Born in 1955, Juan Ignacio Ramos grew up in a very special, as he likes to say, “uncompromisingly modern” house in Buenos Aires. While all his friends lived in traditional houses his was designed by his architect-father in collaboration with Antonio Bonet, a well-known Spanish architect who worked for Le Corbusier in Paris and moved to Argentina before the outbreak of World War Two. The house was built in 1956. It stood proudly on a hill facing Rio de la Plata. It had a strong influence on young Juan Ignacio. Not surprisingly, he chose to pursue architecture as his profession. During his years of study at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Buenos Aires, he worked as an apprentice architect at his father’s firm, Ramos, Alvarez Forn, Ostman Arquitectos. While still a student, he developed a strong affinity for the work of Le Corbusier. He knew the Swiss-French master’s Casa Curutchet in La Plata near Buenos Aires, completed in 1953. Ramos graduated in 1978 and when he got married the following year, he went to Paris with his wife for their honeymoon. Not surprisingly, they made sure to visit all Le Corbusier’s buildings there and even spent a whole afternoon on a rainy day at Villa Savoye, which Juan Ignacio still considers to be his favourite building.
It was also in 1979 when Ramos co-founded his first partnership, Billoch-Dahl Rocha-Ramos Arquitectos in Buenos Aires. In 1988 the firm was among the finalists for the prestigious Premio Internazionale di Architecttura Andrea Palladio. In 1990 the architect decided to practice on his own and started Estudio Ramos with offices in Sagaponack on the East End of Long Island and in Buenos Aires. The architect’s son, Ignacio Ramos, heads the Buenos Aires studio since 2011, the year he graduated from Columbia University in New York. Estudio Ramos has developed close to 500 projects across North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. Over 350 of them are houses. There are also office buildings, hotels, factories, banks, barns, and stables, as well as office and apartment renovations. In the following conversation with Juan Ignacio Ramos, we discussed the architect’s main discoveries, his idealistic aspiration to start fresh with every project, an ambition to build buildings that will last for a very long time, and about his preference for horizontality and avoiding symmetry.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Do you think growing up in the family of an architect, it was inevitable for you to become an architect yourself?
Juan Ignacio Ramos: Most likely, yes. I started going to my father’s office at a very young age on weekends and I remember liking what he did. I can still remember the smell of the ink and pencils; I enjoyed the whole atmosphere there and spent many hours drawing and painting. For sure, that was what influenced me to become an architect. That’s what I wanted for as long as I can remember. And my own children – both my son and daughter went through similar experiences and decided to become architects. They are now my partners.
However, for me, it was my father’s partner, Hernan Alvarez Forn, who was the real inspiration and passion. He was the key designer in the firm. It was him, more so than my father, who was the first architect that I referenced as my role model. His most iconic project was his competition-winning design of the Argentinian Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. But it was never built. The office ended up designing an interior booth for the Fair, which was built. For the most part, the practice was just business for my father and his partners. The office was very pragmatic, it wasn’t an artistic pursuit. And I appreciate that because more than anything else architecture must relate to real life – to the context, site conditions, budget, climate, and client’s desires. These are the things that make architecture so interesting. Architecture is never just a sculpture. And to me, every one of my buildings must work well. If it rises to the level of architecture that is a bonus. To me, architecture occupies the space between art and construction. Joaquín Torres-García, a Uruguayan artist, writer, and the father of Latin American Constructivism, drew a diagram in a form of a triangle where architecture was at the top, supported by sculpture and painting. So, architecture is based on art, but it is also based on engineering and problem-solving.
VB: When I look at your buildings, to me, they represent more poetic spaces than mere problem-solving.
JIR: Well, that is a result of a lot of work. It is very rare that I can design something straightforward. Typically, every house is a long and laborious process. It is a struggle to find a solution that seems right. You start with inspiration, but you need to solve so many issues along the way, and running a small firm means you must deal with so many aspects – from design to construction, to financial operations, or simply defending your ideas to the client. First and foremost, I consider myself a hard worker.
VB: Is there a particular project that served you as a manifesto after which you said – this is it, from now on this is going to be my direction.
JIR: For me personally, I would cite two such projects. One is Pollitzer House for my sister which was built in Buenos Aires in 1991. It was just a year after starting my own practice and really the first project when I had total freedom. The second project is Gonzalez Victorica Pacheco Golf House outside of Buenos Aires, which was built in 2001, the year I moved to the US. I felt convinced and quite satisfied with that project. More importantly, the client loved it. I felt right, and I discovered so many new ideas there. I realised that I finally learned how to put things together the right way compositionally. At that point, I decided, “No more compromises, no more negotiations with clients.” From then on, I knew what was right for me. I am exaggerating, of course, but that’s how I felt at the time. And then you quickly realize that, in a way, you start fresh with every project. There is no magic formula. Years later, when my son became a partner in the firm in 2007, he said to me, “We know what kind of architecture we like we should focus on this direction.” So, this kind of thinking that I felt was right since 2001, was reconfirmed by my son who graduated from Columbia University here in New York in 2011 and since then heads the Buenos Aires studio.
Of course, our thinking has been evolving. There are challenges and discoveries in every project. Because if not, you are just repeating yourself. And if you are repeating yourself, you start to die as an architect. The game is about having a constant crisis. Once you stop questioning what you do it is time to stop. But I don’t want to stop. And not only I don’t want to repeat what I have done before but I want to do things differently from what is across the street or from what I have seen published. If everyone runs in one direction, I want to run in the opposite direction to find my own way, my own solution.
VB: Do you see architecture as a craft or art?
JIR: I see everything as a craft, even art. I don’t think you can call yourself a great painter, surgeon, pianist, tennis player, or shoemaker until you master your craft and refine your skills. And you must love what you do. I appreciate the architecture of great masters who learned how to craft their buildings well. Look at the work of Eladio Dieste in Uruguay. His churches and factories are extraordinary; they demonstrate very creative use of brick in combination with concrete and steel rebars. He had to deal with limited resources, so his architecture pushed materials to their performance limits. He was experimental and spectacularly ingenious in the most resourceful way. I sometimes use brick as well, but I have a particular fondness for exposed concrete because I like the idea of low maintenance and for buildings to last for a long time. If anyone tries to demolish my buildings, they will have to think twice. [Laughs.] We will die but our buildings will remain, hopefully. This is my contribution to a sustainable way of building.
VB: Do you try to develop your own recognisable architectural style or attitude? Every client may have specific desires but as an architect do you have your own agenda, preferences, convictions, and inspirations?
JIR: I don’t see myself as someone who brought something new to the field. No, I look at each problem in front of me and I try to find the right solution. I am not here to invent a new style. I am not interested in that, although some features may be recognisable because it is impossible not to have certain preferences and ways of doing things. But I wouldn’t call what I do a style. Nothing is fixed. We evolve and open ourselves to new ideas. What is constant is that we are dedicated to our clients. I try to bring into my architecture such qualities as openness, balance, and elegance, and I always avoid symmetry.
VB: What are the intentions of your architecture?
JIR: I enjoy my work. My intention is always to get better by discovering an unexpected solution. Architecture is about finding solutions in the most creative ways. Also, what’s important is to have a balance between a gesture and the cost of the gesture. If it is very expensive to express a particular idea, I don’t want to pursue it. That’s why I like minimalism. There should be common sense. So much architecture is obscene. There is so much money put into some buildings. I am against that. I try to be authentic and true to the materials that I choose to use. If a house is built out of wood, while it pretends to be built out of stone, there is a problem right there.
VB: I came across the following words that you use while describing your work – simplicity, sense of infinity, never-ending horizontality, sharp lines. Could you talk about your preferences in architecture?
JIR: I like horizontality. It is very appropriate for the Pampas where I grew up and where most of my work is built. Also, I believe in horizontal order, not a vertical one. The most important elements are the same in architecture as they are in music, poetry, or painting: light, colour, texture, proportions, and harmony. To me, architecture is about all these ingredients. More importantly, architecture is about emotions. It is about creating a composition, achieving rhythms, contrasts, pauses, disruptions, climaxes, silence, and so on.
VB: Where do you see the future of your firm?
JIR: I see it with my children, Ignacio and Soledad; the place doesn’t matter. My son heads the office in Buenos Aires, and my daughter now is more concerned with raising her family, but she helps us from time to time and works on her own small projects such as restaurants, roof gardens, and apartment renovations in Chicago. They are both American citizens and it is up to them where they want to live. The geography of our projects is broadening. Our network keeps expanding with new projects in China, South America, and in the Middle East. So, we are no longer a local office. What I would not wish for our office is to grow beyond reasonable size, which is no more than 20-25 architects. Otherwise, things get out of control and it is no longer your work; there is no personality. It is so easy for architecture to lose its soul. To produce good work, one needs to make an effort. Architecture is a work of time and most importantly, love.