The architecture of Smiljan Radić is eccentric, unusual, poetic, and cutting-edge. He doesn’t have a website and is decidedly untraceable through social media, only taking part sporadically in the international architecture circus, and building almost exclusively in his native Chile – which he says is really far from everything. “I do not care to be connected.” Though it must be said that on the rare occasion Smiljan Radić ever leaves his country, he does so with good reason, such as to build the 2014 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion. So when he was invited by the Lisbon Architecture Triennial to give a lecture in the Portuguese capital, DAMN° rushed right over for an interview.
Smiljan Radić, who was born in Santiago de Chile, has – as his quite un-Latin American name suggests – a Balkan connection. In 1919, just after WWI, his Croatian grandfather fled from the island of Brač (where the architect sometimes spends his holidays now), away from wretched, miserable Europe. “He was penniless and had to completely start over again, make his way, improvise, survive in an unknown context.” This adaptability and knack for improvisation Radić seems to have inherited, as reflected in his idiosyncratic lust for architecture. His practice is an on-going investigation, adaptation, and attempt to blend-in while still retaining his own character, interspersed with a melancholic longing for days gone by and an existential poetic touch that never becomes stale. The buildings he constructs cannot be grouped under one umbrella – they’re each very different. And he works with all types of materials – concrete, wood, granite, plastic, glass, and even ordinary mud. He is flexible, versatile, and loves adventure. So when a critic remarked that his buildings look as if they are all designed by different architects, he was actually pleased. “The shape is not important. I am not a creator of shapes. My method is to respond to the possibility in each commission. If the client likes tin, I’ll use tin.” And yet there’s always that personal touch that unmistakably reveals his signature – the spirit that is Radić. Something more significant, however, is the scale: “In Chile, 14-15,000 square metres is the limit – more than that will, in the end, not be built... So I’m quite pragmatic… You can choose what you don’t want to do.”
At first sight, his work looks like something from a bygone age – reaching as far back as the Stone Age, so it seems, if one considers the massive granite blocks he dragged from the Andes to London last year for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, and to Venice for the 2010 Biennale. His rocky trail is also traceable in Chile, appearing on the roofs and terraces of private houses and the Mestizo restaurant in Santiago. “When you see those heavy stones, you feel something really strong and basic.” It’s true that nobody remains indifferent to these structures, as the monoliths likely appeal to the primeval need for safety that’s deeply embedded in our paleomammalian brain. His buildings look like shelters, refuges – safe and snug, protected from the outside world – of the sort we long-for in a world that is increasingly complex, threatening, and confusing. Thus, Radić’s architecture appears to provide a perfect answer to our most innate yearnings. It touches a chord with contemporary man, who is feeling more and more hounded.
Smiljan Radić is part of the first generation of Chilean architects known abroad, if even he is active mainly in his own country. “There are opportunities to do things outside of Chile, but until now I have only said yes if I could learn something or achieve something that I cannot achieve locally. If this is not the case, I’m happy to stay in Chile.” But he is not an otherworldly homebody. When, more than 20 years ago, studying at the Istituto di Architettura di Venezia, he had the opportunity to go backpacking through Europe and its surroundings, he embarked on a personal architectural Grand Tour, visiting Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and also went to live in Crete for a while. Chile, at that time, still had to recover from Pinochet’s U.S.- backed dictatorship, and was therefore not the right place for critical, eager architecture students like Radić. “At school we didn’t have history lessons or learn about former eras – for that I had to come to Europe, and especially to Italy. I was intrigued by the scale and the materials used in European architecture.” In Portugal, it was mainly Álvaro Siza’s work that intrigued him. “Siza was doing something great at a small scale, which inspired me. Besides, I’ve always found Mediterranean architecture more interesting than architecture from the north, which is more articulated, sophisticated, clear and shiny – far removed from my own practice. Architecture in the south is handmade, simple – at least it was then.” He became intrigued by the traditional way the ancient Greeks practiced: “They followed very curious rules for construction – something we didn’t have in Chile at that stage. You know, you’re always interested in what you yourself do not have!”
This Chilean tradition was Radić’s inspiration when he built the Bus Stop for Krumbach (a village in Austria) – one of the rare commissions from abroad he accepted. “This was an interesting project because the handicraft involved was of incredible quality. And I feel that in Austria there are no boundaries between private and public – people are as much concerned about the public space as they are about their private environment. This is so different in Chile, where walls and fences separate people – everybody cares so much about their own house, but not at all about public space. In Austria, public space is friendly; it feels secure, just like private space. So I designed the bus stop as a domestic type of place – like a living room, really – to be situated in the fields, with a birdhouse on the roof. It’s a meeting point, even though in this village the buses are always so incredibly punctual that people don’t really need bus stops, as they never have to wait.”
The architect is equally inspired by poetry, art (for the Lisbon lecture, he showed his audience a couple of drawings by David Hockney, for instance), philosophy, and literature (he mentions Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant) as by daily life in his native Chile: he enjoys the accidental, temporary, self-built, un-designed, ‘fragile’ constructions that are so typical of the nonwestern world: fruit stalls, improvised trestles, homeless shelters, and other ad hoc structures. “In Chile you have a lot of self-building; some of it comes close to art installations. People just do it themselves; they don’t need an architect. So you have a lot of specialists and skilled craftspeople in the population. In contemporary Europe, this kind of bricolage doesn’t exist anymore – people depend on specialists, rules, security, governments – they have lost their DIY skills and their freedom to construct.”