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Metropol Parasol by Jürgen Mayer H. Architekten, Seville, Spain

Civic icon, shady plaza, farmer’s market, archaeological museum and belvedere: Seville’s newest landmark is versatile and site-specific. Photography by Paul Raftery

The Metropol Parasol by Jürgen Mayer resembles a grove of prefabricated wooden trees soaring over the shabby Plaza de la Encarnación, excavated for an underground parking garage.

Digging was halted when mosaic floors and other remains of Roman villas were discovered at a depth of six metres. Three competitions were held to redevelop the site, and Mayer won the third with an organic structure that is radically different from the sharp-edged geometry of his previous work.

His design was presented for public comment in early 2004 and the response was surprisingly favourable. Most innovative urban interventions, from the Eiffel Tower to IM Pei’s Pyramid, have taken a year or more to win popular acceptance.

To their credit, the Sevillanas saw that Mayer had been inspired by the shade trees in a neighbouring park and the undulating stone roof of the city’s Gothic cathedral and expressed their approval.

They may also have spotted allusions to the fretted screens and patterned bricks of Moorish and Mudéjar buildings, and the barred shadows of the awnings covering the Calle Sierpes in the summer.

Seville can be wet (this year’s Semana Santa was as soggy as an typical English April) or fiercely hot, as you would expect of a city that lies on the latitude of Tunis.

Even a sun-loving Berliner understands the need for protection, and Mayer also realised that his work would have to be supported at a few, carefully positioned points to preserve the integrity of the ruins.

The solution was to create a layered structure that turns the excavation into a subterranean museum, maintains the existing street level for the market and creates a fresh plaza on its roof beneath a canopy that rises from six trunks.

Metropol Parasol by Jürgen Mayer H. Architekten, Seville, Spain

Steps, escalators and lifts in concrete shafts link these levels to an 800m² rooftop restaurant and a 250m walkway that snakes over the undulating grid of laminated wood panels.

From the day it opened, the plaza drew locals to stroll, sketch and skate, lacking only the benches and café tables to be added as the spaces are fleshed out. The market is fully occupied, but the restaurant and storefronts still await their tenants.

Concerts are promised, and the multi-level complex looks as though it will prove to be a popular gathering place late into the night.

Mayer developed the structural system for his Mensa Karlsruhe, and it proved the best solution to issues of cost, durability, maintenance, thermal expansion and seismic resistance.

Materials and glues were tested for temperatures of up to 80ºC. Regrettably, the polyurethane coating required to protect the wood is in a dull cream tone, unevenly applied, and masks the texture of the panels, which could easily be cement board.

The panels, of varying thickness and size, are bolted and braced together to create a resilient superstructure rising from a steel and concrete base. Fire regulations required the restaurant to have a steel deck.

Spanish architects have mastered the art of renewing their historic legacy, juxtaposing old and new with a grace and boldness lacking in other countries. Mayer appears to have captured that spirit in his latest and largest work.

Until now, he was best known for creating isolated sculptural objects, such as the Mensa Karlsruhe, Danfoss Universe and Villa Ludwigsburg, with its cantilevered wings. Inspiration came from his collection of payment envelopes, with their repetitive patterns designed to camouflage the contents.

He would find a point of departure in what he called ‘this primordial soup’ of tiny shapes, and a simple diagram morphed into a complex structure. Inventive as the earlier buildings were, they can appear a little too schematic, like enlarged models.

In contrast, the Metropol Parasol could be likened to a honeycomb or a coral reef as much as a clump of trees, and these natural associations give it a humanity that is lacking in the mechanistic, puffed-up structures of Santiago Calatrava.

The sensuous forms that swell from each trunk and extend overhead are imbued with an inner energy that expresses the vitality of the city and plays off the drab facades. From every vantage point, the shapes and perspectives shift, drawing you up and inside the structure, as though this were a living presence.

A soloist has produced a symphony, transcending the limitations of simple modules to create an urban landscape.

Architect Jürgen Mayer H. Architekten, Berlin
Structural Engineer Arup
Timber Contractor Finnforest Merk

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