Mapa Architects: take a walk on the wild side
The office is as unique as bright and friendly. From the bow of one of the most emblematic buildings in the city, this group of transnational architects sets the regional architecture on the world map. And they do this using different singular concepts: a unique concept in design, a fine alignment but at the same time with its own identity towards global trends and sophisticated, constant and hard work in terms of diffusion in the international media. The architects in the local branch of Mapa are young, full of energy, generous when it comes to information, with clear concepts and ambitious aims.
The firm, which has offices in Montevideo and in Porto Alegre, became well-known with its flagship creation, Sacromonte Hotel, proving that being able to manage the media is one of the most important factors when it comes to visualizing a good project, as it is to think outside the box, propose risky solutions and to be appealing to bold clients.
Internationally, they have appeared in different renowned publications which have made the talent of the firm known as well as the new conception of architecture as an export “commodity” based on transport. The reason is that as they are based on two geographic locations, they go beyond the conventional formats in order to explore new experiences in which the landscape is the protagonist as well as their creation, and the shape adapts to the experience of the place and not necessarily to its function, no matter the latitude it is in.
In this field, many architects risk following tendencies, with common places which produce very similar aesthetic shapes, and this happens urbi et orbi. To visualize the work as part of a context is a premise that any student in their first years of university study know, but nevertheless, it is not always applicable in professional practice. However, Mapa invites us to know an innovative language which becomes one with the landscape and at the same time maintains its identity and contrast creating a space of transition between the inside and the outside.
They became well-known because of a hotel project of mini structures built on rough terrain, and they could have suggested just one building, larger and more formal. However, they chose the risky path, XS, of austerity and synthesis, but also of elegance without being too showy and the possibilities of infinite multiplication in time and space.
How did you make the decision of associating with Brazil?
This is the time when the melancholic Uruguayan appears and we start saying that we are the offspring of the crisis of 2002. We started our careers with no chances of working at all, you could not even be part of a team. We were still at University and foreseeing this situation, we contacted our current partners. From that moment, many connections arose and we realized that being a foreigner was an asset when it came to giving an opinion about projects in other countries and vice versa. Later, we shared trips, contests and this triggered a lot of work and a much closer relationship. Everything happened naturally, we felt that it was more positive to think about architecture in a more collective way, not individually but from a team.
What does Mapa add to this external complementary side?
Brazilian architecture is very much influenced by the Carioca and Paulista school, although there is a new trend which is much more industrialized and independent. We believe that an external view helps because we are not immersed in such radical lines of work. Our views are different from the logic of these established languages. The foreigner is situated in a different place and this helps to establish an identity from other options and not from the same place.
Does having two offices in two different countries influence the internationalization of the firm?
Yes, of course. Nowadays, we try to position ourselves as a local firm with connections in Brazil, which although it has diminished, it continues being a great market. Nowadays, we have more presence in Uruguay, but the word internationalization has been the focus all throughout the year 2018 and will be in 2019 as well. It is among our key objectives and we consider it a sound strategy.
What kind of resources do you use to manage this diffusion: contests, lobby, public relations?
We work a lot on contests, although lately we have focused more on works ordered directly by clients which are every time more specific and, luckily, more usual. The word of mouth plays a vital role because it is starting to guide the work of the study towards certain clients. The development of Sacromonte Hotel in Maldonado gave us a great diffusion, and at the same time, this has led us to programs of very similar characteristics. Imagine that we were called from New York and were told “I saw the Sacromonte and we would like to do something similar”, from Norway, or from the Azores Islands. Incredible.
How did it help to take part in so many contests?
The contest has helped us to become professional, to make a team, to be flexible when it comes to changing scales. We won a big one in Conaprole, we were finalists in Antel Arena. In conclusion, we understand that this ability to give specific architectural answers to each problem has a lot to do with those experiences, because it is difficult to work for a contest, but on the other hand, with hindsight, it helped us to be prepared for greater challenges, it was an exercise to solve very complex projects in very little time.
You were able to position yourselves as a firm with your own characteristics that works with the concept of modular construction and cabins, with simple designs and optimizing resources. How did you manage to build this identity?
A short time ago, we gave a talk about landscape and more abstract architecture. We started thinking about prefabrication interacting with very natural landscape and we realized that there was a new and powerful issue which led us to establish our own theoretical bases. These abstract issues, which are much smaller in size, provide us with shelter, this is what we call them. We were lucky enough to write these texts and from that moment, we created a compilation of more theoretical issues that have to do with these artifacts that are built in a controlled space and on a very intense and specific occasions, and they end up coexisting with the landscape, creating a symbiosis with completely new meanings. Your home complements the landscape as a whole, and this is why they are such small spaces. The idea is to manage that these two entities: on the one hand, the remoteness of the place with very little human activity, and on the other hand, the object itself, creating a complementary relation. These two things are replicable, they are two ingredients of the same recipe which allow us to be working at the same time in Maldonado or in Berlin.
In this respect, we developed MINIMOD, which is an exploration which began in the year 2008 by the firm, which consisted of building a self-financed prototype, which has produced a family of products which can be sold to different parts of the world. (in our web there are examples such as MINIMOD Catuçaba and MINIMOD Curucaca). It is about a collection of prefab devices that can adapt to any client-explorer and to any remote landscape.
How do well-known architectural movements manage to distinguish themselves with their own characteristics?
We try not to have a characteristic language, we want to react to the context and to the landscape. The volume is the largest size that can be transported and these “little bugs” can be intense. We work on rural as well as urban projects. Nowadays, in a logical assembly construction, we have just finished building a parking place with assembly components and we have other projects developed with a certain central idea which is not precisely a formal one. What we apply in all of them is an ability we developed at the time of the contests to read the problems. Each project has its own issues and responds to them. If we focus on Sacromonte, we wanted to build a showcase which generated the double experience of being inside and outside at the same time, in order to encourage the contact with the landscape. The shape arises from the experience of the user and of the logistics necessary to insert it in the landscape. Or if we talk about a parking place project, much heavier, we decided not to follow the norms and as a result we came up with a triangular square for the neighborhood. As a result, something that was thought of as a place to put cars away has become something that enriches the city and this adds an extra value to its field.
It is a reversion of architecture thought in this way: we usually begin from the concept, a style, and here the premise is the internal use. Moving away from common denominator is no easy task, but it seems you have managed to do so.
Nowadays, architectural and visual language is ephemeral, so to tie yourself to a language implies running the risk of fading rapidly. When we talk about the inside and its portability, we also talk about readapting to the context. In a project that we had to do in New York, we started working with leaning roofs because of the snow. And so the thing changes: the surround becomes this because the load of snow is huge. If we had wanted to take there the language of Sacromonte, we wouldn’t have been able to. When we receive or propose a project, we like to understand the needs of the client and its surroundings and to start proposing ideas which allow us to expand the experience. One of the strongest constraints for an architect is the feasibility and the performance, and in these cases in which the landscape has no constraints with regard to habitability, they are much freer and more expressive.
It is a way of understanding that architecture no only deals with a necessity strictly speaking, but it generates different experiences as it evolves…
Yes, for us, the experience, the environment and how these elements interact is vital. We always think of visiting the places, we spend a great deal of time there, and there is a question of sensitivity, which is always present.
What did the client of Sacromonte ask for in the first meetings?
They wanted something really different. We got very much involved with the venture and we tried to become accomplices, understanding how we could help them. Many times, people come seeking us with a project which is not what they need. The Sacromonte Project has two phases and the next one includes the addition of ten new cabins with a different concept, a reception, a restaurant and a place for wine tasting.
This well sought internationalization was a great leap. Were you aware of what you were generating in terms of recognition from the international media?
We have built a network of connections with the media which has allowed us to have these contacts and results. And it is a diffusion which is also useful to the owners because it generates visits and guests. It gives extra value to the work and it is something that we generate from the inside, fostering these links and connections. We believe that this impact on local and foreign publications is part and parcel of our firm.
How does this international diffusion of publications, interviews from abroad and people who want to know you affect you?
What happens with prefabricated devices and diffusion, is that the end user understands that these objects can reach them wherever they are. The vision we have of the world is that everything is far away, but the flow of goods is much more dynamic than what it seems to be. We now have a project of a house in Los Angeles where we need a local architect to guide us in terms of regulations, and this is very nurturing because it has to do with what we said about foreigners. We get feedback which is only known to a person who lives there. We got this client by word of mouth although we are far apart geographically speaking, it is the diffusion which moves the firm. A great deal of the clients are foreigners who build in or outside the country. The other net we started working with is at company and suppliers’ level who help us build these things in other parts of the world. For example, for Sacromonte we had an ally in Portugal, not because of labour work but because of quality, as we worked with very special wood, with technology which produces one-piece panels.
It is all about understanding that we are here but that technological solutions travel to different destinations.
The vision we have of the world is that everything is a long way away, but the flow of goods is much more dynamic tan it seems.
It is a great challenge that the first professional experiences generate all this because the expectation for what will come is much higher. How do you handle this?
Yes, actually, the firm has had great impact on publications with works done in Brazil. It is a path that is built with each work we do and Sacromonte is one more of a series of projects, although it has become very visible in Uruguay, something which is not that common. We believe that architecture in our country should have more international diffusion because it is worth it. We worry about diffusion and management, we encourage it and we try very hard for our projects to be visible.
How do you manage to work globally on a Project without losing control?
What happens is that most of the work is done in a controlled place.
The change in the way things are built is impending when you are faced with the dilemma if architecture has to resemble a machine or it really has to be thought of as a machine and built accordingly. We believe in this logic, that architecture is the result of a series of processes, and among them, we find the area of industry.
How many people work in the offices and how do they communicate?
All in all, we are eleven here and seven in Brazil. Skype is a very good tool, in fact, there have been projects with a duration of four months which were built using distance contact in places such as Dubai, Jujuy and London.
Another challenge is that apart from fame and recognition, you are financially viable. How are the tasks divided?
Each individual takes one role according to their abilities. The team is really important and each individual understands which role they feel more comfortable with. As we have had teams made up of more or fewer people, we have consolidated a smaller base where the flow of tasks goes by. Besides, the partners are everywhere, but there is always one of us who coordinates the clients’ projects because we believe that it is important that they have a direct reference to be in contact with. There cannot be five interlocutors.
What is the opinion of a young generation like yours about the collective management of the profession?
Generally speaking, the Uruguayan architect has no conviction of joint work; as a result, they are all isolated efforts. A remarkable example has to do with design, the group that went to London with the Vilamajo’s project. They understand themselves as a group and they introduce themselves as such although they are different companies. And the results grow exponentially, a lot more than the real scope and possibilities of each one of them individually. Genuine cross exchanges are still missing.
What are you working on now?
At international level, we are working with a house in Los Angeles and another one in New York, managed by an investment group. In Brazil, we are working in a gallery and a medical center, and here constantly with Sacromonte, which is great because it is like an experimental laboratory for us. We also have some projects in the east, in José Ignacio and Rocha, and an important restoration project in Parque Rodó…
Good projects bring good clients, but building a good portfolio implies knowing when to say yes and when no. However, being a young firm, it must be difficult to say no.
Yes, totally. But we also have what we talked about before, knowing how to suggest, give ideas, and build an interesting project. The foreign client has made us grow a lot because they trust and give us freedom and we are planning to stay on that side of the way