Amaia Sánchez-Velasco

Lecturer at the University of Technology—Sydney, Australia
Co-Founder of GRANDEZA Studio—Madrid, Spain & Sydney, Australia

[Q] Question
[ASV] Amaia Sánchez-Velasco

Architecture schools increasingly play a part in facilitating the production of neoliberal subjects; proficient, efficient, individualised, professionalised. Operating within a school that prioritises production and solutions over critical thinking and speculation, how do we subvert the tools and resources of the institution to establish new ways of thinking—that ultimately liberate our tools from the understanding that they are merely technical skills? In this interview we speak with Amaia Sánchez-Velasco about developing a dynamic design approach that adapts and responds to the shifting conditions that shape our discipline.
Your teaching and practice engage with both the speculative and technical aspects of architecture. Could you begin by speaking about how the conditions and experiences within your education have impacted or shifted the way you approach pedagogy and practice?

I studied in Madrid and Berlin—each context offered a different experience. In Madrid, I was part of the Polytechnic University that had an architecture school of around 4000 students. It was a really intense teaching structure with classes in the morning and classes in the afternoon—7-8 hours a day of class. You were pushed into a kind of jungle where you had to figure out everything on your own as there was a lack of tutor contact. It had pros and cons in the sense that it forced you to become really independent and not rely on your tutor for feedback. But it was also quite challenging, because you really needed to construct these horizontal alliances with other students to make sure that you were getting through the subjects. Failing was something that was much more normalised—around 20% of people would fail each subject. This was however due to education being quite cheap and subsidised by the state.

I then went to TU [Technische Universität Berlin], which was a technical school, but soon decided to do the second semester in the art school in the UdK [Universität der Künste], also in Berlin. It brought me a different experience in the sense that I had my own studio, and was in a location that was much more related to the arts and liberated from technical constraints. I returned back to Madrid to do my thesis with Federico Soriano, a professor that I really admire. He had told me he would only give me feedback 3 times throughout my whole project as I was almost an architect and needed to be independent.

This was the moment in which Grandeza1 GRANDEZA
started, in collaboration with Jorge Valiente Oriol and Gonzalo Valiente Oriol. Since we were all going through the same process and were sharing a space to work, we decided to establish a really strong horizontal collaboration network. We called it, “freedom planning”. It was a system of helping each other; where every one to six weeks, we would alternate working for the other. Suddenly, I had to think ‘how do I detach myself from my own project in order to let others start working on it?’ It became an amazing learning process that showed us the importance of collaboration that we still maintain today.

Today, with the research project, we still maintain this rotational system where one of us starts a project and the others continue, so on and so forth. Somehow, we worked that into each of the projects. This moment of study was really the seed to the way I decided to keep practising afterwards.

Grandeza operates as a research collective, exploring the field of ‘spatial practice, design, cultural production and pedagogical exploration’. Your project for the XXII Triennale de Milano, Teatro Della Terra2 Teatro Della Terra Alienata
Australian Pavilion At The XXII Triennale Di Milano - Golden Bee Award
responds to the mass coral bleaching events occurring in the Great Barrier reef. This project set up a research terrain for pedagogical projects within the Master's of Architecture at UTS. Can you speak to this relationship between your practice and design studio space? How do these spaces interact, collaborate and influence each other?

The questions that I bring to the studio are usually questions that I am researching myself. The project that you mentioned, Teatro Della Terra, started purely as a master's design studio named Factory of Hyper Ecologies3 Factory of Hyper Ecologies
UTS Master’s Design Studio
. This became a trilogy of research and an ongoing collaboration with academics and students, eventually leading us to getting the commission for The Australian Pavilion in Milan.

More recently, I have looked at the work written by Silvia Federici4 Siliva Federici (1998)
Caliban and The Witch
to establish a framework for The Witch Hunt5 The Witch Hunt
UTS Master’s Design Studio
master's design studio at UTS. It unpacks a crucial moment during the middle ages where the system of capitalism was installed. Similar to the Factory of Hyper Ecologies studio, this investigation started in the studio and has the opportunity to keep going. It therefore moves back and forth. The space of the classroom becomes a place of sharing and thinking. I bring topics in and then students react back to expand and distort these questions.

Each studio that I run is not about resolving a problem. It’s about engaging within a certain conversation, testing the role of design in relation to that conversation
You spoke earlier about an education that accounts for and allows you to fail. This is something that our education here does not afford. The time structures of the semester and the pressure to produce often result in students regurgitating claims or following aesthetic trends to produce a final product that they think will meet the criteria.

The topics you address in your studios carry a sense of urgency and importance. How do you maintain the integrity of these topics while negotiating the demands of the institution?


Time is always a challenge and one of the hardest aspects to mediate when structuring subjects. In my own education, the many hours and many years of the architectural program gave us more time to digest, and slowly figure out the intricacies of each topic. Here, in Australia, it is like a machine gun. You have twelve weeks of intensity. Many of these topics would require not only a year, but even more. They are so multilayered that they will have to be resolved and evolved and kept in the mind of students. So each studio that I run is not about resolving a problem. It’s about engaging within a certain conversation, testing the role of design in relation to that conversation and then hopefully, it stays in the mind of the students and creates different modes of thinking. What is important to me is how to develop modes of thinking beyond the ultimate resolution of what the panel is doing and what the architecture is. If you develop these forms of research, forms of critical thinking and forms of designing as a response to that, then this can be applied to many other projects.

To me, this is what education is about. It is about learning how to think in a way that's also independent from what software you will be using in the future. It keeps on evolving. There will be technological shifts, but you have to develop a cognitive scaffolding that allows you to address all these different dilemmas that will keep on shifting and growing when you leave University.

In terms of the final result and failure, I agree failure is a necessary aspect of learning, but we are operating within a system that turns failure into a much more dramatic situation. Especially, in terms of cost. This is not accidental. This is a part of a political framework that wants to turn University into a space that lacks criticality. A space that is more about productivity and optimization in order to produce good workers and ‘job ready students’. This is killing the university—at least as a space in which critical thinking is central. We need to be aware of that, and you, as a student, should understand the processes that are going on and be critical of them. As academics, tutors and educators, there is always a battle between how much you can push this critical thinking in a context that is not necessarily promoting it. We have students that are willing to engage with this critically, but there are also other students that really embrace traditional understandings of architecture, or students that want to get a degree and leave. There is not a universal academic, and there is not a universal student either. It becomes a dialectical battle.

By using the tools of architectural design and weaponizing them, we liberate them from our understanding that they aren’t just technical. That’s what makes them powerful. It's what makes architecture relevant. If we disconnect it, we are giving it away and we are somehow disarming ourselves from the tools of design.
You raised an interesting point about the importance of not necessarily aiming for resolution in design and/or research. Some outcomes can be immeasurable but nonetheless still valid and vital. As students, we often feel that some of the research studios are met with criticism because they are marked against the same criteria as more pragmatic subjects with more material outputs. As a tutor, what have been some of the challenges and criticisms you faced?

I try in the studios, even if they are engaging in critical analysis or an investigation, to have a design. Sometimes, those subjects are quite intense, because they have to perform on both sides—one being the technical aspect and the other, the conceptual aspect and the construction of narratives.

The project needs to have a conceptual position, a critical position and it needs to be resolved. I’m not doing that because of the mandate of the ‘parity’ or because of marking processes. I’m doing that because I believe that somehow, by using the tools of architectural design and weaponizing them, we liberate them from our understanding that they aren’t just technical. That’s what makes them powerful. It's what makes architecture relevant. If we disconnect it, we are giving it away and we are somehow disarming ourselves from the tools of design. These tools are imperfect, they are partial. They will never be able to resolve all the problems of these multi-layered topics that we are discussing, but they are addressing them. We are going through the exercise of testing the limits and the potentials of these tools.

This is a way that I frame my studios. Of course, not all studios follow or should follow this particular framing. Studios that do not produce a resolved design or building and construction–but rather film, narrative and so on–are still considered design. These other methodologies are all an important part of learning and really useful to explore most of the topics I talk about in my studio. I also think it depends on what the overall project for the school is. How broad the scope of the topics that can be discussed and what the program is willing to do? I am for an architectural thinking that ranges from the capacity to resolve architectural details, to the capacity to do an art installation. This is one of the best aspects of architecture—it is so broad that you have so many avenues to navigate.

Previous attempts to question and critique the project of the overall school were met with dismissal and passive aggression by those in power. There is no safe space to question our architectural education and discuss ways we can transform these structures.

This project therefore aims to find other avenues to bring light to these topics and build the momentum for change. Through conversation and interrogation into the rituals and behaviours that shape our education, we hope to find moments of opportunity to rethink and reconstruct the school. How can the students retool that in everyday scenarios and not rely so much on people in authority?

Students should have an active role in pushing for criticality because it is a constant negotiation, and a constant battlefield.

To me it is not one way or the other. A benefit of the system that you are in is that students are treated as clients. Which is terrible and problematic in my opinion, because it creates the idea that class is just an interchange and a transactional relationship. Being conscious of the limitations of that, but also being conscious of what you can do with it can be useful. The reality is that passive aggression is a daily routine. You find it everywhere, but it doesn’t matter, it does not mean you need to stop addressing things. Continue to talk to people and just keep going.

You need to try and form horizontal relationships that allow you to be less dependent on the system. One avenue of achieving this can be by forming your own parallel intersectional studios with like-minded students and opening up the space to have your own conversations. It can operate as a space that is completely outside the studio, where you share your projects, be critical with each other’s work and with that you can bring the discussions you have back into the studio class. This has the potential to be so much more empowering than relying on a tutor to stimulate any form of critical thinking. Students should have an active role in pushing for criticality because it is a constant negotiation, and a constant battlefield.