Interview with Luis Callejas and Charlotte Hansson
Nina Rappaport How did you meet and begin your practice together after having already done independent work?
Luis Callejas I was moving between Medellín and Boston, and we met in Oslo when I was there for a lecture.
Charlotte Hansson We started working together when I moved to Boston. Our first project was an invitation to participate in an exhibition for the Neutra VDL Studio and Residence, in Los Angeles.
LC It was incredible because we didn’t actually know each other for that long. While living and working in that house we got to know each other and decided to continue working together.
CH It was a site-specific project engaging with the house in terms of experiments that Neutra did in order to bring the landscape in. Previously, the house had been undergoing a refurbishment. We discovered that the curtains were missing, so the exhibition became an opportunity to design and use the curtains as a medium to show the project in a new way.
NR Charlotte, with both an art and architecture background, how have you been merging the practices of garment construction and building, first in your own projects and then as you started to collaborate with Luis?
CH It was more important in the beginning of our collaboration that I brought different knowledge that could be used in a new way. The textile concepts we produced for the Neutra house and our installation at the first Chicago Biennale cannot be associated with fashion; it is architecture.
NR How would you define the way you work together on a project?
CH We work very much on the same things, going back and forth. It’s not so divided.
NR Luis, in many of your projects with your original architecture partners, from the Heathrow Airport competition to river infrastructure projects in Medellín and Kiev, you address the interrelationship between the built and natural environments. Would you call yourself a landscape urbanist, or do you work across disciplines between landscape, architecture, and urbanism in a way that cannot be affixed to any category?
LC I trained as an architect in Colombia, and the separation between landscape and architecture is not as important there as it is in North America, where landscape design is a much more autonomous discipline. Coincidentally I started to practice right when landscape urbanism started to emerge as a discourse in North America. Charles Waldheim noticed our practice after I gave a lecture at GSD in 2009, and he invited me to Harvard, where I taught for five years. This was a time when my generation was deeply interested in urbanism, and it coincided with a wave of progressive urban projects in Medellín. In Latin America we perceived landscape urbanism with both distance and affinity, even though we didn’t identify our work that way. We were architects working with the medium of landscape, equally interested in buildings and plant life. Later our work was recognized as a Latin ripple of this discourse. One of the synergies with landscape urbanism is that we worked on urban projects, such as the Aquatic Center in Medellín, that had a clear urban impact in a tough, dense area. We were architects that used landscape media—vegetation and landforms—to deal with the problem of urban integration in a tough site. I have to admit that I do call myself a landscape architect sometimes. But in general our approach is project focused rather than linked to any disciplinary affiliation. We do projects and research, and the output is often recognized as landscape. Labels vary depending on the country you are working in.
NR How do Colombia’s intense natural landscape and ecologies, as well as the built environment of Latin America, inspire you?
LC The cycle of life in the tropics is not really interrupted by winter: everything changes at constant speed, and architecture cannot really contain this force. It seems to me that vegetation and architecture are on more equal terms in the tropics. Most of these landscapes are not natural; they are products of urbanization or extraction as human interactions clash with the seemingly wild. Traditions are also important; architects like Luis Barragán, Lina Bo Bardi, and Rogelio Salmona were interested in landscape beyond just using it as inspiration—they knew how to tend their own gardens and had profound botanical knowledge. I have been deeply interested in modern Latin architects who had serious botanic literacy. This is also what happened with landscape architecture, which is a discipline that evolved in South America without the heavy weight of the dominant traditions (English and French), meaning that abstraction and environmentalism somehow have always coexisted. Form never became a dirty word when the ecological movements came.
NR You have designed and imagined so many projects around water, both practical and imaginary, from islands and rivers to canals and pools. What draws you to water? Is it the potential for infrastructure and engineering controls, or the duality of serenity and power, even danger?
LC We do love water. One of the reasons is that the city where I’m from is about 400 kilometers from the sea—in the middle of the Andes. It is a fascination with the ocean that we didn’t have. I have discovered that water can be used to produce space as much as walls and columns. Water can be both space and material. After the Aquatic Center, we started to enter as many competitions as possible that involved water as a way to do research on it without having to be affiliated with a university.
NR How do you engage the community when you design a public project such as the Aquatic Center in Medellin?
LC From the beginning we proposed a horizontal landscape because we considered the public realm more than a building as object. It was evident that the city needed not only a space for training and professional swimming competitions but also an aquatic park for the community. This was our gift to the community, and frankly it was very easy to promote it. The hardest thing was to convince the mayor that he wouldn’t have a freestanding iconic building. We had to convince him that a landscape could be iconic while serving more people than just professional athletes.
NR How have you been able to convince other clients to do something beyond what they imagined, such as design using landscape and water for incremental public spaces in Kiev?
LC In Kiev we showed the client, in this case the city, that a hard-core infrastructural master plan was not actually needed. We used the project to demonstrate that the river, with 37 islands, is already a perfect structure from which to start thinking how to link opposite sides of the Dnieper River. In smaller projects, like the houses we are finishing now in Medellín, we convinced the client that he didn’t need to live so large and that smaller fragmented pavilions would allow us to design a large landscape. It is a project that could have been one 300-square-meter house and instead became three pavilions of 70 square meters each arrayed on a beautiful slope. Obviously we liberated resources for the design of the garden by doing this.
NR How has the coronavirus impacted your practice? How are you seeing life changing in Norway the past few months?
CH Some of our projects have been delayed, such as exhibitions and a few buildings. But since we are a small firm, work hasn’t changed so much. One current project that is restarting is the design of urban space around the former U.S. Embassy in Oslo, a triangular building designed by Eero Saarinen that we won the competition for recently with Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo. It was sold to a private owner a couple of years ago, after the embassy moved.
LC Now we can tell you only that the security fence will be removed and there will be public space, considering how the embassy was originally designed more like a cultural center. The building by Saarinen is a jewel, so we feel a big responsibility to build a new landscape while engaging with the restored Modernist facade.
CH Coronavirus has also affected, in an interesting way, the houses that Luis mentioned we designed in Medellín. Situated in the landscape, each of the pavilions inhabits the terrain differently. The landscape has been important as a building material, so we designed gardens to take on a larger role than originally expected by the client.
LC There was a fortunate accident. The gardens for this project were nearly finished when suddenly the very intense lockdown started in Colombia. This meant they could not be maintained, and they went wild so that what emerged was a strange mix of a formal manicured garden and a very wild landscape. It is what happens when you abandon a garden for a few months in the tropics—even wild orchids appeared.
NR What are you offering your students as the studio subject at Yale?
CH We are working with the forest north of Oslo as a cultural landscape. It is often described as pristine nature, but Norway’s forests are actually managed spaces. It’s some of the most regulated forestland in Europe and is meticulously documented tree by tree. We are using tools from these regulations to create new spaces.
NR How have you consciously organized the studio to evolve online? Do you have methods that you think will continue to enhance teaching and inspire student investigations?
LC While it is tough, the travel restrictions allow us to test something that we might have done anyway. Studio site visits have become sources of late means of verification rather than early inspiration. At the beginning of my practice we traveled very little; in fact it all started back in 2007 with a competition for Venice, a city that I only visited later. Projects became a way to travel, and the idea of designing as a way to travel has been very important in our work. We want to introduce students to advanced modeling techniques, from remote sensing to more traditional physical models, but also to narrative and literature as a way to create mental models of a site that have potential to be more powerful than the real site. There is a kind of taboo, especially in landscape, about designing a site without visiting it. We believe that when you trust a model you can be inspired by that abstraction. We want to teach students how to read a site you cannot visit and to construct creative mental and physical models when it is not possible to travel.