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2008 February: Cubist Casbah

[ARCHIVE] Social housing by Morphosis on the edge of Madrid is transformed into a modern eco casbah

The competition-winning social housing project that Morphosis completed in December of last year offers a dramatic contrast to the bland brick towers of middle-class apartments that surround it. A gleaming white complex of cubist blocks, patios and walkways, it evokes the hill villages of Andalusia or the casbahs of north Africa.

Located in Carabanchel, a masterplanned community bordered by the ring road to the south-west of the fast-growing Spanish capital, it is one of 27 projects in that area sponsored by EMVS, the city housing authority. These were all designed by new or established architects, from Spain and abroad, and they are scattered among the private developments. The construction budget is a frugal €600sqm, and the completed units are offered for sale or rent at a third of the market rate.

Morphosis principal Thom Mayne rose to the challenge: ‘We’ve always made a practice of building inexpensively’, he says. ‘I share the idealism of the early Modernists, and the client gave us free rein conceptually as long as we met the budget.’ For this first venture in Spain, Mayne’s team collaborated with BDU Estudio de Arquitectura, a fledgling Madrid firm founded by Begoña Diaz-Urgorri who briefly worked for Morphosis, and gained experience building another innovative project for EMVS.

Residential construction in Spain is booming, and government agencies estimate that 900,000 units were built last year - almost as many as were constructed in the rest of Europe. In part this is due to a surge of immigration, in part to a frenzy of speculation, but most of the privately financed houses and apartment blocks are conventional in design and poorly constructed. Public housing is much more adventurous, and Mayne’s vision, which was fleshed out by Diaz-Urgorri and Morphosis project architect Pavel Getov, is a brilliant reworking of the Mediterranean vernacular in the tradition of Le Corbusier and Team Ten.

The architects stacked the two-bedroom apartments in a thin-section seven-storey slab that runs along the north side of the site. The street facade has small openings, and the apartments open up to south-facing terraces at each level. A four-storey block defines the south boundary, and these two bars of small units bracket a village-like complex of three- and four-bedroom duplexes, with a podium of parking below.

A broad poseo, shaded by aluminium mesh canopies that will support a variety of flowering plants, bisects the complex from north to south, connecting to a network of narrow passages. Public plazas alternate with inner patios. ‘We tried to create an infrastructure for social interchange, with neighbours meeting casually and conversing from one space to another’, says Mayne.

To keep construction costs down, the architects played variations on a simple, three-dimensional module, and employed the standard building system of a concrete structural frame and stuccoed brick infill. Mesh-covered Styrofoam panels sprayed with cement are supported on steel poles to define the poseo. The mature trees that Morphosis had wanted to plant were eliminated as an economy, and the plantings have yet to soften the canopies, giving the project a sharp-edged Constructivist look.

The units are compact (60 to 100sqm) but attractively finished, with hardwood floors, terrazzo stairs and built-in cabinets. Chimney-like towers serve as ventilation shafts, pulling in cool breezes and evacuating hot air, and natural ventilation from the open spaces keeps the units cool on all but the hottest days. Solar panels contribute to the heating, and abundant natural light also reduces energy costs.

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