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Institute of Ocular Microsurgery by Josep Llinás, Barcelona, Spain

Josep Llinás’ distinctively eccentric multifaceted and multilayed home for the world-renowned Barcelona Institute of Ocular Microsurgery. Photography by Duccio Malagamba

Josep Llinás is the epitome of understatement, working with a handful of assistants in his modest studio on Avenue de la República Argentina in the Gracia district of Barcelona. Donning his blue smock signals work mode, equipped with a breast pocket laden with pens, pencils and scale rule. However, when visiting his office to discuss this project, both smock and drafting tools had been hung up, replaced by a jacket and crash helmet.

Heading straight out in pillion - somewhat surprisingly, our mode of transport is the architect’s Suzuki GSX-R750 - our route is Barcelona’s busy four-lane motorway that encircles the city, Ronda de Dalt. Our destination is IMO: a spectacular, low-lying facility for the world-renowned Barcelona Institute of Ocular Microsurgery - a private institute that performs medical research and treatment, with expertise in subspecialties such as retina, cornea, glaucoma, cataracts and paediatric ophthalmology.

The Ronda da Dalt is described by Llinás as ‘a boundary between city and mountains’. It runs around the north-west of Barcelona cutting a swathe through and dividing what Llinás calls ‘built-up and natural land’. It is also the circuit where throttles can be opened up and accordingly, where the city takes on a different pace, scale and ambience. With the well-known coastal conurbation on one side and the mountainous park Sierra de Collserola on the other, driving along this road traces the city’s limit, and it was in response to this context that Llinás has recently completed another of his distinctively eccentric multifaceted forms.

With echoes of the brilliant Jaume Fuster Library (AR June 2006), where the architect’s sculptural preoccupation focused on a response to subtly different urban-edge conditions, in this place Llinás had more extreme differences and dualities to resolve.

The less densely developed mountain slopes appear to be retained by the engineered concrete walls of the ring road, which in turn cut into the land to form a ha-ha between city and landscape. With the site located on the ‘natural land’ side of this fringe condition, Llinás knew that achieving formal balance with a unified object building (as seen at the library) would have been problematic, without imposing the sort of dominant figure that would have been inappropriately conspicuous against the mountainous backdrop. Instead, Llinás dug down to conceal five floors of accommodation beneath three distorted roof planes. Each roof is then raised and buckled to create a series of shaded internal and external courtyards.

As Llinás puts it: ‘We focused on using the topography of the site as an instrument to define the morphology of the building.’

These forms not only serve to resolve the formal balance of the Llinás landform roofscape, but also to balance light levels. This factor is critical to the patients, who undergo delicate eye surgery, which often involves multiple procedures, consultations and extended periods of waiting. Its design has created glare-free viewpoints of the city from the external terraces and a series of light-sensitive interiors that occupy interstitial space between the powerfully sunlit exterior and the artificially lit operation and consultation suites buried deeper within the plan and section.

The more formally exuberant circulation and waiting spaces therefore give the building a split personality when compared with the more rational, efficient and inherently flexible orthogonal arrangement of the diagnosis, consultation and operating theatre spaces beyond.

By applying clarity and rigor to the organisation of the most functional parts of the building, Llinás allowed himself more liberty when shaping the non-programmatic interstitial spaces. He adopts the same tactic as David Chipperfield at the Museum of Modern Literature at Marbach am Neckar, Germany (AR October 2007), where non-programmatic parts of the building are more heavily loaded with light, shade and ambience.

The building is entered from the north-east, either on foot or by car from Carrer de Bellesguard. (Bellesguard being the name of a fine Gaudi house - also known as Casa Figueras - that remains in private ownership and is situated on the other side of Ronda da Dalt). By car, visitors drive down to one of two levels of basement parking where there is provision for 200 cars, before somewhat unceremoniously arriving in the lobby by lift. Fortunately, Llinás leaves the Suzuki on the neighbouring street, preferring to take the pedestrian route that leads visitors to an inclined and sheltered pathway that threads through the building’s most expressive spaces.

Here, spectacular views across the city are revealed to the left, coupled with more complex and immediate spatial relationships to the right, as glimpses and oblique views are revealed through Llinás’ artificial terrain: down to conference and staff rest rooms (that open onto a shaded reflection pool and terrace), across into the principal reception, lobby and consultation spaces (that line the concave southerly facade), and up through the fractured roof planes to the sky - a blemish-free blue backdrop that accentuates the angular white roof forms that contain upper-level offices and a library for medical staff and students.

In conversation, Llinás lightly dismisses the technical achievement of planning eight operating theatres, a 300-seat auditorium, 20 diagnosis and 60 consultation rooms as well as designated zones for laboratory and medical-support space, but instead focuses on the project’s principal architectural challenge - how to deal with the relationship between prospect and refuge.

While not using these terms directly (Llinás rarely reverts to architectural clichés), he prefers to discuss how the roof forms work, likening them to visors or ‘hands raised to reduce the glaring light and sunshine’.

Llinás is an expert in this sort of rationalised formal manipulation, and through his work has developed great skill in what Juan Antonio Cortes’ 2006 essays describe as ‘disfiguring the prism, undoing formalities and making the building disappear’. While all apply here, the latter prevails as the key architectural move, not only reducing the impact of the 22,000m2 structure, but also allowing for future expansion, with land already designated for a potential future fourth roof.

Relying on physical models rather than complex computer simulation, the resolution of the roof forms shifted throughout the design process as the brief chopped and changed.

In all iterations, however, the intention was to eliminate any direct sunlight, which has on the whole been achieved. With the odd ray of sunlight catching the architect out, some on-site tuning may be necessary, this however, does not seem to worry Llinás. Dogged by far greater contractual complications that culminated in the main contractor declaring bankruptcy and local courts taking control of the purse strings, such minor snags pale into insignificance.

During our tour, the site is a hive of activity with both contractors and optometrists working simultaneously, and tradesmen applying finishing touches to the surgical department below, ready for patients who are already undergoing consultations above.

Project architect Roger Subirà, who has been on site virtually every day for the last year, briefly stops to talk to the client’s lead contact Francisca Rodriguez. As she rushes away to inspect and hopefully sign-off another completed space, she barely has time to reply when asked if she is happy with the building. Turning without breaking step, she beams a smile and says: ‘Yes, very happy. We’re very happy indeed.’

Architect Josep Llinás Carmona
Project architect Roger Subirà
Structural engineer Jordi Bernuz

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