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Town Hall by Add + Arquitectura, Manresa, Spain

Add + Architecture link topography, city and politics in a small town north-west of the Catalan capital. Photography by Duccio Malagamba

Clinging to the sides of a steep river gorge, Manresa lies deep in the Catalonian interior, just over an hour by train from Barcelona. It looks like an archetypal small Spanish town, but its development has been shaped by potent historical forces that still resonate today. In 1808, during the Peninsular War, Napoleon’s retreating troops demolished the place, but locals gathered up the rubble and rebuilt, thus accounting for the curious patchwork character of its older buildings.

Manresa also lies at the foot of Montserrat (literally named the ‘jagged mountain’), a towering geological formation of pink rock that soars in carious peaks to a summit over 1,200m high. Site of the monastery housing the famous statue of the Black Virgin (said to be carved by St Luke), Montserrat is Catalonia’s sacred mountain and an object of enthusiastic national pilgrimage.

Manresa’s town hall dates from the 19th century and presides with typical municipal pomp over the main square. Behind the grand facade, however, the difficulties of adapting a historic building to modern use eventually became insuperable.

With three storeys at the front and five at the back, circulation was convoluted and illogical. No single staircase served the entire building and the public entrance to the main council chamber was incongruously located at the front of the chamber. Access for disabled visitors or staff was also patently inadequate.

At the end of 2004, a competition was held to remodel the building with the aim of easing its sclerotic circulation. Barcelona-based Add + Arquitectura was selected to implement its winning proposal and the project was finally completed last year. On paper it sounds a fairly unassuming brief, yet in the hands of Add partners Manuel Bailo and Rosa Rull, it is elevated into a dynamic (subversive, even) interaction between new and old.

Bailo and Rull’s key move was to partly demolish and extend the rear south-west wall of the town hall in order to implant a new circulation core. In theory, this side is less civically prominent, but because of Manresa’s steep topography, it enjoys views out across the gorge and over to the silhouette of Montserrat beyond. ‘We saw this neglected face of the building as having a strong presence in the townscape,’ explains Bailo, ‘because it offers views out and can also be seen from a distance. So we thought it could eloquently express the building’s remodelled state.’ Paradoxically, the ‘main’ north-east side is more inward-looking and addresses the tight urban space of Manresa’s principal square. This frontage remains intact and untouched, so civic propriety is apparently preserved. It is only once you get inside that the extent and impact of the remodelling is revealed.

Things build up gradually. The first hint is an angular walkway that vaults balletically over a central lightwell, now crowned with a new greenhouse-like structure. Lightweight elements of steel and glass form a nimble foil to the masonry mass of the original architecture and clearly articulate the distinction between what existed and what has been added.

The real shock of the new, however, comes when you reach the rear of the building, which appears to have been dissolved and consumed by a parasitical growth. Enclosed in what might be described as a cubist cocoon or superscale piece of origami are a staircase and lift, the building’s new circulation core.

The hectic geometry of the new folded planes plays off the old orthogonality, as if the building had been plied and crumpled by a giant hand.

Yet while it might look willful, Bailo and Rull’s remodelling is underscored by functional concerns and constraints. The rear facade was partially decayed, so the architects cut out around a third of the wall and added a new steel structure to strengthen and stabilise it. This acts as an armature to anchor and support the triangulated planes of the new construction. ‘It does not pretend to be understood as cladding added from the outside, but as a material extension of the existing facade’, says Bailo.

He sees the apparently arbitrary form as a kind of lively improvisation, grafting and mutating in response to contextual cues such as the existing structure, the route of the stair and the framing of views at stairwell landings. This complex geometry was achieved by the expedient of standardising the steel columns and beams, but varying and customising each joint cluster. Steel members have tapering tips (like an arrowhead) at each end, enabling them to dock at various angles into specially designed joints. The geometry of each joint is different, dictated by the changing form, and the entire structure is exposed internally, like a cat’s cradle.

Relocating the circulation core to the rear of the building has the effect of drawing people up and through it in a new processional route. Not only does the reorganisation address practical anomalies - the public entrance to the council chamber has been repositioned and the building is now fully accessible to disabled visitors - it also engages the building more intimately with the town, opening up hitherto unseen views and emphasising connections with wider surroundings. The staircase unfolds concertina fashion, kinking up five storeys with changing vistas framed through a series of triangular windows. It’s like a radical belvedere or viewing tower, recording the ascent from Manresa’s dense urban milieu to Mary Poppins panoramas of rooftops and landscape.

The route culminates in a large balcony, which has become the obvious new location for small, informal functions and mayoral publicity shots featuring Montserrat in the distance. Serendipitously, this brings up to date the strong associations between Manresans and their mountain. Bailo pulls out a booklet of portraits of illustrious locals and flicks through a succession of plumed and wigged soldiers, bishops, politicians and general worthies all posing with Montserrat as a backdrop.

The current mayor, who professed an initial dislike of the project, is now coming round to it and apparently relishes his balcony moments.

I ask the obvious question about how Bailo and Rull managed to get away with subjecting a municipal asset to such extremism. ‘Because nobody seemed to care what goes on at the back of the building,’ responds Bailo. But now they do; there are plans to create a new square in a vacant plot near where the staircase falls to earth, so rather than being a kind of architectural fairground attraction, the remodelled rear wall will form part of a more coherent urban ensemble. It would be an apt conclusion to this latest imaginative chapter in Manresa’s evolution.

Architect Add + Arquitectura, Barcelona
Structural engineer Martí Cabestany
Technical architect Joel Vives

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