A curvaceous youth centre and a sober addition to Roman ruins explore the conflicting elements of Mérida’s urban identity - both colourfully kinetic and quietly contemplative. Projects by Selgas Cano and Sánchez García
The colourful, blob-shaped plastic ‘cloud’ of Selgas Cano’s Youth Factory on the outskirts of Mérida, Spain, and the sober massing of José María Sánchez García’s Perimeter Building around the ruins of the Roman Temple of Diana, in the city’s centre, appear to come from two opposing worlds.
Both projects are magnets, but for entirely different audiences. Selgas Cano’s Youth Factory attracts crowds of local teenagers: a skate park designed for rollerblading, skateboarding, cycling, wall climbing, dance, street theatre, electronic music, graffiti and so on. For its part, Sánchez García’s Perimeter Building creates a dignified urban setting for this neglected monument amid the dense jumble of the old city. With its café, restaurant, specialities shop and cultural offerings in the small concession spaces on its upper deck, and the serene emptiness of its archaeological ground level, it is programmed to serve the tourists flocking to such sites as Mérida’s Roman Theatre, centre of a summer arts festival, and Rafael Moneo’s Museum of Roman Art (AR November 1985).
However, in addition to these differences in location, use and clientele, the gulf that separates the two works is also generational. José Selgas and Lucia Cano were both born in 1965 and graduated from Madrid’s Technical School of Architecture in 1992, and their work exemplifies the exuberant formal inventiveness and optimism of recent Spanish architecture. Sánchez García was born 10 years later and finished his studies at the same school in 2002, and the tectonic integrity of his design is a deliberate reaction to what he has called ‘the terrible pressure to be little geniuses’ that he experienced in school. ‘Society doesn’t require so much spectacle,’ he told the Spanish newspaper El País in a recent interview.
Mérida may appear to be an unlikely place for such an oedipal confrontation. With a population of only 57,000, it is the capital of the Extremadura in western Spain, a poor and isolated rural area. But like other remote regions in Spain, the city has benefited from the decentralisation of many state functions since the end of the Franco regime. Until the local elections of May 2011 that brought the Popular Party into office, the region has been continuously governed by the Socialist party.
Working with scarce economic resources, the Socialists have commissioned a number of works by noted Spanish architects for the city. Moneo’s Roman Museum, built by the central government in Madrid, was followed by Santiago Calatrava’s 1991 Lusitania Bridge over the Guadiana River, a 1995 administration building by Juan Navarro Baldeweg and a 2004 congress centre by Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. Sánchez García, who grew up in Extremadura, won the competition for the Temple of Diana in 2006; the commission allowed him to open his own office. Selgas Cano began designing the Youth Factory in the same year, after winning competitions to build congress centres in two other regional cities, Badajoz (2006) and Plasencia (currently incomplete).
The ruins of the Temple of Diana constitute a remarkable piece of Mérida’s Roman heritage. The temple survived for many centuries as part of the 16th-century Corvos Palace, which still occupies part of its plinth. The regional government began to clear the modern buildings that hemmed in the temple, while archaeologists discovered it formed part of the Roman Forum. Sánchez García’s project to consolidate the forum site, and the party walls that enclosed it on three sides after the demolitions, was carried out concurrently with the archaeological investigations over five years. His design thus required, as he explains, ‘a flexible syntax that could respond to changes that came up as work advanced’.
Sánchez García describes his solution as ‘halfway between a plaza and a ruin.’ He defined the rough limits of the original forum with an elevated, L-shaped structure, a cantilevered platform and wall, which folds around its three sides to absorb all the irregularities of the site behind it. The platform is situated roughly at the height of the temple plinth, giving visitors an intimate view into the ruins. The wall behind it serves to ‘frame the temple and abstract it from the adjacent buildings,’ says the architect.
Its regular openings lead to spaces with 4.8m wide for commercial and cultural activities. These spaces alternate with voids behind the wall that bring natural light to the ground level. The thick perpendicular walls between them carry loads from the cantilevers of the platform, which reach up to 4m above the ground. Both platform and wall are made of finely crafted, poured concrete, using white cement and local aggregates that approach the granite tones of the temple plinth.
The platform is accessed on its extremes by metal stairs that can be hydraulically raised during off-hours, avoiding obtrusive ground enclosures. Sánchez García asked the client to leave the ground level free of programmed uses and open to the city. Within the forum’s Roman walls the ground is paved in earth of crushed granite, as it was originally, with limestone cobblestones beyond it.
While the structural system, materials and horizontal openings of the Perimeter Building are unmistakably contemporary, its solid massing and large openings to the sky, modelled by the play of sun, shadow and light tinted by the reddish earth floor of the forum, is an evocation of the spatial experience of Classical ruins under the Mediterranean sun. You can’t help thinking that the Colin Rowe of Collage City would have admired this project.
The Perimeter Building is similar in many respects to Sánchez García’s prize-winning Center for the Technical Development
of Recreational and Sports Activities in Guijo de Granadilla, also in Extremadura (AR December 2009). There his building
takes the form of an elevated ring, 200m in diameter, creating a lookout over the landscape that is as tectonically vigorous and yet as contextually acute as his work in Mérida. Like José Selgas before him, Sánchez García won a scholarship to the Spanish Academy in Rome after he secured the Mérida commission, but his work was already steeped in a Piranesian monumentality.
With its light materials and bright colours, the Youth Factory recalls a circus tent in its open park-like setting, an irresistible attraction. Since it opened last April, it has been overwhelmed with users. The project was developed by the regional government to channel the energies of marginalised urban teenagers, who programmed its activities through supervised collectives grouped around each interest. Due to the city’s harsh summer climate, the architects designed a shaded area for the skate park with night lighting for evening use. The three multi-purpose spaces, each about 750m2, open to different collectives on a rotating basis. The total budget for the 1550m2 facility was €1.2 million (just over £1 million).
Selgas Cano conceived the Youth Factory as a large, inviting canopy, open on all sides to all-comers. A metre thick and lit from inside, the roof forms a curving hairpin, rising to more than 12.5m to include the climbing wall. Its space frame structure is supported by the ovoid pods of the activity rooms, together with other pods for offices and services.
The open ground level around the pods is a polished concrete surface for skating, with an outdoor amphitheatre in its centre and sitting areas for other activities on its edges. Though apparently open to its surroundings, its site is enclosed in a simple mesh fence with various gates. The architects planted 100 trees around the building for future shading.
The canopy and spaces of the Youth Factory are clad exclusively in translucent sheets of orange and white polycarbonate, a millimetre thick. ‘It was the cheapest material we could find,’ Selgas explains. ‘It’s virtually indestructible, and can be shaped any way you want. You just screw it in place and stretch.’ The material also allowed for a considerably lighter structure. For thermal conditioning, the double layer of polycarbonate acts much like a conventional ventilated facade, according to the architects. They provided top and bottom ventilation, and extra insulation in the ceilings of the activity rooms.
Selgas and Cano have made plastics one of the main areas of investigation in their work. Their home outside Madrid features large windows glazed entirely in methacrylate; the Badajoz Congress Center has polycarbonate, polyester resin and methacrylate; and the Plasencia Auditorium and Conference Center is clad in ETFE.
I asked the architects how they could justify using these petroleum-based materials in a practice that prides itself on its respect for the natural environment and its resources. They replied: ‘The lightest material is clearly the one that has the least amount of material in it, so consumes the least in its production. Glass requires 20 times more material than the polycarbonate we use, and much more energy for its recycling − plastic melts at 200°C and glass at 1,723°C. “Ecological” materials don’t exist. What you actually have is the material best suited to each occasion.’
As with most construction projects in Mérida, the building process was prolonged by the discovery of archaeological remains on the site, from the Roman city of Augusta Emerita, a settlement established in the first century AD. Archaeologists found nothing worth documenting, but Selgas Cano raised the building on a 1.5m high berm to protect the site, evenly distributing structural loads over a ground slab without footings.
The Youth Factory and Perimeter Building are both operations of urban conditioning, in which enclosed spaces are secondary to shaded outdoor space. The urbanity of the Factory is more kinetic, dedicated to movement, activity and social interaction, and this is reflected in its fluid forms, where poles of attraction power the circular movement of its plan. The Perimeter Building, in contrast, aspires to be timeless. As a surgical operation on the urban fabric, it belongs to the tradition dating back to Baron Haussmann in Paris and Pope Sixtus V in Rome; Sánchez García himself compares it to the Baroque Plazas Mayor in Spain. But his work does not serve a Baroque operation of representation, creating a space where grand public ceremonies can be held. The plaza is ‘abstracted’ from the present of the city, as the architect observes, and is a space not so much for bringing people together as for contemplation, in which we observe the presence of others in the space as part of our solitary aesthetic reverie.