José Ángel Medina Murua, Doctor of Architecture
AIZPURUA & LABAYEN: AVANT-GARDE ARCHITECTURE
One could make a film about the story behind Studio Labayen & Aizpurua. The intense course of events that in a short space of time would define the lives of Guipuzcoan architects Joaquín Labayen and José Manuel Aizpúrua, are certainly worthy of one.
Joaquín Labayen (Tolosa, 1900-1995) and José Manuel Aizpúrua (San Sebastián, 1902-1936)
FRIENDS SINCE ATTENDING CLASS TOGETHER AT THE MADRID SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE, IT WAS IN 1927 WITH THEIR STUDIES COMPLETED AND THE OPENING OF THEIR STUDIO ON SAN SEBASTIAN’S C/PRIM, THAT THEIR STORY BEGAN. TRAGICALLY, THEIR JOINT HISTORY WOULD LAST BARELY NINE YEARS AS AIZPURUA WAS LATER EXECUTED BY FIRING SQUAD DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR. HOWEVER, THE MAGNITUDE OF WHAT OCCURED DURING THOSE NINE YEARS WOULD AFFIRM THE IMPORTANCE OF A TRAJECTORY THAT HAS BECOME A CLASSIC IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE.
The lives of these two architects serve to mirror the intense cultural panorama of the 1920s and 30s. The events of the “mad” 20s – and early 30s – formed the cultural backdrop that would go on to mark the architectural profession in the years that followed. Events which would ultimately prove decisive to the cultural landscape of the twentieth century.
Internationally speaking, this decade would go down in history as witnessing events of enormous cultural consequence. These include Pevsner and Gabo’s Constuctivist manifesto, and Tristan Tzara’s Dadá manifesto, both written in 1920. A year later, 1921 sees the unveiling of Picasso’s Three Musicians and the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, while 1922 bears witness to Mussolini’s march on Rome. In 1924 André Breton publishes his Surrealist manifesto, a year that also sees the death of Lenin and the subsequent rise of Stalin. The Art Deco Exhibition opens in Paris in 1925, when Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin also gets its release, while 1928 marks the start of talking pictures with the release of The Jazz Singer. Also at this time, architect and set designer Mallet-Stevens reaches the peak of his career thanks to his work on buildings like the Casino in San Jean de Luz. A year later, the financial crash of 1929 coincides with artist Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealist era, while 1930 sees the publication of Bretón’s second Surrealist manifesto and the death of Maiakovski.
On the international architecture scene, the events of the 1920s are no less significant. Mendelsohn builds the Einstein Tower in Postdam in 1921 while one year later Theo van Doesburg takes his early assays into neoplasticism to the Bauhaus. In 1923 Le Corbusier publishes Vers Une Architecture. In 1924 Rietveld builds the Schröder House in Utrecht, while 1925 sees the construction of LeCorbusier’s L’Esprit Nouveau Pavilion at the Paris Exhibition and the release of his publication entitled Urbanism. In the same year Marcel Breuer unveils his Wassily chair, the first ever to be constructed from metal tubes and Warchavchik publishes his Manifesto on Functional Architecture. In 1925 Gropius builds the Bauhaus Buildings in Dessau at the same time as Loos works on Tristán Tzara’s house in Paris and Ernst May heads up newly published magazine Das Neue Frankfurt.
Robert Mallet-Stevens, set design for “L’Inhumaine” by Marcel L’Herbier, 1923.
Ground and elevated floor of the Royal Nautical Club in San Sebastian, published in A.C. in 1931.
In June 1927 Labayen and Aizpúrua complete their studies. In the same year the Werkbund Siedlung Exhibition takes place in Stuttgart and the famous International Competition of the Society of Nations is held in Geneva. Meanwhile, Mies van der Rohe takes over direction of the Werkbund. In 1928 Le Corbusier builds his Villa Saboya in Poissy1 and Eric Mendelsohn completes his work on the Schocken warehouses. The first ever meetings of both the Sarraz and the CIRPAC Foundation are held, while Gropius hands over direction of the Bauhaus to Hannes Meyer. In Rome, the first ever Exhibition of Rational Architecture takes place. In 1929, Mies van der Rohe constructs the German Pavilion for the Barcelona Exhibition, Terragni completes the Viendas Novocomum building in Como and Neutra the Lovell House in Los Angeles. In Frankfurt, the second C.I.A.M. (International Congresses of Modern Architecture) is held.
In Spain, Miguel Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship is established in 1923, which subsequently goes on to last another seven years until 1930. It is followed by King Alfonso XIII’s escape into exile and the creation of the Second Republic.
This is also an era dominated by literary greats such as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Azorín, Pérez de Ayala, Salinas, Benavente, Antonio Machado, García Lorca, Guillén, Cernuda Ortega and Gasset, and Valle Inclán and witnesses the launch of magazines Revista de Occidente, under the direction of Ortega and Gasset, and Giménez Caballero’s La Gaceta Literaria.
On the art scene, Juan Gris, Vázquez Díaz, Benjamín Palencia, Picasso, Solana, Dalí, sculptors Ferrant and Esplá, film-maker Buñuel and the huge repertoire of writers such as García Lorca, Unamuno and Ortega and Gasset are in vogue.
All such cultural movements were not remotely lost on our architects Labayen and Aizpúrua, seen all too clearly in the impressive library that was housed as their Studio. Among the tomes contained there were the first editions of many “indispensable” books and numerous subscriptions to the most avant-garde publications of the time. This is a fact worth highlighting, since it goes to show the meticulousness and tenacity with which the architects worked to stay up-to-date with the latest trends.
1 In this respect, it is interesting to note José Ángel Esquide’s interpretation of the parallels that exist between the Royal Nautical Club in San Sebastian and the Villa in Poissy, given that the latter was completed prior to Le Corbusier’s plan for the Villa Savoye. See: SANZ ESQUIDE, J. A ., El Real Club Náutico de San Sebastián, 1928-1929, Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Almería, Almería, 1995.
Royal Nautical Club of San Sebastian, 1929.
Royal Nautical Club of San Sebastian
The project which ultimately launched our men onto the global scene was the expansion of the Royal Nautical Club of San Sebastian. The building marked a milestone among the European vanguard leading to a number of significant developments. For example, Le Corbusier himself chose to visit it in person barely a year after its official opening. The Swissman, a master in his field, took advantage of an opportunity to travel around Spain in order to pay a visit to the building, designed by two of his most fervent followers in Spain.
SASHA patisserie and tasting room, San Sebastian, 1930.
With the exception of the odd interior design project, such as those of Bar Yacaré, the Sacha or Café Madrid, the RNCSS, officially opened in the summer of 1929, represented the first constructed work of the Guipuzcoan duo. Publications like Der Baumeister, Moderne Bauformen, Cahier’s d’Art and the catalogue of the famous International Style Exhibition, commissioned by Johnson and Hitchcock published shots taken immediately outside from the Concha beach in an effort to demonstrate the aspirations of the new movement of modern architecture within Spain.
The plan was to lengthen the existing base, formerly a vivarium, in order to make space for all the club’s services. Likewise, the old “sweet tin” – as the wooden building used by the club was popularly known – was enlarged, maintaining the original exterior though extending it through a zig-zag-shaped glass veneer as a way of working the Lecorbusieran need for flow into the main access level.
Several staircases also form a part of this flowing floor layout, two of which are located at the entrances. The other two, meanwhile, can be found in cruciform fashion inside the club and lend a certain originality to the floor as well as remaining in-keeping with the club’s overall nautical character.
The building is finished off with a pure and solid upper level, raised on pillars that flank the lower level and volumetrically reinforce the building’s form, resulting in an overall nautical feel. The ornamental top, which is in the form of a mast running vertically through the building which is then tied down at each end, is a reminder of constructivist buildings like that built by the Vesnin brothers in the Palace of Labour in Mocow2.
Nothing, however, could be more vivid than the designers own recollection in order to explain their project for the club:
“The Nautical Club is built on the grounds of the previous one, a wooden construction founded on stone walls (the old aquarium) 1.2 metres thick which formed a rectangle measuring 34.8 x 10 metres in width, with access to an upstairs terrace which jutted out by one metre. The walls had to be used, which served as a support for the new building though only partly since the new Club is 21 metres longer than the previous one giving it a total length of 55.8 metres and a width of 10 metres, a dimension that it was mandatory to preserve. The project was conceived by seeking rational solutions, which gave way to some perfectly distributed floor plans. The Elevations were nothing more than a clear reflection of these. The giant glazed surface is a response to a desire for the magnificent bay to be visible from anywhere inside the club: the foyer, the library, the restaurant etc… the need for a broad horizon, a lyricism sought by this generation, unfairly labelled as materialistic. There was never any doubt about installing a large window. The restaurant has to function somewhat independently from the rest of the Club and needs to be big enough to accommodate the clientele on Bank Holidays. Replacing the wall with one continuous window creates a pleasant area despite the ceiling being just 2.2 metres high in the centre and 2.7 metres high in the rest. The building is furnished in parts by THONET, and all of it is intended to respond to a need for manageability, both in terms of cleanliness and conservation.”
2 See. The Soviet Vanguard by Various Authors, 1928 – 1933, Completed Architecture, Ministry of Development. General Management for Housing, Planning and Architecture, Barcelona, 1996.
JOSÉ ÁNGEL MEDINA (Studio Medina & Murua) is the current director of the University of Navarre’s School of Architecture. In his book “José Manuel Aizpurua y Joaquín Labayen” (colección Arquitectos Guipuzcoanos) he presents the conclusions of his doctoral thesis on the evolution of the Modernist Movement in 1930s Spain, including the trajectory of Aizpurua and Labayen.
THEIR COMPLETED WORK HAS COME TO REPRESENT A SIGNIFICANT MILESTONE IN THE HISTORY OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE AND AS SUCH, DESERVES TO BE HIGHLIGHTED AS A POINT A PRIDE FOR CONTEMPORARY GUIPUZCOANS.
Front page and inside of a 1931 edition of A.C., which was dedicated to San Sebastian’s Royal Nautical Club.
Coincidentally, Le Corbusier visited San Sebastian just weeks before a group of young Spanish architects decided to meet in Zaragoza and form a lobby for modern architecture. It is now common knowledge that the GATEPAC – Group of Spanish Architects and Spacialists for the Progression of Contemporary Architecture – is comprised of three groups, Central, Eastern and Northern, headed respectively by Fernando García Mercadal, José Luis Sert and Aizpúrua himself.
The group’s activity was to become heavily characterised by its work to champion the ideals of avant-garde architecture. Without doubt one of the main things that stands out is the magazine A.C. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea that was based in Barcelona. The contents of this publication would include everything from documents written by the main European players in the movement to different sections dedicated to art, photography, cinema, as well as building and architectural projects.
This brief description of just some of the events in the short but intense careers of our two architects represents little more than the tip of the iceberg in the profound waters that would come to represent the totality of their work. Ultimately, their completed work has come to represent a significant milestone in the history of modern architecture and as such, deserves to be highlighted as a point a pride for contemporary Guipuzcoans.