Partners in work + love, Gabriel Cuéllar + Athar Mufreh, focus on architecture + property ownership in winning exhibit
This is part four of a series of exclusive conversations with this year’s Architectural League Prize winners. Hunter Douglas Architectural is thrilled to support the legendary design competition.
Click here to review competition rules and apply for the League Prize, which is accepting submissions through February 11.
Gabriel Cuéllar and Athar Mufreh are partners in life, and since getting married and moving to New York two years ago, they’re also partners at their architectural practice, Cadaster. This year the duo won one of six coveted awards for their submission for the prestigious Architectural League of New York’s League Prize for Young Architects and Designers, which focused on the theme of the “Objective.” The League Prize, which Hunter Douglas Architectural is proud to sponsor, is now in its 37th year. This year’s winning work was presented in an exhibit at Parsons School of Design. There, we caught up with Cadaster after the couple delivered a lecture on their installation.
cadastre or ca·das·ter
An official register of the ownership, extent, and value of real property in a given area, used as a basis of taxation.
They took an “Objective” approach to architecture by exhibiting unconventional maps, which consider the “geographic dynamics” of property ownership, plus related social and historic conditions. Part of the map series built upon their ongoing project on the physical preservation and social significance of African-American churches in the south. A little history: in 2014, Cadaster worked with Saint John Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, Texas to gain a deep understanding of its community and history, and communicate this to the larger public while also preserving its architecture. In exploring property ownership, they discovered other examples of what were once rural African-American churches that are now located in the middle of suburban areas, and fighting for their existence.
The ongoing project, which ultimately helped Saint John join the National Register of Historic Places, raises awareness around land politics. As Cadaster continues to identify and connect with churches in similar positions, they create renderings for their rehabilitation so that the churches can remain active, and thus, retain their rights to the land. With tight restrictions on property usage, in these cases, Cadaster explains that if church services cease, the land automatically must be returned to the heirs of its original owner. These churches, in many cases built around the same era by recently freed former slaves, often share a similar architectural language that includes open front porch-style entrances, large-scale windows, two steeples, and a prevalent use of white painted-wood. And in a way, all are operating on borrowed land. Cadaster’s use of mapping as a dialogue to express ideas on architecture, design, history and social conditions extends to other projects too, like a fresh vision for the New York Canal System.
On winning the League Prize: “That was a good sign that working together is going to go somewhere”
– Gabriel Cuéllar
“It wasn’t a linear way that we arrived at this. It just happened over time that these ideas started to come into what we were doing,” explains Cuéllar. “Property is such a significant thing.” He says in practicing architecture there’s typically a concentration on the design of buildings.
However, he adds, “different experiences showed us that there’s actually an architecture of everything outside the buildings – the way the buildings are configured, the way that cities are configured and entire territories. From the property of a single house to the borderlines of an entire country, there are actually a lot of architectural spatial relationships and power systems that are putting those things into place. That level where, fundamentally, the way that land is being allocated to certain people or to certain uses, and the relationship of all those things, is what we’re focusing on.”
“If you think about architecture and urban space, ultimately it comes down, we think in many ways, through the land, the surface of the Earth, and who can be there and under what terms, and also how the poverty lines are actually defining what buildings are,” Cuéllar notes.
“From the property of a single house to the borderlines of an entire country, there are actually a lot of architectural spatial relationships and power systems that are putting those things into place.” – Gabriel Cuéllar
Athar says, “on each project there is a lot of research and thinking that we do together” while the final stage of a project might involve more work from Cuéllar, who is licensed. He agrees that the initial ideas they conceptualize together “really set the stage for what comes after.”
Maps characteristically document “what exists like a place that is already there,” explains Cuéllar, “but we also use maps as a way to project our designs in a kind of map format, instead of a floor plan, where we say what the design could be.”
“It’s a map of what the dynamic of the territory would be,” Cuéllar furthers.
Here, Athar explains that the firm’s name, Cadaster, is a term used to describe a map of properties, or by dictionary definition, one that depicts “an official register of the ownership, extent, and value of real property in a given area, used as a basis of taxation.” “A lot of people don’t know that,” Cuéllar offers.
“The name comes from…our interest in real property, the agency that it has, and our better environment,” she adds, explaining that this can include “everything that we see in the built environment that needs to be tackled and maybe change sometime by the architect as a profession.”
Meanwhile Cuéllar laughs that when people “hear ‘cadaster,’ they think it’s disaster or cadaver, or all these different things. We’re working on…” – “that,” finishes Athar with a smile.
“Because you already believe in each other, you are aligned with your ideas so there is not so much conflict in the ideas essentially” – Athar Mufreh
One has to imagine that their working relationship goes a little like this conversation with each offering a new thought as the other nods in agreement, only occasionally breaking to raise an eyebrow in surprise or crack a smile. At the end of the day, the duo behind Cadaster can finish an idea – or a sentence – in unrehearsed harmony.
As a couple, Athar reflects on the exchange of ideas and work: “Because you already believe in each other, you are aligned with your ideas, so there is not so much conflict in the ideas essentially.”
Two years in, Cuéllar knows that collaborating in work and being in love brings “a certain element of risk, but also because of the closeness of two people, you can really work together in a very strong way.”
He offers an example: two years ago, Cuéllar individually applied for the League Prize design competition and did not win. This year, when they applied together for the first time as Cadaster, they won.
“That was a good sign that working together is going to go somewhere,” Cuéllar reflects.
When asked how it felt to win the legendary League Prize, almost in unison Athar says, “It was very surprising and really just outstanding,” as Cuéllar joins in, “It was just outstanding and really surprising.”
To listen to Cadaster’s full League Prize lecture delivered at Parsons, click here. The 2018 Architectural League Prize winners are Anya Sirota of Akoaki, based in Detroit; Bryony Roberts of Bryony Roberts Studio in New York; Gabriel Cuéllar and Athar Mufreh of Cadaster, out of Brooklyn; Coryn Kempster of Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster in Buffalo; Alison Von Glinow and Lap Chi Kwong of Kwong Von Glinow in Chicago; and Dan Spiegel of SAW // Spiegel Aihara Workshop in San Francisco.