Based in Madrid, Ábaton architects was founded in 1998 by Camino Alonso, Ignacio Lechón and Carlos Alonso. The practice has an unusually comprehensive approach, running a construction company to control the building process as well as collaborating with interior designers Batavia. Light, space and sustainability are common themes in the practice’s work, with clients that are willing to push the boundaries to create something extraordinary, as Camino Alonso explains here.
How did you get to where you are now?
When I finished my degree, I specialised in urbanism and worked for 15 years in that area. I then decided to try some residential projects; I began with my own house and found that in Spain, nobody was developing houses with a different concept of architecture as I thought it should be.
It’s extremely important that I know the person I am designing a house for, so that I can make it unique and comfortable. I like to work with the concept of HOME – in capital letters – as a refuge, somewhere to feel better than anywhere else. At that moment, we were the only company in Spain taking the risk to develop with this premise.
Did you have a big break or a mentor along the way?
There were some architects I worked for and who I really admire, such as Toni Díaz. I also learn every day from so many international brilliant minds in architecture. But in architecture, we not only learn from architects – we also find inspiration in many more forms of art and feelings.
What sets Ábaton apart from other practices?
I think it could be thorough, singular design, and our honesty. Our clients are our best marketing agents.
Our longing to investigate new materials and solutions is also important. We test them in our studio before we show them to our clients. Having our own building company helps us to have more freedom in this way.
What broad themes or ideas do you explore in your work?
There are two important elements in our architecture. The first one is the place/plot and the other is the client. Everything else comes as a result of the analysis of these two things.
We always try to find solutions that require the minimum amount of resources – not only in terms of money but most of all, in terms of functionality and space. If there is an element without a logical explanation, we try to get rid of it. If the structure solves its function, we leave it on show. This way, spaces remain free from interference and become more conceptual, setting themselves apart from trends or whim, and therefore making them more timeless.
What’s your approach to working with older buildings?
We try to respect the original flavour and style of the house, and work on the harmony of combining both old and contemporary architecture. We try to identify the elements that singularise architecture and work with them to adapt to the building’s new needs and uses without forgetting its origin.
What’s your favourite kind of commission to work on?
The most interesting projects come from the most interesting clients. We always manage to create more interesting spaces when the person we build it for is interesting as well. That is why I like to work on residential projects, because in these we deal with soul and feelings somehow.
Can you explain more about your ‘portable home’ project? Why did you decide there was a need for it?
I felt the need to explore minimal architecture. We started working with shipping containers, then fund that this was a step forward in looking for a quality space with a minimal amount of square metres.
Our clients have used it for many different needs: as an extra visitors’ room, as a support house for a caravan, as a complete house in a remote location, some of them have joined two houses together to make a bigger house…
Your Extremadura Estate project gained a lot of attention – why was it so special?
It is a very special project because of the place it is built in: our architecture is always inspired by the site where we are going to build, and this one was absolutely magical. Sustainability was part of the project brief and it is completely off-grid. The design has respected the original stable, opening as much as we could to the amazing surrounding nature.
Did Extremadura Estate have a lot of challenges?
Of course – the logistics were a nightmare. It is in a quite remote plot in the middle of the mountains and it was quite difficult to make everything we needed arrive to the place. Energy was also a challenge: we used solar panels and had to install turbines in a nearby stream to ensure enough supply.
The design of the house itself was also very carefully done, as we did not want to interfere too much in the landscape, so we made it look as discreet as possible in the countryside.
You’ve worked a few times with interior designers/furniture brand Batavia – how does that relationship work?
We understand that furnishing is part of architecture. You can build a wonderful building but if the furnishing is not correct, the whole project is affected. When we work with Batavia on a project together, the result is amazing and so coherent. It is a privilege when we have the opportunity to do it.
I think we understand the importance of furnishing and they understand very well our language and usually come with very good ideas.
Do you have a favourite architect or designer?
Herzog & de Meuron, Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos, Gunnar Asplund, Álvaro Siza – all of these are a great inspiration for any architect.
What’s Madrid like, as a design hub?
We have very good design professionals in Madrid and there is always something going on: exhibitions, shows, forums, theatre. As I said before, it is not only architecture that inspires us.