1. Viviana, could you tell us a little bit more about who you are, where do you live and what type of projects you have specialized in as an architect?
I was born and raised in Medellín (Colombia) and currently live in Madrid (Spain). Between 2008 and 2015 I led (together with Catalina Patiño) the architecture studio Ctrl G. In 2015 I set up my own studio, Viviana Peña Taller de Arquitectura, which operates between Medellín and Madrid. I have also taught at the Faculty of Architecture of the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and Universidad Santo Tomás de Medellín (Colombia).
I have specialized in the design of educational and cultural spaces. Some of my architectural designs (with Ctrl G) are the Museum of Modern Art of Medellín Extension, the Parque Educativo Caramanta, and three kindergartens in Medellín: Pajarito La Aurora, San Antonio de Prado, and Carpinelo. These projects were won by public or private competition, they are currently built, and they have helped to transform Medellín and its region. I have also designed private housing in the countryside (such as Casa Pajarera and Casa Visor Telescopio).
2. What was your first impression seeing the TSE building?
I was greatly impressed when I first saw the building---it is an imposing piece of architecture. I loved how the building is open to and dialogues with the city, and liked all the different ways you can experience its interior space. That feeling when you access the building through its open ramp to find yourself immersed in the void created by the sequence of staircases and bridges around---it’s awe-inspiring. I would say that this great void is the heart of the building, to which stairs, terraces, and bridges are connected to allow for multiple ways of accessing the private spaces (office rooms, auditoria, etc) while guaranteeing that the public life of the building mixes constantly with the city.
3. The building was designed by two Irish architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara who both received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, can you tell us what this prize represents for an architect?
The Pritzker is the most prestigious award that a living architect or architecture studio can obtain---a bit as if it were “the Nobel Prize” in architecture. This year’s Pritzker Prize, which recognizes the talent and the quality of the work of Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara (Grafton Architects), is also very important for what it represents. This is the first time in 43 editions that the prize has been awarded to an architecture studio consisting of two women, and only the fourth time that it has been awarded to women (Zaha Hadid in 2004, Kazuyo Sejima together with her partner Ryue Nishizawa in 2010, and Carme Pigem together with her partners Rafael Aranda and Ramon Vilalta in 2017). This year’s award thus represents a small step towards the need and urgency of recognizing the work of women architects.
4. Yvonne and Shelley have specialized in the design of universities such as University Campus UTEC Lima, Università Luigi Bocconi (Milan, Italy 2008) and Toulouse School of Economics (Toulouse, France 2019). Can you tell us what are the specificities of such an endeavor?
I think that one of the specificities of this kind of program and also one of its great challenges is to find the best agreement between achieving the appropriate scale and hierarchy of the building within the urban environment and managing to create spaces where the intimate and collective life is possible.
The problem is twofold. First, as an architect, you face the problem of designing the physical part of an university---ultimately the representation of education, knowledge, and research, and a fundamental part of a city and a society. Thus, you face questions regarding the ideal size, scale, material, hierarchy or presence of the building within the city, and whether or not you want to propose a novel piece of architecture that has a prominent role in the urban scene, or one that, on the contrary, mimics it. Second, you face the problem of creating both spaces promoting the intimacy of private life and the socialization of public space (e.g., office rooms, classrooms, meeting rooms, auditoriums, cafeterias and dining rooms) and open spaces such as courtyards, gardens, stairs, terraces, windows and walkways that foster planned and fortuitous encounters, and interactions between the inhabitants of the building, the citizens, and the city.
One of the things that I like most about the TSE building is this agreement. The project simultaneously stands out within the urban scene and takes part in it through the use of materials and the reinterpretation of the architectural elements of the city, but also encourages the intimate, planned and unexpected relationships.
5. Building a modern building in a historically imprinted environment is a complicated task. In your opinion, how does the building link modernity to the local Toulouse architecture? Does the building fit in well with its environment?
The building links contemporaneity with the local architecture of Toulouse in a very interesting way. This is done through the reinterpretation of the city’s own architectural elements: buttresses, walls, arcades, exterior facades of red brick, stone interiors, cloisters, and bridges. From what I saw, all of these elements are incorporated into the project either materially or symbolically. There are bridges-walkways that connect different parts of the building and that pass through the interior void; an elevated cloister that allows you to contemplate the city through the new arcades; interior terraces that encourage walks and loitering while you arrive at the office or an auditorium; and red brick exterior facades with narrow windows that look like buttresses.
I think that the building fits in very well with its environment. The main access from Place Saint-Pierre and the old Church St.Pierre des Cuisines is strategic and impressive, it allows us to visually incorporate public and collective experiences of the surrounding streets and the square, and to externalize cultural and educational experiences. The walkways, bridges, and terraces face the south and thus allow the social and public spaces to have one of the best views (of the Garonne river and the city), while also helping to filter the light from the south and west in the summer. The three main office bars take in the northern light, which is ideal for workspaces.
6. What do you think of the mingling of both public and private spaces, open and closed rooms?
I think that mingling public and private spaces is necessary in architecture. One of the main challenges of architectural design is how to optimally mix these different types of spaces, and how to organize them in order to respond correctly to the needs of the building and to favor new uses, both present and future, planned and unexpected.
Furthermore, this mingling encourages new social and spatial interactions. For example, it is pleasant to work in your office (a private space) and then walk around the terraces (a public space) to think about an idea and/or to meet a colleague to discuss, or to go through the central void and walk across the bridges and terraces in order to attend a seminar while you contemplate the Garonne.
7. The architects used brick buttresses, ramps and courtyards, which are metaphors for the city filled with bridges, walls, promenades and stone towers. What do you think of their work?
I really like it---it makes the project both a typical and a unique building of Toulouse. I think that the reinterpretation of these elements has a lot of strength and sensitivity. Particularly, it reveals the intimate relationship between the city and the university. Brick buttresses, ramps, and courtyards acquire a new meaning or a new use in the TSE building and remind us the history and material culture of Toulouse.
- Viviana Peña