Architecture does not stop at the roof

By Fernanda Canales

February 15, 2018

Mexico City’s Fernanda Canales, a winner of the 2018 Emerging Voices competition, reflects on her architectural education.

The first project I undertook at the beginning of my career translated into years of confusion. The professor’s assignment, which sounded simple, was to design a house. Twenty-five years later I am still trying to resolve the issues that arose.

Part of the problem lay in the professor’s approach. There was no specific client or site for this assignment, nor any consideration of budget or structural logic. All I had to rely on were a couple of architectural magazines featuring the fashionable projects of the time, displaying shapes I did not understand and was unable to apply.

I found myself probing my memory instead. I thought that memories of my childhood home, combined with all the remarkable spaces I had ever visited and paired with a coherent interior solution, could produce a desirable house.

Instead, I received a very low grade for my work. I was even more confused by the professor’s unintelligible comments. Where to attain a compositional logic, a strong concept, volumetric order, and a clean layout?

I thought that reading everything I could on architecture would help, but the distance between what I found in books, the problem I had only a few days to solve, and the lessons found in memorable spaces appeared too vast. Designing a home, it seemed, had little to do with space, practical problems, or a specific site, but rather with producing a clean layout—not unlike designing a pretty outfit.

Designing a home, it seemed, had little to do with space, practical problems, or a specific site.

I was troubled by the contradictions between the discourse of architects, the attractive images of their works, and my experience of built reality. I realized that there is normally a stronger relationship between an architectural project and trends in the design profession than there is between a particular building, its site, and its occupants.

*

My first student design was followed by more assignments for houses, theaters, and schools. They were all based upon abstract ideas, like the first. Despite the fact that architecture is about roofs and walls, we have distanced it from its tangible reality, frequently dissociating it from the most basic needs.

Over time, I understood that the problem was neither the professors’ nor mine. It took me years to realize that attempting to solve something similar to an equation with an instant solution was equally baffling for them.

Until recently, I still thought that there was a hidden formula for producing good architecture. With my students, I tried to place more importance on commitment and skills than on inspiration, but deep inside I still wanted to understand how to make a good project suddenly appear.

Today, however, I see no difference between teachers and students. I believe the process of learning is about sharing the uncertainties that surface every day: a joint task with no given answers, where discovery is not an end unto itself.

Fernanda Canales | Terreno House, Mexico State, Mexico, 2018. Credit: Rafael Gamo

The problem lies not only in academia, but also in the contradictions of the profession itself. How can you build a home and decide the future of a place after visiting a site briefly? How can you improve ways of living when almost everybody wants the reassurance of a house similar to one she has experienced before?

*

Instead of talking about architecture, I now prefer to discuss the adventure of architecture. This way, we acknowledge that we continue to be first-grade students throughout our lives, forever carrying the same uncertainties.

I have been able to understand things more clearly from the hands of non-architects, as well as from the most intimate texts of a few designers who wrote about their doubts rather than their theories. One exercise suggested by Alejandro de la Sota seems much more relevant than years committed to the academy. “Think about the places where you have felt good and those where you have not,” he said, “and then think about the reasons why.”

Prioritizing “feeling good” shifts the focus to the most basic design problems, making prescriptive diagrams and methodologies useless. It calls for precision and trial and error rather than inspiration.

*

During my university years, when I designed houses for fictitious users, and later in life, when I did it for real clients with equally vague and often illusory ideas, I paid little attention to what lay beyond the space outside the walls.

 

Fernanda Canales | Recreo House, Mexico State, Mexico, 2017. Credit: Sandra Pereznieto

Today, I understand the need to question how buildings affect not only their occupants, but also others. That is why all my projects lead to further research. A project for a family home turns into the study of the concept of dwelling and the impact of houses in cities.

Architecture does not end with the roof, but affects lives in different ways, and for that reason, requires different ways of understanding the profession. I find increasingly more relevance in intermediate spaces: in what lies halfway between the private and the public, the house and the city, the interior and the exterior, the physical world and the experiential.

*

I still haven’t found a system or methodology. I don’t even have an office. I believe that the future of a building plays out in the site, not on a desktop. I spend the same amount of time in the field as I do in libraries and classrooms. I write about a house before drawing it, noting what I envision as if describing it to a blind person.

I believe that before thinking like an architect you have to think like an occupant. I try to expand the relationship between planning and inhabiting, between thinking and experiencing the outcome of thoughts.

*

Today, I am not able to reconstruct even a vague image of the project of that first house I tried to design. It was a house without form, but I believe that that was precisely its virtue. It took me decades to design once more with my body, my memory, and my hands—to forget images and shake out conventional solutions.