Students of Spanish Architect Inaki Abalos re-imagine the high rise

June 5, 2008

NEW YORK CITY — Iñaki Ábalos, one of Spain’s most prominent architects, taught an architecture studio, “Verticalism: The Future of the Skyscraper,” at Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning New York City facility (AAP NYC) during the spring 2008 semester. His premise: adapt the high rise so that it serves public as well as commercial functions.

New York is the ideal place to teach such a studio because it is home to some of the most striking examples of the skyscraper in the world, says Ábalos, who is a founding partner of the Madrid-based architectural firm Ábalos and Herreros as well as head of his own independent practice, Ábalos Architects.  

New York also is one of Ábalos’s favorite cities, and his work is well known there. The author of four influential books, among them Tower and Office (MIT Press, 2003), he was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “On Site: New Architecture in Spain” in 2006.  

As part of the studio, Ábalos asked his 18 fourth-year architecture students to research and observe in the city around them examples of such urban building typologies as the single tower; the super block — a group of towers of varying sizes; and the bundled tower — a combination of towers relating to each other structurally and functionally.  

The students then worked in teams to design buildings and building complexes for three actual sites on Manhattan’s east side. The buildings needed to be linked, as well, to the new Second Avenue subway line currently being planned and built from 125th Street to Wall Street.  

The students’ chief challenge was to re-imagine for vertical, urban spaces such normally horizontal, rural facilities as a dairy farm and milk processing plant; a water treatment plant and a hydroponic vegetable farm and organic café; a monastery and a cemetery. Ábalos also continually prodded them to think about how the public would move through such spaces.  

In addition, as part of the semester, students had the opportunity to intern at such leading architecture practices in the city as Skidmore, Owens & Merrill; Richard Meier and Partners; and Todd Williams Billie Tsien Architects.  

Jenny Kononenko (B.Arch. ’09), who hopes to get her license to practice architecture and join a New York City firm after she graduates, said: “The combination of the studio and professional practice was fantastic.”  

Day Jimenez (B.Arch. ’09) signed up for the studio and the city semester because he wanted to “take advantage of the opportunities in New York City.” He was not disappointed. The city was exciting, and Professor Ábalos “brought a realistic point of view and also had a nice theoretical sense, which was a good combination,” he commented.

A brief interview with Ábalos 

What’s most important to you as an architect today?

I want to explore the high rise’s verticality and its capacity to include new uses that benefit the city and deal with difficult problems such as water purification. There’s a commercial tradition among high rises, but they are now beginning to be used for public benefit as well. And this is an aspect European architects can push to obtain new ideas on vertical conglomerates. This is a part of what I am trying to do in my office and in my academic activity here.

What attracts you to New York City?

In many aspects New York is a kind of walled city — with Manhattan surrounded by water and connected to the rest of the city by bridges and those horrible tunnels. You move and behave in it the way you would in a European city. I have an affinity for tall buildings. They can be medieval or contemporary skyscrapers. New York has splendid examples of skyscrapers, a very important percentage of the best in the world from the last two centuries: The Woolworth buildings, the Seagram building, are among my favorites.

What influences your work?

Every building I know, every city I visit. I grew up in San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain, which is a wonderful mix of natural and artificial elements. At 15, I was interested in the relationship of the city and the landscape. I wanted to study something that would combine the artificial and the natural.

Of your own buildings, which one do you like best?

Always your favorite building is your last one, like a pop singer’s favorite song. Mine are one with four bioclimatic housing towers in Vitoria-Gastéiz, the capital of Spain’s Basque region, and one, the Woermann Tower, in the Canary Islands. These are the first works where I have been able to explore things I was interested in 20 years ago: new structural typologies, from figurative and iconic aspects of the high rise to a construction system that tends to simplify the building processes.

Who are your favorite architects? 

If you talk about contemporary architects, Kazuyo Sejima and Jacques Herzog are producing interesting things and have been good friends of mine from the very beginning. But I don’t really think in terms of architects and lists of favorites. It seems to me the wrong approach to contemporary architecture. Architecture needs time to see through, as historians know quite well.

And what’s most meaningful to you as a teacher?

The conditions at American universities give us tremendous opportunities to explore ideas that otherwise would remain in limbo. In addition to Cornell, I’ve been teaching at the architecture programs at Columbia and Princeton, working on the development of these ideas on the high rise surrounded by the best critics. It gives me an opportunity to move away from the local way of looking at things and also to influence ideas that have become topical in the American culture. Both are important.  

By Linda Brandt Myers (B.F.A. ’64)

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