The Swiss studio Bureau A complements architecture in its original projects as a mutable, transient medium. The studio’s conceptual artistic approach to design combines the values of conventional architecture and knowledge of its history with innovative elements from the fields of fine art, performance, theatre, and product design, as well as social and political critique.
The studio Bureau A was founded in 2012 by the architects Leopold Banchini and Daniel Zamarbide in Geneva. While Zamarbide studied architecture at the Geneva University of Art and Design (HEAD), where he was also intensively concerned with fine art, Banchini was educated at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The two complement each other excellently in their creative work. They share an enthusiasm for the history of architecture and art and are interested in the medium of installation and the topic of temporary architecture. “The studio actually emerged as an upgrade of our previous work. I had been a partner in one of the bigger architectural studios and Leopold had his own studio dealing with exhibition installations and temporary projects. We both wanted a change,” Zamarbide describes the genesis of Bureau A. Their work proceeded in a direction initiated by Banchini. They did not focus on the traditional form of architecture as an immutable, definitive medium, but rather aimed at a new understanding of its meaning and application in performative or artistic forms. That may also be linked to the nomadic way of life and work of the two architects. “We have always tried to be away from Geneva for at least two months every year. So we spent some time in Vietnam or on a residency in the Swiss Alps,” says Zamarbide, who together with his colleague ultimately relocated the studio to Lisbon. “Lisbon seemed to us like a great opportunity. Currently there are five people working with us here and one in Geneva. It’s much cheaper here. We have a beautiful studio that we couldn’t afford in Switzerland. Access to craftspeople is also fundamental for us. In Geneva it was often impossible to get something made,” adds Zamarbide. He and Banchini not only apply the motif of impermanence in their work, but also in their lives.
“The human element is very important for our work,” says Zamarbide about the creative principles of Bureau A. “We like to create projects that transform and are based on the interaction with people. Architecture allows us to comment on events around us. Temporary projects allow us to operate more freely, thus subtly circumventing the definitiveness of architecture.” The studio aims to demonstrate in its work an architecture that is far from being restricted to the creation of buildings. “We like to apply architecture in various situations and contexts. In this respect we speak of its formats,” Zamarbide describes the overlapping of media and the use of complementary ones. In its installations, stage designs, interiors, and small buildings, Bureau A is concerned primarily with the aspect of content, which is often inspired directly by specific references to the history of architecture, art or philosophy. “We also like to give thought to the topic of collaboration. Work on temporary projects for exhibition institutions, theatres or festivals allow us to establish a different type of collaboration than the conventional relationship of an architect filling an order for a private client. In short, other formats of architecture allow us to create other formats of collaboration,” says Zamarbide.
From the History of Architecture to Performance and Social Commentary
Specific references to the history of art and architecture play a major role in the work of Bureau A. “We work very intuitively. Individual projects provide great opportunities for the discussion and creation of a certain dialogue with history and our interests.” While the entrance portal to their studio in Geneva was inspired by the work and theory of the British advocator of Arts and Crafts William Morris, for their recent installation in the L’Asticot children’s clothing boutique in Geneva they looked at the Soviet Brutalists. A table designed with a massive support that operates both as a clothes hanger and a climbing frame for children serves also as a pedestal for a miniature Brutalist cardboard city. The individual buildings in it are precise scale models of specific examples of Soviet architecture of the second half of the 20th century. Tiny figures in various peculiar situations and confrontations constitute a layer of a fantastic story frozen in time, similarly to the canvases of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. The installation excellently illustrates the strategy of Bureau A: a serious theory with references to a less well-known chapter of architecture is transformed into a fun children’s playground.
The principles of scenography and the construction of an entire artificial reality also constitute one of the strategies of Bureau A. During their aforementioned residency in the Swiss Alps, the architects combined their passion for art with a concrete purpose to create an unconventional mountain habitation in the form of a giant artificial boulder as a work of art in the landscape. Inspired by the character Antoine in the Swiss novel “Derborence” by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who was imprisoned for seven days within cliffs, they created a mountain refuge that quite merges with the surrounding landscape. The architects covered the simple wooden construction, equipped inside with flexible furniture, fixtures, and a stove, with an organic sprayed-on layer of concrete. This object of a dream reality, an open treasure cave, a conceptual, witty game, is also based in terms of its execution on the sculptural architecture of Jacques Gillet, Pascal Häusermann, and Daniel Grataloup, architects who worked in the 1970s in the Geneva area as well as others.
Movement and interaction with human activity also relates to theatre and scenography. In a number of projects Bureau A deals with the elements of performance and continuous movement. During their time in Vietnam, the architects created a special mobile installation “Ta đi Ôtô”, consisting of tricycles bearing multi-storey steel structures, which functioned both as kitchens and as spaces for theatre performances and exhibitions. The authors managed to create from the available materials and technical skills to be found on the streets of Hanoi an intuitive and improvised space for social and artistic interaction. Improvisation was also the source of the garden pavilion “La Fabrique”, which the architects built together with a number of friends within a few days from old windows. A project inspired by Buster Keaton’s short film “One Week” about a pair building a DIY house is another example of combining a serious context with a playful form. The witty use of windows in the spirit of the ready-made comments on First World citizens’ loss of the ability to build for themselves by means of DIY and the spontaneity of architectural processes, which are becoming more complicated due to bureaucracy, among other things.
One of the studio’s latest projects demonstrates a certain criticism of society and reference to the burning issues of mankind. “Fountain 2017” is an installation that Bureau A created in the context of the Common Ground initiative in one of Zurich’s car parks. A men’s urinal of pink Lisbon marble is a provocative statement on the handling of public space, which is increasingly being taken over by large multinational corporations, and therefore fails to fulfil its primary meaning for the general public. “It is a gift from poor Lisbon to wealthy Zurich as a symbol of the issue of the supremacy of rich countries over poor ones and the manipulation of their destiny,” say the architects, concluding their critical view, which, at this time of crisis of the European Union and the influx of refugees, seems highly topical.