Sunday, December 3, 2023

Beyond Sustainability: Alday Jover Architects


Yamuna River, Delhi, India


Originally puvlished in: Iñaki Alday, Margarita Jover Editors, Cities & Rivers (Spanish edition, Ciudades y Ríos), Actar, Barcelona, 2023.  © David Cohn



The architectural culture of Spain in the last 20 years of boom and bust has been an important incubator for a paradigmatic shift of vision in the profession, a process in which the architecture of Iñaki Alday and Margarita Jover, with their firm aldayjover arquitecture and landscape, has played a pioneering role. 

 During the boom years, interest in architecture was mainly focused on the iconic, inventive formalism exemplified by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, opened in 1997. But this creative euphoria was left in moral ruins by the crash of 2008 and the revelations of overspending, mismanagement and corruption on the part of many politicians involved in public building, exposing a culture of ostentation and excess in which the architecture of the Guggenheim era was inexorably implicated. In the wake of that disillusion, the pursuit of formal novelty could no longer in itself sustain architecture in its aspiration to address the public good, to work towards improving and humanizing everyday life – an aim, I would argue, that has been the fundamental motivation of architectural innovation since the origins of the Modern Movement in the 18th century.

 Ten years have passed since 2008, but the profession in Spain has yet to recover a normal level of activity, and many of its most talented members, including Alday and Jover among them, have found their best opportunities abroad. But the end of the period of plentitude has also been a time of reflection, investigation and the development of alternative strategies, especially for a new generation of architects that has come of age just before and during  the crisis. These new initiatives have explored issues of sustainability, environmental ecology, and a focus on immediate, local problems within a global understanding of the issues at stake, as opposed to the media-hungry focus of the icon builders. Architects have joined neighborhood activists in projects such as community gardens, alternative cultural spaces and participative planning efforts. They have developed radical new approaches to the adaptive re-use of existing buildings in response to principles of sustainable practice. There have been exhibitions exploring alternative building systems and materials of traditional cultures from around the world. Others have developed methods incorporating Big Data into the design process, and the global issues it can encompass.

 Well before the crisis, however, aldayjover began its practice with what could deceptively be termed "landscape" projects, as in their Gallego Riverbank Recovery in the town of  Zuera, in Aragón (1996-2001), but that in fact anticipate many of these concerns, and offer the first complete profile of the emerging paradigm that brings them together in a coherent, renewed vision of architecture and its role in culture and society. Their work is no longer strictly contained within the conceptual boundaries of the individual building or project as the principal object of design and study. Instead, their attention has shifted to a holistic overview of the habitat, of the environment and its mix of urban and natural features, as the true field of action for architecture and its ambitions.

  As a consequence, on the one hand, their buildings can be understood as almost equivalent to the role of street furniture in the design of an urban plaza. This is evident not only in the various pavilions of the Zaragoza Water Park, for example, which are subsidiary to the broader aims of the park design as a whole, but also in specifically architectural commissions, such as the Molino Cultural Center, in which the new structure is conceived in relation to the original mill building and the surrounding context, and assumes a modest protagonism, entering into a quiet dialogue with its environs. Buildings in both cases become functional, minimal elements conceived in terms of a larger frame of reference.

 On the other hand, and more importantly, this approach implies that the true subject or responsibility of architects today is found in the environment, the livable habitat, and the full spectrum of issues at stake in its maintenance and adoption to human needs. This principle has led aldayjover from the limits of specific commissions to take on the broader issues that arise in the course of studying the problem at hand. A case in point is their project for Zuera, where their studies for a modest bullfighting ring led them to organize a new riverside park on its site, with an innovative design that accommodates, rather than resists, seasonal flooding. This in turn led them to a new development plan for the town, an environmental clean-up and new sewage treatment measures, resulting in a coordinated plan that established a new, positive relation between the town and its river (including an amphitheater that serves other uses besides bullfighting, and that is designed for periodic flooding). Alday explains, "The idea was to bring together different stakeholders with different interests. The town wanted its bullring. The watershed authority was concerned because the river was eroding the banks below the town. And ecologists wanted to clean the river of trash and raw sewage. By bringing together these different stakeholders, we received the support of the European Union, and the final investment was 2.5 million euros, instead of the initial 250,000. And it solved many problems instead of only one."


A[D1] ldayjover's case for architecture's role in solving territorial issues can be understood as a -bid to rescue the living habitat from the blind and uncoordinated technical management of the planner, the sociologist, the civil engineer, the environmental scientist and so on, to the degree that such professionals, in their rational and scientific methodologies, tend to objectify and quantify the habitat in the sense defined by Martin Heidegger in his essay, "The Question Concerning Technology,"[D2]  which identifies a way of thinking in which, for example, a lake becomes nothing more than a quantifiable amount of stored water, a "resource".(1)  All of these specialists are necessary in solving problems at a territorial scale, but they are not sufficient in themselves. As in the building trades, architects are not only coordinators of different specialists. They bring to the table the humanist values of architectural culture, its awareness of history, its sophistication in visual, spatial, sympathetic and associative or poetic thinking, and its full participation in cultural and intellectual concerns in the broadest sense.

 In aldayjover's encompassing approach to design, the habitat is no longer the tabula rasa of the technician. It is a palimpsest replete with traces of the interactions of human history and culture with the natural habitat and the givens of geographic circumstance. Any new intervention simply joins and modifies this accumulated natural and cultural history. Territorial planning is thus transformed into the cultural activity that it always has been, though most often unconsciously so. Memory, history and cultural values are inseparable, not only in literature or the arts but in the landscape as well.




Thus, for example, in the Zaragoza Water Park, the water channels follow the course of the existing irrigation canals, which aldayjover simply widened. This solution not only preserved the memory of the site, a meander in the Ebro River, as a zone of produce gardens. It also preserved the hidden wisdom of the waterways' orientation. The architects found that the canals ran perpendicular to the prevailing winds, so that their borders –raised berms made from the earth excavated to widen the channels– protect boaters and strollers along the bank side paths from the wind. In another case, in the Aranzadi Park on the floodplain of the Arga River in Pamplona, the architects learned from local farmers that hedges were a better flood barrier than solid walls, because they trap and deflect debris from the floodwaters, and create a gradual inundation rather than the precipitous and damaging overflows or failures of a solid barrier.

 Aldayjover's approach to architecture and landscape develops ideas latent in certain aspects of Spain's architectural culture. Alday himself observes the roots of the team's thinking in their architectural education: "At the Vallés School in Barcelona, landscape, or you could say, the site, was an essential part of design. Enric Battle and other professors taught us to begin a design with a deep understanding of the site. That training was instrumental for our approach."

 Alday also refers to the example of Barcelona's urban planning program in the early years of the democracy, when Oriol Bohigas was in charge of city planning. In retrospect, in the parks and plazas program he directed, and the preparations for the 1992 Olympic Games that followed, Bohigas' principal objective was not so much to build memorable works of architecture –though the overall quality of the works built was extraordinary– but rather to transform the city, to bring Barcelona out of the depressing effects of neglect and poor planning of the years of Franco's dictatorship (1939-75), and introduce fundamental structural changes in its development, conceived in the generous, humanistic, urban terms of architectural culture. 

 Under Bohigas' mantra, "To substitute the project for the plan," urban planning issues were treated in many ways as architectural design problems. In what could be termed a technique of urban acupuncture, limited interventions could have a far-reaching impact on perceptions and attitudes. Alday describes how, in poor working-class districts, Bohigas' proposed to "monumentalize the periphery", applying architectural sophistication and significant works of public art to build "the most beautiful, luxurious and carefully designed plazas in order to create pride in those neighborhoods, so that the relation between the residents and their district was completely changed." 

 At a larger scale but following the same principles, Bohigas' master plan for the Olympic Village opened the city to the Mediterranean, and a new belt highway was conceived not simply as a civil engineering work, but as a problem involving issues of visual design, landscape and the point-by-point study of its impact on every neighborhood and intersection.

 A more subtle influence on aldayjover's formation is Barcelona's history as an industrial city and the bourgeois class that this industry produced, two factors that help explain the special importance local architects have traditionally given to questions of interior and industrial design. As contradictory as it may appear, this orientation is particularly conductive to a concept of architecture and design in territorial terms. Urban planning in this sense can be understood, at least in part, as a matter of furnishing the living habitat, like a bourgeois interior, applying to its problems the same concern for dignity, comfort and convenience, the same fine taste and finishes, with all the necessary services and utilities perfectly organized out of sight.

 While a similar concept of design could be ascribed to the phantasmagorical forms of Antoni Gaudí in all their dimensions, from his furniture and buildings to the Parque Güell, and to the formal exuberance of contemporary Barcelona architects such as Enric Miralles or Carme Pinós, aldayjover align themselves with a tradition of formal contention that finds its maximum point of reference in the Madrid-based, mid-century architect Alejandro de la Sota. As his career progressed, De la Sota practiced an increasingly self-effacing architecture that found its raison-d'être in technical details and understated formal ambiguities, a position he maintained against the current of the architectural trends around him, from Spanish Organicism to Post Modernism. For De la Sota, the pleasures of architecture were mainly appreciated by architects alone, and it was best to try to exercise them unnoticed, in the context of an indifferent if not hostile public. "To give them hare for cat," was one of his famous mottos, reversing a popular saying about a cook tricking the customer with the ingredients of a stew. In De la Sota's world, you had to slip the architecture in on the sly.

 The most directly Sotian design of aldayjover is the Delicias Sports Pavilion in Zaragoza, where the trusses that span the gymnasium carry smaller exercise rooms between them, spaces that alternate in bands between rows of clerestory natural lighting. This solution evokes a similar strategy in De la Sota's famous Maravillas Gymnasium in Madrid of 1962.  But at a more fundamental level, De la Sota represents both the clearest and yet the most subtle and profound expression of another characteristic of much Spanish architecture, one that is deeply implanted in the country's architectural education. Compared to their peers in other countries, Spanish architects are remarkably well-prepared for the technical challenges of building: structural calculations, detailing, construction supervision and so on. This solid, practical preparation is based on a vision of architecture as, first and foremost, a technical, scientific practice, and it tends to produce what we can characterize as elegantly understated, functional buildings.

 Of course, the danger of this technical focus is that it can blunt and over-simplify architecture in the same terms described in Heidegger's essay on technology. The great discovery of De la Sota in this regard is a Spanish version of Mies' "Less is more": by emptying the architectural vessel of extraneous content, one can free it to carry or respond to other, more subtle significations. This, I think, is why the work of De la Sota is so important to aldayjover. It serves them as an example of how they can free themselves from their contemporaries' obsession with creative form-making and seek, in its place, a more significant engagement with the issues that are found beyond the design of the building itself as an object.

 For aldayjover, the concept of the habitat as a cultural palimpsest emerges from this process of depuration as their guiding principle, within which the new, pressing issues of sustainability, environmental responsibility and response to climate change are elevated from strictly quantitative and analytic parameters into a tangible engagement with human history and culture in its relation to the land. The very act of converting a neglected riverbank into a park or a natural reserve is part of this process of engagement, as are subsidiary initiatives such as the open wetlands in the Zaragoza Water Park, where visitors can see at first hand the process of natural filtering and cleaning river water, or the Agriculture Interpretation Center in the Aranzadi Park of Pamplona, where the cultivation of endangered local varieties of vegetables is explained to school children and other visitors.


Aranzadi Park, Arga River, Pamplona


The transformative power of this strategy is highlighted in the ongoing academic research project for the Yamuna River in Delhi, India, led by Alday and Pankaj Vir Gupta, which they initiated at the University of Virginia, and which is now to be extended to Tulane University. In this collective effort to restore Delhi's relation to the river, the neglected traces of pre-colonial cultural and religious narratives and practices are proving to play a central role. The study proposes a number of infrastructural initiatives to clean the polluted river, treat the city's sewage and convert the river and its tributaries into the new, green structural trunk lines of the city. But in order for these measures to be effective, the team has concluded, cultural values must also be transformed, reviving the concept of "the commons," of common public spaces and resources that belong to all, and are the responsibility of all. The crux of the matter lies precisely in transforming a "resource" such as clean water from abstract quantified terms back into the tangible substance that is inseparable from its tangible place of origin in the river, and bears collective cultural values as embodied in the River Goddess of the Yamuna.

 Taken as a whole, aldayjover's work demonstrates the importance of understanding architecture in all its facets, from building design to landscape and territorial planning, as a unified cultural and a technical discipline that is capable of addressing complex problems in holistic terms. During the years of the icon builders, the cultural dimension of architecture was seen chiefly as a question of individual creative expression, of a personal poetics or sensibility, which was invested in the built object as if it were a work of art. Aldajovet's role, in contrast, is comparable in certain respects to those contemporary artists who seek to disengage the creative process from its focus on the objecthood of art, and seek, in its place, to engage more directly with the vital substance of life and experience. Aldayjover see architecture's cultural dimension as a question that arises from the problem itself, and whose solution is found there as well. They discover the hitherto unconscious narrative histories of the site or the landscape, the hidden currents of its cultural formation, and bring them to the surface in new configurations. In their work, the continuity of architecture's cultural dimension does not exclusively pass through the architect as am individual creator. Rather, they are highly-informed, thoroughly prepared and perceptive facilitators, like a wizard or a sage, if you will, who transform knowledge into action. And this, I think, is how architecture can once again prove its worth as a discipline capable of introducing positive changes in everyday life.


1.       Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1977.




Sunday, November 4, 2018

La Bôite à Miralces or the Faceless Building

This essay was published in the collection "The Power of Skin", which is dedicated to the subject of the building enclosure. The collection was edited by Professors Nicolás Mauri and Quique Zarza of the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Madrid in 2018.

Le Corbusier, La Bôite à Miracles
The contemporary concept of the building enclosure as a skin is based first and foremost on technical criteria. It arises with the separation of structure and enclosure in the development of the Modern Movement. From the first appearance of the structural frame in Chicago skyscrapers to Le Corbusier's Maison Domino and the postwar curtain wall, this technical innovation converts the building enclosure into a non-load-bearing membrane whose principal practical functions are to offer protection from the extremes of the exterior climate and to contribute to maintaining optimum environmental conditions on the interior.

With this development, certain traditional attributes of the building exterior as a "facade" can be abandoned. The building enclosure may still play a representative role, functioning as a "dressing" or adornment that establishes a sense of character and social status. It can still be used to represent, through its composition, the structural system or internal organization of the building, though just as often it is configured to represent its own non-load-bearing condition. But in its most radical expression, when the enclosure is conceived as a continuous, uniform sheath that wraps around the building in its entirety, the concept of the facade as the "face" of the building is annulled.

This subliminal condition of having a "face" depends on the building‘s apertures, its windows, balconies and doors, elements that establish, with their human scale and function, the connection between social and urban presence. Without recognizable apertures, this connection is interrupted, converting the enclosure into a mask, and the building into an enigmatic presence.

By the term "face" I mean more an action than a physical feature. We might more accurately term this action as "presenting face", in which the facade takes its place, in clearly anthropomorphic terms, in the social space of its setting, in Hannah Arendt‘s "space of public appearance", as cited by Kenneth Frampton.(1) Examples include, at one extreme, the main façade of the Monastery-Palace of El Escorial, located north of Madrid in Spain, in relation to the paved plaza in front of it, and at another, the more modest palaces and houses that line Madrid's Calle Mayor. Whether dwelling, church or public structure, the building takes part in a ceremony of social engagement with its context that can be compared, for example, to the rules of comportment of the Spanish Court, or of a military dress parade, in terms of dress, bearing, and regard, of seeing and being seen, with the appropriate marks of station and mutual respect, all backed by the underlying tension of a mutual measurement of force.  Velázquez‘s Las Meninas offers a charming informal "take" on this calculus of social presence that verges on parody: around the axis of regard established between the Infanta and the King and Queen, the varied cast of characters, by their actions or the potential unpredictability of their actions, tense the limits of proper decorum in almost balletic terms: the Infanta herself, who displays the contained energy of a child, her chatty child attendants, the dwarf, the dog, the retreating gentleman in the doorway, presenting himself even as he turns away (here the evident connection between the social and architectural space), and the unbridled gaze of the painter himself, who is regarding  exactly whom? – the royal couple, a mirror image of himself, the viewer?

Juan de la Corte, Fiesta en la Plaza Mayor, circa 1630,
Museo Municipal de Madrid

When conceived as a continuous skin or sheath, the non-load-bearing enclosure annuls this theatrical play between the building and its urban setting. An early example is the uninterrupted mirror-glass of Henry Cobb‘s John Hancock Tower in Boston (1967-1976). In a 1985 article, Rafael Moneo found a relation between the "featureless" skin of the building and the aims of minimalist art, a connection that continues in many of the more recent examples we shall examine. In minimalism, he finds, citing the writings of Robert Morris, "the image [of the work] is reduced to the point where it coincides with the object that the artist has produced, without any mediation whatsoever, without subscribing to any possible signification...." (2)

John Hancock Towerl Boston
Source: Wikicomons. Credit: Tomtheman5, 7 July 2007.

In accordance with this definition he notes the Hancock Tower's "de-materialization of constructed reality", and its aspiration towards "a minimum expression, the descanso of forms, the extinction of signification".  He observes that, "As a material reality, the John Hancock flees from our grasp, leaving only its abstract volume, as if it were a minimalist stele. Its architecture is perceived as radically different, 'other'... " Perhaps most strikingly, he draws attention to the building's alienation from its context, both the immediate surroundings of Copley Square and as a presence on the city skyline: "The skyscraper, the John Hancock would seem to affirm, can only be an abstract solid, fragile and immaterial, that is delicately inscribed in the city fabric, although it appears to ignore it: the John Hancock is an iceberg that floats, and as such, is adrift."

The only point of "weakness" in this image of minimalist aloofness, Moneo continues, occurs when the illuminated interior is revealed through the glass at night, and with it, the building's human scale, as well as the skin's essential function as a membrane or filter that mediates between inside and out.

The Hancock is thus a kind of stealth tower. Its alienation and otherness are very much a product of the late 1960s, an image of power –in this case corporate power– that is uncomfortable about presenting a public face in a time of widespread political protests, and that is uncomfortable too about its surroundings, at a time when North American cities were caught in a cycle of racial conflict, middle-class flight and decline.

In more recent work this quality of otherness provoked by the continuous enveloping skin is developed as a more positive value. A key metaphoric or typological image for this contemporary approach is Le Corbusier's 1948 drawing of the "Bôite à Miracles" or "magic box". He represents the magic box as a monumental, solid rectangle characterized only by the tiny black dot of an entry. He depicts the monolith on an empty plain whose vast spatial extension is indicated by minuscule dots and strokes of the pen, which may or may not represent human figures.(3) The featureless volume of the exterior converts the interior into something of a mystery and therefore a seductive lure. The type thus functions more as an icon than as an absent presence, although it preserves an aura of otherness.

Significantly, Le Corbusier proposed the magic box as a prototype for a theater, explaining, "Scenes and actors appear the moment the miracle box appears; the miracle box is a cube; with it comes everything that is needed to perform miracles, levitation, manipulation, distraction, etc."  In a strict functional sense, Le Corbusier is describing a "black-box" flexible theater space, but in a broader sense, as a contemporary architectural type, the magic box transfers the "space of public appearance" of the traditional urban scene to the interior, where users become its "actors".(4)

Jean Nouvel, DR Concert Hall, Copenhagen
© Bjarne Bergius Hermansen, ceded by of client.

Jean Nouvel touched on many of the attributes of the magic box in his project description for the DR Concert Hall in Copenhagen (2003-2009), which features a media-facade for projecting digital images: "It will be a ... mysterious parallelepiped that changes under the light of day and night, whose interior can only be guessed at. At night the volume will come alive with images, colors, and lights expressing the life going on inside.... The interior is a world in itself, complex and diversified." He concludes, "Mystery is never far from seduction."(5)

Dominique Perrault confirmed the typological relevance of the image when he named his Olympic Tennis Center in Madrid the Magic Box (2002-2009). In this case, the three sports halls, with their brightly-colored seats and operable roofs, are encased in a massive rectangular pavilion with an open-air perimeter screened in curtains of metal mesh.

Projects such as these, which take part in the latest and most radical investigations into the formal qualities of the building skin, depend on more recent technical developments involving the configuration of the building membrane. One of the richest sources of innovation has come from rethinking the ventilated cavity wall. This system, first introduced in the late 19th century, was originally applied mainly in masonry construction. But in recent decades the system has evolved to incorporate many other materials, particularly for the exterior cladding, which is often extremely permeable, and therefore not necessarily solid  or continuous. The inner layer of the assembly –which is often a conventional double-glazed curtain wall–  performs the bulk of the task of insulation and enclosure. The cavity is a space of tempered, ventilated air that buffers temperature extremes. Like a bris-soleil, the outer layer thus functions more as a shield against the elements than an enclosure.

The versatility of this system has allowed architects to explore a stunning variety of sensorial experiences using different kinds of materials in surprising ways. The outer layer can function as a veil, as Perrault's tennis stadium, and as in the galvanized, perforated metal panels that screen Estudio Entresitio's Medical Clinic in Damiel (Castilla - La Mancha, 2003- 2007). It can appear weightless and evanescent, as in Rafael de La-Hoz's Telefónica complex in Las Tablas, Madrid (2002-2007), where it is composed of a plane of frameless, super-transparent glass, supported only by isolated sheets of glass that project perpendicularly from the main curtain wall. Alternatively, it can be exaggeratedly solid, as in Antón García-Abril's Conservatory in Santiago de Compostela (1998-2002), clad in massive blocks of granite scarred by long vertical drill cuts. Or in contrast, stone can be treated as if it were glass, as in Manuel Gallego's Research Institutes at the University of Santiago de Compostela (1998), where the architect hangs oversized, thin sheets of granite from the frame within the cavity wall, setting each piece afloat with open, mortarless joints.

Alejandro Zaera, housing, Carabanchel, Madrid. 
Photo ceded by archtiect.

With the bamboo facade of a social housing block in Carabanchel, Madrid by Alejandro Zaera an Farshid Moussavi of FOA (2007), we return to strategies of minimalism and the sensuous, even fragrant material richness of arte povera, in which "significance" is supplanted by sensual stimuli. The bamboo is mounted on hinged louvers, and encloses the continuous galleries that wrap around the building. The operable louvers give the monolithic image of the volume a contrasting human scale, and capriciously reveal its interior, creating a dialogue with the "otherness" of the volume that feeds the dynamic mechanism of our attraction to the work.

Herzog and de Meuron's CaixaForum Madrid (2001- 2008) converts the building skin into both a textured and a signifying surface. The architects take the masonry shell of the industrial building that originally occupied the site, lift it off the ground, and wrap it around the new volume like an animal pelt, an exotic trophy. This rather surreal strategy challenges preconceptions about the authentic and the ornamental, and about the nature of recycled historic settings.

While these projects focus mainly on the material qualities of the skin as an external enclosure, others investigate how its qualities as a filtering membrane can shape the internal experience of the work. A crucial step in this direction is the shift from the concept of the "magic box" to the "magic lantern", in which volumes are clad in translucent glass, glowing with natural light during the day and with artificial light from inside at night. A series of works has explored this concept with increasing intensity, from Rafael Moneo's Kursaal in San Sebastián (1989 - 1999) to the skylight lanterns and lobby of Steven Holl's addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City (1999 - 2007), and SelgasCano's El Batel Congress Center in Cartagena (2012). This last project is clad in a cavity wall composed of extruded bars of methacrylate and polycarbonate, whose curving sections distort visual transparency like a prism, and refract the thin lines of color laid into the plastic.

SelgasCano, El Batel Congress Center, Cartagena. © Iwan Baan.

The illuminated translucence of these works is both alluring and displacing. It converts the facade into a barrier that is almost as unmediated as a solid sheath, but in which structural elements inside the wall, as well as object and people on the other side, become suggestive silhouettes. The luminous public spaces of the interiors bathe us in a theatrical aura. This is true especially in Cartagena, where the effect has a comic, playful edge, in its references to Pop and sci fi imagery. SelgasCano create a sense of luminous spatial immanence and otherness, of heightened awareness and estrangement, that once again gives visual protagonism to the balletic play of our movement, mutual regard and social interaction – less formally choreographed and hierarchical in this case than in the court of Felipe IV, and more about individuals and couples in patterns of flow. Thus, while Nouvel's DR Concert Hall transforms the building skin into a luminous digital image, SelgasCano put us inside the screen.

Several works by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA further investigate the themes of transparency, reflection, veiling and a displacing immanence, including the curving glass walls and interior partitions of the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio (2006), and the low, elongated galleries of the Louvre Lens (2012), finished in aluminum, which in Iwan Baan's photographs seem to float over the landscape in a haze.
SANAA, IVAM Museum, Valencia (project)

One of SANAA's most intriguing projects is their unrealized enlargement of the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno (IVAM, Valencia, Spain, 2002), where they proposed to enclose the existing building and the entire city block it occupies in a "skin" of perforated steel panels. In their project description, they claim that this macro-volume will function as an ideal permeable membrane, creating "a delicate separation between outdoors and indoors" that will "transform the wind into a gentle breeze" and "transform the direct light into a luminous atmosphere." Inside, the existing building, its roof and entry court all become active spaces occupied by people and art. (6)

SANAA's "skin" approaches the condition of a bubble, a controlled, artificial habitat. In this respect, it brings to mind Buckminster Fuller's 1960 proposal to cover New York in a geodesic dome, as well as the pneumatic structures of Jose Miguel Prada Poole that were largely inspired in Fuller. Prada Poole's ephemeral domes for Ibiza's Instant City (1971) and the Encounters of Pamplona (1972) were the most essential expression of the magic box: a tensile skin of translucent, brightly-colored plastic film, entirely without structure and supported on pressurized air, with a sealed interior accessed by valve-like flaps. Artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina recalls of the domes in Pamplona, "The space was rather magical, so immense, with the light filtering through the arches, which gave it an orangish effect, and the continuous sound of the ventilators." (7)

Prada Poole, Pneumatic Structure, Pamplona, 1972. Credit, see Note 7.

Despite the distance covered, the concept of the building enclosure as a luminous membrane, as proposed by SelgasCano, SANAA or Prada Poole, still has something in common with the non-load-bearing masonry enclosures of the first Chicago skyscrapers. In his essay, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Text-Tile Tectonic," Kenneth Frampton shows how Louis Sullivan's decorated facades of brick and terra cotta were conceived as a kind of weave, and were conceptually anchored in Gottfried Semper's theories that the origin of building is found in fabric, knots and the tensile structure of the nomadic tent – an idea carried further by Frank Lloyd Wright in the interwoven patterns of his textile block system.(8)  

Semper's concept is also related to the drawings of a "primitive temple" that Le Corbusier published in Vers une Architecture, which actually represent the Jewish tabernacle in the wilderness, as Kenneth Frampton and others have pointed out.(9) The illustration depicts a monumental tent structure that can be considered a precursor to the Bôite à Miracles. Prada Poole's tensed bubbles bring this idea home again, while we can look back and find woven, patterned "fabrics" in the play of digital pixels across the façade of the DR Concert Hall, in the fitted cyclopean stonework of García-Abril's music conservatory, in the bamboo of the Carabanchel housing or the tensed glass sheets of the Telefónica complex. As rendered in almost any material, the non-load-bearing enclosure can be understood as a woven membrane and, in a certain sense, its encloses as essentially tent-like.

Le Corbusier, Primitive Temple
The importance given to enclosure as opposed to structure in this line of development sets it apart from the tradition that extends from Viollet-le-Duc's concept of structural rationalism, of an architecture based on "organic" and "rational" principles of construction. This alternative concept moves through the Gothic Revival, Barcelona Modernisme and Brutalism, for example, and can be ascribed to the work of contemporary figures ranging from Richard Rogers to Santiago Calatrava. These parallel lines of investigation offer a dialectic between the sensorial effects of architectural space on the one hand and the technical means of construction on the other.

To these two groups we should probably add a third, which has been concerned more exclusively with restoring the civic "face" of the building in the courtly, Baroque sense that we have discussed above. This third path was part of the Post Modern attempt to revive or reinvent the civic values of the traditional city, a period that forms a transitional bridge between the alienation of the John Hancock Tower and the arrival of the iconic magic box, though this is a discussion I will have to reserve for another time.

But as we have seen, the line of contemporary architecture that most radically explores the nature and limits of the building skin contains contradictory drives. On the one hand, it would seem to pursue the limits of its own dissolution into spatial atmosphere, seeking to subsume its material being into heightened perception. And on the other, in its essential condition as a barrier, its drive is to withhold, mask, and displace, to interrupt social space and to put into motion the dividing and attracting mechanisms of the semiotic lure. In both these drives, towards heightened perception and seductive withholding, I think it can be fairly stated that its principal point of reference is the endlessly fascinating allure of the illuminated digital screen, and the new, virtual space of public appearance it has created, which is the true and authentic magic box of our time.


1.    Kenneth Frampton, "Prospects for a critical regionalism," Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal 20, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts,1983, p. 147-162.

2.    This and following quotes: Rafael Moneo, "Sobre el John Hancock del I. M. Pei & Partners," Arquitectura Bis, No. 52, December 1985, Barcelona, p. 4 - 12.

3.    Le Corbusier, “The Heart as a Meeting Place for the Arts,” lecture presented in CIAM 8, Hoddesdon, England, 1951, published in:
Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, J. L. Sert & Ernesto Rogers, CIAM 8: The Heart of the City,  Pelligrini and Cudahy, New York, 1952.

Luis Moreno Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón introduced me to "La Boite à Miracles", and I discussed it in a text on their work:
David Cohn, "Razón y Forma," 2G No. 27, Mansilla + Tuñón. Obra reciente. Recent work, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 2003, p. 6 - 19.

The concept is related to "the cube that works" that Alejandro de la Sota attributed to Le Corbusier: Alejandro de la Sota, Alejandro de la Sota, Arquitecto, Pronaos, Madrid, 1989 p. 176.
4.    Le Corbusier, Ibid.

5.    Ateliers Jean Nouvel, "Danish Radio Concert House," Ateliers Jean:

6.   SANAA, IVAM Extension Project, 2002. Digital press document in the files of David Cohn.

7.   Pepa Bueno, "Esto se hincha," in: José Díaz Cuyás and others, editors, Encuentros de Pamplona 1972: fin de fiesta del arte experimental, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2009, p. 244.

8.    Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, Architectural Press, London, 1927, p. 66. Analyzed in: Kenneth Frampton, A Genealogy of Modern Architecture: Comparative Critical Analysis of Built Form, Lars Müller, Zurich, 2015, p 58 – 73.

9.    Kenneth Frampton, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the Text-Tile Tectonic," Studies in Tectonic Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1995, p 93 - 120.


La Bôite a Miracles
Nicolás Mauri and Quique Zarza, editors
The Power of Skin: New Materiality in Contemporary Architectural Design
Arcadia Mediática, Compaq, Arkrit (Escuela TécnicaSuperior de Arquitectura, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid), 2018, pages 225 - 240 (In Spanish and English)