Fernando Menis has exported the volcanic geography of his native Tenerife to Toruń, Poland
‘Geological’ is the epithet that invariably springs to mind when contemplating the work of Tenerife-based architect Fernando Menis. Mining – both conceptually and literally – the mineral heft and power of his native land, Menis propagates a kind of Canary Islands version of Brutalism laced with an organicist derangement characteristic of Gaudí, Gehry and Gottfried Böhm. It’s an intoxicating cocktail and there’s nothing quite like it swirling around architecture’s current global mainstream.
It began and has evolved as a very specific architecture of place. Admittedly, this sounds clichéd, given how theories of critical regionalism have lost traction in recent years, subsumed by the gimlet-eyed tendencies of corporate starchitecture and the all-conquering anomie of placelessness. As Madrid-based critic David Cohn points out, the Modernist project was spawned in the relatively featureless topography of northern Europe, in cities and suburbs built on sedimented plains and smoothly eroded hills. ‘Its abstract and generalising qualities are thus those of a particular place’, he writes, ‘a place whose presence does not impose itself overwhelmingly.’ The intensity of landscape touches Modernism only peripherally in the ‘deviant archaism’ of rare incidents such as the topographic Casa Malaparte or Ronchamp humped on its bald pilgrimage mound.
‘Fragments of crushed masonry are cast in concrete and abraded with pneumatic drills to reveal the visceral texture underneath … like a structural version of terrazzo’
But Menis’s particular loci have an exceptionally distinctive genius, ignited and catalysed by the Tenerife beyond the trashy tourist strip, the Tenerife of brooding volcanic puissance, a pyroclastic moonscape of petrified lava, rocks, cracks and fissures, reverberating over millennia as an insistent, primordial and terrifying intimation of the earth’s antediluvian origins. For Menis, this geological diorama coalesces and morphs into an architecture of tectonic exuberance and inventiveness, powerfully inflected by the nuances of fabrication and craft. As a child, he used to make his own toys, and begins the process of design by modelling forms in clay, to inculcate ‘a physical and emotional approach to the project’, as he puts it. The resulting intensity of his buildings as physical artefacts represents another important dimension of their engagement in time, place and circumstance. Until last year, Menis’s best-known building was Magma Art and Congress (AR July 2007), a bold terraforming exercise on a site south of Tenerife’s capital, Santa Cruz. Now with the completion of a major commission for the £35 million CKK Jordanki concert hall in Toruń, Poland, he has been transported and transplanted into a context and climate almost unimaginably different from his home terrain. Can exported architecture successfully construct its identity from local realities rather than blandly reprising universalising tenets? CKK Jordanki was a test of Menis’s commitment to discern and construct an architecture not only of place as found, but critically, an architecture of place as potential.
Lying on the River Vistula in northern Poland, Toruń constitutes a picture-postcard tableau, even in the driving sleet of a Polish winter. One of its claims to fame is that it was the birthplace of Copernicus; another is that it escaped destruction during the Second World War. Its medieval Old Town is still intact, a hugger-mugger warren of red-brick quaintness now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Set in an urban park, part of a green cordon sanitaire that separates the Old Town from the rest of the city, the new concert hall is intended to demystify high culture and activate its surroundings. In the summer, for instance, it opens up to stage concerts to audiences in the park. Public routes are also threaded through it so it becomes a more rooted extension of the existing terrain. A ground-floor café edges its southern flank and a generous promenading foyer extends on the east side to greet visitors and concert-goers.
Undulating grass berms sculpt a natural auditorium from which the building emerges, a rough quartet of topographic volumes compacted and melded together like excavated geological strata. Within its contorted embrace are a large and a small concert hall wrapped in a labyrinthine foyer, as a fur stole might swaddle the shoulders of an opera lover. An ancillary volume containing technical services is embedded out of sight and mind in a bulwarking embankment running along the north edge.
Canted and skewed forms are trussed in a carapace of white concrete lightly imprinted with the boardmarking of its fabrication. Like delicately flayed skin, the béton brut membrane is intermittently incised and peeled away to reveal a subcutaneous layer of pulverised red brick, alluding to the very substance of Toruń’s medieval core.
‘The auditoria are transformed into caverns, with seating and staircases set in outcrops formed by folded, crumpled wall surfaces’
Years ago in Tenerife, Menis devised a constructional technique he calls ‘picado’, which was first employed in Magma Art and Congress. Fragments of crushed masonry are cast in concrete and its surface abraded with pneumatic drills to reveal the visceral texture underneath. The outcome is like a structural version of terrazzo. In various manifestations, the picado extends through the entire interior, swarming in hectically canted planes through the foyer and concert halls, where brick fragments are replaced by porous volcanic tufa to provide the necessary nuances of acoustic absorption.
As if cut from bedrock, the auditoria are transformed into caverns, with seating and staircases set in outcrops formed by folded, crumpled wall surfaces. Fissures and slots admit fitful shafts of daylight, enhancing the atmosphere of subterranean mystique. But these are caves with moving walls – the two concert halls can be combined to create a single performance space. Retractable seating and suspended concrete shells – which can be raised or lowered to adjust acoustic reverberation times – add further flexibility. From intimate chamber music to full-blown opera, there is an impressive range of performance permutations.
‘Brutalism’, then, does not cover it. The soubriquet is potentially applicable because Menis uses concrete in his phantasmagoric confections, shaping it and shocking it with abandon – but, equally, it could be regarded a post-rationalising ruse in the quest to find plausible new Brutalist progenitors. Now that Brutalism is enjoying a bittersweet commodified resurgence, Menis seems ripe for appropriation, although what the Smithsons would have made of him is anyone’s guess. Although they would doubtless baulk at the unrestrained quality of some of the form making, perhaps they would be charmed by his outsider disinhibition, nurtured by existential remove from the more introverted climes of the European continental mothership.
But to characterise Fernando Menis as a flamboyant neo-romanticist, seduced by the physical and topographic extremes of his surroundings, is simplistic. His work has a wider resonance in that it forms part of an ongoing process of investigation into how the Canaries, with their astounding primeval landscapes, can adapt to the pressures and uncertainties of 21st-century global economics. Beyond building, through the wider prism of teaching and research, Menis continues to explore and question the balance between the demands of mass tourism and the resilience of his native archipelago. And now, equally importantly, he is exporting his architectural sensibilities beyond its shores.
Architect: Fernando Menis
Project team: Jaume Cassanyer, Javier Espílez, Karolina Mysiak
Structural engineer: José Antonio Franco (Martínez Segovia, Fernandez Pallas y Asociados)
Photographs: Jakub Certowicz, Roland Halbe