Friday, June 10, 2016

Javier Robles

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


When we asked architect Javier Robles if he had moments of self doubt, he shrugged and said, “Not really.” It basically turns out that he’s too busy for such moments. He travels constantly, combining his deep interest in the vernacular architecture of Peru, his home country, and working on any number of high-end projects elsewhere in the world. As an architecture student, he became interested in the subject of local identity and vernacular architecture, in particular mud brick structures and other forms of local Peruvian craftsmanship. He wrote his thesis on the ambitious idea of creating a green zone, the “Zona de Frontera”, around the perimeter of the enormous, ancient mud brick Chimu city of Chan Chan in order to prevent the site from being swallowed by the spreading city of Trujillo in which it is situated. He then went on to design the beautiful modernist-vernacular visitors center at the site and is currently still trying to move the “Zona de Frontera” of Chan Chan from an idea into a reality.

I guess our starting point is your really interesting background. You grew up in Peru and studied in Brazil and now you’re here.  After you qualified, you returned to Peru to help develop projects based on the region’s vernacular architecture. Why did you do that?

At the beginning of my career I got very interested in my identity—I moved to Brazil when I was seventeen and at that point I realized that I’m a foreign person, although Brazilians are very, very welcoming. I felt I had to reconnect to my roots. Back in the 1990s there was a lot of disconnection with what it meant to be mixed-race, especially among the elite. They all want to be white; they want to be Europeans. Through architecture, I started to define myself—and my sexual identity came into it as well.
Peeking into the living room from the front hall. The pumpkin-colored wool runner is from a village in Southwest Egypt.
Hanging between the living room windows is an architectural model of the visitors' center for the ancient site of Chan Chan, an enormous city built in the 9th and 10th centuries in Peru. Javier wrote his architecture thesis on the site.
Reflections of the living room from a large wall mirror. The console is a prototype designed by Javier in the late 1990s.
A painting by British artist John O'Carroll "Inner Space" hangs above a steel-and-stone prototype table for Lumifer, Javier's furniture design company.
A Mayan mask, and other favorite books and objects are arranged next to "Switch" desk lamp designed by Javier.
Stacks of art and design books, favorite objects and a wooden sculpture designed by Javier while attending architecture school, fill a coffee table by Piero Lissoni for Cassina. The rug is by Ruckstuhl.
Looking across at a Le Corbusier's "Pony LC4" chaise longue towards a credenza designed by Javier out of white lacquer with a stainless steel frame and acrylic panels. Atop of the credenza is a "Global" light by Flos.
Stereo equipment and art books fill some of Javier's credenza.
Hand blown glass from South America and ceramic vessels from Egypt fill a corner of the living room.
A round polished steel table from B&B Italia stands next to an "OBI" ottoman table designed by Javier for Lumifer.
So how did you begin to do that?

I went back to my home town, which is in the desert and it’s a colonial town. It’s called Trujillo on the north coast. It was established in 1532 [as part of Pizarro’s route.] I started research on archeological sites and when I started my thesis, I took as a site for my thesis, a site called Chan Chan, which was the largest mud brick city in the world, built from the 9th to the 10th century.

Why was such a big city built there at that time?

Because it was the center of the Chimu culture. It was there before the Incas and then it was [incorporated into] the Inca empire—they conquered it. I got deep into it for my thesis and I decided to create a park [there] and the theme of the park was “identity”.

Can you describe the park?

The project is now back to life and I’m working with the Ministry of Culture in Peru. The idea is to create a green ring [“Zona de Frontera”] along the perimeter of the archeological site to protect it from the [current] city that is growing and growing. It will [involve] a re-interpretation of some ancient cultural techniques and landscaping, but with a modern touch. It will incorporate some of the modern city and the old city.
A large geometric painting by Brooklyn artist Stuart Shedletsky dominates the far wall of the living room.
The iconic "Arco" floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni hovers over the living room seating area.
Vintage "LC2" Le Corbusier gray leather chairs are topped with woven pillows from Turkey. Javier purchased the chairs from the old Air France VIP lounge in the Dallas airport.
Is it going to become a trendy cause, like the Highline?

It goes in that kind of direction. It’s a project that will take a long time. But it’s all about politics as well. When I go I’m always pushing and pushing. One of my first projects was also in Chan Chan—I did the Chan Chan visitors center, which was a mud brick project. Then I came to Columbia [University] in New York and when I tried to show my work to my professors, they were not interested.

Why not?

Because at that time, in the late 90s, everyone was thinking technology and globalization and I was into local identity.

Are there real distinctions between say mud brick buildings in Peru and mud brick building in other parts of the world?

There are slight changes in the techniques – China has a lot of mud brick building for example.
A "Sampa" LED wall sconce designed by Javier illuminates a corner of the living room. Vintage leather suitcases are tucked under Javier's custom stone and steel table.
Ink drawings of plans as well as drawings from Javier's architectural thesis, hang above the passage through to the kitchen. Mirrored tiles give character to the counter area.
Monochromatic artwork, including a watercolor by Zheng Lianjie hangs above a glass-and-steel desk from CB2. The "Spider" floor lamp is by Joe Columbo for Oluce. The black "Tolomeo" lamp is by Artemide and desk chair is from MDF Italia.
The kitchen refrigerator.
Protein shakes and buff Brazilian dolls share space with the British flag and a collection of paintbrushes.
Making reference to Warhol's Factory space, Javier covered the walls of his kitchen in tin foil. A framed vintage Air France menu from the now defunct Concorde reflects Javier's passion for airplanes.
A space-saving wine rack is tucked into a corner of the compact kitchen.
A baby photo of Javier with his mother.
A group of contemporary photographs and abstract paintings, including "Cerillos" by Stuart Shedletsky lines the front hallway.
How would you describe the beauty of mud brick architecture? It’s such a humble material.

It’s the beauty of the natural material and how responsive it is to the natural environment. Also, it has been used in a very sophisticated way in colonial times. The rich families all had beautiful mud brick houses. And of course it’s very eco-friendly, although today it is actually very expensive to build using mud brick  because the technique is gone. Everyone wants to build with “made-in-China” windows and so on. Every time I do a mud brick project, it’s with the government.

It’s kind of an irony, isn’t it, that the humble building material has now become an expensive, prestigious way to build.

Yes, that brings me to what I would like to do next, which is to create a school to promote craftsmanship in Peru because it’s been lost, whether it’s cane or mud brick or [working] with wood.

I always think of Peru as having a lot of colonial architecture, is that correct?

It is. Peru was very rich up until the 1940s and then it went into disarray. Only in the last ten years there’s been like, a discovery in the culture and that’s with the food. The food became a link back to the culture. When I grew up, no one wanted to know about Peruvian food, they all wanted European food. But today there is this love for it and they’re very proud of the food. It’s kind of that that has helped re-build the culture.
A bronze wall sconce, "Navis" from Lumifer, and a light sculpture, also by Javier, illuminates the front entryway.
Model airplanes bought during travels, are arranged atop a bookcase that also serves as a wall divider between the sleeping alcove and the front hall. Behind the divider, a mirrored disco ball hangs over the sleeping area.
A Rubik's cube, more photos and books fill the Ikea room divider/bookcase.
Javier, blowing out the candles at his first birthday party.
"Untitled, 2/16" by Brooklyn artist Stuart Shedletsky hangs on a wall in the front hallway. An abstract work by John O'Carroll was a gift from the artist to welcome Javier back to New York in 2002.
Peeking into the sleeping alcove.
The bedroom alcove, in tones of gray, silver and black, is outfitted with a "Min" bed by Luciano Bertoncini for WDR. The night table was originally a filing cabinet from MDF. The light sculpture on the right is a prototype for a new LED light by Javier.
The silver-plated artwork above the bed is a representation of Peruvian Chimu-culture witchcraft.
So why are you in New York?

When I was five my grandfather came here and he brought back these postcards. I saw all the buildings and was very into crafts, so I built a model of 5th Avenue when I was seven years old …

So how do you incorporate the work in Peru with your work in New York?

In New York I do mainly high-end interiors and in that sense it’s very disconnected … but I’m a very hyper person. And I have a lot of experience. I’ve been working here for almost fifteen years. I bring to the table a kind of “foreign” eye.
Shimmering blue monarch butterflies are placed on a bathroom shelf.
The bathroom walls are painted in a deep glossy turquoise blue and the space is filled with mirrors and a collection of objects from Asia and Brazil.
Sea shells and condoms are placed humorously in a glass orchid vase.
You definitely do because I saw one of your designs was an ashtray. An American would not design an ashtray.

[Laughs] I think the main thing is that the profession is very dominated by white people, well, white men … so, I don’t know.

I’m just looking around and you have a lot of books about sex on the shelves … do you have a lot of sex or do you mainly read about it … or maybe both?

[Laughs] I do read about it a lot.