Can Sau, a royal estate from the 18th century, is a building in the historic center of Olot, the capital of the Catalan region of Garrotxa, which has suffered a process of accelerated deterioration in recent years. The urgent demolition of half of the farm left a scar on the urban landscape in 2017, but it also created a building plot, the opportunity to appropriate a space that had happened to build something different in it. The Olot city council planned a cosmetic action: paving the site and covering the dividing wall that had been exposed with a metal sheet rain partition. Two local architects, Eduard Callís and Guillem Moliner, from the study a couple of architects, they plated a much bolder alternative
Those responsible describe it as a rescue operation. A Saving Private Ryan without fanfare and without sequence shots. For a modest amount and faithful to an apparently simple and unpretentious concept, but conscientious and scrupulous, they managed to recover a public space for the city of Olot and do a bit of posthumous justice to a building with local roots that had long been mistreated.
These are the main virtues of the project to consolidate and adapt the Can Sau party wall, baptized by its authors as Urgency Scenography. In the opinion of the Irish architect and journalist Brian Gallagher, co-founder of the magazine B-Guided, it is a refined example of “urban poetry”. A “situationist work of art”, a “modern madness” that manages to “delight and intrigue” by its audacity and simplicity. A demonstration of the therapeutic virtues that architecture can have when it is planned not as invasive, disruptive and cumbersome surgery, but as a discreet and effective homeopathic intervention on a wounded urban landscape. The work won the award for the best public project in the third edition of the Simon Living Spaces, awards curated by the Mies Van der Rohe Foundation. In its conclusions, the jury highlighted the will to build through architecture “a story that contributes to recovering the essence and memory of an abandoned space”.
Callís tells in a relaxed chat via Zoom with ICON Design that they proposed to allocate the planned resources to a project in the vertical plane that, in essence, consisted of covering the wall with a false hollow brick facade. As explained by Jordi Casas in the newspaper at that time TodayIt was a question of “providing the aesthetics of a sanctuary” to the fruit of an urban shipwreck, while providing an appropriate aesthetic environment to the neighboring church of Tura, whose Gothic façade had been bricked up for many years.
The main obstacle, according to Callís, was “convincing the city council to back off a rain coverage contract already signed to give priority to a much less conventional idea, a type of architectural intervention for which there was hardly any precedent in the area.” The architects defended their idea arguing that, in compact cities, building facades is a priority, because they are what give the streets “shape and character”.
Theirs is a barely hinted facade, deliberately incomplete. A sketch superimposed on another surface that, as Guillem Moliner explains, “is reminiscent of those visual pastimes in which it is the viewer who has to draw the lines that join a series of scattered points together.” A space both internal and external consisting of four niches and three vaults with the appearance of Romanesque apses accompanied by a modest concrete grandstand.
A local artist, the painter and sculptor Quim Domene, joined the project in 2019 to decorate the niches with a series of motifs that allude to the traditions of the neighborhood and its inhabitants. “I was inspired above all by the religious imagery industry that was typical of the area until well into the 20th century,” he explains. Around the current street of the Proa, where Can Sau is, there were abundant “until about 70 or 80 years ago, the shops of figurines and prints with which the churches and private chapels were decorated”.
When Callís and Moliner invited him to “intervene” in the work in progress, Domene wanted to give it the appearance of a “modest secular chapel”. In addition, he thoroughly documented the history of this environment and sought inspiration in the work of an illustrious neighbor, the interior designer, photographer and plasterer. Sadurní Brunet, a versatile craftsman with many interests, famous above all for the ceramic borders he made for the Montjuïch cemetery in Barcelona. Domene also rescued graphic ideas from the rich tradition of the Indianas, colorful printed cotton fabrics that were the most prestigious artisan product made in Olot until the mid-19th century. The artist also reproduced the names of shops and workshops in the area, in an attempt to preserve their memory.
Callís highlights that the participation in the project of a deep-rooted visual artist has reinforced the initial idea of ”recovering the memory of this ancient nucleus loaded with history but which has been sponging for decades and today exhibits worrying signs of decadence and abandonment”. Moliner explains that, by making this explicit nod to the commercial and artisan past of his city, they had present collective rituals of memory recovery “such as the scene of Paradise cinema in which they tear down the local cinema and the inhabitants of the town come together to celebrate their common past, while the demolition brigade uncovers layers and layers of history superimposed one on top of the other ”.
Both Callís and Moliner highlight the deliberately unfinished character of their work. “The residents of the area congratulate us because our facade has been received with curiosity and respect, but they also ask us very often when we are going to finish it,” says Callís, not without a certain humor. A sign of the lack of harmony between conventional taste and modern architecture? Moliner prefers to interpret it as a positive response: “I like to see what is incomplete, provisional and ephemeral in our intervention. In fact, when we started outlining the project, our main concern was to decide at what exact point we had to stop ”.
Callís adds that “the modesty of the concept was given, first of all, by the budget, which was very limited. That forced us to do an intervention on a very measured, very limited and very precise scale. We imposed the discipline of thinking a lot and acting very little, giving it all the necessary turns until we touched the exact key. It was about building as little as possible, only what was strictly necessary for the essence of our idea to be visualized ”.
Thus, working on a human scale, with scrupulous respect for a tradition and an environment, they have managed to provide their city with a new emblematic space, with the strength and purity of the visual icons that last: “It was a great satisfaction to see that our facade attracted the attention of several architecture blogs and began to appear in Instagram very curious visual montages, such as one of a young woman smoking under the central arch, another with Rosalía … A process of reappropriation and redefinition of the image that we have created has already begun, which we find very stimulating ”, says Callís, who exerts also from community manager eventual joint project, but acknowledges that “it is the enthusiasm and generosity of many art and culture fans that sometimes give our work an impact that we do not always know how to give it.”
They have participated in projects of notable importance, such as the Morrot sports city, also in Olot, to which they added “a central meeting space, an agora” not foreseen in the initial plan, faithful to their idea that the essential in Architecture is, as Callís explains, “critically reformulate the questions posed by the environment or the client and end up posing, if possible, a better question”. Domene connects with this demanding and dialectical way of conceiving architecture and art, this search for difficult simplicity through a reflection that goes to the root of the problems: “It is a privilege to have worked with them on such a conceptually rich project , which goes beyond the ornamental and the functional. I wish the demolition of an old building became more often an opportunity to try something truly new. “
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.