OBRA at work in China


OBRA Architects, founded by Jennifer Lee and Pablo Castro in 2000, operates from New York, a city where “there is a kind of fundamentalism“. The pair believes many use digital architecture to be “hot and fashionable“, which prompts their self-asked question: “Why do we not embrace the prevalent style of the moment?

The portfolio of OBRA‘s projects and competition entries ranges from art installations and villas to museums and large housing schemes,out of which a multitude of forms, shapes, colours and materials emerge. “Some people even ask us why it is that all OBRA buildings look like they are done by someone else,” said the architects. “Why does OBRA not have a style?

Part of the esteemed 2005 Emerging Voices selection by the Architectural League of New York, current works include residences in Southampton, New York and a boutique apartment hotel in the Palermo section of Buenos Aires. Lee and Castro were in Beijing last November, attending the symposium on Crossing Now: Dialogues for Emergency Architecture, which prepared a group of 15 international architects for an exhibition scheduled for May 2009 in Beijing, organised by the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) and Beijing‘s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Throughout 2008 both Castro and Lee visited China four times, twice in the context of ORDOS100, once to present their Beijing Tripod, Blank 2008 installation in the Median Art Gallery and now to work for the NAMOC.

Villa of Captured Distance | ORDOS100 | OBRA (2008)

The first time OBRA was invited to work in China was in the context of ORDOS100, a project curated by Ai Weiwei in which 100 international architects, selected by Herzog & de Meuron, were invited to each design a 1000 sq-m villa in Ordos, Inner Mongolia. ”Bringing together so many different architects,” Castro says, ”one realises it isn‘t just the building, but the activity that happens around it;” a statement which could also be used to explain their proposal, the Villa of Captured Distance.

OBRA started by looking at the larger urban scale. They drew inspiration from a trip to Porto, where they drove through the local wineries and were amazed by the power of the left-over space, characterised by stone walls and streets made out of the same material — ”making it a coherent, self-contained and recognisable urban space.” After Ai Weiwei explained the first draft of the masterplan, the architects proposed a Porto-approach, but were criticised by fellow architects. “They thought,” the architects say with a sense of disappointment and disbelief, “we wanted to protect the privacy of each house and separate it from the public space. But the idea was to create a recognisable boundary so the public space becomes as memorable as the houses themselves.” Their proposal for the Villa of Captured Distance presents a series of more or less cubic pavilions that orbit the site‘s centre of gravity, engaging the periphery of the lot and the allowed maximum height, and trying to bracket as much space in between them as possible.

Villa of Captured Distance | ORDOS100 | OBRA (2008)

Comparing the layout and design of the villa with a starfish, their Portuguese experience melds with the Chinese concept of the courtyard: “The design is based on the relationship between solid and void. By working with the void of the courtyard, we spread the architecture out and turned it back on itself to establish interdependency. From an ancient Chinese painting, we extracted a compositional method, leading to a design where one can‘t look out of the window of the house without seeing another part of the house. We went through a lot of exercises so as to make sure the house was not throwing shadow on itself.

OBRA is Spanish for ‘work’, but also for ‘construction site’. Lee and Castro started working together at Steven Holl Architects and took off before 9/11, but soon after had to face the reality of a market slowing down. “We had already jumped, were in mid-air and realised the parachute was not opening, so we took a loan and established an office 10 blocks from the World Trade Centre. Then we did competitions, mostly housing competitions. In 2004, we had an early retrospective exhibition at the Rhode Island School of Design, in which we chose to work on the idea of open work, as described by Umberto Eco in Opera Aperta (The Open Work, 1962), which had a direct influence on the Arte Povera artists. We proposed the notion of Architettura Povera, the idea that architecture can be conceived as a crux of interests and existing forces that is open-ended.

BEATFUSE! | PS1 | OBRA (2006)

Recognition came in 2006 when they were the architects of the prestigious temporary installation at PS1 in New York. PS1 every year commissions a young architecture office to make a temporary summer pavilion, a type of architecture for ”an outside foyer which is very big, so there is a tendency for architects to produce very sculptural works. We wanted to take an opposite approach, addressing the specificity of the project‘s intention, which is basically the foyer being a party space.

BEATFUSE! | PS1 | OBRA (2006)

The installation, BEATFUSE!, is a space made out of seven curved, interconnected shells of plywood and polypropylene mesh covering the courtyard. Provoking both images of eternity (in style) and temporariness (in context), plywood was stretched very thinly so as to rely on geometry rather than on an accumulation of materials to span the space. The geometry of the shells, featuring water pools and steam vents underneath, is based on the same force a bow uses to propel an arrow. In the end, all shells became different.

Some observers thought it was one of the less obviously digital designed projects, but were wrong because it was all digitally designed and manufactured. ”We used Computer Numerically Controlled milling. This means we sent our own AutoCAD digital files directly to the fabricators for laser cutting or five-axis milling in plywood and steel. This made the process extremely efficient, as time was extremely short for the entire process of design, fabrication and construction,” say the architects.


In 2009, to mark the commemoration of the Sichuan earthquake, the National Art Museum in Beijing is organising an exhibition focusing on emergency architecture in response to national disasters. In collaboration with CAFA, full-scale prototypes will be produced. OBRA‘s RED+CROSSING-proposal aspires to use on-site assembled prefabricated systems in the shape of a red cross. ”For us, the question is for which moment of emergency are we designing? Immediately after a disaster, army tents are put together in half an hour. It is very hard to beat that. For us, reconstruction means involving people in the building process and aiming for a situation in between the tent and the reconstruction.

Next to the iconographic use of an emergency sign, there is also an organisational element motivating their decision: ”The idea works from an iconic point of view but also as architecture, by creating four wings that have all received natural ventilation and lighting. These wings are separate from each other and define a centre that can be used in different ways. To the outside, it creates four courtyards that can be turned into gardens,creating a gradient of space between the intimacy of the house and the public space outside.

Freedom Park | OBRA (2003)

In 2003, their Freedom Park project was one of three winners in the final stage of a UIA-sponsored international competition. Drawing inspiration from the African custom of carving a grave from within a baobab trunk, the museum is configured as four soaring trunks containing 10 galleries that people can go through in sequence as if they were fused into one. The 4,600 sq-m museum and 200 sq-m memorial are constructed from double-walled reinforced cavity brick shells with reinforced concrete structural frame and reinforced concrete catenary arches.

OBRA‘s projects seem to provoke a desire to explore different perspectives in one single building, while these lead to structures that are sprawling (Ordos100), sheltering (PS1) or growing (RED+CROSSING and Freedom Park), while still being recognisable as one singular form. With a growing interest in China, they do not seem to be looking for opportunities but appreciate and are fascinated by the culture of invitation and context of opportunities which they embrace wholeheartedly. “To us, China is the new frontier and in a way it provides a context of opportunity.

But OBRA is cautious about exploiting this context. As Castro explains: “There is a context here where, without being presumptuous, we, architects in general, can help to form many of the unfulfilled modernist projects in Europe and the US. With insight and experience these can perhaps be applicable to China. This deals with the notion that design can improve everybody‘s life, leading to an architecture based on a consideration that doesn‘t separate form and function or solely depends on the use of latest technology. This might propel architecture into a different position within the construction of a society. Everything seems to happen at the same time in China, all those opportunities, and that is part of the reason why we are interested.

OBRA might not have the desire to embrace the prevalent style of the moment, but are certainly eager to embrace the prevalent context of the moment. In the same way as their design approach is open-ended, there is a feeling that their China experience is open-ended, leading to surprising results.

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“OBRA at work in China” by Bert de Muynck
Published in Perspective Magazine, February, 2009

OBRA Architects
International Competition for the Design of the Freedom Park in Pretoria | OBRA | UIA
Villa of Captured Distance | OBRA | ORDOS100
Crossing Now | Dialogues for Emergency Architecture Exhibition | NAMOC | Beijing
ORDOS100 | MovingCities
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | MARK Magazine #12 (2008)

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