Monday, January 2, 2017

Vázquez Consuegra's Torrent Market in Architektur Aktuell

 All photos © Mariela Apollonio
I wrote the following article for the December issue of Architektur Aktuell. Reproduced here in full:

When he set out to design his market building in Torrent, a bedroom community outside Valencia, Spain, the Seville-based architect Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra took cues from characteristic features of the dense urban context, both splendid and rather modest. The exposed white concrete of the structural walls, he explains, relates to the town's principal monument, a 14th-century fortified tower, built by Moorish rulers of unreinforced concrete, which stands in the center of the main square directly in front of the market.  At the same time, he associates the aluminum of the vertical screens that cover much of the building with the aluminum balcony railings and window grilles he observed in many of the town's modest residential buildings, elements which caught his eye for their silvery, light-receptive surfaces.

Together, the concrete and aluminum create a contrasting duality, he maintains, in which the "aridity" and density of the concrete become more vividly evident in contrast to the glimmering lightness of the aluminum, and vice versa. "They capacitate the expressive potential of each other." he explains. "The concrete is more concrete, and the aluminum more aluminum."

His design also creates an intriguing duality between the simplicity of its basic scheme and the sophisticated formal composition of its main facade, developed with a complexity of gesture that gives the building its representative "face" on the plaza.

The building occupies an irregular site that is open on three sides, with long facades facing streets to the north and south, and a narrow facade on the plaza. Vázquez Consuegra divided the building into two zones: a three-story entry vestibule along the southern facade, with the program elements stacked behind it, separated by a thick interior wall housing mechanical ducts and structure. The ground floor contains the market and a cafeteria facing the plaza. A future restaurant and shops occupy the first floor, and a large multi-purpose event space is on the top level. Two underground levels contain a future supermarket and parking.

This simple scheme gives rise on the plaza facade to a layering of shading aluminum screens, glass and voids, crowned by a deep top-floor balcony. The balcony is covered by a floating plane of concrete that is visually  supported solely by a slender steel column that precisely marks the interior division of the building. This division ripples down the rest of the facade, delimiting the horizontal windows of the first-floor restaurant and, on the ground level, separating the cafeteria from the glazed corner entry to the vestibule.

The composition of superimposed planes engages the complete volumetric reading of the building. The vertical aluminum screen, for example, wraps around the building from the southern facade, and then folds out horizontally to create shading canopies at different heights over the entry and café terrace. The balcony roof reads as if it had been cut and folded over from the solid concrete wall of the opposing northern facade. The overall effect is to dematerialize the facade, converting it into a layering of seemingly weightless, luminous planes. To justify this elaborate dance, Vázquez Consuegra explains, "the building steps back so as not to approach the plaza too closely, leaving the protagonism to the (Moorish) tower."

In a more minor key, the vestibule and the top-floor hall offer two other moments of elegant architectonic play. Crisscrossed by open-tread metal stairs, escalators and bridges, the vestibule opens the full height of the building. Its glass curtain wall to the south is open at street level, but screened by the plane of vertical aluminum louvers on the first floor, in order to protect the privacy of the apartments across the narrow street, according to the architect. A south-facing skylight and a single clerestory window on the upper level create a lively play of light, which washes down the aluminum finish of the interior walls and across the black basalt floors. Movement up the stairs and through the space is strategically focused on the large windows overlooking the plaza and tower.  The reflective surfaces and dark floors continue in the market, where the axes of the aisles offer crossing views through the building to the surrounding streets.

Vázquez Consuegra compares the top-floor hall to those of Renaissance markets, as in Palladio's Basilica in Vicenza. Three continuous clerestories, oriented to the north (and with photovoltaic cells on the roof of their southern slopes) transform the high ceiling into a series of folded planes. The main focus of the room, however, is the glazed opening to the balcony, with its privileged views over the town. (The line of the skylights continues out here, in the form of holes punched in the back of the balcony roof, making it both lighter and more luminous).

To this observer, the palette of reflective surfaces dominates the design over the concrete, which takes protagonism only on the largely-solid northern facade where, again to this observer, it seems a bit incongruous with the rest of the building.  Vázquez Consuegra has used these planes of metal and glass in other recent projects, such as his Seville Congress Center, and the upcoming CaixaForum in the same city. Could these seemingly weightless, liquid finishes, and the suggestive luminous spaces they create,  be a response to the denser and tougher architecture of the 1980s and 90s in Spain – to Vázquez Consuegra's own Museum of the Enlightenment in Valencia of 2001, for example, with its hard volumes of exposed concrete?

Finally, it should be mentioned that, though it opened two years ago, the Torrent Market is largely empty. There are a handful of stalls and the café on the ground floor, but no supermarket, no restaurant and no shops. As the architect confirms, the town seems to have developed the program without a feasibility study (a common practice in Spanish public works), and the recent economic crisis has done the rest. The building, with a cost of 8.5 million euros, replaced a previous market on the site, built in 1970, which replaced in turn a gallery around the tower in the middle of the plaza, built in the 17th century and demolished also in 1970. Vázquez Consuegra's building thus stands out not only as a sophisticated work of contemporary architecture, but also as a project conceived more out of political will than practical need. One can only hope that the process of adapting the building to more realistic needs and uses will be carried out with respect for its high architectural quality.

Piroutte on the PlazaTorrent Market, Valencia, by Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra
architektur.aktuell 441, December 2016, pages 72 - 83; cover

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