“We just keep going in a straight line.”
Panorama Architects was recently named by Wallpaper magazine in its coveted shortlist of the best emerging design firms. One look at their seamless interactions with nature and it’s easy to see why. Their designs, and the incredible landscapes surrounding them feel like an architectural edit, rather than a forced build. The effect is uncanny. Their collaboration with nature also reflects on the collaborative philosophies of the office, which as affirmed by co-founder Nicolas Valdes, has no allowance for auteurs. We talked to him about what makes their work unique.
Ph: Can you tell us about how you got started?
Nicolas: We started out in 2009. We had two very different building projects to work on: a building and a small beachside house. With those two ideas and projects we decided “OK, it’s time to start a firm.”
For a couple years it was just us two (Constanza), maybe one other person helping here and there, so we always managed to stay small. We focused mainly on projects that have some contact situation with the things which make it projects we like. Like a national park down in Patagonia in the middle of the forest. We have projects that are related to landscape a lot because in Chile you don't find much flatland. You have mountains, you have accidents to call it another way, and it really characterizes how projects should be developed.
We've been working in this small-scale studio and try always to relate work to what is important for us, from inside to outside. It's really nothing new but we do think of every project as especially related to nature, and that context is landscape.
Ph: Do you not do urban projects then? What do you think of urbanism?
We can go urban, meaning into the city, of course, and still have the same ingredients. If you isolate them from the context of the plot, there isn't much sense. We don't work as if our projects are developed just to exist, but we need an anchor. That anchor is always context. We haven't had a chance yet to work in a grid, but it's quite similar to what the body is. You are a component part of an organ, that's a whole universe which is a system, which should be really thought through. If you have a problem in urbanism, in the end, you can pinpoint it down to a building even. It's not necessarily so general. You can point out that maybe something was badly done, architecturally speaking. It is something you cannot get rid of, though. But so far we have been working a bit on the outside, on the outskirts.
What is urbanism? It's a complex but same time simple relationship between man and nature.
You have to value light wherever you work, most importantly in the city where you have all these urban challenges, you must serve that minimal fraction of worth. It could be a streak of light, or whatever. You may end up resolving a problem. It seems closer to success on a larger scale. Light is present everywhere.
Ph: You mentioned anchor of context but how does that translate to something like Paperhouses where the design is a template that can be universally developed? How does that change your approach knowing it can be downloaded… anywhere?
It makes it more interesting because then we have to try to similarlize the case scenarios where you or anyone can share. Everybody has certain needs, we try to group them, make them our pillars. Pillars define different decisions in the project. In this case we took the brief we got from Paperhouses on what the subject or problem should be. We summarized it and simplified it as much as possible so whoever chooses our design can make their own adjustments. Then we had the idea to distinguish it as work on sloped areas, sloped plots, in terms of where to build it. Why? Because we’re highly trained to work on those environments, with the constant work we do on sloped scenarios, which aren't the most expensive plots because they aren't flat. Of course you have to go more expensive if you go on flat land. And perhaps there are more opportunities to get a piece of sloped land to build upon, and make something consistent, budget-wise.
Ph: Panorama says it's value on the website, and you're looking for efficient solutions through design, for example by designing for sloped land, of course, but how important is that aspect of affordability and value, to you guys?
Why is affordability important? Maybe because we think of architecture as having value on daily life, and if you are able to understand or perceive or feel what's important—an exterior, daylight, view—that makes a special component to daily life, and we seek value in architecture in the way you can engage with that as much as possible. The budget doesn’t actually matter. It's making affordable and accessible work to make a difference to daily life. That’s mainly it.
Ph: To what extent has the issue of sustainability or environmentalism affected your practice?
Those are values that have always been present in architecture. I don’t think of those as new. If you go to the start of architecture centuries back, they always managed to make buildings or homes in a sustainable way with resources and assistance. That’s a global way of understanding sustainability. Nowadays you have the assistance of new technology but the principles have always been there. Sunlight, ventilation…now everybody knows about these things and asks about it but we've always managed to incorporate it in every project, as simply as possible. That’s really important. You can go to extreme complexity, and in the end that goes into high levels of budget. We try not to go that far. You have to be wise about budget.
Ph: Looking at the designs you've done, there's this spectacular Chilean landscape that's been incorporated into the design, but how strongly do you feel Chilean identity figures into your design?
To be honest, I don't know if… it's a matter of identity maybe but I don’t know. Maybe when your starting point is this piece of land and beautiful ocean with a lot of wind and nice views with the extent of daylight we have down here in the Southern Hemisphere… Maybe it's an abstract way of understanding identity, but it's part of the value of thinking of engaging with the project. I wouldn't say there's anything about identity in the aesthetics because nowadays design is pretty much globalized. Materials are everywhere the same, and I don’t know, structurally speaking, there's a huge palette of options which everyone manages. Identity, I'll say it's an abstract way of understanding space living and nature.
Ph: How about identifying… socially? You and Constanza were in London and decided to open your firm in Chile but do you feel like what you're doing is part of a broader movement? Chile in the news for us is always about being an emerging market and emerging art forum, but do you feel like an active part of that or does it mater? Do you work independently of what’s going on around you?
Things always happen somehow for some reason but we had the chance to start on our own in England, but Constanza and I thought about it and said we are definitely starting in Chile. Not because of what was already going on here but as you said, it's an emerging market. Once here, there are lots of groups with common goals and same kind of quality and scale and way of engaging work.
Just to add: I don't feel much on a way of design that we have to become a part of something bigger. I feel quite independent in that sense. We are super clear about our goals, our brief or way of understanding things. We just keep on going in a straight line.
Ph: It's interesting because you're also a group. You make it clear on the website that you're in a collaborative design environment, but what's that like? What's the editing process like when you have partner architects under one banner, if you will.
Maybe this came because of a need for second opinion… or third or fourth (laughter). Me and Constanza have for some reason, this interesting way of complementing ideas, of understanding things. I have lots of ideas she complements on her side with her ideas and at the end this is all the work around the office. Whoever comes in and wants to join us and share ideas is welcome to. We try to open the work process so we have the same kind of views. One way of understanding and idea is to go in the sphere and turn 360 degrees 360 times. Multiple ways of understanding things. Very important value of how to make or get results which don’t have to be on the same platform at all. There are some basics which are obvious. Windows, doors, things like that… the way you can understand them are so open there's a never-ending proposition of using melody structure. Architecture is much the same. So, that's why maybe, we prefer not to relate creative design to work, but keep it completely general.
Ph: In that spirit of openness and generalism, have you ever had extreme difference of opinion? Has Constanza ever said “absolutely no way” or vice versa.
I mean, yeah.. of course everybody has… (laughing) there's always conflict. We try not to act on impulsion. It’s something that I think everyone at the end thinks the same but if we have strong attachments to your ideas it’s kind of hard to open up the agenda to debate and all that. Because you’re really fond of your ideas. The good thing about the pressure to make decisions on a team basis is you have to adapt somehow and compliment things by others. It's a must. There's culture and all that, but it's a matter of sometimes being able to disagree, to agree to disagree.
Ph: In the office, this is a dumb question but do you guys have any unusually office rituals or rules?
Hmm… no. For example, I could say about my experiences in offices before Panorama. I used to work in two offices, one different from the other. But at both, it was nothing but schedules and work. Everything was quite structured. There wasn't much of anything to make it feel real at the end. We are people working toward a goal. We try to incorporate not a ritual but get to be as close as people can be in a work environment. At the end of the day, everybody's having a good time and trying to get somewhere. We are under the same banner which is Panorama and we appreciate help from others and we hope they appreciate our being with them as well. Collaboration is important to make it to a different level. It’s never just us.
Previously: Interview with Florian Busch