Blog: a professional autobiography


During my time as a student, the houses that architects designed for themselves were presented as built manifestos about form or building technologies. Some of those houses, such as Melnikov’s in Moscow, were city residences, but the majority were vacation homes such as Aalto’s in Muuratsalo island, separate from the urban fabric to better display their uniqueness. Whenever plans were included in the publications, these betrayed a conventional, patriarchal domesticity reliant  on housekeeping by the architect’s wife or by hired servants. No “room of one’s own” was provided for the women in the house other than  the kitchen or perhaps like in Walter Gropius’ house in Lincoln MA, a sewing room, the counterpart to his study, a place for thinking .

Even when I was impressed by some of the technological experiments or formal innovations of these dwellings, I had no desire to emulate them. During the forty years I lived in Manhattan I moved eight times, my living quarters always within a short walking distance from my studio, starting in the 1970s when I found an apartment across the service entrance of the Museum of Modern Art on 54th street; my studio was two floors below. The city was my living room, and any one of the scores of small and inexpensive restaurants serving office workers that then filled the streets of my midtown neighborhood could become an extension of my dwelling, a place to meet friends  and colleagues. A New York Times journalist, interviewing architects and seeking to promote appliance brands that would then pay for advertising, asked me what my favorite kitchen appliance was. When I told her it was the restaurant of the Dorset hotel across the street from my studio she laughed, but my answer was not included in her article.

My compromise then and now has been with the relationship between dwelling and city, especially the ways dwellings interact with urban resources to make a productive and satisfying life. I was living in the “15-minute city” decades before Ann Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, declared that as her goal for that metropolis. Everything I needed to meet daily needs I could reach on foot. When I moved I always made sure to be near a park, a museum, bookshops, art galleries and movie houses even when (or perhaps because) I was living on modest financial resources. This was the privilege of living in Manhattan during those years and this was the urban life I defended, against the more isolated suburban life for women, well before feminists and public transportation advocates begun promoting denser suburbs with mixed use zoning. My vision implied imbricating architecture and urban design, considered as distinct, separate disciplines in my academic contexts of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Concepts such as site, urban life and the ways that dwellings make the city were still in the margins of the dominant discourse of academic and trade publications. Even when I introduced these concepts early in my own teaching at Columbia University, it would take a long time for them to be accepted in accepted by mainstream academic discourse, even in its margins.

Space as Matrix,” published in 1981 was my manifesto about dwellings and their context, and about life and architecture. It wasn’t until after more than three decades later that I was be able to realize those ideas in the design a dwelling for myself and my partner. Our dwelling, in a village in Spain, is not a self-standing object; it is a community of seven households, where the dwellings retain distinct identities within the community’s collective one. (See ). Accomplishing this posed the challenge of developing a shared architectural language capable of variations for each home, instead of an exclusive and unique one for each dwelling. Each of the seven dwellings has its own set of characteristics, unlike an apartment building where a unity of expression imposed on the individual dwellings makes their differences disappear behind the anonymity of identical doors. I also attempted to formally express the possibility of change, although not always desirable; in our case by building in the spaces between dwellings.

The community was built on a plot overlooking the Mediterranean Sea that I purchased in 1971, with funds provided by my paternal grandmother so that I could “return to Spain for her.” But it disappeared under the first Coastal Line, a legal boundary between the sea and buildings on dry land. I had to wait thirty-five years until the line was moved to be able to build on the plot.

Our home is not a house, but a place made of multi-functional spaces waiting to be completed by the community, the village, and also the sky and the Mediterranean Sea. My intention was to make the architecture dissolve into the experience of living.

The Blue Room of our Dwelling

reply? please send me an e-mail


Just as in the aftermath of the 1918 global influenza epidemic, today’s pandemic has forced a break of the grip of rigid thought patterns about the proper design of cities and urban life. The massive death toll and an increasingly militant consciousness against entrenched racism and its related social and economic segregation, on top of pre-existing concerns about global warming, droughts and other associated planetary disasters, urge us to return to seek possible solutions in older ideas, some long-ignored,  that give priority to the inclusion, health and well-being of humans.

Regarding the design of urban spaces and housing that could promote the healthy integration of different age, race and income populations, and the fine-grain merger of built and natural spaces within blocks and neighborhoods, I want to refer to ideas I already expressed in my 1976 essay titled “Space as Matrix” (1). There I argued that that in order to be able to think cities and housing anew, including questions of density, hierarchies of exclusion and patterns of discrimination accumulated over time, we need to rethink the very idea of space itself. Nothing less would achieve this purpose.

Historically, the responses to new conditions such as strict and lengthy confinement have taken the form of proposals for the redesign of cities and housing when the old ones are deemed inadequate (2). Regarding density, for example, the creation of low-rise high-density housing complexes originated in the US as a response to the infamous high-rise high-density buildings such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis MO, dynamited between 1972 and 1976. But the tower-in-the park concept that inspired these buildings was a response to the congestion of dense European cities after the early 20th century pandemic. None of these responses and counter-responses, however, addressed the problems of social exclusion, access to opportunity or alternative energy sources, among other considerations.

To rethink space anew means going beyond typological categories such as housing, parks, and commerce; it means breaking down the conventional distinctions between private and public, individual and shared, built and natural environments, to propose an interaction between opposites. Hierarchy then can become a way to organize space inclusively, instead of a method for exclusion.

Now, the forced confinement that prevents the spread of the disease is making people reconsider their experience of home, work, and public spaces. The lack of easy access to nature is more easily normalized when the home is occupied less than half the day. But when the home becomes a workplace, a school, and an arena where the strains of family life are experienced round-the-clock, the need for access to the outdoors and contact with other human beings becomes urgent.

Sociologists, architects and urban designers are again stressing the need to rethink density, the importance of spaces for “the common good” and of places in urban homes that open to streets and green spaces not clogged by cars. There are also endless proposals for squeezing work spaces into the home with clever furniture, but these quick fixes assume that the city and its housing remain essentially unchanged. Less thought is being given to the question of physical distancing in public transportation, even as cars acquire a new relevance as a protective bubble. Maybe this is the time to start thinking about hybrid systems for home/work commuting routes, where private transportation modules can get hitched or unhitched to/from surface mass transit systems at specific stops.

But instead of rethinking yet another version of older architectural types or urban patterns, we should focus on moving beyond a binary structure of the environment. Again, we should rethink the very idea of space itself. Towards that goal I advanced in 1976 the following three principles that address weaving together, matrix-like, private and public, individual and shared, built and natural environments.

1-The simultaneous attainment of seemingly opposite objectives:open/enclosed, isolated/connected, low/high, small/large, intimate/monumental.

2-The creation of multifunctional spaces reflecting the way people actually live and cities change. The single use of spaces and the segregation of domestic and urban functions embedded in regulations and codes promote a constrained isolation between private, shared and public life.

3-The introduction of flexible elements to facilitate adaptability and change within the close, self-referential logic of design. In the concept of matrix space, fixed elements are combined with changing spatial possibilities for transformation and growth (3).

I believe that if these principles became common currency in architectural and urban design thought it would be possible to avoid the back-and-forth reactions about density and move towards better integrated human and natural environments.





reply? please send me an e-mail