For architect Josemaría de Churtichaga, specialization is the enemy. His Madrid-based firm, Churtichaga + Quadra-Salcedo (ch+qs), is just as happy to design city councils, libraries, and cultural centers as it is boats, furniture, books, typography, and, as the English translation of the firm’s website so fantastically put its, “establishments in the Sahara for petroliferous companies” (sign us up for one of those!). De Churtichaga was in New York recently for the opening of “Magic Carpet,” an installation of 36 shipping containers suspended from the ceiling of Pier 57, and made time to answer our questions about his impressions of the cavernous space, the project, and what’s next on his to-do list (spoiler alert: “a secret underground architectonic project on the beautiful island of Mallorca”).
What were your first impressions of Pier 57?
My first impression was of a fantastic atmospheric experience. For me, architecture is more of an atmospheric problem than a formal problem. Architecture is about building atmospheres, about defining the way a space or environment affects us through our senses, which are our interface with the world. The quality of architecture then is rooted in the intensity by which it affects us. Pier 57 is full of this atmospheric quality. When we walk trough the pier, an extremely attractive industrial space excites our memories, the subtle light is challenging our eyes, the loneliness and echoes everywhere affect our ears, and everything has a flavor of the untouched authenticity of a lost activity. Those are spatial and emotional virtues to be preserved in Pier 57.
What did you create for the space?
We decided to build a changing, mutable space of containers, inside an extremely challenging and attractive space that could solve an enormous amounts of different events’ requirements, and at the same time preserving the view across the space from the city towards the Hudson.
You’ve used shipping containers in previous projects. How did they function here?
In some way this space is setting the tone of what will happen in the whole pier refurbishment. The container as a design tool has in my opinion many advantages. Its repetition and its diversity gives the spaces a less formal sensation, and at the same time is a “memory machine” that talks to us about dealing directly with the industrial world.
Was modularity a priority for you from the outset of this project?
Absolutely. Repetition, modularity, diversity is the base of any urban fabric–in fact of any fabric, and a carpet is king of fabrics. The pattern we chose is a kind of abstraction of the New York urban grid, mainly a repetition of long and slender blocks. A city like New York is a demonstration of how an apparently rigid pattern is able to be reconfigured and solved in such many ways. The same happens for example with any sport–a rigid and restricted set of rules gives us endless ways to play.
In this case, the carpet is magic because it can be set up in an endless play of possibilities–leaving all the containers floating or choosing among infinite random or geometric patterns for the space. The only restriction is your imagination with this “block pattern mini urban fabric.”
What was the most difficult part of this project?
There is always subtle risk boundaries in any design. Here the challenge was to choose the exact height of the “carpet” above your head, so it could affect your senses and you could notice gravity–the main force that determines our life.
Did you encounter any surprises or snafus in the course of creating this installation?
During construction, we discovered a pipe family hanging from the ceiling that was not surveyed, so we were forced to install the containers about two feet lower than we had planned. We knew we were taking a risk–everything depended on this–but we decided to go ahead…and now I am convinced that those pipes were showing us where the perfect height was. In fact, the pipe family have lived in the space for several decades!
That kind of situations happens in architecture very often, and a designer has to be able to read that, to work, accepting reality in a creative way. I always teach my students that the wrong answer sometimes is the right one in search of a different question.
What else have you and your firm working on these days?
We are currently finishing a huge entrepreneurship center of in a very fragile industrial area of Madrid, refurbishing an old elevator factory from the 1950s. We are also about to start the construction of the new embassy and consulate of Spain in La Habana, Cuba, a project we obtained from a national competition. And also we are working on a secret underground architectonic project on the beautiful island of Mallorca.