Crystal Talk
Text: Jeanette KunsmannPhotos: Hainsley Brown, Cristobal Palma, diephotodesigner


Profil Rashid
Guggenheim Virtual Museum

There are probably not many architecture studios that attracted as much attention with their first projects as Plasma Studio. One could almost say their spectacular designs not only promote a totally new sense of spatial perception, but that their architecture turns all convention upside down – an infinite architectural experiment.

In 1999 – nearly ten years ago –Eva Castro and Holger Kehne founded Plasma Studio together. Like many architects in London they work in the East End, hardly half an hour from the West End. They conduct their architectural experiments on the fifth floor of a gray 1960s industrial building at the end of an access balcony, alongside other artists’ ateliers, graphic art agencies and store rooms. From here you can see the joggers on Regent’s Canal and the office towers of the London skyline.

The short definition of plasma on their website sounds like a challenge: In physics the Plasma State, or fourth state of matter, describes a unique condition of matter arising at a complex overlay of external forces. Plasma, a charged field of particles, conducts energy. And Eva Castro, Holger Kehne and Ulla Hell have got lots of that.

And together the three of them have a lot to offer: Eva Castro, who studied in Venezuela and in London, Holger Kehne, who studied in Münster, Germany and London and Ulla Hell, who studied in Innsbruck, Delft and Eindhoven, and who now works in northern Italy, whereas, having graduated, the other two stayed in London, where they now also both teach at the AA.

Following several minor projects in London, refurbishment of apartments, an office, and a shop, and a series of experimental residential buildings in northern Italy, Plasma Studio have become known primarily for their flowing spaces, extreme geometry and sharp angles. Their contribution to the Puerta America design hotel in Madrid could be described as their international breakthrough; after all they had to hold their own against architects and designers such as Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Arata Isozaki, John Pawson and Zaha Hadid.

Strata Hotel

Their spectacular design of the corridor and the individual rooms on the fourth floor demonstrates that they had no problem in doing so: Non-sealed floor surfaces, the corridor, room walls and the ceilings develop differentiated geometric folds, thereby creating a totally new spatial sensation. After all, hotels in particular are well known for linear repetition and stereotype rooms. When the hotel opened in 2005 the rooms Plasma Studio designed were on every front page, and the architects won prizes and awards. Contrary to expectations, however, there were no follow-up contracts for hotels, bars, and clubs, though Hotel Puerta America made the Plasma Studio brand famous in the international arena.

Back in northern Italy, though, through Ulla Hell they had an opportunity to continue their series of buildings. Ultimately she was the one, on account of her close contacts locally and with developers, who made these projects possible at all. 2006 saw the completion of the Esker House (in Innichen), and 2007 the D Cube House (in Sexten) and the Tetris House (also in Innichen), all small residential buildings, which on the one hand in terms of shape were in contrast to traditional structures and on the other through the choice of the same local material and flowing rooms blend in with the surroundings. The Strata Hotel (in Sexten), a landmark on the slopes of the Dolomites, was only completed this year. A stand-alone, which reveals how a material as traditional as wood can become the dominant architectural characteristic of a contemporary building, wrote AIT in June 2008. What are peculiar to the hotel are the horizontal layers, which in turn are taken up by the wood lamella texture of the facade. Nonetheless Ulla Hell, the daughter-in-law of the developer, doubtless needed strong powers of persuasion to get the owner of the 4-star hotel to agree to the experimental architecture of Plasma Studio.

So Plasma Studio’s work takes place between London and northern Italy. Both offices influence each other and benefit from one another. Their London location has also landed them contracts outside Europe: They are currently working on a master plan for Longgang in China, an area covering nine million square meters. In Oman they are building various, highly individually styled villas, and for a region in the Gulf they have designed two different types of Arab residential buildings, which can be built using local materials.

Shifting one’s glance from their architecture to their studio in London, the latter initially seems very modest: An almost 50-square meter, open-plan room boasting six desks, a few book shelves and a folded-up table tennis table (the bats are more hidden from view at the bottom of one of the shelving units). On the window sills there are stacks of small models, and the toilet is outside in the corridor. The walls are straight, the ceiling low, and the corners right angles: All in all one could describe the office as an experimental architecture chest. This is where we met Eva Castro and Holger Kehne, to talk to them about their architecture, the toing and froing between London and northern Italy and a critical architects’ scene…

Puerta America