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Sun, moon & stars: Enric Ruiz-Geli interview

Hattie Hartman interviews Enric Ruiz-Geli on transforming the world-famous restaurant elBulli into a culinary foundation that listens to the landscape

Enric Ruiz-Geli, director and founder of Cloud 9, won the World Architecture Festival Building of the Year for Media-ICT with its nitrogen cushions. Now, the Barcelona-based practice is working with the three-star Michelin restaurant on the Spanish/French border to sustainably and holistically regenerate its site within a national park.

How did you win the elBulli commission?
ElBulli’s chef Ferran Adrià said to me: ‘I cook with nitrogen, and you are doing nitrogen buildings. You are a local and you are leading the world with green architecture. We can talk.’

The restaurant closed in July 2011 and will reopen as a creative centre. It is located in a national park. What sort of Mediterranean architecture should we build in a national park?
National parks still have a 1970s agenda. It is all about nature and biodiversity. But today, to preserve nature, we have to intervene. We have to be activists and take a holistic approach.

We have to regenerate the landscape; we have to cut down the invasive trees and plant more local trees. We have to regenerate the ecosystems from marine life to earth, all the way down to the red coral. It is no good building a beautiful building in a beautiful landscape if fishing practices are not sustainable. The architect has a holistic responsibility. It has been a four-year process and we will break ground in September.

Was there a clear brief from the start?
The architecture and programme are happening after living with nature. Now we know that the moon gives natural light between this pine tree and that pine tree. The programme is not a think-tank, but there will be creative people working there. It is also a lab because research is happening. ElBulli has so much history and so much information that people will go there to visit this knowledge. It is also a museum - a big outdoor, and indoor, exhibition in the landscape.

We are building 4,000m² inside the landscape like a cave. We are putting everybody underground to feel fresh in this global warming heat. When I was a student, summer in Barcelona was July and August - now it is 10 May to 10 October. Global warming is very real.

What are the project’s main elements?
First, we have to retrofit the existing architecture to stop the massive energy consumption that is happening. We are also doing demolitions to reduce the impact of architecture on this landscape. Our building is camouflaged underground. The landscape is weak and needs a retrofit, so we are rebuilding many stone walls.

The wind of the Mediterranean is bringing salt to elBulli. But we have glass in elBulli. Should we talk about glass or should we talk about a new material made out of salt that separates inside from outside? This is the first time that we will fully achieve an architecture of particles project. That is what matters to us.

Will you have renewable energy?
First we must deal with mobility. To have an active national park, we need people going there, becoming more knowledgeable and then go back saying: ‘Now I have more green consciousness.’ Once we have people there, we have to host them. Architecture needs to consume and balance energy. With an 8-10°C temperature differential, geothermal is very effective there. We are also using photovoltaics integrated in ceramic tiles on the old Mediterranean buildings. Micro wind turbines will be sited in specific places because the wind is very strong in this region.

We are creating an energy ring so all the buildings share the energy that they need and produce. We are removing all the poles by burying cables underground. The numbers show that we will be self-sufficient, but we will not be off grid. Staying connected to the grid is a more democratic position for our foundation; we can share any positive energy with neighbours.

How is the Media-ICT building (World Architecture Festival Building of the Year 2011) performing?
About 40 per cent of the construction budget went into digital fabrication, and we have two patents pending: one for the nitrogen cushions and one for fire-resistant paint. At the Media-ITC we married green IT with digital fabrication. Imagine Bill McDonough and Patrik Schumacher working together. Schumacher is a good friend, and I have said to him: ’ Patrik, in your Excel, I don’t see energy? He says: ‘That’s for the engineers.’

Off the back of this project, we have four more projects underway: a tower on site in Taipei, which is targeting LEED Platinum, and proposals underway in Saint Petersburg, Qatar and San Francisco.

What is your involvement with Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution?
When we met Rifkin about six years ago, he asked why so many CEOs are joining him but no architects. Today, there are 120 companies and we have 28 active architecture practices on a separate roundtable. I called Gordon Gill from Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture in Chicago and Stefano Boeri from Stefano Boeri Architetti in Milan.
We develop regional energy masterplans. The last one was for Lille. Cities or regions come to us because they have targeted green legislation and they need an umbrella of over-arching policies which takes into account retrofitting, clean energy, clean mobility and green job creation.

At the AJ’s Green Rethink, you spoke about the three phases of the green movement. Where are we now?
Phase 1 is having leading people like Bill Gates opening their eyes to the inconvenient truth and having pioneers like Bill and Michael at Cradle to Cradle. Phase 2 is where we are now. We have laws, regulations, some green architects and lots of new data - what is CO² emission, what is a footprint? Phase 2 is mapping, listing and certificating the bad and good guys. Hopefully it will not take long to get to Phase 3. We cannot make that jump without very strong global awareness. Barcelona recycles 75 per cent of waste. We are starting to see positive numbers. I would say consciousness is at about 20 per cent now.

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