Portrait of Alejandro de la Sota
José de la Sota Ríus
PORTRAIT OF ALEJANDRO DE LA SOTA BY ONE OF HIS SONS
In my father’s case, life and work were interwoven to an unusual degree, so much so that even today it is impossible to separate them. Beyond a certain point, only the memory and the works endure; later, just the works. Today there are still those of us who can remember, who can tell a story that resembles the life, with what remains in our memory after the passage of time; in short, who can transmit a plausible and intimate likeness that perhaps permits a better understanding of his work.
In this story I will describe two images, two recollections, one from the beginning, when I was still a young child and another from the end, when he was old. One day at school they asked us about our fathers’ professions. One classmate told how his father, who was a doctor and dressed in a white smock, healed the sick in the hospital: when he grew up, he would also be a doctor. Another, whose father was a lawyer, spoke of his office with the huge shelves full of books; and the other children spoke about other jobs.
When it was my turn, I said my father was an architect, and was asked how he worked. So I explained how he spent the mornings in his pyjamas, playing the piano, and then in the afternoon he went to his practice where he would make sketches on very thin paper that he gave to Fermin, the draughtsman, who would then draw it with ink on onion paper. Everyone in class found it very funny: imagining a classmate’s dad in his pyjamas at 12 in the morning, playing the piano and sketching on ‘onion paper’, no less. But for me this was just normal. My father would go late to the studio, returning even later. Often when we were leaving for school in the morning, we would find him whisky in his hand, chatting calmly with my uncles or his friends in the living room - as if it was eight in the evening and not eight in the morning. Another version of this recollection is my father humming while imagining playing the piano in his bald head, sitting in a chaise-longue, thinking of his architecture: what else? This would have been more difficult to explain than the piano and that’s probably why I opted for the first story. It was all normal, there was nothing that was not part of the freedom of being and doing in the world, of being one’s own boss, the almost perfect match between what one does, what one wants to do and what one should do; taking his time, without the slightest anxiety, neither the anxiety that marks this vocation nor, worse still, that dogs the exercise of the profession. Everything contrasted with the image of obligations and duties that the adult world projected onto children. It had nothing to do, either, with the image of the bohemian, anarchist artist. I insist, it was all very normal.
He was at home a lot, and home was a very important space to be in. The living rooms in the three houses in which we lived were carefully detailed to be good, to be comfortable, and to be light, and so that everyone would feel at ease, our parents’ friends and ours too. Naturally with seven sons the level of deterioration was quick and difficult to repair, but still those were places where time passed unnoticed. “The importance of architecture is none other than the creation of an environment, an environment that shapes behaviour”: this is something my father used to say that reflects through architecture an idea of the moral utopia in which we were raised, and that was reflected and lived in those houses. The walls and ceilings of Armstrong cork and acoustic isolation allowed us to stay listening to music until the small hours without bothering or being bothered, and to chat for hours on end without tiring echoes.
We listened to lots of music at home. As I said before, my father played the piano and had played it, albeit irregularly, since he was a child. Possibly he would have liked to be a pianist and was talented enough to become one, but when he was about to finish high school and decide his future, his father and the school director thought that since he drew well and had no problem with maths, it was would logical that he should study to be an architect. And so it was. Two years of preparation in Santiago, and then, definitively, in Madrid.
But music was always present. He remembered that when he had no piano, he would spend long hours reading musical scores, from Beethoven sonatas to the piano syntheses of great symphonies that were common amongst music fans. Later in his moments of professional inactivity, either sought or forced, he would return to the piano. Mainly Mozart. The precision and freedom that playing Mozart demands were qualities he felt close to, together with the sense of humour to be able to see the surprise and the apparent simple simplicity, unachievable. We still keep a recording of him playing the K.265 variations very well, with, I repeat, precision and great freedom. He would also regularly play Beethoven sonatas, which brought the rigour of a moral ideology and faith in his own work, in his personality, in his role, and in the world. And Bach, all better or worse played in the measure that his technique permitted, but read and deeply understood. From the Goldberg Variations to the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Italian concerto and all the partitas and the English and French piano suites formed a constant and repeated repertoire. Bach brought the theology of reason and of the heart. A little of Bartok’s Microkosmos, a bit of Schubert and Chopin (the nuptial march of my parents’ wedding was a Mazurka) completed his repertoire. At home we embraced Edy, a Belgian pianist who didn’t want to take part in the colonial conflict in the Congo and sought exile in Spain. He rehearsed at our house in the morning and in return gave piano lessons to all seven of us, with little result, in all truth.
Records occupied an important place in the living room. Contemporary music had its place, more as a surprising discovery that generated strange enthusiasm, than out of any desire to be up to date or any sense of intellectual ‘obligation’. We brothers still remember how, shortly after it premiered in Germany in 1968, he would make us listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Stimmung” for six vocalists and six microphones. Laughing at those electronically modulating voices was not permitted, and patiently and obediently we listened more than once to all seventy-eight minutes of the piece. Another ‘spiritual exercise’ he would submit us to was Tomás Luis de Victoria and his “Officium Defunctorum”, which we would listen to in silent and sacramental darkness. He had an ephemeral enthusiasm for the minimalist music of Steve Reich. No twelve-tone music, and more Satie than Ravel, more Stravinsky than Debussy. I don’t believe the gaps in the above list can be attributed to my memory. No operas, apart from a little Mozart. In Jazz, also very present, there was no place for bebop or for Miles Davis’ more experimental works, but mainly for the very young, at the time, Jaques Loussier and for Dave Brubeck. Much of this music is still in the family. That’s education by osmosis.
We were friends with pianists like Pedro Espinosa, José María Colom and Carmen Deleito and my father attended since the beginning the concerts Helga Drewsen organised at her house during and after World War II to help central European musicians who passed through Spain on their way to exile elsewhere. Those concerts gave way over the following three decades to the ‘Ciclos de Música Cantar y Tañer’ which I’m sure remain in the memory of all the enthusiasts from those years. From there came a big affection and emotion towards live chamber music. To illustrate what those concerts meant at the time, I quote the last paragraph of one of the chronicles of Father Federico Sopeña for ABC: “… between early music, Bach, Debussy and Stockhausen, (Cantar y Tañer) perfectly pursues the mission of playing unfairly forgotten music and drawing the more open-minded into discussion. One more step, a larger room and we could have the following year, for the next course a full Concert Society, if it wasn’t for the fact that those who should create it are too lazy.” ABC, Decembre 7th 1961. I was six months old.
As we brothers grew up, we would take part in the adult conversations in which painting, exhibitions or photography were discussed. My mother’s father, my uncles and my father were exceptionally interested in photography, and it was common to have long sessions projecting the family’s slides. These evening sessions were very familiar, my uncle Jesús, my aunt Amparo Cores – both exquisite, discreet painters, recreating the world from their own standpoint - and a few very close friends or young collaborators from the practice. They were not “intellectual gatherings” like those that form a part of our history. There was no desire to create a group, nor the feeling of belonging to any sort of resistance, even though his works both then and later were combative against successive trends. My father lived all his life outside groups and tendencies: they simply did not interest him in the slightest. So, after his forced departure from the School of Architecture of Madrid in the early seventies, after he had lectured there for sixteen or seventeen years, he shut himself up yet more in his home or at his studio. His departure from ETSAM marked him deeply and, as on so many other occasions, he refused to negotiate. The day after his suspension, he resigned and never returned to the School of Architecture.
He continued at home and at the studio. He could give lectures about his work to young architects for four or five hours, but he would hardly be found at public or private gatherings with other architects. He refused, with humour, attempts by some of his friends to make him Master of Fine Arts or Doctor Honoris Causa of several universities, and only at the very end of his life he accepted some recognition and awards.
Taking architecture very seriously, he paradoxically turned away from his colleagues and he didn’t seem to make a career out of it - if by that one understands the growing and successful culmination of external obligations. José Llinás, an architect who got to know him well in his last decades, talks of his architecture as a ‘pastime’, in the sense of an intellectual game that involves the resolution of mental problems with several variables. From the moment the architect faces the project in his head, with his pencil and paper, with all the unknowns open, the process of making architecture thickens, ‘objectifying’ with the participation and agreement of others, with the material in itself and its properties, with regulations, with the opinion of colleagues who watch you, with the ever changing opinion of the client or the contractor’s self-interested one. Of the original impulse, of the enjoyment of resolving it, very little remains - and then melancholy or pride assault the architect.
My father was able to combine this inevitable process of ‘objectifaction’ and the weight of architecture – he would doubtless have said ‘pesadez’ in Galician - with a ‘simple simplicity’. He enjoyed every step, until the very end if he was allowed to furnish the building. He had an enormous resistance to dogmatic architecture and he considered sensibility, and being open to the surprise that characterises each project, more important than erudition or being ‘up to date’ that architectural magazines provided.
Everything had to be clear in his mind long before drawing the first line and although an exceptional draughtsman he always insisted that drawing should come after thought. His sketches and plans have an internal coherence focused on clarity, on not putting anything that wasn’t necessary for the understanding of the idea that had to be built. The sketches and the constructional details that since I was a child I used to watch him draw, on paper napkins in the café or on the back of an envelope had more constructional intent than the official plans sent to the ‘Colegio’, the order of Architects. The draughtsmen in the office were magnificent and faithfully translated that spirit to the plans required for permits, estimates and construction.
Many times next to details of balustrades or meetings between wall and window, he drew a caricature of the person to whom he was explaining the detail. Since childhood, and alongside music, drawing caricatures was a constant in his life. He would tell how he knew Castelao [Galician nationalist, republican, writer and cartoonist] from his childhood, precisely because of this hobby. His caricatures didn’t exaggerate a person’s features, but rather exposed their intentions and that hurt a lot, which is why almost no one appreciated their own. For me, of whom he drew so many, they bothered me then, and now, I’m afraid, I really look like them.
His few built works, his public silence, the fact that he was always where he wanted to be – chatting with students in his office or sitting on a jury in endless competitions throughout the geography of Spain – gave him a presence that was attenuated but constant, that without doubt meant that he was always followed with interest. The fascination his work still produces and few faithful students did the rest. When he died his family created a very small foundation so that his archive wouldn’t end up lost and would be available to those students with whom he always enjoyed to be (www.alejandrodelasota.org).
The second image of this portrait. In the early eighties my father had to close his practice for the second time. In his fifties and according to his own confession without shame, he did it because he wasn’t interested in what he already knew or in the ‘easy’, ‘learnt’ way of the profession. The Civil Government of Tarragona and above all the Maravillas Gymnasium showed him a possible path. In reality, his built work is scarce and most of it is public, hard-earned in competitions or through his position as a civil servant, apart from a few minor works for family or close friends. Neither the post-war reconstruction, nor the economic development of the seventies, nor the real estate boom in the nineties really caught him and all these great moments for the profession passed him by without a single commission. He was always a public architect and won his work through competitions. The freedom of the public competition attracted him enormously. The demanding and responsible nature of institutional work, and the absence of the developer’s nonsense and caprice, fitted his way of being. The Civil Government of Tarragona, one of his emblematic works, was won through a public competition and thanks to this neither His Excellency the Civil Governor at the time, nor even Her Excellency, his wife, were able to prevent its construction. That is what they tried with all the power of their positions putting pressure on the drawing board. My father told us that at a certain point the Civil Governor took his pencil out in order to explain his view about a certain plan. Calmly my father stopped him and, smiling, explained that the pencil is the instrument of the architect exclusively. Later during the furnishing of the building the Governor’s wife, seeing the fine and delicate Jacobsen chairs my father imported for the first time into Spain, climbed up on one to demonstrate its fragility. After trying unsuccessfully to break it, the chairs became part of the furniture both of the official residency and of the offices. Furniture he designed entirely with his brother Jesús. One has the feeling that this spirit of public work has been lost, and nowadays politicians still act with the same whim as that Tarragona governor. My father wasn’t happy about not winning competitions but, in that sense like in many others, he had sportsmanship and turned up again. As he would often say, the architect should try to give clients “hare instead of cat” [an inversion of the colloquial phrase “dar gato por liebre”, so a reverse swindle, substituting something of better quality than what was asked for] especially in jobs for the State.
In this extreme situation, without work for months, with debts to pay for closing the practice and a large family, a good friend advised him to go back to being a Postal Service architect. At the beginning of his career, my father had worked for the National Institute of Colonization and also for the Postal Service, working enough time to give a steady income, but devoting himself to competitions with any time left.
About to reach retirement age, going back to work for the Postal Service meant a minimal wage and a pension later. Thus, over sixty years old, ‘playing the piano in his pyjamas in the morning’ and working nights, he had to go back to waking up early and signing in. Waking up early, considering his routine was very hard for him and in few months he got permission to start work a bit later. My brothers and I would drive him to Plaza Cibeles before going to university. His work consisted in refurbishing a multitude of post offices scattered throughout Spain. Starting with a bad building and making it decent with no budget for small local offices would have been a very unattractive job, even for someone who had just finished his diploma. But the truth is he never complained about this. Very often we drove him to ‘site visits’ in those small villages and he enjoyed wandering around those dirty offices, designing the counter or the waiting room, the post room or the entrance hall with the same interest as if it were a great building. An example: in the León post office the filing cabinets have a slight slope that prevents records from piling up in public view, something otherwise very depressing because inevitably you think where your envelope might end up. With those details he kept himself very entertained. It wasn’t optimism, it was the enjoyment of solving architectural problems, thinking about the office’s public spaces, the work of its employees, the light or visual order that everything had to have; giving a different appearance to post offices in Spain, seeking to dignify the important presence of the State in those villages. We went back and forth, with a quick bite at the bar in the main square, with the quantity surveyor, the draughtsman or a young architect from the office who could not believe how fortunate he was to have Don Alejandro so close. Making each question an important one and bringing it to a point was an attitude, a stroke of fortune, a pleasure.
One day, on his way to Central Post Office, he told me he had been commissioned to design a large building, the provincial postal headquarters in León and he was worried because he had no idea, nothing with which to start a project of that type - located, moreover, in the historic centre of the city. Nothing. I told him I could not believe he did not have the resources, after forty years of profession, to start that job. My words sounded like I was suggesting he should complete a ‘boring task’ just before retiring. He looked at me, not without some disappointment I believe, as if I did not understand that experience doesn’t matter, it is just an encumbrance one needs to shed. Feeling the loneliness – no, the insecurity - was part of an attitude, playing always in the opponent’s half, without even falling back on the comforts of experience. Not making ‘Architecture’ would help achieve a better outcome.
Those doubts soon disappeared and he then started one of the most complex, laborious jobs of his life. A building coated in industrial metal sheet, “León-coloured”, crafted with enough aplomb and elegance so that it wasn’t offensive in the vicinity of the historical centre. We brothers also drove him to the site visits in León. Those trips were always a mystery. A building I believe no one really appreciated until it was finished and that had against it a multitude of small restraints, with the Municipality, the contractor, the provincial delegate, the provincial sub-delegate, the head of the post office and his wife who would live in the building… He had no clue what he would find after one month away. The contractors would always end up being allies of ‘the owner’, represented paradoxically in this case not by my father, but by the local postal officials, and they used these inevitable absences to speed things up, making changes to the project, without waiting for an architecture that shaped and rectified itself in the heat of the site. Once there, reviewing every detail, the challenge was trying to amend the botched job without causing a delay or additional cost.
Sometimes other architects joined us. One of them, already quite well known at the time, took him aside and, surprised, asked my father: ‘Is it true that you have done this job on a civil servant’s salary?’ I can’t recall his answer, but I do remember what he said to another architect when talking about his own work and justifying some bad projects as being ‘alimentary’, like Buñuel’s Mexican movies. My father looked at him and told him with a half-smile, “there is always the possibility to eat less.” He wouldn’t have appreciated that I tell you these things, because such things are not to be spoken of. I am sorry.
Such radical life has sometimes been interpreted as an act of artistic purity [impostación – singing without vibrato or modulation]. But that is not to understand a thing. He was an architect with the same ease and self-assurance, with the same enthusiasm and consistency and therefore with the same restraint in many other things, as when he played the piano in his pyjamas in the mornings of my childhood, or when he drew caricatures, or dedicated so many hours designing an universal door frame that allowed an effortless change of the door swing direction to cheapen construction, or a mattress that allowed to sleep on your side without getting your arm numb (an invention which gave him great disappointment when he learnt that it had already been patented in the United States). He used my mother’s hairpins to build tubular steel chairs convertible into deck chairs with a simple movement that kept us entertained for years. Looking for the right metalworker and upholsterer to build them filled his time with the same enthusiasm and perseverance of any more ambitious project.
Engaging with such intensity with the things he was passionate about saved him from everyday life, with its small joys and great sorrows: “I always liked to talk about Architecture as a pastime; if you don’t do it joyfully it is not Architecture. This joy is, precisely, Architecture, the satisfaction one feels. The excitement of Architecture makes one smile, makes one laugh. Life doesn’t.” Only my mother Sara made this possible.