The history of Ensamble was assembled in a video which Antón and Débora narrated poetically and charmingly at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London in the fall of 2019, where they received the Charles Jencks Award. This film is on our website. Below is a more old-fashioned telling of their story.
Antón García-Abril and his wife Débora Mesa Molina had a friend who owned a quarry, and who had a lot of giant slabs of rock he couldn’t sell. He said they could have them if they paid to cart them away. Each one was twenty to thirty feet high and weighed tons. This was to be a theme for Antón and Débora. Found objects that are too heavy and made of rock.
So they managed to get them to the site of the headquarters they were building for the Society of Authors and Publishers in Santiago di Compostelo in 2007. Here they stacked them in front of the building, creating an immense loggia which effectively repurposed Stonehenge. Treating these styles like children’s building blocks not only de-formalizes them and personalizes them, but makes them fun. Another theme for Antón and Débora.
In 2002 they had built on the same campus the Musical Studies Centre, a megalith, a Kaaba or mikrab, a stone square similar to the Sikh Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amristar, India, or the Mayan Temple in Tikal, Guatemala, or Nalandar in Bihar Sharif. Or the Mundeshwari Devi Temple in Bihar. The Badami Cave Temple at Karnataka. The Templem of Yeha in Tigray.
In 2008 they built their father a house in Madrid, the Hemeroscopium, that uses giant girders cantilevered beyond the house to hold a swimming pool, and to balance the house in the landscape. Glass walls bring everyday living outside. Since that time, progressive architects have used the same concepts; but it was Antón and Débora who began it.
They brought the same cantilevered girders, called Balancing Act, to the Venice Biennale in 2010, where their company, Ensemble Studios, represented Spain.
On the pristine Cosa da Morte in Spain they built an architected rock which they called the Truffle, out of concrete poured into a hole with a tasty hay filling where the chocolate would go. They then removed the earth, similar to the lost wax process, and sliced off the ends of the exposed concrete egg to make a door and a window, creating a concrete cabin with a view through the pines of the limestone cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean. As they write, “The earth and the concrete exchanged their properties.” They quarried their house.
They invited the calf Paulina to eat the hay for a year, and then exchanged the hole in the earth for a beautifully corrugated stone living room. Rather than a house, they built a hollow rock, a cave, whose inside they replicated eight years later with the 2018 quarry intervention on Menorca.
Their underground modernist poured concrete salon was a hidden Mastaba, an ancient underground sanctuary older than the pyramids, similar to the dolmen and stone forts of the Celts, the Norse, the Scots. The fact that the Truffle was made in collaboration with a cow smoothes the edge of that rigid pagan architecture, with the lyric and bemused smile of one of Goya’s maja, or of Manet’s odalisque.
The Spanish eat at midnight in stone gardens hung with grapes, lush with fish and wine and irrepressible exhilaration. The smallest brocade draped over a rafter or shipwreck treasure set on a driftwood ledge is a detail in a Velasquez. The Spanish live in paintings, in the Alhambra, in a Catalan song by Granados or an Andalusian serenade by de Falla. It is always night in a garden in Spain.
Ensamble Studio, Antón, Débora, Javier, and their friends, all have that sense of revelry, of song, of an Albeniz tango, the terra cotta of Madrid, the wild brush of Menorca, the Talaiotic ruins of the Balearics, the Catalan hills of Carmen, the wit of Dalí and El Greco.
Their first proposal to us was a gorgeous film of a staff of music with square notes of Gregorian chant. The lines of the staff became floors, the notes became windows, and the architecture of the music unfroze into a girder-like art center, cantilevered out over a gully, roof terraces surveying th Beartooth Mountains. The music was the last great string Quartet of Beethoven, the Grosse Fuge, which most people find incomprehensible, still too much in the future for lovers even of the iconoclastic Beethoven. But for Antón, raised as the son of the great Catalan composer, Antón Garcia Abril, whose name he bears, the Grosse Fuge built its structure from its beginnings as a building morphs out of a line of music. It was a brilliant self-reflective Strange Loop, like Escher’s Drawing Hands, where hands each other. Douglas Hofstadter compares Escher’s Waterfall, which descends while ascending, to the endlessly rising loop of the Canon per Tonos in Bach’s Musical Offering. It was that existential confusion with which Ensamble was punning in their presentation to us. Antón narrated spontaneously and poetically. It was obvious that we were in the presence of a deep culture which understood visually, sonically, and architecturally all the elements which we wanted to combine at Tippet Rise. We had found our architects.
They made as well an extraordinary video called PIANO, a new proposal for an art center building.
There was the video for the Structures of Landscape, 34 tiny whimsical clay models which were surrogates for their genuine and enormous metamorphoses, six of which we built.
There was Domo, a thousand-ton dolmen, a burial cave, which now, dug out from the earth, provides caves similar to Ca'n Terra where we hold concerts on summer mornings. Arup helped design the rough ceilings and walls so the sound of music inside the Domo is broadcast accurately over the hills for five hundred feet or so.
Ensamble created a hill with hundreds of truckloads of soil which entailed a daily procession of trailer trucks for two months to the site, which was miles up into the hills on a dirt road which we improved.
They then dug three pits in the hill, lined them with plastic tarps, filled them with rebars, and refilled them with cement, grass, and dirt.
When the cement dried after two wintry months, they eliminated the dirt around the concrete holes with several bulldozers, and pulled the plastic away from the cement. What remained was the cement structure of the three caves. The plastic sheathing gave it striations, almost Nasca lines embedded in the cement.
They tinted the cement slightly, so the Domo had an earthen color. Soil and grass covered its top, so after the summer there was a field on top where we filmed a concert with the Ariel Quartet, well named, although they didn’t fly up to the rooftop, they used ladders.
The two Portals used the opposite technique.
Two large holes were dug, shaped like butterfly wings, were dug in the earth, thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet deep. The holes were again lined with polyurethane plastic tarps and filled with rebar (long thin iron rods which give the structure strength). Concrete and earth was poured over the rebars and into the holes. Giant eyelets were placed on the rebars so they would eventually protrude from the concrete.
After the cement solidified two months later, four giant cranes pulled up the two wings and leaned them against each other. They didn’t nestle cozily as you might imagine, but wanted to slide back to the ground.
But after a week of finding the point of balance, bolts were driven through the cement and the tops anchored together. Cement was poured around their bases, so they had a foundation in the earth, which was then hidden under soil. Although they seemed to lean precariously on each other, they were in fact very permanently secured.
The Beartooth Portal had both wings cupped together. Inverted Portal had the wings inverted, back to back, so the smooth side where the polyurethane had been ripped away was on the inside.
Folds in the plastic sheet had been planned before construction, using the “baby portals,” three to nine feet tall, which have a small standing stone group farther up in the hills.
These folds resemble the folds in the cloak of a Bernini Madonna sculpture. So on one side you have Renaissance sculpture, and on the other a raw, unsmoothed surface of earth, grass, bolts, and jagged concrete.
Rabbits like to nestle in the shade under the giant twenty-seven-foot stones, which themselves also provide a resonant environment for a flute or violin solo.
Behind the Portals are the Beartooth Mountains, looming like the Mountains of the Moon, or Mount Doom in The Return of the King, jagged, Carpathian spires and hidden snowfields in high valleys with names like Froze to Death Plateau and Hellroaring Plateau. By horseback, you can ride to Yellowstone and on to Jackson Hole in a week, along trails hanging above cascading streams in steep gorges.
The Portals to us are like the secret wardrobe entrance to Narnia, or the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, the mirrors in Through the Looking Glass and in Cocteau’s Orpheus. They are the entrance to the distorted funhouse mirrors that art holds up to nature. They frame the mountains in its same igneous rock.
The Beartooths are the edge of the giant caldera of Yellowstone, formed by volcanic pressure pushing the underworld up to the skies. They protect our quadrant from seismic tremblors. The Gallatin Valley is susceptible to earthquakes, but our region is insulated from the underground people, H. G. Well’s Morlocks, by what I like to think are H. P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, a high-walled sanctuary inside which lie the Deep Ones and the dread Cthulhu. Or at least the fumaroles, caldera, and thermal geysers of Yellowstone. Our modern geologic form of hell, now a tourist attraction. Hell has become a water feature.
The Beartooths are named for the thousand jagged spires pushed through the sides of the mountains, so they appear like porcupines or Stegosauruses. The spikes are shale plates pushed together and up like Namaste hands by tectonic pressure, the outside rim of the earth’s shell pushed up like fins from below ground. The road to the Red Lodge ski mountain runs through these monstrous needles, which continue on along the east slope of the Beartooths from Red Lodge to the Absarokas, where the range makes a turn to the east.
The million acres of the Beartooth Wilderness and the million acres of the Absaroka-Gallatin National Forest join with the three million acres of Yellowstone and the twenty million acres of the general Yellowstone ecosystem to create the highest mountain sanctuary south of the Purcells, the Selkirks, the Monashees, and the Bugaboos in British Columbia.
The local name for these seismic spires is Palisades, although in New York State a palisade is a basaltic dike revealed by erosion, such as the west bank of the Hudson River.
There are undoubtedly dinosaurs buried in the Hellroaring formation of the drumlins at Tippet Rise; their teeth are scattered over the fossilized fields of our highest ridges.
So the ghosts of prehistoric Kraken haunt the glacial folds of the slanted rises below the Beartooths, and Ensamble’s sculpture pay homage to them. The Portals are palisades, mirrors of the mountains through which Orcs, Uruks, Star spawn, and shoggoths could be expected to teem in the novels of Tolkien, Wells, and C.S. Lewis.
But they are childhood windows into a more ringing Theed, the empyrean riddles of Mark di Suvero and Ensamble themselves, floating on the amber fields of the Industrial Revolution. They are doors to the Kaibab limestone gargoyles of Midnight Canyon, to the harras of feral horses which runs wild through the unvisited mountain meadows, to the wilderness which begins at di Suvero’s sculptures and runs west into Idaho and north into Canada, unhindered by roads or towns.
Ensamble’s most recent innovation, Ca'n terra, turning a buried quarry in Menorca into an art studio, a restaurant, a hotel, a house, all together, has that same Escher morphing of paleontology into multiple identities. It is the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad, the Mastaba, the toguna, the Hemeroscopium which they built for Anton’s father, the house where the sun sets, where the linear girder becomes a swimming pool, a horizon, a gravity-free cantilever and trebuchet, a catapult, a seesaw which launches its visitors into space (but only metaphorically).
It is the same root as the Truffle, as Ca'n Terra, as the Stonehenge loggia they built for the headquarters of Artists and Editors in Santiago di Compostelo. Offered giant stones for free (by again, a quarry) if they could take them away, Ensamble hired massive forklifts and earthmovers to drag the immense pillars, too heavy for construction gear, into place as a portal, a portico, a door into literature, giant slabs slanted like lintels across the tops of the styles.
They have always referenced the standing stones of Stenness, the megalithic, the preternatural, the rocks which stand in for theodolites and compasses in measuring the cosmos, the geology which inherently understands the stars because it is made from them. It was this comfort with the Broch of Gurness, with primitive astronomical tools, metaphors of the skies, which we felt could connect the rolling drumlins of the Hellroaring Formation on Tippet Rise with the storm cells, the immense roiling clouds and starfields of the primitive landscape which contained so much of the sky, which linked to prehistory and launched us into the night in the Planetarium snow globe we had fallen in love with. We knew they could release the secrets in the Cretaceous hills. Antón and Débora are changing the concept of architecture, returning it to the Arcadia of neolithic society.
Many years ago, we visited an exhibition called Living at the Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen. Architects imagined how we would live in the distant future. There were tree house cities, underground worlds, space stations. In bringing modern architecture into the Stone Age and the age of the pyramids, and coupling it with advances in construction technology, Ensamble lead us into our imaginations. They prepare us for the future through the past.