Acclaimed architect-activist Enric Ruiz-Geli joins Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies
January 17, 2019
An architect world-renowned for designing evocative, environmentally and socially responsible buildings has joined Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
Well-known for conducting unconventional architectural projects as experimental living labs, Ruiz-Geli aims to perform a similar function as the college’s “Commissioner of Big, Sticky Projects.”
At Virginia Tech, he will help connect faculty and students with international partners on projects aimed at solving complex global challenges (commonly described as “wicked problems”), including climate change, socioeconomic inequality, population growth, technology integration, and sustainable transportation and infrastructure.
“We must solve these problems through education, research innovation, and global partnership,” Ruiz-Geli said. “Virginia Tech is the ideal place to produce this revolution as a leading land-grant research university situated in a small mountain town that’s so strongly attached to nature and empowering local communities.”
Ruiz-Geli’s acclaimed projects include the Villa Nurbs, an organically formed ecological and futuristic house in Empuriabrava; the net-zero Media-ICT building in Barcelona, awarded “World Building of the Year” at the 2011 World Architecture Festival; the Millennium Project in Valladolid, with an urban retrofitting and 10 urban wind turbines; the elBulli Foundation research lab and exhibition space for celebrity chef Ferran Adrià; and the forthcoming CaixaForum in Valencia. His works are featured in the collections of MoMA (New York), FRAC Centre (Orleans), Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), and CCA (Montreal). He has taught and lectured at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, RMIT, UCLA, MIT, Princeton, Columbia and Architectural Association School, London, among others.
Ruiz-Geli said his new job at Virginia Tech is the logical next step in his career, allowing him to work with future generations of architects, designers, engineers, construction managers, and policymakers to reduce one of the planet’s most significant threats.
“Forty percent of global CO2 emissions are due to buildings,” he said. “Cities consume 80 percent of the energy in the world. We are consumers and designers of this energy. More than ever, the responsibility is on our shoulders. Architects. City planners. Us. We are the cause. And maybe we are the solution. The way we imagine our cities and our buildings is the solution.”
Ruiz-Geli was lured from Barcelona to Blacksburg by Richard Blythe, who became the dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies in October 2017. Blythe’s strategic priorities include a practice-based Ph.D. to promote enhanced professional-academic partnership; “Big, Sticky Projects” that cross disciplines and international borders to solve real-world problems; and a project-based undergraduate curriculum in which students work on multi-year project teams with expert faculty, government, and business partners. As “Commissioner of Big, Sticky Projects,” Ruiz-Geli will be spearheading one of Blythe’s key initiatives.
“I am honored as dean that Enric, recognized internationally for his groundbreaking and innovative work, has joined the team at Virginia Tech,” said Blythe. “He has taught students in Europe, England, and the U.S. over many years and is a wonderful educator. He was an important contributor to the Smart Cities transformation of Barcelona from an industrial- to information-based economy encompassing new thinking around energy and climate. Barcelona remains a benchmark example among smart cities advocates. Enric will play an important role in helping Virginia Tech realize Beyond Boundaries outcomes, particularly through helping the College of Architecture and Urban Studies adapt and develop our capabilities to make a substantial contribution toward fulfilling our land-grant mission in this region with global impact.”
“Richard’s passion and vision are irresistible,” Ruiz-Geli said. “Our dean understands that the learning curve of a student requires going through a practice of making, thinking, and doing – not dividing the wall between the thinkers and the makers. He said, ‘Let’s go for projects that produce research that empower education.’ I’ve never seen this. I’ve done projects that produce research. I’ve done research that empowers education. But never this. It’s a new formula. That’s why I’m here.”
Ruiz-Geli grew up in Figueres, Spain, a rural village north of Barcelona (“I am basically a farmer-architect,” he quips). His career path was sealed early, when as an 8-year-old he watched an architect design his family’s new home.
“It was a key moment in the life of my family,” he said. “I’ll always remember visiting the site of our new home and seeing the architect’s drawings of white lines covering the earth. My parents were walking through these lines and they were really happy. That architect was making them happy. It really touched me.”
Ruiz-Geli trained as an architect at the Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura de Barcelona. Early in his career, he was a set designer for the legendary experimental theater director Robert Wilson. Since 1997, he has been director of Cloud 9 studio, whose agenda is to look at pilot projects in global warming scenarios. His portfolio boasts wide-ranging projects, including award-winning stage designs and installations to net-zero buildings and iconic cultural landmarks worldwide.
After a high-profile architectural career well-documented in the pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Ruiz-Geli sees his role as “Commissioner of Big, Sticky Projects” at Virginia Tech as more behind-the-scenes. He wants to support students and faculty researchers in developing more sustainable ways to build and hopes to leverage his connections in industry, government, and academia to forge collaboration. He sees his Cloud 9 building commissions and expansion of the Virginia Tech campus itself as fertile starting ground for new big, sticky projects. Smart construction, sustainable housing, and a hypermobility network linking urban and rural areas to health care centers are all projects being explored in his initial conversations with university stakeholders.
“A commissioner is one who activates, empowers, and curates a community-driven education,” he said. “Faculty, students, industry partners, deans, mayors, citizens – we will imagine projects together. My role is to support and incubate them. A big, sticky project is our community, our neighborhood, our health, our food, our mobility, our habitat, our farm, our house, our roof.”
Ruiz-Geli won’t be abandoning his most prized role as architect-activist. He sees the crusade to design and build a better world as consistent with the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
“We all have to be activists,” he added. “We need a movement, a community, a society engaged to change architecture and construction – the #1 cause of global warming. It all starts here.”
— Written by Marya Barlow