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On the opening page of their 1997 monograph Areas of Impunity, Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros printed a picture of a pair of hands dealing tarot cards onto a dark table. The cards can be taken as a critique of func-tionalism and Postmodernism, or as a statement of intent for the practice. They demonstrate humans’ superstitious desire to make order visible in the random and also remind us of the Jewish joke: ‘Want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.’
Design, for Abalos and Herreros, is something that is revealed in the impotent fumblings of the human race – as much in a card trick as in ivory-tower academia. Their work to date has been characterized by their wonderful, playful writings as well as their built work, and these writings lie somewhere between manifestos, diaries and essays.
Born in 1956 and 1958 respectively, Abalos and Herreros began working together in 1984 in Madrid, where they were involved in the last throes of the ‘movida madrileña’, a scene in which they were somewhat idiosyncratic participants. Described by Alejandro Zaera as ‘always some¬what less neat and tidy than was normal’, they were an individual presence even then, more interested in mildewed tomes by old engineers than the architectural pornography of international publications.
Work such as the Gordillo House (1996), to the north of Madrid, takes their teacher Alejandro de la Sota’s ‘architecture of pure technique’ and enhances it with the use of off-the-peg products. This interest in indus¬trial methods of building is demonstrated throughout their work, from the drawings for the Villa FG in Madrid (1999), which could be folded to make a paper version of the house, to their huge project for the Valdemingómez Waste Treatment Centre, Madrid (2000), which is a veritable cathedral of rubbish, slowly turning a landfill site into a public park.
They have also tackled public buildings, including the charming corrugated plastic of the Village Hall in Colmenarejo (2000), and the Public Library in Usera (2003), an elemental building in concrete, sitting on a low podium that forms a public park. This building could, perhaps, be mistaken for the work of one of the older generation in Spain – Rafael Moneo in particular – but the details still speak of the architects’ abiding concerns. A most pleasing detail is the interior finish, with walls covered in silkscreened wallpaper – a reference to Andy Warhol, by whom they are much influenced.
Abalos and Herreros are interested in an architecture that acts on the senses rather than one that signifies meaning. This does not prevent them from using decoration liberally, however, and their design for the new urban Coast Park in Barcelona (2004) prints giant pictures of fish onto the ground. New directions are still appearing in their work.
‘It is often our phobias that are the best guide,’ they write in the essay ‘A Fragile Skin’ (1997), taking a psychological condition as the agent for creative work. While this might seem reductive, Abalos and Herreros seem to have found a way of ignoring the semioticians and the technocrats while still making an architecture that is both intellectually rigorous and materially sensuous.