If it works it’s fantastic, but many architect duos don’t last very long. “A clash of egos”, the two young architects say, laughing. The fact that the office name doesn’t incorporate their own names might suggest García Partarrieu and Scheidegger don’t have much of an ego issue. Another reason for their good collaboration is that they’ve taken ample time to become a professional pair, as it started from when they were still at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (where they are currently teaching). “Our first project was our own office, which we conceived before graduating. And during the first three years of UMWELT, we did everything together – from meetings with clients to writing emails.” They also decided on the working process, the projects they wanted, and their office’s future. “We have great architects in Chile, and many of them start by building fabulous houses on the beach. We wanted something else, though – we wanted to go beyond what architects in Chile usually do. To work in cities, on a big scale and without making a distinction between research and building.” Those first years of close collaboration have ensured that the two are able to read each other’s mind. “We have a complementary way of thinking about architecture.” However, their collaboration is not a babbling brook. “At the centre, there are always discussions and arguments. Each of us has to show, prove, discuss, convince, write down.”
Nevertheless, the two tend to unrestrainedly complete each other’s sentences. For instance, when they explain the concept behind the name – which is no less than a mission statement. “In German, umwelt literally means environment, but it’s also a broader concept, which we inherited from Jakob von Uexküll.” Jakob who?! “Ehm, yes... The only person we’ve met who had heard of him was Yoshiharu Tsukamoto from Atelier Bow-Wow. We were impressed!” Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) was an Estonian-German biologist whose theory about how living beings perceive their environment was picked up by philosophers like Heidegger. “He described how the spatial perception of clams, birds, bees, ticks, etc. as well as humans, is determined by their senses, nerves, and brain. The result is that every living creature has its own personal ‘umwelt’ that it takes for ‘reality’, from where all interaction with others departs.” This ‘subjective environment’ is the starting point for García Partarrieu and Scheidegger’s architectural practice. Every city is therefore a place where successive generations of residents interpret and reinvent their umwelt again and again, and where architecture means more than simply creating physical housing – it’s rather about how to expand our umwelt and change our experience.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
UMWELT tries to play it smart. “In every project we do, we take a position to safeguard the public interest in a privatised world.” The duo cites the memorial they created at the Cementerio General – the oldest cemetery in the city, where the rich and poor, the important and nameless are buried, as well as victims of the military dictatorship. “This cemetery is as segregated as the rest of our city: not only are the graves of the rich and the poor separated, the service and maintenance they receive also differs. Again, these are the things you don’t see on the postcard...” They chose to build an L-shaped structure in the ‘poor’ part of the cemetery. “It was not just a memorial; it also included a new stretch of pavement and benches. Thus, a new public space was created and the necessary services in this part of the cemetery are now also being provided. We used this historical monument as an opportunity to compensate for a lack of public services and to upgrade this part of the cemetery with an infrastructure.”
This how, through architecture, UMWELT has been creating a new, more shared reality in which various umwelts can co-exist peacefully. Perhaps architecture cannot save the world, but UMWELT definitively enables us to reflect on things.