The idea of working with your husband or wife may not appeal to everyone, but it suits Francisco Javier Casas Cobo and Beatriz Villanueva Cajide. Joint partners in Brijuni Arquitectos in Madrid, Spain, the pair met while studying architecture at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. ‘We hated each other at first’, admits Villanueva Cajide, laughing. She thought he was arrogant, while he found her rather brusque.
However, it didn’t take long for them to better understand each other, fall in love and found a practice together, with Villanueva Cajide taking the creative lead on projects. (‘She is the creative one and I am the theoretical one’, elucidates Casas Cobo.) Together, they have designed houses in Jaen, Andalucia and undertaken residential renovation projects in Madrid. But one of Brijuni’s most charming creations is the interior of its former office.
A few months ago, Brijuni was happily ensconsed in a striking street level office in downtown Madrid’s creative Malasaña quarter. Brijuni took on the former metalworking shop in January 2011, renovating the 70m2 space over the next two months. At its height last year, the Brijuni office employed five people and housed a further three architects, but unfortunately financial pressures forced the company to leave the studio a couple of months ago.
‘This is a story of the economic crisis – an office that has sadly passed away,’ says Casas Cobo. He believes that the shop is now occupied by a bag designer, but the front windows are papered over, so they cannot determine whether the interior is still intact. During its lifetime, the Brijuni office commanded a lot of attention from curious passers by. ‘People used to knock on the door and ask what we sold. Only very occasionally were they interested in architectural services, so we can safely say that being street-level does not help you to get commissions,’ laughs Casas Cobo.
‘Clients loved the place,’ he continues. ‘It is a big advantage, designing your own office well, because it makes clients trust that you will create something beautiful for them also.’
While clients liked the ground floor, with its acid green paint and bare brickwork, they were even more impressed by the basement meeting room. This featured murals by the artist Jack Babiloni, who is famous in Spain for winning a popular TV cultural quiz show called Saber y Ganar, which translates as ‘knowing and earning’. ‘We admired his work before he became famous, and were so glad when he got in touch with us after we wrote a blog about his work. There are many allegories and metaphors in his paintings: they are about us and even one of employees’ cats that passed away. We used to think that the painting protected us and helped us during meetings.’ The title of the painting is ‘Brijuni is a Mental Landscape’, which aptly reflects the practice’s philosophical take on the world of architecture.
Upstairs, photographic images of trees decorate the storage and kitchen section at the back of the office. These also have a special meaning for Casas Cobo and Villanueva Cajide, who both teach at the Istituo Europeo di Design. ‘We love to speak to our students about Heidegger’s theory of sense of place and Aldo van Eyck’s ideas of place versus space, and the questions of memory and identity in architecture. To try to express these ideas, we took photos of the patio plants from our former studio and printed them up. This way, the old studio came with us,’ says Casas Cobo.
The general aesthetic of the studio is open and pared back, with exposed brickwork, air conditioning ducts and cooling fans that are both striking and sculptural. ‘We didn’t want to hide the ceiling fans in a false ceiling’ says Paco. ‘We also didn’t want any walls or divisions, since you don’t particularly need privacy when you are designing stuff. We gave ourselves a very simple brief, and wanted to express just a few ideas using colour and light because colour has such a big impact, and light equals happiness.’ The intense green colour was painted onto the epoxy resin floor while the office’s occupants continued to work, all squashed onto the staircase void, ‘which was very uncomfortable but fun’.
Casas Cobo is enthusiastic about the experience of being his own client. ‘One advantage is that you have total client satisfaction and no complaints,’ he jokes. He and Villanueva Cajide now divide their time between family life with their two small children and a creative workspace called The Hub, along with various bars and cafes with wifi. ‘We talk about our work at all sorts of times – over dinner, walking down the street, and even when we are in the playground watching our daughter Cloe playing. It is nice’, says Casas Cobo.