Interview with Zuloark

Interview & illustrations by Sebastian Arguello & Naomi Njonjo 
Transcript by Clara Gade

Zuloark, is an award winning architecture and urbanism collective, best known for its collaborative spirit and urban interventions, is currently based in Barcelona, Berlin, Madrid and Mexico City. We met with Aurora Adalid and Luis Galán, two of the founders of Zuloark, in their co-working offices in Madrid. 

 

To our surprise, in correspondence with Aurora prior to the meeting, she suggested that we have come for the interview around lunch time and then join them for one of their office’s ritual, 2 for 1 burger Thursday! 

Meeting with both Aurora and Luis allowed us to dive at the heart of the complex social and  professional structure of the collective, as well as, their rituals, both professional and personal. 

*Text translated from Spanish. 
 

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Luis

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Good afternoon! We would like to start talking about the rituals that happen in the studio , and their relationships to the way you work and live. 

As a way to kick off the conversation, we found it curious that you invited us specifically to come for lunch, is lunch something that you consider a ritual that everybody in the studio shares?

Yes, we are used to have lunching together. It is a ritual that has been changing through the years! For example, nowadays we normally stop working and wait for each other to go eat. We usually make salads together, or something along those lines. On Thursdays, like today, we sometimes go for hamburgers because of special day offers. We really enjoy this moment because most of the time when we are working here, everybody is concentrated on their own things and it’s nice to gather and be together for a while.


I think it’s a really nice opportunity to meet the collective and relate with one another. 

"We are a collective but we have a strange identity; we are always mixing with others." 

For example, we have "Manulia," originated  from the mix between Manu and Julia. Manu works in Zuloark and Julia is something in-between, she's not from Zuloark but she’s kind of been here the whole time. (laughs) Since then, they are Manulia.

We imagined the collective as a "matriochka," like the doll. We also like to speak of people that are close friends as "soles," which stands for "satellites of love."

I read on your website a statement that says: "Zuloark never equals Zuloark", which echoes this idea of constant change and evolution of the studio. Could you maybe tell us more about that? How did it start? How is it relevant nowadays to be working as a collective as opposed to a traditional structure.


Well first of all, I don’t know if it’s relevant to work as a collective but it’s just what fits for us. A few years ago, there was a boom about collectives. 

"There were a lot of people saying that there was no more need for traditional work. There was  a lack of building necessities. Some people were saying that collectives could be the solution." 

For us, it is a professional structure, an organizational model. It involves governance; the way we make decisions, and the way we relate to each other. Now, the reason we used to say that "Zuloark never equals Zuloark :"  it began when we met each other at university in 2001, more or less. Regularly, we have a week every year that we call "Zuloark congress." It is  really an international congress. For example, Luis, our colleague, was at ZuloMexico and is now returning. We also have StudioBerlin and another studio in Brussels. This congress is a moment throughout the year when we can all come together, for a week, and focus on ourselves. We can design the way we are going to organize the studio the following year. Every year, the organization of the studio changes, because we, as people, change. Now, I am almost forty, Zuloark is completely different than when I was twenty. 

"The collective is, for us, a place that grows with us." 

What is also important for us is how the founders of the collective are not necessarily the core of the collective. For example, upstairs is Natasha. She used to be an intern in Zuloark, but three months later she was "super-core" of the studio. 

"The people who participate are the people who are defining the work, interests, tasks and development of the collective."


It is almost as if Zuloark does not depend on anyone, being an independent entity of its own since its creation. It feels as if people change and shape it as they come and go, without necessarily being its essence.

Yes, there are a lot of things that are like patterns, habits, and rituals, but I think it is more like an atmosphere, a way of doing, and a way of being more than a clear structure. 

You said you have studios in various countries. The people in these different studios, are they people that started in Madrid and then moved abroad?

This is really, really strange. For example, in Brussels we have a Spanish guy. Here, we used to have a Belgian guy.

It is almost like an exchange?

Yeah. (laughs) In Germany there is a Spanish and a Colombian girl.

"The movements inside of the collective have always been for love." 

Moving on, is the studio's flexibility to adapt to personal lives something  that’s beneficial for the collective’s structure? Or is it something challenging?

I think it is easy in this collective, because we have understood from the beginning that each one of us are really, really, really different. 

That’s how it should be. In a lot of companies, people are expected to put the company above their personal lives. It shouldn’t be that way because in the end, that’s just as important if not more. Probably more.. Definitely more.

I should say, we really lacked personal lives until a few years ago because we were always working. The day-to-day narrative was: "I arrive at 8:30 - 9:00 in the morning and leave the studio at midnight.".  We even met on Saturdays and we had activist events together on Sunday. I had no personal life.

It becomes 24/7, reaching a point where you are so passionate about what you do that it becomes part of your personal life.

 

That’s it. It’s very strange and very tricky because it never ends. You have a never-ending working life. A few years ago, based on the German model, we began to force each other to go on holidays.

You wouldn’t go on holidays??? 

Yes, sometimes, but we decided to establish a minimum of days we should leave. We’ve been working the past years to reduce our working hours. 

Have working habits changed through the years?

Two different things have happened. On the one hand, today we have more experience, so we produce quicker. On the other hand, before we used to work in pairs.  The reason why is that someone who was an expert in the topic of work would always pair up with someone with less experience. This method was relevant for our structure since it combined a project manager with someone in the process of learning. We are always learning. It was something really refreshing, I think.

 


So this method doesn't happen today?  

No, no, no it has only changed a bit. We haven’t changed it consciously. We still like to have two people per project, but in real life we are super busy all the time, and most of the time one out of the two has the most work. 
 

Apart from this, overall our projects are much more effective, at par with German standards (laughs). 

Another topic we wanted to touch upon is growth. We understand that this collective started as a student initiative. We want to know how the studio and its dynamics have changed as you guys have grown older and gained responsibilities such as marriage and children. 

Well, the line between having children and not (having them) was really definite (laughs). We have changed our work environment, making more time for ourselves and our personal lives. I have not worked at night since many years ago. However, some people still do so!

Last year, we signed up for a competition to design a library. Funny enough, we had two different teams proposing two different designs. The team I was in began working months before, however, in this team, four people had babies. We were a complete failure (laughs). The other team had older children, they knew how to work with it. They finished their design in only one weekend. 

When you were younger, and you started this collective, was it similar to what us university students know as "studio culture"? 

Definitely! When it began, we were still in university. We would go to each other's houses after school, and get together to work! Eventually, in 2003, we rented a working space. It was a very old house... One of our professors told us that we couldn't possibly take any clients there. We moved to a nicer place and began to participate in competitions, while still doing our university tasks. Requests, expositions, more competitions came to us, until we asked ourselves : "should we work in other studios, but still maintain this on the side?"

*Luis enters the meeting room*

For me, it’s very interesting how you learn to manage your time. The studio is a place where you have a lot of people who manage their time very well, but some parts of their lives very badly. 

When I came from Mexico it was such a big deal. I came into the studio, and everything was completely different! Not so much in the professional part, but the personal way of living. People worked a lot of hours in the studio, reducing time for personal things.

That was a difficult part to understand: the rhythms and how people managed their time with families, pleasure and all that you have to do. 

What were other things from Mexico that gave you culture shock? What other habits were different from Spain? 

Life in Mexico... it’s more unpredictable. Things aren’t as planned; one week you could be doing something, and the week after it changes. This unpredictability is something you have to deal with a lot. In Spain, it’s completely the opposite. If something unusual happens, it's the exception. In a meeting at Mexico, nobody arrives on time. 

Another big difference was work intensity. I had a big problem with that, because in Mexico I found myself demanding a denser work-flow  from many people, and they just didn’t work that way. I guess that’s a similar gap there is between other European countries and Spain. 

It was weird. I was also working with someone from Germany, from the Goethe Institute. I don't understand how, but they were very good at understanding and handling things. They were more relaxed. I kept on asking: "how do you do it? How are you not nervous about this?" I don’t know how but it was a cultural match for them, so they arranged things better than I did.

I’m from Nicaragua, so I can really relate. Latin America is all very similar when it comes to work-pace. For us, meeting times are always, as a rule of thumb, delayed by an hour. If you arrive at the time agreed, even the hosts aren't ready. A bit nonsensical, but it's culture.

Throughout your career, is anything you always found time to do, despite crazy schedules? Something outside of studio culture that was personal?

Honestly, I don’t think so (laughs). I like routines. Doing something every week consecutively, it makes me feel really good. But I don’t know... Now in my personal life, I give a lot of importance to eating, I guess. Cooking. It’s such a pleasure. It just takes everything out of your mind. To cook you have to go shopping, prepare the food, and invite some people. When I’m cooking - that’s when I feel I’ve done things well. I’ve achieved something. I have time. After the meal, there’s a nice time to talk. I try to do that more;  it’s a priority for me. It is  a dream to have that once a week - every Wednesday I try to cook for someone else. 

I always write during breakfast. A paragraph, or whatever. I really enjoy that moment.

Do you feel that your personal rituals affect the way you design and feel about architecture and design?
For instance, my family places a really big importance on cooking and that makes the kitchen a really special space for me.

 

For me there are two lanes... One that affects what is professional, and another that affects activism. For example, right now I am involved in a group called "right to play," in the city. It looks to inject new play-spaces throughout Madrid. The fact that the city and the way of living lacked these spaces has changed the way I see urbanism. I am hoping to present myself to a competition or something along those lines. This sort of activism enables me to see projects differently.

Speaking of the library competition I mentioned earlier, it was curious to see that in the group full of babies, elevators and the main entrance was completely different than the others'. Things in our lives open up new visions, different perspectives that you once did not have. Nowadays, at the urban scale, people fight for cycling... But then out of a sudden you meet someone with hip problems that depends on bus or taxi systems. 

"Incorporating things you learn in your personal life into your work is fundamental. It transforms the way we design". 

In Mexico everyone spoke about how much time it took to commute to certain areas. Some people travelled for an hour and a half everyday! They lost three hours of their lives daily! 

"It was right there that I learned something so valuable - I lived and touched that experience. My way of thinking public transportation completely changed."

There was another thing I learned. Over there, people did not really have time to participate in group activities. I am normally used to speaking in plural, in doing things cooperatively. However, I learned that you also have to understand yourself as an individual, in order to work collectively.

That's exactly what is looked for; an atmosphere of comfort, in which everyone can be exactly themselves. That is very important for architecture.

Many times, architects design for other architects. Architecture magazines are not designed for clients... they are made for other architects.


 
That has a lot to do the idea of the "social architect." In our generation, the users are increasingly becoming the main focus. A lot of your projects are very large scale, you’re able to keep the "individual" and get what works best with them in the group. How do you manage that when you work with people outside the collective, how do you bring out the specificities in a way that works with the design?

When you’re doing it outside the collective, understanding ingredients to be able to de-construct the situation and see its dynamics is key.

Usually, we are in the middle of a creative process. It's a really intimate moment when people have ideas and work with many different concepts. Part of the process is not to mediate, but try to combine all the ideas on the table into something new. It can be complicated. 


It also important to know if you have a good main design idea. The idea has to have flexibility, and  develop. 

Designing public spaces is tricky. When you design for a big collective, spaces are used in many different way. It is difficult to consider all of them at the same time.
You have to admit that your design will inevitably work better for some people than for others.

"When everyone is perfectly happy that means the design isn’t that great." 

It should be like a 7 out of 10. You must have people that really love it, and others that hate it.