Architect David Chipperfield: ‘We used to know what progress was. Now we’re not so sure’

<span>David Chipperfield in Galicia: ‘The towns here have been modernised in the most horrible, brutal manner.’</span><span>Photograph: Adrian Capelo/Fundación RIA</span>
David Chipperfield in Galicia: ‘The towns here have been modernised in the most horrible, brutal manner.’Photograph: Adrian Capelo/Fundación RIA

“We find ourselves doing workshops on seaweed growth,” says David Chipperfield, the much-honoured and acclaimed British architect, and “there are moments when you’re thinking: ‘Remind me, what has this got to do with architecture? What am I doing here?’” This unlikeliness, though, is part of the point of Fundación RIA, the seven-year-old organisation that Chipperfield set up in the north-western Spanish region of Galicia, which aims to help revive its towns and villages, often depopulated and fractured by poor planning decisions. The endeavour involves environmental and economic issues as well as design, hence the excursions into marine biology.

It is a case of thinking global and acting local. Fundación RIA (which is named after the rias or inlets of the Galician coast) proceeds by consultation, talking to local people and businesses, to politicians and officials at various levels of government, and using contacts built up by Chipperfield’s international practice. “You find yourself at a meeting with old people on Tuesday nights,” he says, “talking about speed limits.” At other times they bring in experts from the London School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the technologically advanced Swiss timber company Blumer-Lehmann. Next month the foundation will open Casa RIA, a converted sanatorium in Santiago de Compostela, where spaces for exhibitions and discussions are intended to create “a place of exchange and application of knowledge”.

Modification of a governance system is just as interesting as building a tower in Shanghai

Chipperfield is best known for strong-minded, well-made cultural buildings, often with big budgets, which translate civic ambition into memorable physical form – the reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin, an extension to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens currently in its early stages, the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and the Turner Contemporary in Margate. The work in Galicia can hardly be seen at all – its most significant construction to date is what he deprecatingly calls “a long stone bench” in the town of Palmeira – but is more about the underlying causes of the success or failure of a place. “Architects are always looking to measure results in the visible,” says Chipperfield, “but modification of a governance system is just as interesting as building a tower in Shanghai, if not more so.”

Chipperfield’s connection with Galicia goes back to the 1990s, when he designed and built a holiday house for himself and his family on the seafront of a modest fishing town called Corrubedo. It’s not Tuscany or the French Riviera or St Moritz, places where successful architects more often make their retreats. “We wanted to find normality,” says Chipperfield. “It’s enjoyable to be in a place where things are what they are.” He spends his summers there, brings people from his office over to work on projects, and his family reopened a bar in the town in 2020.

“Seven or eight years ago,” he says, the then president of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, asked Chipperfield if he could help the region improve its planning. “The nature is spectacular and the towns are amazing in their essence,” says the architect, “but they mess them up. They are modernised in the most horrible, brutal manner.” Old high streets have been made into fast highways, making what were the centres of communities’ lives into barriers that divide them in half. Industrial facilities for fishing cut towns off from the sea. Unplanned new housing is built, while half the old buildings are left empty.

So Chipperfield set up a “little research group”, which became the Fundación RIA, staffed largely by architects from Galicia. It practises what he calls “territorial planning” – looking at traffic, employment, ecology and the reasons why young people move away. The foundation considers such things as the dominance of eucalyptus in local forests, an imported species grown for wood pulp, or how to make the most of Galicia’s little-known successes, such as a leather business that supplies some of the best-known fashion brands in the world.

The foundation’s projects include a proposal to instal a new network of buses in a set of towns along a busy road, while also remaking their centres, so that they can be brought back to life. It organises design competitions for (for example) remaking the headquarters of a forestry research centre in an old aristocratic palace. It helps communities access funding from the EU and other sources to improve their environments. Its most tangible achievement so far was in Palmeira, where waterfront parking lots were removed – the “cars had the best views” – so that the town could be “reconnected” to the ocean. That long stone bench along the sea wall helped to create a convivial public space. “It made us very happy,” says Chipperfield, “because the fishing organisation was happy, the bars were happy, the mayor was happy.”

A strength of Galicia, Chipperfield believes, is the extent to which technocratic versions of modernity have passed it by. “When we were growing up, we sort of knew what progress was. It was silver and shiny. Now we’re not so sure.” Galicia, with an economy based on fish and forests, on small enterprises and specialised skills, where 22% of the land is held in common, with a strong interest in managing its resources sustainably, has the chance to pursue a different kind of progress.

It remains to be seen what and how much Fundación RIA will achieve, but Chipperfield says he is relaxed about where exactly it will go. He’s pleased to be using his status as an internationally acclaimed architect, reputationally and financially well placed, to put issues of sustainable planning “on the table”. “What else am I going to do at this point in my life?” asks the 70-year-old architect.

“The best solution to an architectural problem may not necessarily be a building,” said the great thinker and architect Cedric Price. It’s a line that others in the profession are fond of quoting, before going ahead and designing buildings anyway. Chipperfield, and his colleagues in the foundation, might just have found a way of putting Price’s statement into practice.