INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects

Guzmán de Yarza Blache founded J1 Architects in 2004 with three other partners. Based in Madrid, the practice has since gone on to create many notable buildings, from the unusual residential ‘V House’ – which he describes as looking more like ‘a little museum than a villa’ – to the award winning Iglesias General Motors Building and the elevated sports court at the Lasalle Franciscanas School, both in Zaragoza.

He is also Director of the Master in Work Space Design post-graduate programme at the acclaimed IE School of Architecture & Design in Madrid and Segovia. Alongside his work in architecture, design and academia, Guzmán is a successful visual artist whose work has been exhibited from Spain to Paris, from Moscow to Buenos Aires and Prague.

An avid documentary film-maker with a particular penchant for what he describes as ‘non-places’, Guzmán’s latest film is the hauntingly evocative ‘Eternal Sunrise’. This charts the story of two travellers following the sunrise around the globe for 25 days, tracking the 15 airports they move through and the people that work and wait in them.

We speak to Guzmán about his recent projects - including his first ever novel - and about the rapidly evolving changes he is witnessing in the arena of work, retail and learning spaces. We also delve into his past, discovering how personal tragedy at a young age spurred him on in his artistic and architectural journey. But first...

This year you kindly agreed to sit on the World Interiors News Awards Workspace and Retail Interiors judging panels. What made you want to get involved, and what were you looking for in the winning submissions?

World Interiors News is an outstanding showcase for world-class design, so I immediately accepted the great honour and responsibility of participating in the juries. I am a practising architect, and I think design and architecture were developed to make the life of the people better. As simple as that. Design has to help people to have a more interesting, beautiful and most of all, meaningful existence. Whenever I detect that, there I go.

What did you think of the standard of entries in general, and did you notice any new trends emerging among them?

Overall, I think the level was high. We had to do shortlists and then short-short lists befeore getting the actual winner. The design realm has became extremely competitive around the world. Some decades ago I guess it was mainly about western designers setting the standards; nowadays, you see amazing and ground breaking designs coming from all over the place.

I can see a clear trend in the sense of the blurring of the spaces and programmes; it is actually something that is happening since the appearance of technology. Nowadays we are able to do almost all human activities - working, buying, flirting - in literally every space possible. I am clearly seeing how some spaces start looking like something completely different - like hotel lobbies, workplaces, schools. A lot of the entries had that spirit, of a new kind of multi-purpose, flexible, complex yet cool, kind of space.

In addition to your work heading up J1 Architects in Madrid, you’re also Director of the Master in Work Space Design post-graduate programme at the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid and Segovia. Firstly, how did you come to get involved in this role?

I first started teaching undergraduate studies in Segovia, back in 2010. I still teach there a subject called ‘Experimentation Workshop’ to third year architecture students. My task is to put my students into situations that are usually not tackled within the traditional bachelor of architecture studies. I make them do documentary-guerrilla-style-films. It is very fun. Believe me. After a couple years of good results, I went through a selection process to be the Director of the Master in Work Space Design, where I have been working since early 2012.

What sort of things do the films feature?

The students record with their smartphone or photographic cameras, always under low-tech conditions. In 2010, they dealt with the Segovian super-landscape of non-places. In 2011, the topic was fake documentaries, so the students had to make a fake video about a supposed local conceptual artist from the 70s whose retrospective was about to be organised in Segovia. The following year, the topic was transcendental realism focussing on family and close environments to achieve a poetic effect.

Secondly, in your view what are some of the most important things the course has to offer its students?

Our body of faculty and speakers is one of our major assets. We have top designers in the field of work spaces like Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander, founders of the San Francisco-based practice, Studio O+A. We also have legends of workplace consultancy like John Worthington, founder of DEGW, or outstanding architects such as Sir Richard Rogers, Viny Maas, founder of MVRD, or Ben van Berkel, among others. The list is long. We’ve also just signed up Rosan Bosch, the great Danish designer of ‘Schools without Walls’ in Sweden.

I would say another core asset is the partnership with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, which is a research centre within the Royal College of Art in London. They have a great specialty in the workplace and in user-centred design.

And personally speaking, what do you enjoy most about being Director of the programme?

This has been a life-changing experience for me. It has been fantastic to have access to some of the most influential designers and architects. I enjoy the personal side of it very much.

We understand that the programme has expanded somewhat to include retail and learning environments as well as design for work spaces. Why is that?

It is partly because of what I was talking about before, when explaining current trends. At the IE School, we have experienced a massive blurring of the spaces and programmes within the design realm, especially thanks to technology. This blurring is also linked to innovation, because the space of the future will be, in our opinion, like that; informal, mixed, complex and meaningful.

We recognised the three types of spaces where more innovation is taking place as not only the work place, but also the retail and learning environments. Many of our faculty members and speakers have indicated that their current commissions usually have to do with those three aspects.

Aside from technology, what do you think are some of the factors most driving change in the work/retail/learning sectors?

Social media is part of these technological drivers too. Take shopping; social media is bringing back the idea of the market place, virtually, so you can be part of a community that shares your personal likes and tastes, and you can meet people and grow personally in that process. It is not just about consuming. It is about constructing your identity with people like you.

Another driver is informality; this is affecting all the public realm. Strong hierarchies and structures are being waived into more democratic, informal, collective environments. Take schools or universities; the traditional lecturer in a classroom, delivering wisdom for hours, is gone. Nowadays, knowledge is something that needs to be constructed by the class, collectively, rather than just delivered in a linear way. It happens the very same with working environments. No longer do individual offices represent power and hierarchy; a good idea can come from anywhere.

Referencing the above to your own work at J1 Architects, do you have a favourite project? And if so, why do you particularly like it?

Projects are like your just cannot pick one above the rest...

One of your projects, the Iglesias General Motors Building in Zaragoza, has won great critical acclaim and awards in Spain. What were the challenges involved in delivering the building?

The spans to be solved in the main level were pretty big, getting to be longer than 45 metres in some places. The budget was kind of tight, too. And we were very young in those days.

Has the reaction of those who use the building been positive?

Yes, very much. Car showrooms do not have an extensive tradition of excellence in architecture, at least not in Spain.


You can find very good examples, of course, but I would say it has not been a typology where a lot of innovation and good design has been taking place in my country and my region. Because of this, the building stands out more.

And what satisfies you most about the completed design?

It is a very, very simple building that barely uses three or four materials, and allows the cars to be the absolute protagonists. The scale of the building is very interesting. The main façade is more than 80 metres long, almost the same as a football field. When you visit it physically, it has a very interesting and moving scale that pictures can't transmit.

Another J1 project that has been making recent headlines in the architectural press for winning an Architizer A+ Award is that of the new raised sports court at Lasalle Franciscanas School in Zaragoza – affectionately dubbed ‘The Whale’ by the pupils. Can you tell us a little about the project – why was it needed, what were the main considerations, and how well do you feel it has satisfied the brief?

The sisters that run the Colegio Lasalle Franciscanas in Zaragoza called me because they needed more space in the courtyard of the school. Their initial idea was to sort of ‘extrude’ the whole courtyard into another elevated slab of the same surface area. It would have been fatal to the classrooms on the perimeter in terms of natural light, views and ventilation, so I persuaded them to do it in the half of the courtyard that is closer to the street.

This elevated sports court has not only provided more surface, but it has organised the activities within the courtyard; dads and kids who don't want to play any sports usually gather underneath; two basketball courts are located in the ground level, perpendicular to the structure, while the upper level is for older students and their encounters with other schools.

We also had to remove three pre-existing trees in the courtyard, which was a pity. That is why I designed the cage of the elevated sports court with a linear plant pot for ivy to grow, so in a couple of years, fortunately, the metallic cage will be a vertical, floating garden that provides shadow to the rest of the patio. The ivy has grown strongly - now it reaches the height of an adult. It looks great.

As well as what you do at the IE School and J1 Architects, you’re also an internationally exhibited visual artist. Can you explain how your visual art works alongside your architectural and interior design vision? Does one help the other?

Well, my mother was an artist and she was a great influence on me. Apart from that, architectural studies usually give you a lot of exposure to the arts. When I was 20 I started to go to contemporary museums and galleries, and read books by people like Baudrillard or Foucault, which I found very exciting. I just had that feeling in my guts that told me that I had to do something. Documentary film-making is easy, in that way, since video filming and editing is quite easy. Only you need strong, powerful ideas to develop...

Name three things that most characterise your visual art, and what are you seeking to achieve with it?

I have always said that my works were basically about portraying. I like people. Everyone has an amazing story to tell. I also like non-places, or at least places off the beaten-track, usually dismissed by high culture, but which in my opinion hide an incredible aesthetic and human potential - like the airports and the people in them in ‘Eternal Sunrise’.

Another driver for my work has been a low-tech, low-quality and usually low-talented way of approaching things. I consider myself a guerrilla film-maker. Minimum budgets. Minimum editing. Roughness. Trascendence. Beauty.

Where did your obvious passion for art, architecture and design come from? What sort of things inspired you as a child?

As I said, my mother was a painter, which was quite inspiring for me. She passed away when I got to 20, in the middle of my architecture studies, which was the turning point where I started getting really interested in art. As Warhol used to say, the world just fascinates me.

Was there ever any other path you’d like to have followed instead? Footballer? Astronaut? Film director?

My family has been involved in the architecture field for centuries, so ever since I have memories, I remember myself saying ‘I want to be an architect’. Still, my sensitivity has led me to developing other kinds of expression that architecture just can't reach due to its nature.

You went on to graduate in architecture from the University of Navarra in 2002. After that you went to work for Andres Perea Architecture in Madrid. What were one or two of the most valuable lessons you learned while you were there, and has that time influenced you since?

Universidad de Navarra teaches you the job of an architect, which is basic. From there you can be the architect you want to be. At Perea's office I learned about team work and to respect others people's opinions, even when different to your own.

In the rare moments when you’re not teaching, designing or creating, what do you like to do relax and unwind?

I love reading 19th century novels, and playing around with my two kids. Also, I have recently published my first novel, Manual de Superviviencia Contemporánea, roughly translated Contemporary Survival Manual.

Interesting. What is the story about, in brief?

In brief, a heterosexual man from the provinces, who lives in Madrid, is immersed into a world of myriad sexual and group identities that wrestle with his anthropologically privileged position of the straight, white man. What begins as a small home party given by his two gay flatmates leads him on a terrible - yet funny - journey into the comic and pathetic mosaic of creatures that inhabit the nightlife of Madrid.

And what do you like best about living in Madrid?

Madrid, in my opinion, has the perfect equilibrium between what you need from a great metropolis - culture, leisure, food, etc - without losing the feeling of a small village. It actually feels both ways to me!

Gail Taylor

Main Image – V House
IGM – Iglesias General Motors Building
Lasalle - Lasalle Franciscanas School in Zaragoza
Eternal Sunrise - An air hostess captured on film as part of the global airport odyssey, ‘Eternal Sunrise’.