Casting off

Lasting impression: Marta González Ruiz

A Madrid school offers a reminder of how materials and buildings shape us from an early age.

One of my earliest memories is of concrete. From the age of four until I was 18, I went to school at the Colegio Estudio in Madrid (1960), designed by Fernando Higueras. We would run from the classrooms to the dining hall, jumping and touching every beam. And I actually remember the feeling of the concrete in my hand – the rough boardmarking and the pattern of the wood.

Higueras was one of a kind – he was very flamboyant, very sarcastic and a radical thinker. Setting himself against the architectural fashion, he wanted to create places that would endure through time – an approach he shared with other Spanish architects, such as Alejandro de la Sota and Francisco Javier Sàenz de Oiza.

You can see this in the way he celebrates structure, such as in the sculptural spans of beams in the school gym. The teachers encouraged us to experience the building and use it as a canvas. So I remember learning the metric system by going around the school, measuring things and drawing our own plans. The more you become aware of a building, the more you notice things like the grain in the concrete. These stick in your memory, and this memory shapes your future: it certainly inspired me to become an architect.

Another early school memory that resonates is the greenery. It was really important for Higueras to welcome nature into the building, so he created courtyards that connected to all the classrooms via very large windows. The way he brought together concrete and the natural world to create an environment where people feel welcome was ahead of its time.

There’s a housing block he designed in central Madrid called Viviendas San Bernardo (1967-75) with plants cascading from the facade. When I was young, I would pass it every day and it was always green. What I love about this is that, with the rise in biophilic design over the past few years, including PLP’s own Park Nova tower under construction in Singapore, people have started to question all these renders covered in greenery: will this actually happen? Is it even possible? And the proof has been standing – in a dense, super-hot urban environment – for 50 years.

Higueras spent the last years of his life in a two-storey subterranean studio, top-lit by skylights, that he carved out of the ground behind his house. He called it the “RascaInfiernos”, which means hellscraper. He boasted that the concrete structure kept a stable 25˚C temperature all year round, without heating or cooling. To implement passive strategies on contemporary architecture was, again, another idea that was ahead of its time.

Dr Marta González Ruiz is a director of PLP Architecture

Photos Gonzalo Pérez; Lola Botia, courtesy of la Fundación Fernando Higueras & Lola Botia, courtesy of la Fundación Fernando Higueras