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Can Framis Museum by BAAS, Barcelona, Spain

BAAS adapt and extend a factory to create a peaceful oasis that maintains the memory of the site’s not so distant past. Photography by Fernando Guerra

Arriving at the Can Framis Museum with sand between your toes epitomises the delightful condition of Barcelona, where society and the sea co-exist. With a medieval core embedded within Ildefons Cerdà’s triumphant city grid, and its spectacular position between natural boundaries of ocean and mountain, Barcelona is a place of harmonious contrast, dramatic juxtaposition and curious, fractured continuity. This new building, funded by Catalan pharmaceutical magnate Antonio Vila Casas, extends such paradoxes. A private art archive of emerging Catalan painters, it is designed to be accessible but not follow the traditional model of public gallery. The client was clear that his foundation was not intended as a visitor attraction, and there is no café or bookshop here. Instead, under his patronage the foundation collects the art of today to create a treasure chest for tomorrow, in the hope that future generations will judge for themselves each piece on merit.

Can Framis is situated in the Sant Martí district, the city’s eastern hinterland between the avenue Diagonal and the beach, branded 22@Barcelona, where former industrial building stock is being replaced by contemporary business premises. Here, in the shadow of Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, the city council has purposefully legislated against domestic developments and designated this particular sector for audio-visual businesses.

‘It is very special, this area,’ says architect and academic Jordi Badia. ‘All of the factories were here when the people lived in the centre of Barcelona.

Since industry has moved out of the city, the council has decided to change these factories, but only for what they call productive service industries. They are not interested in dwellings, but only offices, hotels, universities and a few public buildings. They decided to keep some of the historic buildings to maintain the memory of the site.’

Keeping two near-parallel factory ranges and constructing a new building between them on the footprint of another relic, Badia describes the piazza as the most important space in the museum and the most logical place for the building’s principal entrance. The factories remained because they were some of the first to be built on the site. ‘The buildings themselves were not important from an architectural point of view,’ explains Badia. ‘One of the most interesting things, however, is the level, with factories set 1.5m below the contemporary city. This allowed us to create a garden around the building, in the form of a small mountain range to hide streets and cars.’ Badia sees Can Framis as a form of oasis, a peaceful place that will eventually be surrounded by tall buildings occupied by many people. It is hoped that museum and piazza will offer a silent space in which to relax, however with Barcelona practice Cloud 9’s boxy Media-TIC building rising on an adjacent plot in all its steel and plastic glory, it will be interesting to see how successful this aspiration will be. As it is, only from key vantage points, when putting on something of a squint, do the painted, randomly coursed masonry walls and vertical glazing transport you to a more remote Aaltoesque setting. Opening your eyes wider reveals the more gritty reality, amplified by the architect’s tectonic that displays a wonderfully pragmatic level of finesse.

As construction details reveal, existing ranges have been lined with an internal skin that bears on a new concrete structure. In sympathy with masonry, the new building is made from roughcast in-situ concrete and where new meets old, good manners prevail through the use of glazed slots. In-situ concrete is also expressed externally, framing zinc roofs between new gable ends added to the existing ranges. In these locations, however, a more mute detail has been employed as brick and concrete meet seamlessly without glass dividing strips.

Working within the existing envelope, behind retained external walls and where possible beneath repaired and reset roof trusses, the new structure has very shallow floor zones, with soffits of beam and block and screed floors. To service the building, ducts are set within false walls, giving Badia more depth to play with when composing splayed window reveals that alter the scale of openings between inside and out. The city’s conservation officer placed strict conditions on the position of new openings and even forced the architect to recreate the tower-like gable at the end of the south-western range when designing a new access core.

It was in the composition of the new range that Badia was able to exert more of his own sculptural intent, with subtle elevational distortions, projecting bays and jettied stairs that resolve geometric discrepancies between new and old.

These are reminiscent of projecting light shafts seen in his León City Morgue, which won joint first prize in the 2001 AR+d Awards. Approaching from Diagonal, the most extravagant of these projections reaches out to frame a large bay window; a type of signpost that draws uninitiated visitors into the canyon-like slot that gives secondary access to the piazza. It is in this place, where the principal stair sits in the north-westerly knuckle of the plan, that a number of subtle relationships summarise Badia’s site-wide architectural moves. Here the staircase’s uppermost flight lands within a lofty glazed lantern; a prominent contemporary form embedded within the historic structure that rises above the existing ridge-line. Adjacent to this, bridging the canyon, is another glazed element, articulated as a series of vertically modulated panels that resemble the concertinaed bellows of an accordion, stretched between new and old. When viewed from the otherwise insular, dense display spaces, this junction give essential glimpses to the outside world, in this instance framing a view of the retained chimney that sits in a northern courtyard between the museum and the adjacent university premises.

In contrast to much mediocrity locally, this adapted and extended factory sits as a potent memory of the area’s not-so-distant past, and it is little surprise that Badia and his team’s efforts were rewarded earlier this year when Can Framis won Spain’s 2009 national award for cultural heritage. In the city of harmonious contrast, dramatic juxtaposition and curious fractured continuity, this is an exemplary response to context.

Architect BAAS, Barcelona, Spain
Project team Jordi Badia, Jordi Framis, Daniel Guerra, Marta Vitório, Miguel Borrell, Mercè Mundet,
Moisés Garcia
Structural engineering BOMA. Josep Ramón Solé
Landscape Martí Franch

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