An Interview with Architect Andrés Jaque

by Andrew Ayers

Andrés Jaque photographed by Sam Clarke for PIN–UP.

With Andrés Jaque, there’s no beating around the bush. “We’re reconstructing a world that’s sinking, and we must acknowledge that,” he declares. Born and raised in Madrid, the 52-year-old architect, educator, and activist is the principal of Office for Political Innovation — a Madrid- and New York-based architecture and research firm affectionately known as OFFPOLINN — as well as dean of New York’s Columbia GSAPP, a mantle he assumed in August last year. For Jaque, who once wanted to be journalist, if architecture is to have any relevance, it must put the political back into the polis and fight on the side of the public good. In the right context, and with the right support, he would stand for election, but in the meantime it is through his built work and his teaching and research that he is waging a non-aggressive war of queer guerrilla dissidence. Among his experimental, empirical projects, the 2021 Rambla Climate House — built with Miguel Mesa del Castillo at Molina de Segura, near Murcia — shows how the damage of Spanish suburban sprawl might be mitigated, while the 2022 Colegio Reggio in Madrid seeks to enable progressive teaching through the very fabric of its unconventional architecture. In the realm of pure research, the topics Jaque addresses are as varied as they are unexpected, ranging from Grindr to fracking to UltraClear® glass. PIN–UP met him in Spain — a country where he has achieved far more since he left — first at OFFPOLINN’s underground Madrid HQ, and then at RUN RUN RUN, an OFFPOLINN-designed restaurant for joggers in Chamberí, which opened in 2021. There, among the pink Portuguese marble, yellow sprayed-cork fire-proofing, mint-green steel mesh, and Perspex planters made from repurposed street-light globes, Jaque discussed the long toxic reach of New York City, the neutering of architectural education in Spain, and how to make Peter Eisenman transparent.

In 2015, Andrés Jaque and OFFPOLINN won MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program commission with his pavilion COSMO. A suspended web of irrigation components — all on wheels — COSMO sought to reveal the hidden infrastructure that shapes the city’s design fabric. While big city’s toxicity often gets funneled to lower-income non-urban areas, COSMO was able to treat 3,000 gallons of water a day, showing that a self-sufficient and less detrimental approach to water treatment is possible. An app let users follow the water’s progress and the pavilion’s mesh glowed whenever the water became drinkable. Photography by Imagen Subliminal/Miguel de Guzmán and Rocío Romero. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

For the Madrid restaurant RUN RUN RUN, Andrés Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation conceived a “hybrid infrastructure” that turned the location into an “urban techno-farm.” By embedding aspects of a rural house within a larger structure, they were able to create overlapping environments for workers and diners, as well as a greenhouse and garden that sustainably provides ingredients to the restaurant, which opened in 2019. Photography by José Hevia. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Andrew Ayers: Your practice is a bit of a hybrid — a lot of research and some experimental construction too.

Andrés Jaque: Yes. Our working method isn’t what you’d call optimized, meaning it’s an organic process involving a lot of discussion. We came to realise that we can’t really do more than one construction project at a time. What we do keep doing is research, and then, when there's an invitation, we allow it to crystalize. For instance, we just showed our project on titanium at the 2023 Venice Biennale [Xholobeni Yards. Titanium and the Planetary Making of Shininess/Dustiness]. We want to do a series of projects looking at materials. We first looked at glass [Being Silica, 2021], then glass took us to titanium. The glass we looked at was very expensive non-green glass, which we were interested in because we felt it was the materials of the architecture of power — Apple stores, Google HQ, etc. From there we began looking at huge corporations doing these super-shiny glass buildings, a shininess that depends on titanium and cobalt coatings. Titanium is the most non-corrosive material and, when mixed with cobalt, it produces coatings for glass that are self-washing. But the awful thing is its extraction from sand: afterwards, the sand is much lighter, so it essentially becomes dust, which affects not just people’s homes but entire ecosystems. New York becomes shiny at the expense of places like Xholobeni in South Africa. We’ve been working with a number of organizations in Congo and South Africa, trying to raise awareness in a non-judgemental way that allows people to make the connection, which is impossible just by looking at these buildings in New York.

How far back do these issues go?

The use of ultra-white glass is a post-2008 phenomenon in architecture. Do you remember when David Hockney began examining paintings in the Western tradition and was able to identify the moment artists started using the camera obscura — the moment art became photographic? We did something similar with architectural renderings, and you see that there’s a moment in 2009 when glass in renders stops being about reflection and becomes this whiteness. And it’s not by chance. I think it’s a moment when architecture began to depart from helping society and instead became primarily an asset and an investment, somewhere to park cash. In order for that to happen, there needed to be a new aesthetic.

The high-shine, pollutant-purifying surfaces on structures in New York’s Hudson Yards require titanium. While the metal reduces pollution in wealthy urban areas, its extraction causes damage elsewhere. Andrés Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation presented XHOLOBENI YARDS. Titanium and the Planetary Making of SHININESS / DUSTINESS at the 2023 Venice Biennale. The installation, a collaboration with South African activists and global researchers, visualizes the decimating economic and ecological impact titanium extraction has on the South African community Xholobeni. Photography by Imagen Subliminal/Miguel de Guzmán and Rocío Romero. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Who was this aesthetic aimed at? CEOs?

Yes, I think so. I think it’s a way of owning the exterior by owning the interior. It’s very clear when you look at high-end apartments — this obsession with glass that’s ultra-transparent but also allowing control of the transmittance, so you have a great view out without being seen. But it also emerged at a time when global cities had to rebrand themselves as places to harbor money. For instance, if you look at mayor Bloomberg’s projects for New York, it was about how cities could become greener as a way to stabilize value. These were not environmental policies that would benefit the entire society but rather the creation of a green urban island where wealth could find refuge. What we see is that, after the 2008 crash, when the structures of value were shaken, there was a reaction that resulted in creating a haven that could accumulate value, environmental power, and even moral superiority. But by researching all this we’re not trying to apportion blame. It’s about acknowledging that the moment we’re living in is one where architectural design practices need to define who they’re working for.

Especially at a moment when the profession is in crisis, and we know that 99 percent of what gets built has little to do with architects. What are they actually for?

Absolutely. So for us, this is a way to claim that architecture needs to go back to its political mission, in other words creating the structures for distributing well-being rather than serving as a handmaiden to the super rich.

Andrés Jaque’s Colegia Reggio in Madrid, completed in 2022, vertically compresses the typical school format, moving upwards through student ages with each floor featuring specific ways for allowing students to self-direct their learning. In addition to integrating a greenhouse, native trees, and gardens designed to invite birds, bats, and insects, the Reggio School minimizes its carbon impact by excluding cladding, drop ceilings, and other technical additions. A cork envelope further reduces the thickness of load-bearing walls through complex engineering. Photography by José Hevia. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

In a world where the wealth gap is getting ever wider, you have a problem. Who can afford architects these days? They’re already seen as a luxury.

Yes, and I think the gap will widen — with A.I. there’ll be a huge reduction in job markets. So today, architecture needs to identify the real notions of publicness that are possible. When we looked at Grindr, for instance [Grindr Archiurbanism, 2017], it was because we noticed that a big part of social interaction today no longer happens in the streets. It’s not spatial the way we understood it before social media. The possibility to develop a technology at the scale of a massive multinational corporation means that a big public library can no longer play the kind of major role it once did, because information now depends on the private sector. The position of systems of centralized power is much more radical than it was in the past — it’s progressively controlling more aspects of our bodies, our apartments, and our societies. So I think we’ve arrived at a moment where architecture’s central issue is to be dissident with respect to the system of centralized power that comes through aesthetics, through technological arrangements, through ways of producing desire, and systems of control. And I think it’s not only about dissidence but also about reparation and undoing, a vocabulary that’s different to that of growth, newness, and all the other terms that have shaped the production of architecture since the 1990s.

What do you and OFFPOLLINN hope to achieve?

Well, no one firm or institution alone can instigate that level of change. But one thing we might do is to create different networks so that marginal practices can gain greater traction. Another is to reconnect design with critical practices, by which I mean people like Forensic Architecture. I think there’s a need to understand that these are not two separate professions, that design is also an enquiry and an opportunity for activism. I’d like to mobilize design as a site for politics.

Anything that’s built is by default political, whether or not the people building it are aware of the politics they’re enabling.

Exactly. There are political capacities that come with building, from how you design pipes — the infrastructure of waste — to the dimensions of a door. For me those are crucial: how you structure society by the way you design the circulations in a house or a building. There are many questions of how you integrate and achieve inclusiveness for a large range of bodily conditions, how you create inter-generationality, different knowledges being empowered by architecture, how you can activate solidarity through a building’s design. When we say political innovation, we mean that space, materials, and the way different programs or mechanical systems are arranged is a way of doing politics.

Since the 1980s, swaths of southeastern Spain have had their ravines, or ramblas, flattened to make way for suburban development. When Miguel Mesa del Castillo approached Office for Political Innovation to collaborate on the Rambla Climate-House (2021) for his family, they designed a stilted structure over restored ravines to maintain soil health and facilitate biodiversity. Alongside ecological and soil experts, the architects made high- and low-tech interventions, including a waste water irrigation system, to revive the house’s surrounding ecology. Photography by José Hevia. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Andrés Jaque photographed by Sam Clarke for PIN–UP.

The original seminary on this site in Cáceres in Western Spain was designed for minors entering the priesthood at age twelve. In more recent years the region’s needs had shifted to care for an aging population of retired parish priests. Jaque’s design for the Plasencia Care Home (2004) reimagines the building originally designed to instruct and regiment youth into one that uses architecture to empower residents in decision-making. Photography by Miguel de Guzmán. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Which presumably means that architects need to be more involved in the drawing up of program than they currently are.

Totally. I think that specialization — the distribution of roles in liberal structures — is a way of avoiding coordination across different fields, and therefore of having a stake in a building’s political impact. And I think it’s intentional. But I also think that many people are already finding tools to coordinate across these fields of responsibilities and capacities. Take one of our first projects, Twelve Actions to Make Peter Eisenman Transparent, as we provocatively called it. This was in 2008, when Eisenman was building Santiago de Compostela’s Cidade da Cultura on a pristine green hill used by the locals to graze cattle. When construction started, the hill become a noisy brown mud bath, which caused public outrage. I was friends with the guy who was directing the building site, and he called to ask me to design a palisade to hide the mess from the locals. I felt that making things even more invisible was not really the point, since everything was already so opaque in the sense that no one knew how decisions were being made. So, instead, I suggested twelve actions that would make it possible to interpret the construction site. For instance, there were six or seven contractors, so we gave each one a color and they had to paint everything they did in that color, and you could really map and see which company was doing which part of the work. We also put up signs explaining what money was being spent where.

How did the Galician government react?

The Xunta de Galicia was happy for a while, then the Cidade became a political hot potato because it was very expensive, and eventually we were let go. But for me that project was very foundational. It was about how architecture could become a parliament, a way of making the running of daily life much more participative in the sense of empowering a larger sector of the population to be part of the process and to understand it. That’s how we met [the late French philosopher] Bruno Latour. In fact, the name Office for Political Innovation came out of a conversation with him about architecture’s political role. With time, we discovered that the niche where we could operate was very much the space of dissidence. We never intended it that way. The truth is that we made many people very uncomfortable — we’d be hired, but they wouldn’t really want us to do what they were asking us to do. They only wanted to pretend they were doing a certain thing.

You studied at ETSAM, the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, which I believe has a strong technical side to its teaching.

Yes, a polytechnic tradition. I learned a lot there, but I ended up disappointed, because the teaching was very form and language oriented — it was really about style. Even as a naïve student I could tell something was wrong. Much later I came to understand it was the result of an epuration in which the polytechnic tradition, which combines theory and technical knowledge, had lost its theory part. Basically, under Franco in the late 1940s, the school removed all the people who were doing theory, people that I could relate to. The whole composition of the school changed. Many of those architects were exiled, and others were no longer allowed to teach. It’s still not talked about. But all of a sudden the school stopped discussing theory, because theory would inevitably lead to political reflection. When I was there, what little theory there was was a theory of form. It was about finding ways of being theoretical without being political.

For the Madrid restaurant RUN RUN RUN, Andrés Jaque’s Office for Political Innovation conceived a “hybrid infrastructure” that turned the location into an “urban techno-farm.” By embedding aspects of a rural house within a larger structure, they were able to create overlapping environments for workers and diners, as well as a greenhouse and garden that sustainably provides ingredients to the restaurant, which opened in 2019. Photography by José Hevia. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Some people make claims for the autonomy of art, for an art interested only in formal concerns. But how does that work with architecture? If you take out the political, what’s left? A mere reflection of power?

Exactly. A vehicle for other intelligences, other forms of power, other forms of politics. That’s why I was talking earlier about how much pipes are to do with politics. Because in a way architecture has an agency of its own with respect to processes. We did a whole series of studies on the toxicity of New York City, which is outrageous when you think about it. Basically New York and most big cities send their toxicity — sewage and other forms of waste — to areas that are less affluent. The territorial distribution of toxicity intersects with social inequality and divisions, including racial divisions. Toxicity is sent far away where you can’t see it — as far as the Susquehanna Valley in the case of New York. We did an installation at MoMA PS1 about this [COSMO, 2015]. The first thing we wanted to show is that you can exist without that toxicity, there’s no need for that unfairness. So we teamed up with John Todd, a pioneer of what he calls eco-machines, and created a system to take water from the sewage system and make it circulate for a couple of weeks through filters and plants so that it was drinkable again — we were actually drinking it at PS1. There we were with our toxicity at maybe one of the coolest places in New York, having enormous fun. The second part of that research was working with anti-fracking activists to put on a series of performances in the city that made it possible to feel the violence necessary to get all this energy channeled to New York, a process that disturbs the forms of governance in places like the Susquehanna Valley. It’s a form of long-term activism.

How did OFFPOLINN first get going?

After I graduated from ETSAM, I went to Dresden for the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung fellowship. Then I traveled for a bit, and when I finally came back to Spain I decided to open the office with friends. It was formalized when we won the competition for the clergy retirement home in Plasencia [2000–04]. Originally I decided not to hire only architects — there were also sociologists, like Pablo Hurlé, who were crucial, as well as artists and industrial designers. But there was a high turnover, because we didn’t have much work, so basically we were inventing projects. That was a lot of fun! But people were very annoyed by us. No one else in Spain was working like that. Fellow architects objected to the word political — “Why political?! Architecture isn’t political!” they would say. I kept discussing this with everyone; the same argument ran on and on for years.

When and how did you end up in the U.S.?

Basically in 2012, when MoMA acquired our performance and installation Ikea Disobedients [2011]. It was a research piece about [the Madrid neighborhood of] Lavapiés, which at the time was undergoing rapid gentrification at the expense of long-term residents. Our project showed them as a form of resistance to the dynamic Ikea was part of. Back then Ikea was totally white, heterosexual, and wealthy, and these people weren’t like that at all. When MoMA acquired the project, we said, “It doesn’t make sense to take this to the U.S. and show it like an exotic thing, like flamenco. Let’s do it in New York City with local activists.” So I moved there to work on that. Before long, Mark Wigley approached me to teach a semester at Columbia, and one thing led to another. I have to say that moving to New York was a relief, because we were getting enormous criticism in Spain from conservative circles. Whenever we spoke there’d be someone in the front row shouting, “What you’re doing is not architecture, you’re undermining the discipline.” They felt that, because we were looking at ordinary things, we were damaging architecture’s status as something sublime. And they were very homophobic, even though they never came out with it directly of course.

Andrés Jaque photographed by Sam Clarke for PIN–UP.

For IKEA Disobedients, first performed in Madrid in 2011, Jaque “hacked” IKEA products to open up the off-the-shelf products for unexpected uses. Local community members were invited to participate in the architectural performance piece by using there-imagined IKEA assemblage as an improvised set, unlocking new capacities in the standardized products and showcasing how ordinary objects both shape and reshape their users. In 2012 the Museum of Modern Art obtained the installation for its collection. © Andrés Jaque / Office for Political Innovation.

Do you think being gay makes a difference?

Yes, absolutely! I’m very proud of the queer tradition. At one point I think everyone in our office was gay — we thought it was the water! [Laughs.] But that was enormously important in Spain. For instance, in the school of architecture, there were many victims of the “controls,” and many dissidents, and many of those dissidents were queer people who ended up being artists. Think of Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Sigfrido Martín Begué, people who were very important in the Movida, queer people who didn’t feel they belonged at ETSAM and weren’t given space there. I think that’s crucial to understand. I also think that the aesthetics OFFPOLINN is interested in — the love for daily life, the optimism about things that aren’t necessarily elevated — come from a camp and queer sensibility. Moreover, you should remember that I was fired from ETSAM. I taught there for seven years, then all of a sudden they didn’t renew my contract. I was told there was a long conversation that ended at 11.00 pm and that there were people who thought my ideas were dangerous. I was never told who.

What’s the biggest project you’ve worked on so far?

There are two possible answers. On the one hand, in terms of floor area, the Colegio Reggio, our project in Madrid for a school building that enables alternative teaching practices. But, on the other, the Rambla Climate House in Murcia operates at an environmental scale. There, we were trying to repair some of the wrongs inherent in the awful subdivisions that blight the outskirts of many Spanish towns by caring for the environment and using gray water to repair the classic rambla habitat. We weren’t naïve enough to think it could save the environment, but we hoped to set an example and to use the house to raise awareness. For me, just as architecture is always political, it’s also always trans-scalar. For us, doing ever bigger buildings is not really a goal — we don’t see ourselves with that kind of growth dynamic. Architecture is not about machine-like work — I think it’s much more ecological. And for that reason I believe it’s the one discipline that’s ready for the times we’re living in, because it knows how to deal with relationships. Architects may not have a lot of specific knowledge about one thing, but we know how to articulate many realities, how to assemble them, how they can become a site of activism and dissidence.

Isn’t there a danger that your organic and “non-optimized” approach — which the corporate world would label “inefficient” — might engender long, underpaid work hours?

As I said, at OFFPOLINN we deliberately don’t take on too many projects for precisely that reason. And we don’t have interns. I would say that as a profession we really need to go through a process of transformation and operate on the basis of mutual care. This is not a detail — it’s a crucial transformation, especially in a context where firms are seeing their fees constantly cut and must compete for an ever smaller piece of pie.

Is this a discussion you’re having at Columbia?

Yes, of course. At many different levels. Many of the faculty at Columbia are part of the Alternative Building Industry Collective, which is examining how buildings are made — including the labor conditions — in both the architecture and construction industries. I defend the idea that architecture is never isolated, it is in itself an articulation — you never work with anything new, you just redesign existing relationships. And when you look at these relationships, they expand in scale: you are dealing with industry practices or where materials come from, but you’re also changing the lives of kids who end up studying somewhere like the Colegio Reggio, or changing the fate of a subdivision by putting water back into the ecosystem. We’re trying to work with the whole trans-scalar extent as much as we can. I also believe that aesthetics, rhetoric, and form are extremely important, because, collectively, we need to mobilize tools of communication, of semiotics, of atmosphere, and of language in order to build up momentum, create credibility, and allow people to sense the new realities that are emerging.