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Elevating the Ordinary

Elevating the Ordinary

As an Interior Architecture major, international Fulbright scholar Clara Marhló MA 16 is learning to adapt and enhance commonplace structures.

Spanish graduate student Clara Marhló MA 16 is studying adaptive reuse at RISD on a Fulbright scholarship.

Architects around the world are adopting environmentally sustainable approaches to designing new buildings and restoring historically significant ones, but Clara Mar Hernández López MA 16 (who goes by Clara Marhló professionally) intends to go one step further. The graduate student in Interior Architecture believes that “we can make the biggest impact as architects by reusing the ordinary buildings all around us and discovering what makes each structure special.”

In February Marhló shared this idea as RISD’s student representative at the 2016 Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Organizers of the annual event describe it as “the best of global creativity,” which is an apt description for Marhló herself, a Spanish native who earned her Architecture degree in Seville, worked on high-profile renovations for four years in the Netherlands and then came to RISD on a Fulbright scholarship to study adaptive reuse.

“I like RISD’s way of thinking,” says Marhló, “and I came to the United States because I love to learn from new cultures. I have learned a lot about designing in context… and responding to society’s needs.” She especially credits Professor Liliane Wong, head of the department, with influencing her thinking.

One of the things that Marhló values at RISD is that students are taught to design and build rather than just create conceptual work that never gets realized. Perhaps it’s this drive to design for real-world situations that shaped her first RISD project, completed last summer in Copenhagen as part of the program’s opening Summer Studio in Scandinavia.

“For that project, the Pumpehuset Museum of Contemporary Art, I proposed not just a museum, but a green space that would be open to the public,” says Marhló. The proposal earned her a Design Excellence Award from the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.

“I’ve always loved working with my hands, which is really encouraged at RISD,” Marhló adds. “So I experimented with watercolors when I made the plans.” She finds that drawing by hand – rather than using software like AutoCAD – helps her to think outside the box. “You’re much more free when you sketch by hand,” she explains. “You can draw a line that isn’t straight and then get a new idea from that line.”

Attracted to a variety of disciplines ­– ceramics, painting, furniture design – Marhló relishes the cross-disciplinary opportunities at RISD. “In a place like this, you can experiment and develop ideas further,” she says. “I get inspired by different disciplines and [find that they] complement each other so in the end the work is richer and more unique.”

For a recent project focused on an unattractive, rectangular building in Boston, Marhló played with the envelope of the structure to propose a design in which the second story appears to be rotated on its axis. “It looks like I rotated the whole volume,” she explains, “but it’s really just a small movement that transforms the whole building. I also wanted to make evident what’s new and what’s old.”

As she wraps up her experience at RISD, Marhló is collaborating with fellow students on a proposal to reuse and expand the historic Redwood Library & Athenaeum in Newport, RI. She has found it interesting to work with a range of other international students this year and notes that because of the diverse cultural perspectives, “we all bring different approaches to architecture.

“Coming to RISD was one of my best decisions,” Marhló adds. “It has [provided] so many resources and unique opportunities” – including being selected as the graduate student to represent RISD at this year’s inspiring Design Indaba gathering of designers from around the world.

Although she doesn’t yet know what she’ll do right after graduation in June, Marhló hopes to return to Spain at some point and launch her own firm focused on international projects. “Since the [economic] crisis in Spain, everybody had to go away to find work,” she says. “But it’s getting better and you learn from the culture you’re in. Someday it will be possible for my generation to go back.”

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