós. © Martí Petit Portrait of Carme Pinós. © Martí Petit

Don’t you think it’s partly a social and cultural construct?

I think there’s a lot of biology involved. You can’t ignore the fact that a baby can come out of you. Above all, women are mothers. I’m not one, but I feel like one. I can’t help it; I look after those around me. 

You were one of the first women to lead her own architecture practice. What were the early years like?

Hard! Because I got few opportunities. But fun, because I loved drawing up plans. We started out with a very small team, which I’ve maintained and consolidated over the years.

Not a lot is said about the structural uncertainty in this field.

Unfortunately, that is a challenge we face. You might have a project on the go today and then tomorrow, with just a phone call, it’s taken away. We’re dealt blows from all sides, partly because we’ve been complicit with this brutal system, and because we don’t know how to explain our work. I would like to organise a collective exhibition to show architects’ creative process. Not the result, but how we get to the final proposal, what we try to do, the studies we have carried out and the workload all of this entails. Bring architecture closer to people.

We haven’t yet managed to bring architecture closer to society at large.

Yes! We’re too elitist. We like talking in ways no one understands. We have to explain what architecture is so that we can be seen in a favourable light again. Most of us are not the elite or complicit in property speculation. We are responsible and committed to society.

We mustn’t forget that architecture is the staging for our lives. It’s essential for all of us.

Definitely. Architecture can transform everything.

Can architecture make us happy?

I’m not sure whether it’s happiness or not, because I’m not exactly sure what happiness is, but architecture can provide dignity, and take it away. Covid-19 has highlighted this. Closing people off in spaces without light or ventilation, where they can’t see anything, takes their dignity away. The last project I did as a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, was about a refugee camp. I asked the students to use architecture to give dignity back to people who had lost everything. 

Teaching has been important in your life.

I’ve never stopped giving lectures all over the world, but I’m starting to say no now, even to prestigious posts. I’m needed at the practice. I can’t carry on with the same rhythm as before. In a few days, I went from teaching at Berkeley to working in Australia, Paris or San Francisco.

What has stayed with you from your time with Enric Miralles?

All of it. Enric and I discovered a way of doing things that I've continued to develop since. There has been no break or interruption in my architecture: it has been a complete continuation, but an unconscious one. I always work very freely. I don’t analyse myself, I don’t look for references. That’s the advice I would give to young architects: don’t analyse yourselves, don’t compare yourselves. Comparing yourself to others can be very frustrating.

You and Enric Miralles created a unique language.

Yes! Because we concentrated on what we were doing. We moved very freely, without any kind of prejudice, and the geometries emerged in accordance with the place, the programme, what you wanted to offer. And it’s the same now. Every project is different. There’s no one geometry that belongs to me; each place requires a different one. 

Retrat de Carme Pinós. © Martí Petit Portrait of Carme Pinós. © Martí Petit

However, your architectural language has created a school of thought, and many try to imitate Miralles-Pinós geometries.

Yes, but the language is misinterpreted. There are a lot of followers of our architecture, but they have stayed at a surface level. They use curves for no reason. For us, every curve fulfilled a need: they were spaces, routes, integration. They were never just gestures. But if this helps people feel freer when creating architecture, great.

What are your memories of those years?

A lot of work, and perhaps too much ambition. I don’t have as much now, compared to Miralles-Pinós. Especially Miralles. He had lots of energy; he wanted to get out there and conquer the world, but that wasn’t my goal in life. There was a bit of an imbalance in this sense.

Were you equals in the practice?

When we started a project, we discussed things on an equal footing. We could share all our thoughts. Then, Enric was more able to develop the projects, to draw them up. But at the beginning, when the ideas emerged, we were absolutely equal.

What has changed since then?

My rhythm, my ambition. My perspective is the same, but my ambition is to do things well and carry on. Not to conquer the world.

How do you approach projects? What do you take into account?

Context and sensitivity. The most important thing is to understand where I’m working, to listen, because the place speaks to you. And the programme, too. At the same time, you need to listen to the client, because you have to make their dreams a reality; you have to know how to interpret them and work sensitively. I don’t want to impose myself. I want to have a conversation; articulate the city and the landscape; seek dynamism, tangential perspectives and symbiosis with the land. 

Of all the buildings you have designed, which are you most proud of?

All of them. I always say I’m in love with my last project, but the Cube I Tower in Mexico was a turning point in my career. The clients put all their faith in me, and without faith, there can be no good projects.

After building a lot in Catalonia in the Miralles-Pinós era, you started to build abroad exclusively. Why was that?

International work saved me. When Enric and I separated, people here turned their backs on me, while abroad, I received much more support and worked at great universities. Meanwhile, the School of Architecture of Barcelona had rejected me several times. Of course, no one is a prophet in their own land, but I’ve felt a lot more valued abroad than here.

Did you feel alone or misunderstood?

Yes, absolutely… In 1996, the International Union of Architects (UIA) organised a conference in Barcelona, and they ignored me completely. People knew where Enric Miralles was, but Carme Pinós had disappeared.

Do you feel more valued here in Catalonia now?

Yes! In general, in Spain, but not especially in Catalonia. There was an exhibition of my work in Madrid, in the Museo ICO, and people still ask me why it wasn’t held in Barcelona. Because they asked for me in Madrid! And now in San Sebastián, they have dedicated the biggest exhibition of the Biennial to me. Nobody has asked for me in Catalonia.

It was recently the Year of Enric Miralles, and various events and exhibitions were organised in Barcelona.

No one told me anything about it. They just asked me to attend this ridiculous discussion, and I refused. If the only thing they are interested in is me telling a few anecdotes… It’s a no. 

 © Imatges Barcelona / Vicente Zambrano González Plaça de la Gardunya in 2015, when the renovations carried out by the Carme Pinós architecture practice were finished. The urbanism project for Plaça de la Gardunya included extending and renovating the rear façade of La Boqueria Market (at the back in the photo), and constructing the new Massana School building (opened in 2017) and another building with 39 social housing flats (finished in 2018).  
© Imatges Barcelona / Vicente Zambrano González

Apart from the projects with Enric Miralles, you ended up building here in Catalonia again.

The Plaça de la Gardunya bid was an important project for me. They selected me for the tender process, and I eventually won. I felt like they were backing me and they trusted me.

There, you built architecture and city: buildings and public space.

Exactly. Architecture makes the city, it is the city. 

What does the city we need to face the challenges of the 21st century look like?

I think we need a city of a reasonable size. It’s a mistake to think that the city can keep on growing indefinitely. We have to think about how to articulate cities, the territory, nature, agriculture and industry. The Netherlands could be used as an example of a country made up of small, well-articulated cities, with fluid connections and sensible distances. The challenge is how to make space for the growth of humanity and ensure a harmonious co-existence with nature. How do we structure ourselves across the planet? Therein lies the debate. 

What can we do as citizens?

Respect each other. Encourage debate and participate. Listen and ask questions. Believe that we have responsibilities and we can contribute.

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