Minimal Intervention: The Wise Position (2011Dec, C3-Korea #328)

Text ©SCarta  – Originally published in C3-Korea #328 December 2011

Image – courtesy of C3-Korea Publishers



Minimal Intervention: The Wise Position



Minimal Intervention

While designing in a preexisting context, architects have implied -along the history- two main ways. The two approaches are based on the level of respect that is attributed to the place and they –in a more speculative extent- reflect the cultural moment in which the architect sits, following the relationship human-world.

The first way is represented by a subservient approach based on a great respect to the place. The provided context -a natural cave or a preexisting building- is left almost untouched and the series of modifications we call “project” is designed around or inside the existing situation. This approach can also be related to a primitive and intuitive behavior in regards of the world.

Strengthened by growing knowledge, humanity started to look at the world as something upon which to apply its own rules: a blank canvas onto which project their needs, with the aim of creating an environment more comfortable and suiting their goals. This can also be explained by a technical vision of the world.

An intermediate way is based on a more mature understating of the subservient and the dominant position, in which a great respect for the existing situation is paid, yet combined with a projectual vision based on human needs.

The projects presented in the issue settle some significant standpoints in the construction of this intermediate and mature scenario.




Full text:


Working with the Existing

In the chapter concerning architecture in The Absent Structure[1] (1968), Umberto Eco depicted how humanity passes from the experience of occasionally finding shelter in a cave to creating in his mind the idea of shelter in its generic sense. The human mind uses what is called experience to create an abstract version of the shelter, embodying all those aspects that may be held in common for every particular shelter in the world, and eventually creates a model of this abstraction. From a large variety of distinct cases (which extends almost to the infinite), all shelters can thus be represented by the same idea and indicated with the same significance. Tipping over this last sentence, we can say that in every case in which a man recognizes those aspects (with a certain configuration of features) that match the generic idea of the shelter (as model), he can call this thing a shelter. The same goes for ideas related to function, like those of the house, or of a place where a certain sort of work may be safely and comfortably done.


It is interesting to observe how the human being behaves once entering the shelter, having recognized it as a house. While figuring out how to settle his needs, in fact, he acts in various ways depending on his vision of the world.


The Subservient Approach

If we consider humanity in our first conscious phase, it is easy to imagine our approach to the world. In this moment, we have a vague consciousness of the vastness of the world, its complexity and dangers, and—at the same time—we understand our poor resources and scanty power in dominating it. We are small beings facing a huge and mysterious world. In this moment of humanity’s history this lack of knowledge and expertise entails that a considerable distance be set between ourselves and the external world. This distance is the central feature of all humanity’s attempts to adapt its environment to its needs. The fact of not knowing what the consequences of our acts will be implies a sort of fearful respect with regard to nature. In this way of seeing the world, we can imagine all those acts of primitive humanity in using the world and accommodating its needs by means of what already exists. The cave is the most obvious example: used as a house or simply as a provisionary shelter, it shows how humans used a preexisting condition without planning any modification of it. The cave was chosen based on its characteristics in relationship to human needs, such as internal humidity and temperature, depth and internal layout, the possibility of its being easily defendable from outside dangers, and internal comfort. The inner space, in fact, must have represented a fundamental aspect in choosing the most comfortable cave, as a place able to provide sufficient room to sleep, cook, eat, store food and stay in groups.


The matrix of this vision of the world as something higher and bigger than the human being and as distant and untouchable has endured as one fundamental component in the overall history of architecture. Its presence is recognizable in almost every period of architectural production, with—obviously—several evolutions and developments along the way. One clear example is found in John Ruskin’s ideas concerning the conservation of ancient monuments and buildings. Even as, in France, Ruskin’s contemporary Viollet-le-Duc was theorizing about and promoting a stylistic unity[2] in restoration projects, in England Ruskin was proposing a more radical approach. While considering every restoration act as a “destruction accompanied with a false description of the thing destroyed,”[3] his romantic vision of restoration would allow only for exercising great care concerning the ruined building without taking any concrete action to save it from the ruining effects of time.


The Superimposing  Approach

As humanity has gradually acquired expertise and accumulated knowledge, we have increased our consciousness of the world, such that the cause-effect relationship began to no longer represent a source of fear and uneasiness. Through discoveries, inventions, theories and attempts to understand the world, we gradually grew more and more comfortable in our environment until our ways of considering the world changed drastically. Strengthened by growing knowledge, humanity started to look at the world as something upon which to apply its own rules, with the aim of creating an environment more suitable to its needs. The peak of this idea of the world as something modifiable at one’s will is represented by the anthropocentric vision developed repeatedly in different cultures and at different times.


If the world may thus be perceived as a blank canvas onto which people project the shape of their needs, humankind comes to regard it as a malleable matter, a modifiable system on demand. The world is a complex system fairly understood by human theories and scientific achievements, which may be made to respond to human challenges and modifications in a controlled and expected way[4].


The cave or the natural shelter no longer represents a suitable model once the ability to modify and dominate natural resources and elements has been significantly improved. The generic idea of the house, its mental model, can now be conceived autonomously from the preexisting situation and the natural configurations that nature offers. Humanity at this point is able to treat the two topics independently: on the one hand it can pursue the idea of living and investigate the house from a conceptual point of view, while on the other it can concentrate on finding new ways to have the house perform at an increased level of technology. The scouting skills (focused on finding suitable and comfortable preexisting situations in nature) of primitive humanity paved the way to a two-fold activity. The speculative side concentrates on continuously questioning the act of living,[5] trying to understand, for instance, whether other, undiscovered and better (i.e., more amenable to current needs) conditions are possible. On the technical[6] side, by contrast, there is a continuous challenge of the world’s elements and humanity’s inventions being pushed to their limits in order to achieve ever newer and more useful results. The former direction is the natural consequence of the explorative curiosity of primitive humanity facing a gigantic and mysterious world, while the latter is the mature reaction of a mature being who has changed his vision of the world and his place (in hierarchical terms) in it.


In Medio Stat Virtus: A Wise Position

If the subservient approach to the existing represents one of the edges of our framework, the opposite edge can be identified with the vision of a world utterly rulable by man’s hand. Between these two sides lies what we may identify as a mature understanding of this relationship. With the passage of time, humanity (at this point we may freely speak about architects) became able not only to control and dominate nature and the world and shape these at will, but also to resolve its ancient relationship with the unknown. Era by era, with the accumulation of experience, architects soon became capable of dealing with the existent and the past. They began to shorten the distance (both ideological and almost religious) that characterized their approach to the world and acquired a certain wisdom concerning situating oneself between the two visions. Architects learned how to treat the existing while modifying it, finding a balance between the passive view of Ruskin and the intrusive approach of Viollet-le-Duc. Moreover, the two sides of the coin soon became two complementary parts of the same project. The search for new uses, shapes or configurations in a preexisting situation became a pretext for enhancing the previous condition of the building site, emphasizing its particular value (because this value is preexisting, and thus conveys qualities from another time and condition). The new project in an existing condition thus fosters new aspects while linking them to old features.


Humanity is no longer obligated to choose between an untouchable situation (provoked by an unresolved relationship with the preexisting) and a view of the world as a white canvas, in which every move can be planned from scratch, should need require doing so. The balanced position is eventually represented by those acts in which the value of the preexistent is the engine for the design of new uses and configurations. To the same extent, the converse becomes possible: the new needs—forcing the architect to intervene in an existing condition—may transform a locale by enhancing, highlighting and unveiling its value. The coexistence of previous features and new requirements is the middle point between the two approaches from which we started. In formal terms, this relationship is not an elimination, a cutting or an erasing of a drawn grid; it is rather a fulfillment, which allows new, unexpected value to emerge. In this sense, the design involving the existing is not a choice between deleting, substituting or reinventing; it is actually keeping what has come from the past and combining it with new aspects. A wise position is a positive addition and not an adaptation, nor a change.


A clear example of this wise-middle position is provided by the projects presented in this issue. Each is placed in a distinct position within the discussion, covering a range of aspects and establishing a variety of relationships in the architect–existing question.


We can read these projects in terms of an ascending level of intervention with regard to the existing situation. In this sense, the first in the list is surely the guesthouse Casa Talia, realized in Modica (Sicily, Italy) by Vivian Haddad and Marco Giunta. The project is obtained by starting the design from an existing system of ravines and rock faces. The original space has been sensibly changed during the design process—obviously—due to the requirements of the new use. However, the place still maintains the original ancient character and spatiality of the cave-houses of the area (in which one may appreciate the heritage of the Arab influence). Ancient proportions of shade and light on stone surfaces and in-loco materials (combined and tied together with old construction techniques) are brought back to light in this project in combination with new objects and dispositions. The twelve holiday houses thus constitute a new layout (at least in concept) in an old shell.


A second group of projects involves application of an intervention using an existing context to achieve an atmosphere both elegant and luxurious. In the apartment designed in the old city of Jaffa Flat by Tel-Aviv-based architect Pitsou Kedem, for instance, the presence of the original vaults and arches and the natural stone surfaces, in combination with new furniture, material and spatial dispositions, in addition to the lucky location, simultaneously confers upon the flat a sense of richness and simplicity. The former quality arises from the textures and materials of the past life of the building, whilst the latter arises from the new choices. In the architect’s statement is condensed all the importance of this reestablished old–new relationship: “The central idea was to combine the old and the new whilst maintaining the qualities of each and to create new spaces that blend the styles together, and even intensify them, because of the contrast and tension between the different periods.”


The Alemanys 5, by Anna Noguera, sits in an original sixteenth century building in the medieval area of Gerona, Spain. Again, several changes have been made for this project, but the spacious veranda facing the old buildings of the neighborhood, the fixed layout imposed by the original main supporting structure and the presence of old materials and surfaces place the Alemanys 5 in an interesting point of balance between old and new in terms of how it works with the existing.


The Restaurante Arrop in Valencia, by Barcelona-based Francesc Rifé Studio is inserted in an old structure inside the complex of the Hotel Palacio Marqués de Caro, in the remains of recently discovered twelfth century Arab walls. The combination—which at some point turns into a real clash—of shining, slick materials and the existing ruins, confers upon the Restaurante a controlled sense of the past. The Arab wall snaking throughout the new intervention—or better, the latter filling up the spaces left from the former—lends the place a unique atmosphere.


The two pavilions designed by Jesús Ulargui Agurruza and Eduardo Pesquera González as an addition to the fragment of the XVI century defensive wall of Logroño, Spain, are emblematic of our discussion. When one focuses on the volume inserted into the circular inner space of the corner tower, the quality of the coexistence[7] of the new intervention (following new uses and scopes) and the preexisting structures is suddenly visible. The new building (already to be considered part of the compound) is different in terms of shape, material and use, yet it manages to generate a new life for the whole project.


Similar in type is the means of establishing a new relationship studied by Clermont Architectes in the rehabilitation of the Theatre du Châtelard, in Ferney-Voltaire, France. The new program is inserted into—or better, added to—a sixteenth century farm warehouse in which part of the existing structure is combined with the new elements in a clear and recognizable way. Again, the old parts are able to emphasize the new ones and, at the same time, the latter frames the former both visually and conceptually.


The third group has in common the approach of enclosing an intervention in an existing place. The Architecture Studio has been designed by Novan & Vesson Architects inside a palace built in 1899 in the city of A Coruña, Spain. The main layout of the house in its previous status was based on a configuration designed around the living standards of the beginning of the twenty century. The new intervention is meant to build upon the previous situation “a place of interchange in which to celebrate many different social and cultural events as well as temporary exhibitions,” explain the architects. The project results in an unusual set of inner spaces in which one’s attention is continuously stimulated by the unexpected corners and views of the old house.


The greater space required by the new program (in this case, housing a municipal administration) of the Casa del Obispo (House of the Bishop) by Pesquera & Ulargui Arquitectos in Malaga called for the addition of a new volume. The new volume connects visually and programmatically the old and new functions of the compound. The new Casa del Obispo is now transformed in terms of its configuration while still maintaining, if only partially, its old atmosphere.


The project of Barbosa & Guimaraes in Foz of the Douro, on the outskirts of Porto, Portugal, considers as a preexisting situation a shell represented by the former façade, a two-storey high granite masonry construction facing the streets. Inside, a new copper-clad volume has been inserted which houses a mixed program, including a commercial space, an office and some housing. This interpretational choice (based on the supposed volume the old house had occupied) attempts to establish a dialogue with the existing envelope by experimenting with new programs and layouts in the interior.


The Escuela De Hostelería En Antiguo Matadero in Medina Sidonia (Cádiz, Spain), by Sol89 (María González y Juanjo López de la Cruz) combines an existing building typical of the area with a new section housing a new program which emerges from the inside of the larger building. “The aim is to fit and ‘shelter’ the building in its urban reality,” explain the architects.


A firm approach is what characterizes the Casa de la Música y Auditorio in Algueña MUCA (Spain) designed by Cor & Asociados. Miguel Rodenas + Jesús Olivares. The new part is the closing fourth wing of an existing U-shaped compound built in the sixties for the Spanish Guardia Civil. While the existing buildings have a traditional plaster finishing, the “fourth element” is clad with a pearly and iridescent ceramic tiles surface. This choice clearly represents the architects’ intention of creating a new compound consisting of the existing buildings which qualities are enhanced by an admittedly different new and vibrating element.


Las Casas Consistoriales de Baeza, a project rehabilitating the City Hall in Baeza, Spain, has been designed—as the architect, Iñigo de Viar, explains—with three main elements: the existing (containing the political and representative program), the new (offices and client-desks) and the empty space (a newly introduced program, conceived as a public space in which people can socialize and wait). This project brings the reconstruction of the old–new relationship a step forward by trying to achieve a balance of program, functions, shapes, elements and materials between the new intervention and the preexisting situation.


The phenomenon of the existing as shell is also visible in the Harbor Brain Building by C+S Associati in Venice. All the internal partitions of the existing building have been demolished and the new program (mainly computers for the control of Venice’s seaport traffic) have been placed in a totally new free space. A recovered relationship is here established by means of the old structure being involved and providing support and the view that has been afforded of the area.


The EM2 Architects’ project for the renovation and re-adaptation of the Castle of Bruneck to the fifth Messner Mountain Museum in the Italian province of South Tyrol is based on the idea of leaving the exterior shape of the Castle untouched while developing in the inside the spaces required for the new museum. The interventions operated consist of new (wooden clad) parts building perfectly included within the main castle walls, refurbishment of the inner spaces (like big room and corridors) and a few pinpoint insertions in crucial spots like entrances or building connections.  The Castle still holds its medieval character but -at the same time- it presents in its inside the sign of a necessary adaptation of time.


While seeking to provide new access to the existing Nasrid Tower (Torre Nazarí) in Huercal-Overa (Almería, Spain), architects Luis Castillo and Mercedes Miras have clearly detached their new project from the existing old tower, not only in terms of materials and shape, but also physically. Although the intention was to separate the new from the old (“Instead of reconstructing, the project emphasizes the new additions and states the lost pieces,” say the architects), the project creates a new composition configuring (and encompassing) the entire area surrounding the Nasrid ruins.


To conclude, we see a minimal intervention (in terms of composition and modification of the main external shapes) able to involve urban activities of a large city as Madrid. The Matadero Madrid was a former slaughterhouse built at the beginning of the twentieth century and located at once city’s periphery and left abandoned since 1987. In 2007 the Madrid Municipality decided to turn it into a massive centre for contemporary arts and young artists. Its 48 buildings are almost untouched in their 148.300 square meters of floor area. However, the shift in program and activities in the Matadero, is able to attract a significant number of people interested in art, exhibition and cultural and creative activities from all over the city to that particular area comprised between the neighborhood of Arganzuela at the south part of Madrid and close to the Río Manzanares. The interventions have been made inside the buildings (and the process of reconversion is still on), amongst them -as a sort of internal new flow organization inside the compound- and at the urban level, for the capacity to foster new life in a city area.


This discussion of the steps of the relationship between humanity and what it finds in the world, traced and approximated in this text only briefly, is far from being clear and exhaustive. In addition, the architect–existing relationship is still complicated and—we may safely say—unresolved. As mentioned in the first paragraph above, how an architect interacts with the world finally depends on his or her vision and way of considering it. Since a clear and straightforward solution or formula does not exist (and perhaps never can exist), the wise position seems to be the most comfortable and opportune point from which to view the panorama. At least, so far.


Silvio Carta, Oct 2011


[1] Originally published in Italy with the title La Struttura Assente (The Absent Structure), Bompiani, 1968. See section C, Chapter 1.

[2] Viollet-le-Duc’s controversial theory and his classic concept of restoration had impressive practical repercussions for the general public of the time. “To restore a building is not to maintain it, repair it or refurbish it, it means to reestablish it to a state of completeness that may have never existed, at any given moment” (cf. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, The Foundations of Architecture, New York: George Braziller, 1990, p. 195. (Trans. from the original French by Kenneth D. Whitehead.)

[3] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, originally published in 1849. (The caption in the text is from the eBook released in 2011 by the Gutenberg Project p. 185,

[4] The modern vision of the world encompasses an awareness that natural phenomena cannot be utterly understood and foreseen, but it applies models to formulate approximations, theories and scientific interpretations with which certain phenomenon can be explained fairly reasonably.

[5] I mention the activity of living in the text, but the discussion may be easily extended to other human activities, such as working, meeting, recovering, fighting, socializing, and so on.

[6] The idea of technique here roughly adheres to the clear analysis offered in the 1939 essay Meditación de la técnica (“A Meditation on Technique”) by José Ortega y Gasset.

[7] It is important to insist on the idea of coexistence, because this concept clearly explains the wise relationship between new intervention and the existing situation. Neither of the two partners tends to overcome the other or to disappear into or become camouflaged in the other. They tend instead to establish new relationships and become part of a new complex.