Sunday, October 23, 2016

Saving the Furniture

Caminito del Rey, Malaga by Luis Machuca Santa-Cruz
This text is the introduction to the catalog of the XIII Biennial of Spanish Architecture and Urbanism, first presented in Granada in June 2016 and currently traveling to New York, France, Germany, Japan and Sweden

When compared to past editions, the panorama offered by the winning entries of this XIII Biennial of Spanish Architecture and Urbanism is indeed post-apocalyptic. The "apocalypse" referred to is, of course, the crisis that has halted construction and devastated the profession, and that has left architecture under question in the eyes of the larger public for the part it has played in the excesses preceding the collapse. And now, amid the rubble, along comes the XIII Biennial: a handful of small-town private houses, a "pre-restored" convent in Seville, a community garden in Santiago, a nature path in Malaga.... Are these and other winning proposals the tender shoots that will restore the profession to life? Do they offer the outlines of a renewed architectural praxis and vision that can grow and mature, informing larger and more ambitious endeavors, and renovating the confidence and standing of the profession in the public eye? Or will the hard-won lessons of the crisis be swept aside when business-as-usual resumes? (If indeed business resumes at all any time soon.) What will post-crisis Spanish society demand of its architects: will it be EuroVegas or community gardens and participatory planning?

Though covering recently-finished work, the 22 winning projects span the period of crisis in their origins, with those initiated before it began standing out in size and budget: the Madrid Rio Park and the Museum of the Royal Collections, both in Madrid, the Gran Canaria Arena in Las Palmas and, most ironically for the profession, the Granada School of Architecture, whose construction documents were finished in June 2008, just before architecture became a heroic career choice. Of the rest, eleven cost less than one million euros to build, and three less than 100,000. The contrast between the scope and budget of Madrid Rio, involving 3,000 hectares and 250 million euros in brute construction costs, and the reconstruction of a ruined house in the village of Cilleros, in Cárceres, for 66,000 euros, could not be more eloquent.

Casa Luz, Cilleros (Cárceres), by Arquitrectura-G
Despite these obvious differences in scale and timing, the 22 projects have many points in common, falling as a whole into two rather opposing categories, depending on whether they were developed for sites offering rich urban or natural conditions, or on the tabula rosa of new urban developments and parcels.

In the first category, designs are conceived almost exclusively in contextual terms. New interventions are laid over a palimpsest of pre-existing conditions, mixing existing constructions and ruins, vegetation, topographic accident and urban ramifications. These designs seek different degrees of balance between geometric irregularity and  complexity on the one hand, derived from their deeply-layered sites and the topography of their natural settings, and the demands of clarity and order. They are conceived in historic time, presenting new construction as contemporary rather than mimetic, as a new and not necessarily  conclusive addition in an ongoing build-up of archeological layers.
Gardens of the Santa María de los Reyes Convent in Seville by MGM Morales de Giles Arquitectos
Examples include the Caramoniña community gardens in Santiago de Compostela, inserted over a highly-irregular plot and negotiating a 20-meter slope, or the restored cliff-hanging walkway of the Caminito del Rey in Malaga, built over the preserved ruins of the original and following its zigzagging course through a gorge. The rehabilitated gardens of the Santa María de los Reyes convent in Seville offer a curious inversion of the tension between natural accident and imposed order, with the architects inserting zigzagging lines of raised borders to order circulation and activities in the open but irregular spaces, citing as their inspiration Michael Heizer's landart "Rift" of 1968.

New elevator access to historic cventer of Gironella (Barcelona) by Carles Enrich Giménez
Photo © Adrià Goulanuevo
The elevator that connects the raised and fortified historic center of Gironella (Barcelona) with newer districts below is a discrete yet transformative intervention in an existing environment, detailed and sited so as to both complement and contrast with existing retaining walls and towers. The discrete addition to a restored masía located in a natural park in Sant Joan les Fonts (Girona) employs a similar strategy in a more immediate scale of reference.

Other projects organize complexes of accrued pre-existing buildings, with judiciously-scaled contemporary additions, as in the Property Registry in Vigo and the Granada School of Architecture, which occupies a former Military Hospital with elements dating back 500 years. 
Architecture School, Granada by Víctor López Cotelo

In the interior spaces of the Santa María convent in Seville, previously mentioned, the strategy with respect to the existing buildings is quite different. Responding to budget restraints and following Rem Koolhaas' 2005 proposal for the Hermitage, the architects simply consolidated the semi-ruined rooms, leaving them in a rough, "pre-rehabilitated" state so as to promote "reflection" on "the relation of time and material fragility" – very post-apocalyptic indeed.

Santa María de los Reyes Convent. Interior
A pair of new buildings in consolidated historic areas are responsive to context in a more diffuse manner,  follows local cues in terms of window openings or finishes, as in the Chao House in Corcubión (A Coruña) and a subsidized housing project in the center of Pamplona.

Left: Casa Chao, Corcubión (A Coruña), by Creus & Carrasco Architects
Right: Social housing, Pamplona, by Pereda Pérez Architects

In this same category of contingent design, two private house projects use the ruinous state of previous constructions on their sites to open the domestic sphere more fully to the outdoors: the house in Cilleros, already mentioned, with its large patio, and the 1014 House in Granollers, where the architects pull the interior spaces back from the existing street facades on either end of the narrow site to create courtyard gardens. In the "Scaffold House" (Casa Andamio) on a beach in Begur (Girona), the architects organize and edit an accumulation of additions, and add a new layer to the whole in the form of woven façade screens that support climbing vegetation, transforming the relation of the house to the nearby beach and introducing a system of passive climate control.

In the opposing camp of work conceived in the absence of a highly-determining context, winning designs are generally more direct, severe, and minimalist, tending towards that apparently rational and yet poetic ideal of "the cube that works", as Alejandro de la Sota called it in his monograph, citing Le Corbusier.
Arena, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, by Eduardo Pérez Gómez & Miguel Ángel Sánchez García
The monolithic concrete shell of the Gran Canaria Arena is the clearest example of this approach, with its entry portal spanning 90 meters, its grandly-scaled ambulatory inside, under the slope of the grandstands, and the minimalist deformation of its roof to place the building in relation to the most general and distant attributes of its setting: the mountains to the west, the city to the east, and the horizon line of the ocean. 

Equally severe in its use of opaque forms –in this case, a galvanized steel cladding– is a factory for electrical equipment in Don Benito (Extremadura), though here the architect organizes the naves and offices around a central service patio to create a self-referential urban setting. Sections of the naves alternate in height and width, and are orchestrated, together with openings and movement, to create a carefully-controlled spatial ensemble.
Electrical equipment factory, Don Benito, by José María Sánchez García
A project for 163 subsidized housing units in the Ensanche of Vallecasin Madrid takes the same approach of varied massing around a central court. The architects use a system of regular floor-to-ceiling louvers to reduce the formal play of window openings and emphasize instead the volumetric massing. In the conversion of the multi-story Auzo Factory, located in the Bilbao district of Matiko, into a center for start-ups, the architects transform the facade to similar effect, using continuous glazing covered with louvers, although here the composition works as a plane rather than in volumetric terms.

In smaller-scale projects, architects often combine forceful massing with more specific contextual references. The massing and large-span entry opening of the Fronton in Orkoien (Navarra) can be compared to those of the Gran Canaria Arena, but its use of wood (together with exposed concrete) and its sloping roofs echo surrounding houses and evoke a local rural vernacular. In the case of the "House of the Winds" in La Linea de la Concepción (Cádiz), the architects shape the volume to protect terraces from prevailing winds, creating a sheltering, shell-like, rather tensile form, with opening gathered and protected under it. 

Left: Sailing School, Sotogrande (Cádiz), by Héctor Fernández Elorza & Carlos García Fernández
Right: Frontón, Orkoien (Navarra), by OFS Architects
As seen in the factory in Don Benito, some projects develop a small-scale urban setting of their own in the absence of a strong local context. The two small enclosures of the Sailing School in Sotogrande (Cádiz), for example, are as simple and unadorned as a "chiringuito" or beach shack, but the architects have added an open court between them and a shading loggia facing the beach, which functions as a faux-monumental facade and circulation gallery.

The Biennial winners include one work realized abroad, the Gösta Pavilion of the Serlachius Museum in Mänttä, Finland, in which the monolithic, inflected linear building houses an interior "recorrido" or "promenade architecturale" that is deformed by deep angled cuts on either side of the volume, creating the kind of irregular, angled, trajectory seen in the Camino del Rey or in the zigzagging raised borders of the Santa María gardens. This strategy of the "recorrido" developed with seemingly arbitrary twists and incidents points us towards the vast Madrid Rio project as well, where the linear but otherwise undetermined site along the course of the river invites a similar weave of circulation paths (though more fluid in form and developed over slopes and hills), mixed with vegetation and spaces for recreational and other activities. While the miniature urban settings of Don Benito or Sotogrande are open-ended and fragmentary, here the architects respond to the programmatic demands of a museum and a park with routes that, while non-orthogonal, are more highly-determined. 

Gösta Pavilion, Serlachius Museum, Mänttä, Finland, by Mara Partida, Héctor Mendoza & Boris Bezan

I have left the Royal Collections for the end of this review because it is a work that spans both categories of classification I propose. On the one hand, it is built on a highly sensitive site, which implicates the "cornice" or bluff crowned by Madrid's Royal Palace and Cathedral. The building is sited below this cornice, as if forming part of its retaining walls, and the staggered massing mirrors that of the palace and its wing. But on the other hand, the monumentally-scaled, elongated volumes of the galleries, with their dense facade screens, are as blunt and austere in their own right as the factory volumes in Don Benito. While the architects eloquently describe the project as "a new text written over the already written, a reflection on history and memory," they also compare it to a large civil engineering work, "giving the construction a pragmatic realism that avoids unnecessary formal exaggerations."

Museum of the Royal Collections, Madrid, by Luis Moreno Mansilla y Emilio Tuñón
The Royal Collections offers a good summary of the contradictory impulses found among the winning entries: the battle between a striving for subtlety and complexity in the response to issues of context on the one hand, and the demand for formal contention and directness on the other. In a project such as the Gran Canaria Arena, the architects must elaborate their design without the cover of a good contextual back-story. They have little to start with: an empty site, a program and a budget. Everything else is up to them. In this scenario, winning projects return to the rationalist, as opposed to organicist, tradition in Spanish architecture, a notable change from just a few years ago. In the neo-organicist projects of the years before the crisis, like other formal experimentation of the period, architects explored the potential of geometrically complex, self-generated formal systems. Now, like De La Sota, they camouflage aesthetic ambition in stories of function and structural logic. But much has changed since De la Sota's time, and we can also see the impact of minimalism in these works, with  their striving for a uniform exterior skin, their sense for material, craft and texture, and their assertive, sculptural solidity.

Function and structural logic also guide many of the interventions in more contextually-conditioned projects, from the Royal Collections to the Architecture School in Granada, the elevator in Gironella and the masía in Sant Joan les Fonts. In these cases, the architects take a position of discretion and respect for the surroundings without renouncing the formal integrity of their interventions. But architects can also find in the weave of pre-existing conditions on a site the "back story" that justifies a greater freedom of formal composition, as in the Santa María convent or the Civil Registry in Vigo. And other projects, like the museum in Finland and Madrid Rio, go further, assuming an artificial naturalism – more angular and Constructivist in the first case, and more picturesque in the second, recalling Frederick Law Olmstead and Capability Brown.

To conclude, I'd like to set aside the projects begun before the crisis and consider only the smaller-scale works initiated in these years of hardship. What does the new, "post-apocalyptic panorama" of current architectural practice actually look like? It would seem to be a time for fine-tuning the country's built patrimony, fixing up neglected corners of towns and cities, recycling and re-purposing what's already there rather than pulling things down and starting over. In this situation, questions of sustainability and passive climate control fit right in, as do projects involving wider public participation. Has the crisis initiated a long-term period of scarcity, like that of the pre-industrial economy preceding the 1960's, a return to the eternal Spain of abundance for the few and want for the many? Has Spain become a country of declining expectations, like Portugal perhaps, where relics of a glorious past are the second-hand clothes that new generations learn to adapt for the present with as much dignity and resourcefulness as they can? Though this does seem unlikely in the long run. Amid these reflections, I remember my grandmother, a survivor of two world wars and the German inflation who, despite her mink coats and trans-Atlantic holidays, saved pieces of used string and empty mayonnaise jars. Maybe that wasn't such a silly idea after all.

The rest of the winning projects mentioned in the text:

Casa Andamio, Begur (Girona), by Ramon Bosch & Elisabet Capdeferro Pla

Community gardens in Caramoniña, Santiago de Compostela, by Elizabeth Abalo & Gonzalo Alonso

House of the Winds, La Linea de la Concepción (Cádiz), by José Luis Muñoz

Masía "Can Calau", Sant Joan les Fonts (Girona), by Montserrat Nogués i Teixidor

163 units of subsidize housing, Vallecas (Madrid), by Rafael, Pablo & Alfonso Olalquiaga

Property Registry, Vigo, by Jesús Irisarri & Guadalupe Piñera

Madrid Río, by Burgos & Garrido; Porras - La Casta; Rubio & Álvarez-Sala & West 8 (Holland)

Casa 1014, Granollers (Barcelona), by H Arquitectes

Auzo Factory, Bilbao, by Asier Santas Torres & Luis Suárez Mansilla

Saving the Furniture
Introductory essay
Begoña Díaz-Urgorri, Camen Moreno & Juan Domingo Santos, Co-Directors
Catalog, XIII Bienal Española de Arquitecutra y Urbanismo 2016
Fundación Arquia, Barcelona, 2016, pages 26 - 31