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Social Housing by Zigzag Arquitectura, Mieres, Asturias, Spain

A Social housing project on a budget, Zigzag Arquitectura produce a courtyard block reflecting the post Industrial region. Photography by Roland Halbe

The courtyard block, that most enduring of urban housing types, gets an incisive twist in this new scheme by the young Spanish partnership of David Casino and Bernardo Angelini. Based in Madrid, the pair operate under the collective identity of Zigzag Arquitectura, but the whacky nomenclature should not be misconstrued, since there is a strong and serious intelligence at work, which is evident in the elegant deconstruction and transformation of a conventional brief for 131 apartments into an urban enclave rich in spatial, social and material possibilities.

The site lies in the centre of Mieres, a small town in the Asturias region of northern Spain. Hobbled by a declining legacy of mining and heavy industry, the town has a resigned and crepuscular air as it attempts to redefine itself for the post-industrial era. Along the coast in the Basque country, Bilbao is still the supreme galvanising exemplar of civic transformation. Meanwhile, Mieres lies deep inland and is unlikely to feature on anyone’s short break radar. Compacted into a valley landscape of sylvan hills, the urban grid is extruded along the flat flood plain of the Caudal River. At each end, its dense core tapers off into a featureless straggle of business parks and factories.

Just south of the centre lies a major redevelopment zone, with several empty sites awaiting the impetus of new buildings and uses. The winning proposal in a competition staged by the municipality, Zigzag Arquitectura’s scheme is a pioneer in this slightly forlorn wasteland, combining apartments of varying sizes (from one to four bedrooms) with commercial and retail space at street level to reanimate the wider public realm.

While it is set within dour urban confines, the site has views up to the hills and a more bucolic idyll beyond the flood plain. ‘Our aim was to recover this double quality of place,’ says Zigzag partner David Casino, ‘making the project simultaneously urban and rural. We proposed a return to the origins of the site. It’s an urban room with fragmented borders, enclosing an inner world that evokes fields that can no longer be seen.’ The starting point is a generic courtyard block, which is then ruptured and reassembled.

Defining a street edge and central courtyard, the block occupies the same footprint as a conventional orthogonal one, but the fragmented structure generates a more multi-faceted composition of irregularly stacked forms, rather like a child’s building blocks. A shifting, angular geometry of canted roof planes adds a further layer of convolution and interest. Although the fact the complex is newly completed, it has that hugger mugger character of a historic cluster of structures that has evolved over time. This serves to humanise what could have been yet another large and anonymous residential block.

‘We wanted the building to connect with the environment,’ says Casino. ‘The block is penetrated by voids and cuttings which frame views of the mountains and fragments of the Asturian landscape beyond.’ Contrasting facade treatments emphasise the distinction between public and private realms. Presenting a more impervious and enigmatic face to the city, street sides are wrapped in a dark carapace of ribbed metal cladding that evokes the town’s industrial past. Inside, courtyard elevations are glazed and veiled by a rustic timber lattice made from thin vertical strips of elondo, a chestnut hued African hardwood.

Like a modern mashrabiya screen, this movable timber veil encloses narrow balconies connected to the living spaces of each apartment. ‘On the courtyard side we searched for a rural reference,’ says Casino, ‘symbolising a return to nature. The enclosed balconies recall the Asturian traditional porch and the use of wood reminds us, through its vertical rhythms, of the forests of the nearby mountains.’

The timber screen tempers the sun’s intensity and casts rippling shades around the interiors. This play of metal and timber, dark and light, coolness and warmth conjures an evocative duality. In some ways the block resembles a geode, its dull outer layer of metal cladding fractured and split to reveal a sensual, shimmering core of ribbed timber screens, glass walls and a landscaped courtyard in the Iberian tradition of the patio. Planted with native grasses and bamboo, the courtyard forms a secret urban garden at the heart of the block, with a subterranean level of parking stashed neatly underneath.

Open at two corners to articulate a diagonal through route from the surrounding streets, the semi-public courtyard is a place of encounter and activity, a stage set for the quotidian dramas of the residents’ lives. ‘We wanted to avoid turning the courtyard into a neglected back area’, explains Casino.

Accessed off a series of spinal staircases, flats are compactly and economically planned. Each is organised around a central core of bathrooms and storage that separates the apartment into day and night spaces. Living rooms overlook the courtyard, connecting with the more intimate and particular world of the block, while bedrooms face the street and the wider urban surroundings. The basic bedroom module is 2.6m wide and this doubles to form a living room. Larger flats have the indulgence of en suite bathrooms while sliding doors optimise circulation and the enclosed balconies extend and amplify living spaces.

All this was achieved on budget of €10.6 million, which works out at €595 per square metre, just below average for this type of programme and building type. Yet despite the constraints of resources and context, Zigzag’s scheme is alert to the transformative potential of architecture, making for a lively contemporary variation on the familiar repertoire of the courtyard block.

Architect Zigzag Arquitectura, Madrid
Structural Engineer Jesus Hierro
Technical Architect Alberto Lopez Diez

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