With so much concern for the human scale, how did you come to work on such dramatically large projects?
I wanted to progress from a smaller to a larger scale for three reasons. First, I was interested in the city and its planning. Second, because in small scale projects the client is always too present, and matters of taste weigh too heavily over the work, and it is difficult to move forward. Finally, for the intellectual challenge posed by the transition to a large scale. The move from small to big requires a mastery over the small and intermediate scales, and I wanted to try this and test my own mistakes in the process. This trajectory is a challenge, and it inevitably arrives at an error. When the scale gets too big, a building is completely de-personalized and the emotion is reduced. Abraxas is the ultimate example of translating the personal into the public scale. Any bigger than Abraxas and it turns into stupidity. But scale was not always the most interesting thing. I became very successful at a young age. I gained recognition and fame when I was around 30, 35 years old, as one of the best-known architects. And from that point onwards, the theme was to look for alternatives, to look for creative processes that were different. I’m not a sectarian. I’m more inclined towards research and change than towards the propagation of a single idea in architecture. I’m more prone to experimenting.
This aspect of sustained experimentation brings some coherence to such a broad variety of production. I imagine at many points that you came close to exhaustion. How do you celebrate the completion of a project?
I don’t celebrate when I complete a project. I celebrate when I conceive of a project. That moment of focus in front of a blank page—at that moment, there is satisfaction. When I manage to produce a logic, a system, and an emotion, I celebrate. But when the project is finished, I only see imperfections. I only see my own mistakes. This is not a reason to celebrate. Subsequently, I’m my own toughest critic. For practical reasons, as well. It is only the critique of my own work that makes the creation of something new possible. The best way to understand my work is to read each building as a critique of the work previous.
You have said that it’s essential to be at the vanguard. What is your position on newness?
To be avant-garde is a moral and intellectual position. It means to participate in the construction of the future. But in itself, an absolute vanguard does not exist. When I was young, I thought building something completely new was feasible. Now I know that if twenty percent of a building is new, that is already a lot. To be at the “new” is a moral position, but one cannot build only with the new. It is naïve to think otherwise.
By this equation, the traditions are inescapable—at least 80% of them. I recall you saying, on this topic, that at one point you made an effort to understand and metabolize the values of the bourgeois, the middle class, and the traditional family, but that you did so in order to pervert these values.
The bourgeois family originates out of economic interests. It is a building block for a certain capitalist society under a fixed set of rules. The problem is that when these tastes are given to everyone, as it happens, the system becomes decadent and corrupted. But historically, the individual has been in every possible type of relation, and the traditional family is just one particular case. With a more cosmopolitan vision, you can see that there are many social configurations, classes, tastes, and associations possible—and necessary. If you break away from these rules with intelligence and energy, anything can happen. The line is very thin, and interesting things in life happen along this thin line. It lies between construction and destruction, between creativity and madness. To walk along this line is the most complicated and difficult, but also the most interesting. I don’t know if doing so is advisable. It’s not for everybody.
I think about many of your buildings in terms of play—play with knowledge, with structure, with architectural histories, with place. Play may be the action of walking that fine line.
And this was not always easy to do. To reach a radical point, there was a need to understand the conservative side, just as there was a need to understand the bourgeois family structure—to know it in order to break it. I lived in Paris for 20 years, and I came to know the system—and I mean the real system—because in France there is one system for everyone and another system for the special people. It is a very impermeable social nomenclature that belongs to the big schools, Les Grandes Écoles, schools created by Napoleon. It is a thoroughly vertical and hermetic hierarchy. And these are the people who rule.
After a while living in Paris I became acquainted with this French nomenclature. One day I was invited to a party at the Élysée Palace by Mitterrand, who was then the president of the Republic, and the Chinese president—where the Chinese and French nomenclature had gathered. They made a dinner, and I was seated just behind the director of a big company. Violins playing, food being served, a huge production. In the middle of the party, after greeting everyone, I asked the director of the company “Why am I here and you there, and this other guy there, and so on?” And he responded “Oh, I am here because I am number 39. You are behind me because you are number 40. And that other guy is number X of the list of French nomenclature.” We were sitting according to the system Mitterrand had done with his team, each one of us were embodied in the hierarchy. And I said, “Oh yeah, well, I’m leaving. I have no interest in climbing up.”
Ricardo Bofill seated at the Taller de Arquitectura, photo: Thomas Jeppe
Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 (1975), photo: Thomas Jeppe
Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7 (1975), photo courtesy of Taller de Arquitectura Bofill