League Prize 2013
Luis Callejas is the founder and director of LCLA Office, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Medellín, Colombia. His practice, positioned at the intersections of the fields of landscape, architecture, and urbanism, explores “new forms of public realms through environmental and territorial operations,” such as the Tactical Archipelago project in Kiev, Ukraine. There, LCLA reconsiders 37 islands in the city’s Dnieper River as places for recreation, ecological infrastructure, transportation, and, through a series of micro-clusters inserted on the river’s surface, itinerant zones of activity and services. Other recent projects include his collaboration with Edgar Mazo and Sebastian Mejia as the firm Paisajes Emergentes, to complete the Aquatic Centre for the 2010 South American Games and the renovation of the main soccer stadium in Bogotá, Colombia. On the occasion of his League Prize lecture, Callejas, and his associate Melissa Naranjo, sat down with the League’s Ian Veidenheimer and Alexandra Hay to talk about their practice and installation at Parsons.
Ian Veidenheimer: The theme of this year’s League Prize competition is “Range.” What does this mean to you and to your work?
Luis Callejas: The theme is related to the very wide range in which we operate between Colombia and the US. In Colombia, landscape architecture as a field is not very established, and you could say the same for urban design. So from the disciplinary tools of the architects, we work within the range of the landscape architect and the urban designer. In addition, we’ve done books. We’ve just finished an edition of Pamphlet Architecture, so I think that range also expands to publication.
Veidenheimer: Walk us through your League Prize installation.
Callejas: What we wanted to show in the installation is basically a collection of projects. Half of them are from the time when I was working with Edgar Mazo and Sebastian Mejia, at Paisajes Emergentes in Colombia. And the other half are from LCLA Office in partnership with Melissa Naranjo. They are all very large-scale projects. You can say that they are landscape architecture operations, and that’s the ambition. But all of them are comprised of various small-scale interventions that are repeated and migrated through time and space. Taken together they form an installation that speaks to a range of scales created through the repetition of the same various small-scale elements. If you’re moving through the Tactical Archipelago master plan for the Dnieper River in Ukraine, for example, you will find small traditionally landscaped architecture operations like excavations, burns, and mounts. But also small buildings and installations by artists that we deploy in very contained ways and then repeat through different areas to achieve a territorial effect.
Alexandra Hay: An interest in water, waterways, and islands seems to emerge in many of the projects you’ve included in the installation. What draws you to water?
Callejas: Water has been an important area of interest of mine going back to my collaboration with Edgar Mazo and Sebastian Mejia in our firm Paisajes Emergentes, especially on our Aquatic Center project for Medellín. But recently Melissa and I have found that water is a very fertile medium for us to deal with light matter and climatic conditions, especially since we come to the field of landscape with a more architectural training in heavy, rigid materials. So it absolutely has been a tool and a medium for us, and one that we have come to organically. One quality that especially draws us to water is its capacity to manipulate environmental conditions with the effects of moisture, rain, and steam. In the tropical climate of Colombia, where it rains nearly 100 days of the year, moisture is an ever-present concern. But for the installation, we’re focusing on the Dnieper River project for 37 islands in Kiev because we feel that it connects and distills the most important aspects of the work with Paisajes Emergentes and represents all these environmental interests of the new office.
Veidenheimer: What is it about islands that attracts you from the perspective of design?
Callejas: Islands are obviously very contained. They offer a kind of landscape analogue to something like the building site in a more traditional architectural scenario. That containment and the imposition of those very clear limitations actually create productive design challenges for us and allow us to design more freely. So while they impose real constraints, islands offer us significant creative freedom.
Veidenheimer: In your portfolio you discuss public space as program, describing landscapes as rooms with designated activities or multi-functionality. How does program find form in landscape and urban design?
Callejas: In the tropics it’s very easy to have a lot of the program that you might normally enclose within walls of a building occur in the open air. That climate has become a powerful tool for us in trying to incorporate highly programmed public areas of activity into the budget of a building project. That potential creates the opportunity to turn building projects into landscape operations or even gardens. In a North American climate, the seasons are so different from one another, and with the harshness of the winters, it really delineates what kinds of program are appropriate for the interior and exterior of a project. In the tropics, the lines are a lot blurrier.
Veidenheimer: So how do you approach these more recent projects in the Ukraine and Iceland where the climate is so different?
Callejas: Ultimately, it is about paying close attention to the specific phenomena that happen in those public spaces during the winter months. Every culture has activities that occur, even in the coldest weather, so the question for us is more about how to translate that activity into a program that can be feasible for our project. For example, in the Tactical Archipelago project for Kiev, we were interested in the opportunities inherent in the freezing over of the Dnieper River during the winter. Once it is solid, the river takes on new possibilities: people skate, they cross to go to work, there is even ice fishing happening on the surface. Our master plan really tries to amplify these small activities of public life and bring more citizens back to the river through new ways of participation and leisure.
Hay: How do you apply this concept of landscape as rooms on a regional scale? The Dnieper plan deals with 37 islands over a vast geographical area, how do you maintain the intimacy of the space in a much larger context?
Callejas: This project was actually extremely straightforward in that regard, because each one of the islands is essentially already a room, already contained. The islands’ beaches establish the figure of the “room.” We don’t have to create that boundary artificially, so that’s incredibly liberating. In other projects we find ourselves creating those boundaries to create a sense of intimacy and to implement highly distinct operations across these different room-like conditions.
Veidenheimer: What is the role of drawing and representation in your work? What are some of the forms and techniques that you use in your renderings and your drawings?
Callejas: Drawing, collage, and other hybrid forms of representation are critical because they allow us to surmount some of the limitations of architecture as a discipline, especially when dealing with large-scale projects and environments. Air conditions and other environmental qualities are not easy to represent in traditional architectural means of drawing, so we rely on photography a lot. We like to photograph an area and then de-contextualize those images by incorporating them into our own renderings and drawings.
Naranjo: It is also an important method of communication for the two of us since we are working across long distances from Boston to Colombia. Whether it is between us internally, or we’re trying to communicate our ideas with another team in a different country, we prefer to do that in imagery. It is a much more textured way of explaining, and much faster. The drawings are also a way for both Luis and me to reflect on the work. Many of the projects in our edition of Pamphlet Architecture were products of Luis’s while he was working with Paisajes Emergentes, but drawing and representing those projects again really helped me to understand them, and helped Luis find a continuity in the graphic language between those older projects and what he is working on now.
Callejas: Almost all of the drawings we have are internal working documents of the office. We don’t create a separate set of “polished” drawings to submit for competitions or for display only; most of the images and drawings that we used in the exhibition, for example, were drawn originally for internal use, either to communicate between Melissa and myself, or with other teams.
Veidenheimer: Many of your drawings feel like unique perspectives done on site, yet if you look closely across many of the drawings you see a lot of the same forms repeated over and over in different densities. In the pairing and coupling of forms, you begin to get a sense of what’s going on, but they never seem to tell the viewer exactly what operation you would deploy. What does it mean to code this way? How does this help you understand your ideas?
Naranjo: Yes, we use the same codes for all of the drawings; the same forms and symbols for trees, land, and water.
Callejas: In one respect it is our attempt to use the disciplinary tools of architecture as we try to work at a very large scale. It creates an interesting phenomenon representationally because we’re really hacking the visual vocabulary of architecture, software design, and even of artists to try to represent large scales operations.
Naranjo: You can see those drawings in Pamphlet Architecture 33 as a sequence or collection which all ask the same question in different ways: how can architecture critically repurpose its own limited disciplinary tools to have an impact at the territorial scale? We wanted to bring a collection of projects together using the same approach to drawing and representation; it has helped us to really turn those projects into objects of study, to understand how they are operating.
Veidenheimer: Does the drawing usually come first? Then the photographs and finally the renderings?
Callejas: Our process is not linear at all—sometimes we find the texture of the image first, and then the problem is how to draw it in, say, more architectural terms. Other times the drawing is first.
Veidenheimer: I’d like to talk about Medellín, where you two have based half of your practice. The city council there has developed a strong track record of supporting design in the public realm. What do you think of this “social urbanism program,” and how does being in Medellín influence the way you work?
Once you get the opportunity to work in the public realm…it is extremely difficult to go back.
Callejas: In many ways Melissa and I are both a part of a generation of architects for whom the first professional commissions are coming out of competitions for projects in the public realm. So unlike in the 1980s and ‘90s, when architects got started by making houses for wealthy clients, we’re now feeling encouraged to try for public space projects—that really has had the effect of defining the type of work that we do and, more importantly, the type of work that we really want to do. Once you get the opportunity to work in the public realm, we’ve found, it is extremely difficult to go back. Those projects have such an amplified reach because they allow you to touch so many important and interrelated issues that you must deal with when you’re in a public space in a developing tropical city. It’s a demanding and rewarding context, and the responsibility is huge, when you consider the regulations on pollution, contamination, and ecology in a large-scale public site. To be really responsible architects it requires you to go beyond your context in a way, to see what you are able to import from other places—especially in Colombia, where the discipline of landscape is only just beginning to emerge and does not have the long tradition as it does in North America.
Veidenheimer: The practice is dually based in Boston and Medellín and, Luis, you teach at Harvard—how does this influence your work?
Callejas: Harvard is an amazing institution and Boston is an amazing city; they have given us a lot, both from an educational standpoint and as a launching point for international collaborations. A lot of that we could not have found in academia in Medellín. At the same time, as I was saying, Medellín has given us a lot of opportunities project-wise, and an environment in which to really practice. So going back and forth makes a lot of sense for us, keeping a foot in both places, but also learning to make interesting connections between the two.
Callejas received his architecture degree from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in 2008 and currently teaches Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Each year the Architectural League and the Young Architects + Designers Committee organize a portfolio competition. Six winners are then invited to present their work in a variety of public fora, including lectures, an exhibition, a catalogue published by Princeton Architectural Press, and here on the League’s website. For information about more of the 2013 League Prize winners, click here.