Before discussing the micro-school, it’s important to mention José Selgas’s first Kenyan project: in 2014 he built a vaccination clinic in the dry, north-western region of Turkana. Selgas, then a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), supervised the project and a group of students, together with his teaching assistant, Ignacio Peydro. The Konokono Centre has an undulating, sloping steel roof supported by brightly coloured poles, providing the necessary facilities as well as shade. Open to the elements, it’s positioned around two concentric circles delineated by stone paths. The clinic occupies part of the outer circle while the inner circle defines a playground. “Turkana is a desert in an abandoned part of Kenya with a strong nomadic culture”, informs Selgas. “There’s nothing useable on that land – no wood, no clay, and there are termites! When entering this part of the world, you might expect that you’re going to be working with earth, palm trees, and other natural materials. But the people here want things that last forever. They said to us, ‘We don’t want any wood because of the termites, and we don’t want any clay because the rain destroys it.’ So steel was the only material we could use that didn’t require repairing every three months.

The decision to create a building form in which people could mingle was in response to the local culture. However, it turned out that this ran counter to what the Missionary Community of Saint Paul the Apostle, the NGO that commissioned the project, had been teaching the Kenyans about the architectural concept of the straight line. “The local guys immediately understood the project and said, ‘Oh, there’s no straight lines here!’ The Western guys were happy too, but said, ‘You’ve destroyed what we’ve been trying to teach about the straight line all these years’”, recounts Selgas, laughing. Indeed, the Konokono Centre invokes the complexity of Western influence in such regions and illustrates how that affects the indigenous culture. The project, intended to help MIT students learn how to use common and scarce materials in ingenious ways, has been met with criticism. The Architectural Review wrote disparagingly: “The proliferation of the Western quest for exotic adventures has led to a new form of educational colonialism.” However, Selgas points out that his team was responding to a need.

Factory Mérida, Badajoz, Spain, 2006-2011 Photo: Iwan Baan

“We have a niece working in Turkana and her boss wanted to build this clinic. We saw the opportunity to bring it to MIT.” The project attracted the attention of the Louisiana museum in Copenhagen, which wanted to include it in its Africa – Architecture, Culture and Identity exhibition last summer. “The Louisiana asked us to replicate the vaccination clinic for the show, but because of the differences in temperature and climate, it seemed weird”, explains Selgas. “At that time, we were in the process of designing a micro-school for Kibera, the biggest slum in Kenya. So instead of building a facsimile of the clinic inside the Louisiana, we built the school.” To achieve this, SelgasCano collaborated with Julian Ocampo, Sixto Cordero, and Austin Smith of helloeverything (the studio formed by Selgas’s former students at MIT). SelgasCano designed it and helloeverything erected it. “After dismantling the structure [the exhibition ended in late October], we set about shipping the school to Kibera”, continues Selgas. “So we did things the other way round.”

Kibera houses one-tenth of Nairobi’s 2.5 million slum dwellers and is believed to be the biggest slum in Africa. Constructed out of polycarbonate and supported by yellow, orange, red, and pink poles, the pavilion employs generic scaffolding components to produce novel, mobile architecture. “It’s going to be like a lighthouse for the whole neighbourhood”, enthuses Selgas about the pavilion, which will have eight tiny classrooms spread across its 120 square metres. It’s hoped that 600 children will receive schooling there: 300 in the morning, 300 in the afternoon. “The idea is that every corner of the limited space will be utilised”, says Selgas. The choice of polycarbonate was a crucial factor. “In Nairobi it rains a lot, so it’s important to protect the whole school with that material, which is very cheap, super strong, and flexible, because we want the school to last as long as possible.” Selgas points out that this is a charitable undertaking. “We’re not making any money out of the projects in Kenya.”

Selgas and Cano established their office in Madrid in 1998. Their work combines the use of synthetic materials and new technologies, dazzling colours, and references to nature. In 2013, the practice was awarded the Kunstpreis by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and the Architects of the Year award by the German Design Council in Munich. Its self-designed, low-lying, acrylic offices are set amongst trees in a wood outside of Madrid, synonymous with the unassuming character of their projects. The architects have designed two congress halls in Spain: El B, an elongated, translucent rectangle on the harbour-front in Cartagena, and the Plasencia Centre, a crystalline, spaceship-like edifice in the hills near Cáceres. They also designed the Mérida Factory, an experimental youth centre and skate park in the Badajoz region. It exudes the generosity of spirit and playfulness typical of much of SelgasCano’s work. The wonky green-white-yellow façade functions as a climbing wall, while the orange roof twists round and over the skate ramps.

Then, last year, the first London building by SelgasCano opened: Second Home near Brick Lane in Shoreditch. Founded by Rohan Silva, former technology adviser to the British government, and Sam Aldenton, it is a vast co-working space where freelancers and small creative companies work on laptops while sitting on vintage chairs, surrounded by 1000 potted plants. It is a concept that responds to the flexible co-working needs of a growing number of independent workers in the British capital. “Members can use all the facilities, like the meeting rooms and cafeteria, and there’s a cultural programme with lectures and concerts in the evening”, says Selgas.

SelgasCano pushed their experimental ideas further in the Serpentine Pavilion, marking the 15th anniversary of the installation initiative. They took the opportunity to test out EFTE, a strong and resistant fireproof plastic, using it to create a twisting iridescent tube with alluring shapes and reflections. Haphazardly constructed, it was like a giant caterpillar that turned into a wondrous glow-worm at night. Although SelgasCano thought that EFTE would be transparent and translucent, it was in fact opaque. This created a cavernous effect, rendering it difficult to gaze outwards to the surrounding Kensington Gardens. But that didn’t dampen the sense of fun that visitors had in Instagramming the photogenic Pavilion. Reviews were mixed, but the project nonetheless demonstrated the Serpentine Gallery’s willingness to invite architects that are not leading names. This was similarly evidenced by the decision to commission Smiljan Radic in 2014. However, Selgas is keen to add: “You’d think it would be a wonderful commission, enabling you to make whatever you want in the middle of a park”, says Selgas. “But the budget is limited. We had lots of restrictions and constraints, and the regulations for building in Kensington Gardens are demanding.” So how does he feel he went? “It was fantastic. We glued, we painted, we stretched the material structurally. For us, it was an interesting laboratory in which to test this new-generation plastic. And we learnt a lot about climate and people through doing this project.”

Selgascano’s latest exhibited project is casa A, a prototype for a dwelling developed with helloeverything for the first edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Installed in the city’s Cultural Centre, the low-cost, rounded form is made from colourful plastic panels set in steel. Designed to be adaptable to different climatic conditions, it is expressive of SelgasCano’s interest in climatology. “We were contacted [by a client] to make a pre-fab house that can be erected on any type of landscape, anywhere in the world”, Selgas explains. “You’ll be able to open the roof and the walls, to experience the climate in many different ways.” The prototype is the size of a small tent. But, as Selgas clarifies, it is a modular proposal. “You can buy as many modules as you want – ten for a big house, four for a small one. Part of the proposal was that it should be affordable and eventually sold online.” What’s refreshing about SelgasCano is the pair’s lack of ego. Indeed, asked about their philosophy, Selgas answers, “Our philosophy is not to have a philosophy – to be absolutely open to every idea, story, location, necessity, or programme, to all the input coming from outside, and to every colour and material that can be used in a building. There are no personal thoughts that we want to bring.”

The State of the Art of Architecture, the inaugural edition of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, runs until 03 January 2016.

Konokono Vaccination and Educational Clinic (in collaboration with MIT Open Studio students), Turkana, Kenya Photos: Iwan Baan
Konokono Vaccination and Educational Clinic (in collaboration with MIT Open Studio students), Turkana, Kenya Photos: Iwan Baan
Factory Mérida, Badajoz, Spain, 2006-2011 Photo: Iwan Baan