Stunning buildings made from raw, imperfect materials | Débora Mesa Molina 

What would it take to reimagine the limits of architecture? Débora Mesa Molina offers some answers in this breathtaking, visual tour of her work, showing how structures can be made with overlooked materials and unconventional methods -- or even extracted from the guts of the earth. "The world around us is an infinite source of inspiration if we are curious enough to see beneath the surface of things," she says.

Architecture is a profession with many rules, some written, some not, some relevant and others not. As architects, we're constantly gravitating between following these rules by the book or making a space for imagination -- for experimentation. This is a difficult balance. Especially through architecture, you're trying to challenge preconceptions and push boundaries and innovate, even if just using what we have around and we overlook all the time.

And this is what I've been doing along with my team, Ensamble Studio, and from our very early works that happened in strict historic contexts, like the city of Santiago de Compostela. Here we built the General Society of Authors and Editors, a cultural building. And on top of all the regulations, we had to use stone by code and our experience was limited, but we had incredible references to learn from, some coming from the city itself or from nearby landscapes or other remote places that had impacted our education as architects, and maybe you recognize here. But somehow the finished products that industry made available for us as architects to use in our buildings seemed to have lost their soul.

And so we decided to go to the nearby quarries to better understand the process that transforms a mountain into a perfectly square tile that you buy from a supplier. And we were taken by the monumental scale of the material and the actions to extract it. And looking carefully, we noticed hundreds of irregular blocks piling up everywhere. They are the leftovers of an extraction sequence: the ugly parts that nobody wants. But we wanted them. We were inspired. And it was a win-win situation where we could get this residual material of great quality, doomed to be crushed, at a very low cost.

Now, we had to convince our clients that this was a good idea; but foremost, we had to come up with a design process to reuse these randomly shaped rocks, and we had not done this before. Today everything would be much easier because we would go to the quarry with our smartphones equipped with 3-D scanners and we would document each rock, turn that into a digital model -- highly engineer the whole process. But more than a decade ago, we had to embrace uncertainty and put on our boots, roll up our sleeves and move to the quarry for a hands-on experience. And we also had to become the contractors because we failed at finding somebody willing to share the risk with us.

Now, luckily, we convinced the quarry team to help us build a few prototypes to resolve some of the technical details. And we agreed on a few mock-ups, but we got excited, and one stone led to another until we succeeded to build an 18-meter-long by eight-meter-high structure that recycled all the amorphous material of the quarry, just supported by gravity -- no mortar and no ties. And once built and tested, moving it to the final site in the city center to unite it with the rest of the building was a piece of cake, because by having isolated uncertainty and managed risk in the controlled environment of the quarry, we were able to complete the whole building in time and on budget, even if using nonconventional means and methods.

And I still get goosebumps when I see this big chunk of the industrial landscape in the city, in a building, experienced by the visitors and the neighbors. This building gave us quite a few headaches, and so it could have well been an exception in our work, but instead it started to inform a modus operandi where every project becomes this opportunity to test the limits of a discipline we believe has to be urgently reimagined.

So what you see here are four homes that we have designed, built and inhabited. Four manifestos where we are using the small scale to ask ourselves big questions. And we are trying to discover the architectures that result from unconventional applications of pretty mundane materials and technologies, like concrete in different forms in the top row, or steel and foam in the bottom row.

Take, for instance, these precast concrete beams. You have probably seen them building bridges, highways, water channels -- we found them on one of our visits to a precast concrete factory. And they might not seem especially homey or beautiful, but we decided to use them to build our first house. And this was an incredible moment because we got to be architects as always, builders once more and, for the first time, we could be our own clients. So, here we are trying to figure out how we can take these huge catalogue beams of about 20 tons each and stack them progressively around a courtyard space ... the heart of the house. And due to the dimensions and their material quality, these big parts are the structure that carry the loads to the ground, but they are much more than that. They are the swimming pool; they are the walls that divide interior from exterior; they are the windows that frame the views; they are the finishes; they are the very spirit of this house.

A house that is for us a laboratory where we are testing how we can use standard elements in nonstandard ways. And we are observing that the results are intriguing. And we are learning by doing that prefabrication can be much more than stacking boxes or that heavy parts can be airy and transparent. And on top of designing and building this house, we get invaluable feedback, sharing it with our family and our friends because this is our life and our work in progress.

The lessons that we learn here get translated into other projects and other programs and other scales as well, and they inspire new work. Here again we are looking at very standard products: galvanized steel studs that can be easily cut and screwed, insulating foams, cement boards -- all materials that you can find hidden in partition walls and that we are exposing; and we are using them to build a very lightweight construction system that can be built almost by anyone. And we are doing it ourselves with our hands in our shop, and we are architects. We're not professional builders but we want to make sure it's possible. And it's so nice that Antón can move it with his hands and Javier can put it in a container, and we can ship it like you would ship your belongings if you were moving abroad ... which is what we did five years ago.

We moved our gravity center from Madrid and the house of the concrete beams to Brookline. And we found the ugly duckling of a very nice neighborhood: a one-story garage and the only thing we could afford. But it was OK because we wanted to transform it into a swan, installing on top our just-delivered kit of parts, once more becoming the scientists and the guinea pigs. So this is a house that uses some of the cheapest and most normal materials that you can find in the market that applies the ubiquitous four-by-eight modulation that governs the construction industry. And yet a different organization of the spaces and a different assembly of the parts is able to transform an economically built home into a luxurious space.

And now, we're dreaming and we're actively working with developers, with builders, with communities to try to make this a reality for many more homes and many more families. And you see, the world around us is an infinite source of inspiration if we are curious enough to see beneath the surface of things.

Now I'm going to take you to the other side of the moon: to the sublime landscape of Montana, where a few years ago we joined Cathy and Peter Halstead to imagine Tippet Rise Art Center on a 10,000-acre working ranch. And when we first visited the site, we realized that all we knew about what an art center is was absolutely pointless for that client, for that community, for that landscape. The kind of white-box museum type had no fit here. So we decided to explode the center into a constellation of fragments, of spaces spread across the vast territory that would immerse the visitors into the wilderness of this amazing place.

So back in the office, we are thinking through making, using the land both as support and as material, learning from its geological processes of sedimentation, erosion, fragmentation, crystallization -- explosion -- to discover architectures that are born from the land, that are visceral extensions of the landscape, like this bridge that crosses Murphy Canyon. Or this fountain. Like this space topping a hill ... or this theatre that brings to us the space of the mountains and its sound.

And in order to realize this idea, construction cannot be perfectly planned. We need to embrace the drastic weather and the local craft. We need to control just those aspects that are critical, like the structural, the thermal, the acoustical properties embedded in the form.

But otherwise, improvisation is welcome and is provoked. And the moment of construction is still a moment of design and a moment of celebration where different hands, hearts, minds come together to perform a final dance. And the result then cannot be anticipated. It comes as a surprise. And we unwrap architecture like you would unwrap a birthday gift. Architecture isn't uncovered: it's discovered. It's extracted from the guts of the earth to build a shelter, one of the most basic human needs.

Architecture, art, landscape, archaeology, geology -- all made one. And by using the resources at our disposal in radical ways, by making a space for experimentation, we are able to bring to light architectures that find the beauty latent in the raw and imperfect things that surround us, that elevate them and let them speak their own language. Thank you.


Débora Mesa Molina ​makes space for experimentation in a highly regulated profession. She's committed to sharing ideas and cultivating synergies between professional and academic worlds through teaching, lecturing and researching. Since 2018, she has served as Ventulett Chair in Architectural Design at Georgia Tech, and previously served as research scientist at MIT where she cofounded the POPlab in 2012. Above all, she is a doer, committed to making poetic ideas happen.