Islands, desert, mountain. Degree zero architecture | Josep Lluís Mateo

The fascination caused by distant places, in the limit of human existence, places where it might be better to spend than to stay, or where to stay always go along with a vague sense of threat (condition, from romanticism, at the base of the aesthetic experience).

The island as a closed, finite place, with endemism as a possibility. The island as the place of the omnipresent horizontal boundary.

The desert, on the contrary, appears without limits: indefinite and infinite. It can only be populated from the movement, nomadism is a necessary condition of survival.

The mountain as vertical limit experience; as an attempt to fly, the Icarus syndrome with its possible end.

In these cases the refuge reaches its original expression.

The architecture-this prosthesis sometimes necessary for survival-is presented in its initial condition. As degree zero.



“Dreaming of islands, whether with anguish or with joy, is to dream of separating, of being separated, beyond the continents, of dreaming of being alone and lost, or of dreaming that you return to the beginning, that you start over, that is recreated. […] The island is also the origin, the radical and absolute origin”.

Gilles Deleuze in “Causes and reasons of the desert islands”.1

Islands, finite spaces, closed: the limit as a condition and presence, as a unifying moment. Small worlds eventually expanded by its repetition: the archipelago, sometimes architectural metaphor.

Two themes traditionally pose the islands:

One, the priority of nature as an argument. On the continuous horizon of the sea the figure unfolds with all the rhetoric of the landscape: mountains, rocks, trees, vegetation … these will be the materials that build the image.

Two, the human presence in its construction activity, until recently limited by the possibilities (few) and the impossibilities (large). Examples of cunning and symbiosis with the environment.

Versions of the vernacular. In the past.

Now we must add the transformation produced by tourism and modernity. Cosmopolitanism versus endemism.



“In a landscape where officially nothing exists (otherwise it would not be “desert”) absolutely everything becomes thinkable and, consequently, it can happen”.

Reyner Banham in Scenes in America Deserta 2

Putting the desert in relation to architecture is to imagine, in front of the object, its antagonist, the zero degree of exterior: infinite, extreme, mobile, immeasurable..

It also means remembering what architecture has of protection, of interior, of opposition to nature.

Also that the architecture in its origins forced to use radically the available resources: a stick and some fabrics (that we can move, in the desert one passes, one is not), some found stones, a carved mud.

Starting our journey in TRANSFER, the desert was a good metaphor to begin to recognize ideas, places and necessary architectures.

Survival instruments.



The mountains as a separate place, special. Distant.

As an inhospitable and harsh place, where architecture insists on protection and isolation, one of the issues at the base of our activity.

Also the mountains, some mountain, in all cultures, had sacred conditions, direct contact with the divinity, the magic mountain. (I think of Montserrat, Tindaya, Wayna Pichu and many other places where architecture accompanies building ritual, sacramental spaces).

The mountain as another limit situation, as the final moment between land and air, in a certain symmetrical way to the island, interaction of land and water. The architectures that we find here intensely also live the relationship between tradition and the present, between endemism and cosmopolitanism.

The mountain as a topographical accident, as an inclination, where we must, obligatorily, introduce the plane, the horizontal surface. The tension between the ascending verticality of the earth, and the need to build the horizontal, our habitat.

Transfer has proposed a tour on extreme conditions of architecture: Desert, Island, Mountain. It is an extreme and, probably, essentialist idea. From here, we will move from the limits to the center, we will try to leave the margins to get closer to the core.

Propuesta de E. Chillida, para la intervención en Tindaya, la antigua montaña sagrada de los Guanches (primitivos habitantes) en la isla de Fuerteventura. Islas Canarias, Spain 1985.
Proposal by E. Chillida, for the intervention in Tindaya, the ancient sacred mountain of the Guanches (primitive inhabitants) on the island of Fuerteventura. Canary Islands, Spain 1985.

Josep Lluís Mateo. PhD architect
Barcelona, july 2018


1 Deleuze, Gilles. “Causes and reasons of the desert islands” in “L’île déserte et autres textes”, Ed. De Minuit 2002.

2 Banham, Reyner. Scenes in America Deserta. MIT Press; Edición: New edition.

Josep Lluís Mateo

Arquitecto (1974) y Doctor (1994) por la Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña. Catedrático emérito de Arquitectura y Diseño en el ETH de Zúrich. Dirige el estudio internacional Mateo Arquitectura.

Su obra es globalmente activa e intenta conectar la inteligencia y la ambición artística con el pragmatismo y la objetividad. Ha sido reconocida con diversos premios y menciones.

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