by SomethingFantastic

The exhibition “Sensitive Matter” curated by Pere Buil, Joan Vitòria and Carlos Cámara means to define what Catalan architecture today is. It puts images to an abstract term that is waiting to be redefined. What we found in the works of the participating architects is the urge to deal with matter in different, unexpected ways and to look for solutions off the beaten path. It is the ability and the inclination to improvise. Improvisation is that creative technique where a topic is approached spontaneously, without predetermination. It is the idea of circling around a common theme, looking at it from new angles, in search of something new within the known or, even better, something totally new. In the architecture presented in the exhibition, this idea surfaces again and again: in the use of materials like prefabricated wood panels that enable a façade to bear the whole cantilevered house; or in a funding- and building process where a city gradually realizes that a culture centre is worth supporting and must be expanded again and again; or in a dynamic, flexible way of decision making on site where the construction sequence is determined by what specialist worker is available that day; or in adapting the traditional tiles produced by a manufacturer nearby by convincing him to glaze not only the surface but also the side to create a fish-scale pattern on the wall.

Improvisation is a pragmatic technique for acting in a state of deficiency. When resources are short, you have to use what is available. But ‘available’ in a globalized and interconnected world doesn’t mean the material you dig out of the ground on your site. Available can be wooden panels manufactured in Austria, a local design feature like a patio, the marble sink from your grandmother’ s house or Swiss Minergy standards – Whatever does the job best. The state of deficiency in Catalonia is the economic crisis. As economic growth before the global financial crisis of 2008 was largely dependent on the real estate market, architects were used to be able to spend – if they designed within the styles and techniques the developers asked for. Paradoxically, for young architects the crisis became a liberator, forcing them to leave that beaten path and start to improvise.

Rooted in the freedom that is ‘just another word for nothing left to loose’ as Janis Joplin put it in her song ‘Me & Bobby McGee’, this state of mind then changed from a survival technique to a vital technique. Not dedicated to an ideology and free from any particular style, their architecture fulfills specific demands, reacting to a large number of parameters in a highly sensitive and individualized way. The freedom Catalan architects are claiming for themselves is rooted in the way they use improvisation as a progressive technique that is able to give answers not only to what is but also to what may come. It is the reaction to the fact that our world is changing and that it can be changed. This new, positive idea of improvisation might be the core topic of contemporary architecture worldwide.

Our world cannot be explained in two sentences nor can its issues be tackled with ideological approaches, but with sensitive, specific interference. Architecture must be based on the insight that constant change challenges our creativity and our ability to improvise.