Interview with Elena Orte Largo & Guillermo Sevillano, SUMA

SUMA was founded in 2005 by Elena Orte Largo and Guillermo Sevillano. SUMA is a young architecture office who also venture in construction, project management, furniture, product design and teaching. Located in Madrid, SUMA have gained some serious credibility for their socially and politically conscious design propositions and research. Their latest project was recently featured on ArchDaily. Below is an interview with SUMA who share their thoughts on everything from overrated architects to the future of our profession:

SUMA-ArchitectsLeft: Elena Orte Largo and Guillermo Sevillano, Right: Play-time apartments, Madrid. Photo Credits: Jesús Granada

Interview with Elena Orte Largo & Guillermo Sevillano, SUMA


1. Which of your projects has been the most rewarding and why?

SUMA: In economical terms, the most exciting and adventurous are always the worst paid. For example, the Play-time apartments have been so far a great adventure and they have brought a lot of attention to our work. But it has been a long and hard process. The project collects the aspirations of the developer as well as multiple disciplinary obsessions (the vertical garden, the spiral organisation, typological subversions, and the apparently free and in-formal envelope shape) but it does so in a way we felt that we had to learn everything along the way. The project has become a sort of consistent and precise system in which we can’t disregard any of the elements without sacrificing the whole thing. Pre-fixed fees (before even we started the conversation with the client!) never pay for these efforts but there are multiple rewards beyond that.

We can speak in similar masochist terms (“if it’s easy, we don’t like it”) of the Library in Fuerteventura (Canary Islands), which has been painful and rewarding in multiple ways.

Paytime-Appartments-SUMAPlay-time apartments, Madrid. Photo Credits: Jesús Granada

2. How do you think architecture will change in the next 50 years?

SUMA: We indeed live relativist times. For some time now, we have witnessed the rise and fall of a lot of different platforms of thought, both in politics, philosophy and architecture. Apparently no system of ideas or methodology can be considered as a “stable ground”. As humanists, we have become perpetual nomads. As architects, instead, we like to think that the absence of a “solid ground” on which to settle has made explicit that only the constant endeavour to consolidate, modify and construct on a given territory can provide a stable condition to it. In other words, for the human “construct”, whatever that is, it is the construction that paradoxically sustains its foundation and not the other way around!

Consequently, for the future it does not seem so relevant to us to bet on a specific idea on which to “construct” as to understand and promote the processes of “construction” per se that are able to sustain it. To do this, we always like to claim a term borrowed from the social sciences of the 60’s, Socioconstructivism. The term socio is not merely “social”, in its old-fashion meaning. It refers to the bonds and networks of “associations” that any innovation must activate and trigger ex-novo as the only way to endure. These processes, such as live, communicate and reproduce architecture, as well as an undetermined number of actions made by a myriad of agents, create the sphere outside of which our products would not survive a moment. The term constructivism, in turn, points out the artificial nature of the process of establishing associations, an artificiality that we don’t reject as designers/constructors, but embrace as a condition sine qua non to produce sustainable initiatives in the broadest sense of the word.

Thus, we can imagine architects becoming in the next decades less solitary heroic builders and more “socio-constructors” of ideas. By doing so, we think we can keep some of our proverbial audacity and vindicate our expertise while holding hands intensively with the rest of the world.

Library-in-Canary-IslandsLibrary in Canary Islands

3. What changes would you like to see in the architectural profession?

SUMA: Independently of who we serve in a more and more democratic and participatory world, we would like to see how our profession finds the place in it that accommodates our common will to serve others and construct a better place, to implement our passion and expertise and our capacity to work in intricate contexts and ensemble things. And we would like to get rid out of fetishes, trends and mantras and our guilty-complex along the way. We imagine an architect more aware and connected, more open and daring, and, above all, more necessary.

4. Do you think that architecture tends to be trendy today?

SUMA: “Fashion is what becomes old-fashioned”, while we all aspire to some type of transcendence. The condition of the present is important to us as a way to avoid prejudices and prefixed solutions, and always keep a fresh view to learn things and start any endeavour. Beyond that, we find that trying to be on top of the waves is only significant because it makes us feel more alive (probably because of the void beneath) and is a much better place to enjoy the trip. Every project is a new adventure!

5. What would students learn from reviewing the body of projects you have completed?

SUMA: We have always tried to keep a foot on the field of pure practice and a foot in the academic realm. As Design Studio professors in the Polytechnic University of Madrid, we always tell our students that it doesn’t matter the idea or point of departure and it doesn’t matter how unstable the ground is. Moreover, the bigger the challenge, the better (always enjoy the feeling of climbing your own Everests, no matter how many times others have been there before!). However, only by constructing onto it they will achieve a design able to be sustained. In that sense, we like to think that our projects may exemplify what  “constructing ideas” in architecture means to us. Sometimes we come across the concept responding to a given context (as the Public Housing we have just finished in Madrid). Sometimes we incubate the project in a laboratory and look desperately for the proper place to implement it (as the libraries we have design for the Canary Islands and the Helsinki Central Library, in which we were shortlisted for the second stage among 550 proposals). Sometimes the point of departure is not even ours (as in the Play-time Apartments)! Of course, we don’t work in the outer space. Acrobatics are exciting but not a way of sustainment. Every sketch unveils genealogy lines, enrols and dismiss actors, opens and closes narratives and summons memories and attachments. Some things become explicit, while others run unconsciously.

What we try is to clean our mind out of prejudices or preconceived thoughts and put all our resources to best sustain the project to be constructed. Or to sum up, always keep the feet on the ground and the mind pointing the sky.

6. Who do you think is the most overrated architect, and who do you think deserves more credit/recognition?

SUMA: That is unfair to say. The most overrated architects are probably the best connected; those who have better constructed the network of associations that sustain their works. That deserves a lot of recognition and we could all learn a lot from them beyond despising their work with our overblown egos. They are great “constructors”, maybe not the ones we´d like to be, but probably the sort we need to become.

Helsinki Central LibraryHelsinki Central Library

7. What aspect of Architecture do you find most important?

Lately, we have found ourselves more concerned with the problem of how enrolling actors to better sustain our initiatives. We have found that what we learned is only helpful if it makes explicit how others may associate and create networks around our proposals. If we want to preserve our field of expertise, we need to add more layers to it. Which is basically a problem of Translation, to put it in linguistic terms. The basic implication is that there is no association/enrolment of any agent without a vehicle of translation, as the Actor-Network theorists would put it. A translation is a way of transporting an effect (or initiative). While some characteristics remain, there is no transportation without a transformation on both sides (for example: house + inhabitants = family home). Finally it is actually these vehicles that keep connected the architectural form to the actors that provide its sustain.

However, instead of looking at the issue as a single-way road in which either the proposal respond to actors, actors alter the proposal or the proposal collapses, we like to think that the process of design can actually preserve its integrity and trigger new enrolments at the same time by means of the adequate and explicit vehicles of translation. We would like to melt the architectural and the social in our design practice as two elements that have actually never been separated and, at the same time, regain the initiative and the capacity of preserving our field of expertise while triggering new and better associations.

Public-Housing-in-San-Sebastian-de-los-Reyes_MadridPublic Housing in San Sebastian de los Reyes, Madrid

8. What inspired you to become involved in Architecture?

SUMA: What moves us is the vertigo towards the voids to be filled. From the necessities others require to be covered, the places that it seems no one has been before, through the multiple lacks we find in our discipline, the gap we try to jump and the space we need to develop our emotions; it seems that what puts us in motion is not what fulfils us but what unveils an empty space in front of our eyes.

9. What other interests do you have?

SUMA: We lived in NY for two years, while doing a Master at Columbia University, and we assume something from us remain there. We expect to have the chance to return someday, but not as tourists, which is a nice way of consumption, but definitely not a way of live a place! Regarding other interests, we are very eclectic and open-minded. It seems that our obsessions relate more with processes (daily routines), sceneries (our house and office, the city we walk and the architecture we produce) and feelings (family circle and friends) and that we are not that interested in erecting our identities with things and fetishes others can recognise. In that sense, we feel more like diluting into the world as their spectators.

Public-Housing-in-Vallecas_MadridPublic Housing in Vallecas, Madrid. Photo Credits: Jesús Granada

10. What would be your ultimate design project?

SUMA: We are still at that stage of our careers, as Groucho Marx would put it, in which we should not accept a client that requires our services as architects. If they come to us is typically a bad sign! But the client is someone to be constructed, too. We always expect the latest project to be the best opportunity.

11. What are you doing at the moment?

SUMA: After some years finishing our latest projects, building our own house and office, obtaining academic positions at the University and extending our family we have got to a point in which we feel that we have finished many of the things we started some years ago (and reached many of the things we could have ever dream of!) and we now wonder what to do. We stand in front of a crossroads. We either struggle to preserve what we have achieved or we go up to the trapeze again. If anyone has followed this questionnaire so far, they can probably expect where we are heading at the moment.

I’d like to thank Elena and Guillermo for participating in the interview, it was a pleasure. If you’re interested in getting in touch or finding out more about SUMA, visit their website or stay up to date via their blog

If you are interested in being interviewed or featured on archi-ninja, please contact me.


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