On September 10, the Architectural League of New York kicked off its fall 2019 lecture series with a talk by Pezo Von Ellrichshausen moderated by Michael Meredith. Speaking to a large audience in The Cooper Union’s Great Hall, the young Chilean firm presented a body of work ranging from art performance pieces, to an island villa looking toward the Andes, to a cultural center on the cliffs over the Pacific Ocean. The work, in short, is gorgeous, and Mauricio Pezo and Sofia Von Ellrichshausen spoke about it in a way that checked off every box for a formalist architectural project: considering the promenade, the corner, weight, material, color, seriality, etcetera—the stuff of architecture.
In response to a question by Meredith about the notion of progress, Pezo evoked the paintings of Mark Rothko. The evocation is apt; in fact, the paintings the office produces as part of their design process resonate with Rothko’s murky blocks of color. Like a Rothko painting, their architecture is transcendental—in a way, utopian. They are modern, but not in the sense of a modernist social agenda, like painters from the mid-20th century: the crisp silence of Edward Hopper, the figural alliteration of Paul Klee, the obsessive geometry of Frank Stella. The architects described their work as an exploration of format rather than form and showed diagrams similar to Sol LeWitt’s 122 Incomplete Open Cubes (1974), exploring every possible permutation of a formal operation. Engulfed in images of this transcendental, modern, utopian work, one could easily forget the last 50 or so years of architecture as it has struggled to adapt to changing construction techniques, global/neoliberal economies, digital workflows, and new social and environmental responsibilities.
An audience member questioned the architects about the role of context in shaping what was presented as largely autonomous work. Pezo said that built architecture is by definition contextual, but when he went on to bemoan the difficulty of addressing building codes for a project they are working on in the US, the audience chuckled—a tacit recognition by the crowd that the stunning work presented exists in the unique economic, construction, and environmental bubble in which the architects operate. It is a context of long staircases without landings, inaccessible doorways buried in acute corners, affordable skilled craftsmanship, and available commissions for small one-bedroom chalets. Meredith furthered the question of context, asking what the firm would do in an urban setting. Von Ellrichshausen responded that they don’t know, but they “will do it wonderfully.” Another audience member stepped up to the microphone not to ask a question but to congratulate the young firm on achieving the “perfect balance of Aldo Rossi and Alvar Aalto.” One could certainly discuss the work in relation to Rossi and Aalto or draw parallels between their explorations of the piano nobile and Le Corbusier or of columns and Giuseppe Terragni. But to do so, only, overlooks what their work eschews.
In New York, in a progressive school of architecture, on a warm September night following the Earth’s hottest summer ever recorded, the omission of any acknowledgment of the environmental, urban, social, and economic realities of architecture in the 21st century was glaring. Is treating architecture solely as an artistic, formal pursuit useful or even an option for anyone sitting in that auditorium? How much longer can the architecture community afford to do so? An audience member in the row in front of me noted in her phone “look up pve echo pavilion Milan.” Certainly, as with all of the project the architects showed, the pavilion at the 2019 Milan Design Week, a mirrored cube distorting the courtyard of a baroque palazzo, is worthy of our attention; it’s beautiful in both concept and execution. Pezo Von Ellrichshausen should, indeed, be admired, but not emulated.
Patrick Templeton is a Brooklyn-based architectural designer and managing editor of Log.