Using banal materials to poetic effect, this dining marquee sits between architecture, landscape art and minimalist sculpture
The marquee stands to the rear of a precinct belonging to the restaurant Les Cols (‘The Cabbages’ in Catalan) in the small town of Olot, 40 kilometres west of Girona on the edge of the volcanic park of La Garrotxa in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It is the latest in a series of interventions by RCR Arquitectes on the site, beginning with the main restaurant constructed just over a decade ago, and continuing since with a sequence of minimalist pavilions for overnight stays.
The restaurant has established a style of its own combining quality local produce with a sophisticated up-to-the-minute cuisine. One is tempted to say that the building and the contents are from the same table as they both fuse modernity and tradition, east and west.
The architects of RCR are very much of their place but they also possess a cosmopolitan architectural culture reaching beyond Catalan traditions to a wider world of inspirations including the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, the steel blade sculptures of Richard Serra and the Zen gardens of Kyoto. The marquee fits into this trajectory. With its slender structure suggesting both temple and tent, it exists on the knife edge between the industrial and the rural, the artificial and the natural.
As well as being a remarkable work of contemporary architecture, the marquee is the latest in a string of experiments supported by an enlightened client with an eye for quality and sharp commercial sense. This, the most recent structure on the site, responds to the apparently growing need for wedding banquets and large social get-togethers.
It has an independent kitchen to the rear and can cater for groups of different sizes: it was an intrinsic part of the programme that the building should feel right with a dozen people in it having a Sunday lunch, or with several hundreds attending a major reception. No doubt this requirement led the architects to the idea of compartments that are not compartmentalised, and to the idea of a big space that does not feel big. Beyond the usual practical issues of cloakrooms and bathrooms (tucked off to one side in the masonry surround of the structure), there was the need to find the right festive note.
Trees are planted within these partitions, creating a deceptively simple interplay of interior and exterior spaces
When solving architectural problems the three architects of RCR − Ramón Vilalta, Carme Pigem and Rafael Aranda − ask such questions as ‘What does the programme really mean?’ and ‘How can these problems be resolved in a way that synthesises the contradictions in a clear idea?’ They work like a jazz group in which one individual launches a theme and the others pick it up and develop it. But they still need to get back to the basic concepts in defining the identity of a work.
The site was rather unremarkable with vegetable gardens on one side and some shacks on the other. RCR decided to define a precinct by cutting into the ground, building solid masonry surrounds, and surmounting the whole thing with a hovering roof spanning the entire lateral dimension of the space.
It was also necessary to respond intelligently to the environmental requirements of the programme throughout the seasons of the year, and to cut out ambient noise while creating internal acoustics suitable for speeches. In turn it was essential to cut down the racket that can be reflected off floors in the din of conversation.
Reflections multiply when the space is lit at night, creating a transparent light box
In tune with the sensibility of their earlier buildings, RCR devoted considerable attention to the granular texture of ground materials, including not just the floor of the vast room itself, but also the meandering approach path. Circulation was crucial, and as usual they guided a serpentine route by orchestrating views through layers of actual and implied transparency.
The idea of a floating roof −combining light filter, protection from the elements, air cushion and baldachin − was also in tune with their intention of defining single elements serving several functions and carrying several meanings. Then there was the startling use of semi-transparent curtains made of agricultural tent plastic, which endow a banal readymade material with poetry as it captures and filters a silvery light.
The marquee is detailed at the edges so that the ends of the steel rods supporting the bowing roof stand free of the masonry walls on slender steel flanges. As a result the superstructure appears to hover even as it weighs down towards the middle point. It suggests both strength and flexion.
Skeletal roof members sit on special brackets atop the exterior wall, sagging like steel bamboo
Meanwhile the joints of the masonry portions are carefully detailed to express both mass and surface. They supply an ancient note as if post-industrial nomads had stumbled uponan ancient ruin and decided to cover it with a temporary shelter.
In RCR’s work the texture of materials is one of the keys to their meaning. The closer to the volcanic ground, the rougher and more granular the treatment of stone or concrete; the closer to the sky, the smoother and more transparent the materials. The marquee distils these generic themes in its section and in its very fabric. As for the plastic layers, they appear to be both there but not there. The architects have never been ‘classicists’ in any obvious sense, but they have absorbed almost unconsciously the tripartite division of base, middle and top, and in their way have transformed the idea of rustication.
In plan, the building is deceptively simple and suggests an oblong, symmetrical room with slender partitions defined by slots letting in air and light and supplying places for rows of trees. This is an ingenious reinvention of the notion of the ‘free plan’. One rarely experiences the plan’s symmetry directly (except for the arc of the roof), for one moves across the building along an asymmetrical, zigzag route. Diagonal views play an essential role as do the shifting planes suggested by the hanging curtains of plastic.
Everything about the building is ambiguous, beginning with its definition as an architectural object, for it floats in light and dissolves in air, seeming to melt into its landscape surroundings.The roof, constructed from slender rods like steel bamboo, bows down in the middle and draws a catenary in space, but this is the only easily identifiable geometry. For the rest, the marquee works principally with voids, floating planes, unfolding limits and, of course, changing effects of light.
As one moves through the translucent plastic sheeting, the lateral slots containing slender saplings suggest spaces within spaces, while the shadows of trunks and branches supply a tracery drawn by nature. The effect is curiously theatrical, especially when people gather in groups for wedding receptions or other ceremonial events. The figures move from one loosely defined compartment to the next, and at a distance are transformed into silhouettes. They themselves help to define the ‘form’ of the building by their presence.
Despite its modest appearance, the marquee touches on a range of contemporary agendas concerning the relationship between modern technology and the givens of nature. The double-skin roof, with its serigraphed upper glass surface, filters the light while reducing heat and blocking the negative effects of the sun’s rays in the summer. At the same time the pocket of air supplies an insulating layer for dealing with a wide range of temperatures throughout the year. In turn, the double layer supplies an acoustic cushion.
Mottled light is refracted onto the slender stems of young saplings creating an enhanced nature
These pragmatic considerations are not dealt with by means of added gadgets but are integral to the solution, and correspond to the ethos of the architects, who favour technical devices responding to natural forces.
At the same time, the marquee touches upon the theme of origins by evoking archetypes such as the platform, the pergola and the tent. Over time the saplings in the lateral ‘pockets’ will grow into trees which will lend the whole structure the air of a clearing or even a natural version of a hypostyle hall. This delicate structure suggesting a contemporary version of a bower, frames human activity and intensifies the experience of the natural world through a poetic abstraction.
The marquee exists in a realm somewhere between architecture, landscape art, minimalist sculpture and the techniques of modern agriculture. It takes its place in an oeuvre that includes other structures existing in an ambiguous state between architecture and landscape such as the winery at Bell-lloc (see AR January 2010). In that case the predominant themes had to do with a descent into the earth and into the realm of shadows as an exploration of the very process of cultivating and producing wine undergound.
Watercolor sketch by the architects highlighting how the canopies of the trees will merge with the roof plane
The marquee, by contrast, makes luminosity its main feature. The light is filtered and disposed in a variety of ways, not least by means of the acrylic furniture with edges that shine. The toplighting along the edges of the structure catches the rough aggregate walls and casts veils of vertical shadows.
The materials of the marquee dissolve into immateriality and the structure captures the slightest changes of light intensity as when a cloud moves over the sun. At night, on the other hand, the marquee is transformed into a magical environment, an ideal place for a midnight feast looking up at the moon. ‘Almost nothing’; the phrase of course belonged to Mies van der Rohe and has been appropriated by any number of correct neo-Modernists, but the work of RCR Arquitectes goes deeper than that into the questions of structural rigour, ‘simplicity’ and architectural space. RCR conceives buildings less as objects, more as voids.
Model showing how the roof will lie across the landscape like a series of long shards of crystal
They respond to sites at several scales and read them as fields of potential energy which can be brought alive by the right architectural incisions. The larger landscape is always at the back of their minds and their approach is particularly relevant to the new conditions of a middle landscape which exists somewhere between an abandoned agriculture and the industrial wasteland of extra urban sprawl.
RCR has roots in a Barcelona tradition of architecture and landscape which includes key works by Miralles/Pinós as well as Torres/Lapeña and Carlos Ferrater, but in the long run there are debts to Gaudí who, in his time, tried to anchor a frantic urban development with metaphors of nature. Equally RCR has entered dialogue with seminal Japanese works such as the Water Temple by Tadao Ando and more recent works stressing transparency by, for example, SANAA and Junya Ishigami. But they have also returned to roots, and in their case this means not only the volcanic landscape of their home environment but also the Zen Gardens, temples and teahouses of ancient Kyoto. The latter hold out perennial lessons in social ritual, the transition from the artificial to the natural, the movement through spaces of different intensity and the evocation of the spirit through emptiness and the void.
The agricultural plastic cladding creates a mesmerising play of light inside the space
Architect: RCR Arquitectes
Photographs: Pep Sau