Questions For A Designer: Esteban de Backer
A diverse array of backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews come together to shape Marvel’s designs across public and private spaces. This series aims to offer insight on the colleagues and teammates that are essential to Marvel’s success.
What brought you to Marvel?
My first degree was in environmental sciences, back in Granada, then I studied architecture. While doing that I moved to Barcelona, then Madrid, to work at NO.MAD, and then from there I got a fellowship to do the AAD at Columbia GSAPP, which is an advanced architectural design program. While I was doing that I was a teaching assistant at Barnard Studio and working with Bernard Tschumi at Columbia. Since then I’ve been involved with the school. In 2015 I started looking for jobs in New York. My wife and I had initially planned to stay in New York for a couple years, but then we decided to stay a little bit longer. My transition to Marvel came through Guido’s wife, Irina, who I was teaching with at Barnard. My wife was also working for Rogers [Partners], and she heard good things about the Marvel office.
When did you know you wanted to become an architect?
During my time working in environmental sciences, I still had the idea in the back of my mind to design. My family doesn't have an architectural background, but I started talking to architects. All of them said “don’t do it, don’t go into architecture.” But, I decided to go into it and from the moment I started, I loved it. I had never stayed in the same place for very long, but I came into architecture with a more mature perspective, so I would talk to the older guys and it felt very natural in the moment. Since then, I have never regretted my decision.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work, I have three kids, and I do teach one semester a year, so there’s not a lot of free time. But I like running and try to do it very early in the morning, or whenever I can. We also go out of the city and hike.
How does teaching help inform your practice and how does your practice help inform your teaching?
When I started with Marvel I was already teaching, and it was something I wanted to keep doing for my own benefit. At the end of the day it’s impossible to separate the two. It’s very good that teachers and professors have practices because you bring some of that pragmatism to school. I think it is important for students to understand the reality of the job, so you try to create scenarios that might be helpful when you’re looking at the real world. I set up my syllabus so that might help me understand the possibilities and things you deal with on a daily basis.
Right now I’m teaching housing and trying to deal with the intermediate, common spaces, and how to bring that to be more of a common ground for the habitants. Of course there are regulations you have to comply with, but maybe there’s a way to create a more collective space and maybe there’s a way to create more amenities for social interaction. Maybe instead of amenities we can call them “for the collective.” That’s what I’m trying to do at the studio but it also really interests me when designing housing projects in the city. There are also things like climate change, which in school is a very hot topic. Marvel has been focused on climate change for a while, not even because of code, but because of the philosophy we’re trying to implement in the office. Really real aspects of the day to day go into theoretical aspects in school.
Can you give a brief overview of your project “The Un-expected, An Architecture of Efficiency?”
I was under a program called ARPA (Applied Research Practices in Architecture). It was research dealing with the architecture of efficiency. It was trying to look at efficiencies from many different points of view. Instead of thinking about it economically, in terms of maximizing resources by minimizing resources, or this more market oriented look at efficiency. So how can we look at efficiency from different points of view, to how we represent projects in the way we look at sustainability and holistic design? Not just LEED, but thinking about the entire approach in terms of sustainability. I started looking at how that could inform the way we design architecture. I think it relates to my more current interest in the degrowth theories that actually aim for societies that are not based on production and growth of GDP, but whether we can implement an architecture that doesn't go with the trend of profit and economic growth, but can be based on more human centric approach, growing the wellbeing of the inhabitants. We are at a moment where a lot of people are questioning that, and I am trying to figure out what is the architecture that aligns with that thinking. It has to do with materiality, the amount we build, recycling our cities more than destroying them. There are different ways to approach that.
How do you think we can effectively address climate change through architecture, landscape design, and urban design?
The office is currently trying to figure that out. The city is doing a good job in implementing things to change the mentality of creating new buildings. There are many clients that do want to make an impact in the way that they affect the world. Education and being conscious about the importance of the tasks at hand is critical. With younger generations in school, it’s easier because they’ve been the ones actually raising the question more clearly, pointing out the elephant in the room and really painting it pink, making it super visible for everyone. The generation that is educated right now is being educated on that sensibility and schools are really pushing to take those things into consideration and that is central in most of the studios and seminars. They are shifting in that sense. That end of the spectrum will come and hopefully the industry gets conscious of its own impact.
At some point we’re going to be questioning the availability of resources. The type of sand that is used to create concrete is more and more scarce. That is going to start shifting the materials that we use in construction and hopefully with that in mind we change that before we run out of resources and destroy everything. I think as architects and clients we need to start thinking about materials and construction techniques that go away from concrete, steel, plastic, and glass, the four that are the foundation of modern architecture. I think we should really be thinking a little bit more about that, and pushing more for regulations on wood construction. We as architects should push city regulations and voice our concerns in the right direction so things change to allow us to explore new territories.
What makes Marvel unique as a firm?
What makes Marvel special is the connection in the reality of New York, and the way we try to push engagement with the community. We do a lot of community engagement work and we seek out projects that are critical for the future development of the city. Projects like DDC-Bronx Animal Care. Marvel is special because it has the size of a larger firm, but we continue putting a priority on community engagement and creating work with connections to local organizations in all the boroughs in New York.
Where is your favorite building in the world?
My answer is going to be very sentimental. The first firm I worked for, NO.MAD Architects, designed the Sondica Day Care in Bilbao Spain. It’s a very humble project that deals with the idea of the independence of the kids versus the adults. The design of the daycare is created to enable a way for the kids to “escape” the controls of the adults. It has a nice duality of scales and ways of moving through space and the engagement with the environment. It shows that you can be an independent person, even if you’re two years old.
That project made me start loving architecture. Architecture should be something that allows people to behave with freedom and provide the opportunity for life to unfold without defining how you end up experiencing the space. That idea I still have with me when designing today.