Specialising in urban design, Chocarro y Urmeneta Architects' vast repertoire has helped shape the modern topography of Navarre, Spain. From an amphitheatre to the Ikaburu Caves, their projects have consistently focused on the development of their local area, with a sense of environmental responsibility that they have upheld since they first began three decades ago.
Their recent success in the WIN Lighting Awards 2012 has garnered international recognition for the Pamplona-based practice. As the overall winner, their elegant Reused Bottle Christmas Tree unanimously enthralled the jury panel with its ingenuity and intelligence. As a relatively low-budget commission, its simplicity was, as is so often the case in design, its ultimate standout quality. Created in just 20 days, the installation is indeed a humbling sight - a tower of cascading green and transparent recycled glass bottles, glowing from within its impressive pyramidal structure.
As we sit on a sunny roof terrace overlooking the changing skyline of East London, Patxi Chocarro and Maria Urmeneta explain how this award-winning project sums up the approach to architecture that they have been committed to from the very beginning.
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and your practice?
We started our practice in the 1980s, and have gone on to do a lot of projects in urban planning, doing bigger things like housing, community buildings and other public buildings. We have always tried to practice responsible architecture, really for the good of society.
Your website shows a lot of beautiful projects, but not so many that are lighting-focused. How did the reused bottle lighting installation come about?
Actually, lighting is really important for every building that we do. Although we haven't done exclusive lighting projects, we have always taken care of this aspect of buildings, so we had a good knowledge of it. When we started working with the entity that commissioned this project, we decided we wanted to do something with lighting that would be a very reusable thing.
So you were approached specifically - it wasn't a competition?
No, we have been working with them for some years. It was a really small project and it had to be done very quickly, so once it was decided upon we made the project in just 20 days; the construction was done in 10 days. This entity really trusts us and the people that we work with, so it was really easy and fast. It's a good collaboration between small companies - it's easier, especially for little constructions.
How were the bottles collected?
This entity collaborates with another enterprise that keeps bottles and reuses them, so they asked them to keep a certain amount of bottles that we'd need to do the tree. In Pamplona, in Navarre, everybody recycles a lot - they do a really good job.
Is the tree still there to be used next year?
One of the things that we really wanted to do with this project was to make something that could be used throughout the years, so we've made it in such a way that it can be constructed and taken apart really easily, to be kept for the next year. The components don't need any special transport or anything.
So you're continuing the recycling process.
Yes, that was one of the main ideas of the project.
Is environmental impact important in all your work?
It's one of the most fundamental things in our architecture. This means that you have to take into account the place where you are building something, the materials that you are using and the passive measurements that you can take in a building to make it environmentally sound. This is one of the main things that we have always taken into account.
Are many of your projects in Spain?
Yes, all of them. They are in different places, but all within Spain. We collaborate a lot with people in France as well.
What are you working on now?
We are now doing some offices, also in Pamplona. We have just finished some urban planning - we do a lot of urban planning work in our studio - and we have also just finished a very interesting project based on an old water wheel.
How do you feel about having won the award?
We are really happy because this prize is like the recognition of all the work we have been doing over the years. And being recognised internationally is really good. Also it's a really good moment because it's quite a bad time in Spain for architecture, so the stakes were up!
What do you think impressed the judges about your lighting installation?
It was a pleasure reading what the judges had to say about the work. We were really happy and really glad because we realised that the judges saw what it was behind the idea, and all the work that went into it. We were really pleased that they could see this.
It is even more admirable that you have taken this responsible approach to architecture from the beginning.
We are really glad to see that now, the way that we have been working all the way through our careers - in a responsible way, with these constructive measurements, taking care of the materials and economic considerations - currently has a lot of importance, perhaps in part because of the recession. We always try to take care of the little details in all our buildings, so this tree was kind of like a little detail that has been recognised, which is really nice.
Amy Knight, Arts & Media Correspondent