According to the four designers behind Barcelona-based MAIO Studio, a completed project isn’t necessarily done: “There’s always something unfinished that demands someone else take over,” says Anna Puigjaner, one of the founders. “It’s about designing up until a certain moment to engage the user.”
Puigjaner and her colleagues Maria Charneco, Alfredo Lérida, and Guillermo López established the firm in 2005 and have since relocated to a linear, one-story building in Barcelona’s Gracia district. (MAIO renovated the building—formerly a laundry and later a metalworking shop—to create a multidisciplinary coworking space.) From a 40-foot-long worktable, the team designs buildings, public spaces, exhibitions, interiors, and furniture.
This past May, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design awarded Puigjaner the 2016 Wheelwright Prize, a $100,000 travel fellowship. Her winning proposal, Kitchenless City: Architectural Systems for Social Welfare, investigates different approaches to distributing domestic spaces like kitchens, dining rooms, and lounges in multifamily residential buildings.
Puigjaner’s proposal reflects the firm’s interest in flexible spaces, which they explore in their largest and most recent project, a five-story residential building in Barcelona, slated to finish construction this month. “The market, the concept of family, the need for housing in Barcelona—they’re all changing so fast,” says Puigjaner. “The client wanted a design he could adapt over time, depending on demand.” MAIO delivered a scheme for a 30,000-square-foot building. Currently divided into 22 units, the flexible 110-room building could be reconfigured into as few as seven or as many as 40 dwellings.
“What defines a space is what you put inside it,” says Charneco, neatly summing up one of the firm’s guiding principles while explaining how the apartments are designed to allow the user to determine the program. “If you put a bed in one of the rooms, it’s a bedroom.”
The studio has taken this conceptual position in many past projects and exhibitions. In 2014, MAIO and Brooklyn-based Fake Industries Architectural Agonism collaborated on Rooms: No Vacancy, a finalist in the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program, which proposed a series of small spaces. “Parties are about corners, corridors, rooms—spaces that allow you to hide yourself, meet certain people and not others, open and close doors,” says Puigjaner. “We wanted to transform the PS1 space into small individual parties.” Similarly, for the exhibition Species of Spaces at Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), which ran from July 2015 through this April, MAIO created a display system for a circular gallery organized by a grid of small, square rooms painted in a range of pinks. “We defined a set of equal rooms that changed atmosphere depending on the works of art inside,” says Puigjaner.
Bar Nou, an interiors project the firm completed in January 2015, also illustrates MAIO’s interest in repetitive structures. Here the team created a replicable and recognizable visual brand for the Catalan restaurant. “When we design spatial systems, we always make rules that can be repeated in other contexts,” says Puigjaner. “In the case of Bar Nou, the client’s aim was to open other venues around the city.” Through the addition of a vaulted wood ceiling and custom lighting fixtures, tables, and chairs, the architects created a striking and distinct interior.
This summer, the studio is taking part in concurrent exhibitions on different continents. For Sharing Models: Manhattanisms, which opened in mid-July at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, MAIO examines how the sharing economy will affect the Uptown Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights in the future. And just two weeks later, at the end of July, they reunited with Fake Industries for Occupied at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University’s Design Hub in Australia, bringing to life a room from their 2014 proposal for MoMA PS1. The multitalented firm was also selected to design the party for the show’s opening. Says Puigjaner, “Now we’re architects and party planners!”