Whether designing a pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in London or a school for children in Nairobi, there are certain consistencies to SelgasCano’s joyful buildings one can’t fail to spot: exuberant colour, a fascination with luminosity and an abundance of vegetation. Jemima Burrill began their conversation by describing her excitement the previous day as she watched the frame of SelgasCano’s food hall building being raised. Once complete, this future heart of Design District will be a transparent, cloudlike form, described by some as a luminous caterpillar. It’s envisioned as a warm welcome to those approaching the district via Greenwich Pavilions, imbued — as the architects suggest — with an innately Spanish quality (joking that it is perhaps reminiscent of the famously spectacular, annually changing entrance to the Seville Fair).
José Selgas and Lucía Cano imagine the food hall functioning much like a plaza — albeit a covered one — bustling with a spirit of sociability. Abundant vegetation will further contribute to this sense of en plein air, as will the exterior structure’s complete transparency — something the architects describe as ‘less architecture.’
This blurring of indoors and outdoors is also a defining characteristic of SelgasCano’s other Design District building, which features a four-storey wintergarden. Here, ramps and staircases weave through the plant life, connecting the floors of office space. Selgas considers these verdant surroundings — a place where people can meet and relax — ‘a gift’ to Design District, and indeed the city.
SelgasCano are interested in what makes a workplace a truly pleasurable environment. Beginning a project in Sweden, the practice carried out a survey that asked: ‘do you bring your friends and family to the place where you work?’ 95% of respondees did not. This highlighted the importance of creating workspaces people are proud of — a place to share with those closest to them.
In the case of the SelgasCano team, the dynamic seems led by the rapport between its married founders, with, Cano describes, decisions arrived at more or less naturally. Furthermore, no member of the small office is assigned a permanent role, but rather ‘everyone has a voice in every project.’
At the end of 2016, SelgasCano relocated a pavilion they’d built for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark to Kibera — an impoverished neighbourhood of informal housing in Nairobi, often referred to as Africa’s largest urban slum. Here the structure became a school, fulfilling its originally intended purpose. Burrill and the architects addressed both the ethical and practical complexities inherent in such a project, from the shadow of colonial legacies to the necessity of adequate drainage.
Concurrent with their Louisiana pavilion, the practice was working on its commission for the Serpentine Gallery in London. The team took this as an opportunity to experiment with ETFE, the translucent fireproof plastic they would later use for Design District’s food hall. It also allowed them to play extensively with colour, testing all that were available to them. Selgas laments the lack of colour in architecture, suggesting that most people love it, even if architects seem not to.
SelgasCano’s two Design District buildings exemplify the practice’s use of light and incorporation of the organic. As with the food hall and building B1’s winter garden, this has typically been about bringing plant life into an interior. For a recent Second Home project in Hollywood, however, the architects prioritised a lush open-air garden of almost 7000 plants and trees, dotting individual pod-like workspaces into this landscape. ‘Nature,’ Selgas says, ‘is the only important thing we have.’ In part, this was a strategy for preserving some of the site’s existing architecture: a 1964 building by Paul Williams, the first certified African American architect to work in Los Angeles — or anywhere west of the Mississippi, for that matter.
As to the pivotal role of light in their practice, the architects cited an auditorium they’d built on the outskirts of the Spanish city of Plasencia — an example of how buildings have the capacity to illuminate a landscape by ‘using what’s inside… like a lantern,’ just as Design District’s food hall will. Unlike much of the urban expansion surrounding it, the cantilevered structure keeps the natural topography intact, barely ‘touching the landscape’ and leaving much of its sizable plot untamed. The duo hopes this will force the city to think more carefully about how it wishes to grow. Similarly, they see Design District’s intimate scale as a positive new model for development. This, the architects say, may be ‘fundamental for the future of London.’
The next Meet the Design District Architects will be with Adam Khan, Founding Director at Adam Khan Architects on Friday, 9 October. Book now.