Carlos Zapata and Tommy Schwarzkopf on the Unique new element of Quito’s skyline
Uribe Schwarzkopf and Carlos Zapata opened Unique, a stunning 24-story mixed-use residential tower, which neighbors the expansive La Carolina Park.
This month, marking our first project together, Uribe Schwarzkopf and Carlos Zapata opened Unique, a stunning 24-story mixed-use residential tower, which neighbors the expansive La Carolina Park. Zapata designed the building to look light, airy, and porous, embracing the natural qualities of Quito’s big, open sky cradled in the Andes mountains. A three-story communal area at the midpoint of the building, which features a pool and outdoor lounge, breaks up the structure in combination with the vertical gardens, each allowing sky and earth to pervade the towering 24-story building.
Unique has instantly become a key feature of Quito’s skyline – especially significant for Carlos, who was raised in the city, and now is the designer of one of its most striking and noteworthy structures. Using mostly glass for the facade plus aluminum panels, the building’s sculptural fold bolsters its contemporary aesthetic while providing each unit with breathtaking views across every corner of Quito.
The 99-unit apartment building is centrally located at the heart of a thriving metropolis, which offers access to business districts, and terrific bars and restaurants. The soon to be completed Metro, Quito’s first underground transit line, will have a key station located a few steps from the building, increasing its accessibility to and from the different sectors of the city.
We spoke to Carlos Zapata as the first residents of Unique began to move in, discussing what this new building means for the future of Quito, while reflecting on Carlos’ past in the city where he grew up.
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “Great to see you, Carlos; we’re so excited to open Unique this month and start to welcome new residents! We wish you could be here for the opening. We wanted to kick off this conversation talking a bit about Unique as the project comes to completion. I know it is a special project for you given your connection to the city – can you talk a bit about that connection?”
Carlos Zapata: “I wish I could be in Quito for the opening, too! As you know, the city is very special to me. I grew up in Quito; I got there when I was very young, maybe six years old, and left around 16 before finishing high school. Those are really formative years. When someone asks me where I am from, the answer is always Quito; I’m from Ecuador. I came to the US to study and eventually stayed here.. But that connection is there, it’s very strong, I kept going back and forth, frequently visiting my parents who were alive until recently. So I had the chance to see the city evolving little by little.
The past decade or so has seen the greatest change to Quito in terms of design. By bringing foreign architects to significant projects around the city, and also by including young local architects and motivating them to try something a little bit different, Uribe Schwarzkopf has played a large role in this evolution. It is at this point when Quito evolved from being a very inward-looking city to embracing new expressions of design.”
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “That’s really great to hear; we’ve been so excited about the evolution of the city, and the part we’ve been able to play in it. Thinking about your personal connection and history with the city – how do you think that impacted the design for Unique?“
Carlos Zapata: “Of course, when you grow up in Quito, you’re very much aware of the mountains. They have a very strong power over you: you see them all the time, you feel them, the clouds are always playing with them. So in my mind, the building wanted to respond to the mountains and the clouds, to nature, and visually, to evoke the feeling of movement. So the first thing that I presented to you guys was a building which was not completely straight – it was tilting a little bit. Then, as it evolved, you can really see that gesture of the building moving. That was a response to the lines of the mountains in the city.”
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Joseph Schwarzkopf: “That’s really clear, and something that makes Unique so exciting. It has a lot to do with the location within the city as well. Tommy, what made you choose that location for the building? And also how did you connect with Carlos?”
Tommy Schwarzkopf: “Well, I’d seen some examples of Carlos’s work in the US, and some here in Quito. A friend here has Carlos design his house, which I visited and really enjoyed. It was a very interesting experience to be in that house. And then I knew of Carlos, principally because of his mother in the art galleries here – and he doesn’t remember, but I remember him from the Einstein School.”
Tommy Schwarzkopf: “So when I started hearing his name in the architecture field, I thought to myself: “I know that guy from someplace.” I don’t remember if it was Architectural Digest or Architectural Record, but I was reading an article that mentioned Carlos, and I realized that Carlos Zapata was the same Carlos Zapata I knew from Quito. Right around that time, Joseph, you were also in touch with him, and we started to look into your work, Carlos: the stadium in Chicago, some projects in Asia, and the Miami airport.
We had already bought the land where Unique is built at this point, and it became clear that what we needed at that location, which is a prominent spot on one of the most important streets in Ecuador, is a different type of architecture – something truly unique that will be a sort of landmark in a more international architectural style.”
Carlos Zapata: “Tommy’s right; Naciones Unidas is an important street. And you couple that with the new metro, which is about to open and you will have a key spot next to the site of Unique, that will bring connectivity throughout the city – it puts the building at a really exciting intersection.”
Carlos Zapata: “As I was designing the building, one of the most important aspects for me was to respond to La Carolina park, which is right in front of Unique. La Carolina is special, like a mini-Central Park, because of its linear geometry, a rectangular park with buildings on each side. It also provides a lot of air and openness.
So orienting the building towards the park was important. Then we decided to split the building in two halves and created this volume in the middle, an open, outdoor covered space. It’s unusual but I felt that it was important to have a protected open space connecting to La Carolina Park. To me, that’s the most important element of the building, an amenity where you can actually spend the whole day if you want to. It feels good because you’re in a volume. That’s the difference to me between a roof top and this new space that we are building in Quito.
It also complements the skyline of the city because it adds a contextual relationship to the site with the neighboring buildings. The break occurs pretty much where the line of the buildings marching from east to west top off. And then you hit the open gap of Unique, almost floating over. So it plays with the context in a volumetric way – or better yet, with a void.”
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “Tommy, what do you think is so special about the building?”
Tommy Schwarzkopf: “Well, the location of the project offers an incredible view of the Old City and of the new city. When you’re on the rooftop, you can see the volcanos, you can see La Carolina, you can see the historic churches of the old city of Quito, and on clear days, you can see el Panecillo, which is a small hill, in the center of the city, with the iconic statue of the Virgin of Quito on top of it – Quito’s equivalent of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue perched over the city.“
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “That incredible view is in part because Unique is now the tallest building in Quito – and it might be the most impressive example of contemporary architecture in the skyline. Do you think this will change the way tall buildings are seen and built in the city?”
Carlos Zapata: “Well, it’s funny because I once did a very tall building in Vietnam, and for a while it was projected to be the tallest building in Vietnam. And the first thing I told my client is not to count on that – it’s not going to be the tallest building for too long. Designations like that are always a bit hollow – rather than being the tallest, the biggest, the most, it is important to achieve the correct proportion and materiality that emphasize the building‘s vertical form.
Although Unique is tall, we strived to achieve elegance. The facade of Unique is developed very carefully to control the light and reflection. In addition to being split in two, it gives the visual that the building’s weight is supported very carefully and delicately. Unique presents you with a lighter visual sense of what a tall building can be, and I hope that is something that inspires a synergy in the future skyline of the city.”
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “Tommy, what do you think about the evolution of La Carolina Park? Are we seeing the first step of a new type of skyline surrounding the park?“
Tommy Schwarzkopf: “I think the buildings being designed around La Carolina Park are going to create a new, dynamic center of the city. There will be the potential for spectacular architectural tours in the area, which show the city’s evolution from the colonial era to modern and contemporary structures. There is such a diverse range of buildings already surrounding the park, and that continuum is just becoming more ample and compelling.”
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “We’ve seen a lot of interest in that already, and have been excited to see the reputation of Quito in general grow as a hub for diversity in architecture. One last question, Carlos. What are your favorite aspects of the city? What are your favorite places to visit when you’re here? And then what was the thing you liked most about working in Quito?“
Carlos Zapata: “Well, I love Quito because the topography goes up and down. In a way, it’s a little San Francisco. It is not flat. And yes, you have to be physically in shape if you want to walk around the city, which is good. I love to walk all the way up from La Carolina to Hotel Quito through Gonzalez Suárez and down the windy paths of Guápulo and to the Guápulo Church, which is one of my favorite colonial churches in the city.
When I was a child, my father took me to the old city almost every weekend; we went to every single church and convent. He and my mother used to collect art, as Tommy mentioned, for many years, my parents had a contemporary art gallery in Quito. But on the side my father liked to also collect colonial art. So to us it was very interesting to get together and go walking through the center of the city, to see examples of the art of the Colony.”
Carlos Zapata: “Quito is such a beautiful, friendly city. It’s very interesting to see the changes in these familiar places. Because the city is evolving, not only in design but in art, music and food. You have these mini-markets now where you can go and find things that I wish I could find in New York! There is nothing that you cannot find in Quito right now. But it is done differently: it’s not industrial, it’s artisanal. So the city has evolved in a very positive way.”
Joseph Schwarzkopf: “Yes, that’s very true. And we’re hoping we get through this setback that the pandemic represents like everybody else. We can’t wait to welcome tourists and international visitors back to Quito – the city has so much to offer.”