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‘An extraordinary feat of concrete craftsmanship’: Argos Centre in Medellín by Lorenzo Castro

Lorenzo Castro has taken a material often considered unforgiving in nature, and transformed it into a symbol of creativity and playfulness

The private institution of EAFIT University has occupied the east bank of the Medellín, the river that divides the city, since the 1970s. Because of the constraints of the passing Autopista Regional and metro, the campus has grown hermetically. On its isolated campus, a series of landscaped environments have been developed in response to poor surrounding conditions. The rector of the university wanted these parks to become places of interaction and act as an extension of learning spaces.

When Argos, a concrete company, agreed to collaborate with EAFIT to create a  new innovation laboratory on campus, the ensuing competition called for a building  that would highlight the innovative use  of concrete within the materiality of the project – containing invention and revealing innovation within its fabric. The use of architecture to showcase this singular material was not only a clever move on  behalf of the concrete company, it also  proved inspiring for Lorenzo Castro, the appointed architect.

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre location plan

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre location plan

Site plan - click to expand

‘Castro has sculpted two very different facades: one to address the city and river, the other facing the campus’

Born and raised in Bogotá, Castro has taught and built in Medellín before and understands the nuances of the city’s cultural identity. The architect’s work often tells a story about a project’s context with the ambition to create a memorable intervention (see Bucamaranga water park, and Niqia housing, AR February 2011). At the competition stage, the EAFIT campus’s physical disconnection from the centre of Medellín was an important realisation, and Castro’s proposal included a pedestrian bridge across the river in an attempt to re-engage the city – the bridge was not built, a missed opportunity that should now be commissioned. The relationship of the building to its context is nevertheless revealed in Castro’s decision to sculpt two very different facades, one to address the city and river, the other facing the campus. 

Castro chose a very white concrete for the facades, inspired by a 1950s chapel and cemetery visible from the site. This led to research into the origins of its aggregate – it came from Cartagena where crushed rocks create very clear sand. This research of local materiality is inherent in Castro’s work and one way he develops his narrative. Much  work was done with Argos to recreate this concrete, which Castro shapes into a variety of forms. 

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre plans

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre plans

Floor plans - click to expand

Approaching from the main road, striking white conical shells poke out of the eastern facade, bestowing the campus with a beautiful signature building. An extraordinary feat of craftsmanship, the elevation almost acts as an intriguing shield set against the city and the river. Castro tells me the mythical narrative of Greek giant Argus, who protected his ship’s inhabitants and ripped out intruders’ eyes, later becoming the ‘eyes’ on peacock feathers, which are here represented by protruding concrete cones. The cones vary in scale; all precast elements are fixed on site to the shuttered wall. 

Castro wanted a building with ‘no beginning’ – allowing the campus to flow seamlessly into the centre, so that students might experience the laboratories and become interested in – or at least aware of – research and innovation taking place there. The typical academic campus usually offers a series of buildings associated with each subject, where academics and students rarely enter another faculty, usually inaccessible behind turnstiles and security guards. But at EAFIT, once you have passed through main campus security, Castro’s building is completely open, the ground floor acting more as a street that flows between two facades. It almost feels as though the building is levitating, and you are drawn into the underbelly of it with the desire to explore and investigate. The cantilevered screens or veils have a duality of meaning and use. They offer functionality to the offices and classrooms they protect, while meeting the brief of innovation using concrete.

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre 8

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre 8

Source: Juan Esteban Vergara

The public space and entrance is over an arched bridge or ‘hump’ with an auditorium that opens out onto the new landscaped public space. The laboratories at lower-ground level have large sliding glass doors that open onto this lower landscape where students can move between inside and outside, allowing a wonderful freedom between nature and classrooms. There are two main laboratories at lower ground and these are accessed from within. The rooms contain scientific machinery and the conical form of these internal spaces acts as a light chute and responds to the sensitivity of the equipment they contain. These rooms appear at ground level as concrete cones or spheres. 

Within this new landscape, my first impression as I approached was of concrete anthills popping out of the slab – a small homage to Hejduk whom Castro greatly admired. Castro describes this playfulness as ‘scaleless’, where elements such as walls and roofs become ambiguous and the building develops a mythical fabric. As you ascend the walkways of each floor you can peer through cones like telescopes to take in views of the city. As you reach the top floor you can look down at the sculptural facade. The effect is quite extraordinary as it takes on the appearance of a lunar landscape, with the mythic quality Castro was seeking. The building is cleverly ordered with laboratories at lower ground and roof level, and all can be viewed from connecting walkways.  

The west elevation does not reveal itself until you turn back to face this magnificent hovering screen. Castro was inspired by artist Luis Tomasello’s work and wanted this facade to offer a dynamic, rhythmical elevation that addresses the main campus. A series of precast fins are pinned vertically and act as louvres to the glazed offices and walkway.  The front of each fin is white concrete with the rear face painted red so, as you move, it appears to move also. There is an artisanal quality to both facades – a slight roughness  or crudeness of detail that adds to the overall effect. This is not the story of engineered precision but of craft, almost as though Castro had cast it himself.  Both walls display more than innovation, and a sensitive and playful quality that symbolises both the energy and poetic storytelling of Castro’s work. 

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre section

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre section

Section - click to expand

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre Detail

Lorenzo Castro Argos Centre Detail

Section detail - click to expand

Castro has an impressive portfolio of public-space projects that he undertook as advisor to the mayor and, at EAFIT, this understanding informs the civic space around the innovation centre. The timber slatted seating offers areas of shade around the perimeter, allowing for conversation and interaction along the defined pathways, not only mediating a connection with the interior spaces but also fostering a relationship and connection to the campus and city. 

At the innovation centre, Castro has adopted a poetic language where craft, innovation and storytelling are intertwined. Both university and industry have benefited from their mutual alliance, which has bred a building that is also a place of convergence, inspiring and producing creative dialogue and thinking. While the building establishes a direct relationship to city through an iconic facade, the project seeks to improve the university in creating better pedestrian and human conditions. As you reach the rooftop, enjoying views of the River Medellín and the city, as a moment to look forward and think back, it is truly memorable.

Argos Innovation Centre

Architect: Lorenzo Castro

Structural engineer:  IPI

Landscape: Mesa & Uribe 

Photographs: Juan Esteban Vergara, Lorenzo Castro, Argos

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