To construct ground – Plates. Rolex Learning Center, La Llotja de Lleida

by diego terna

text published on C3 Magazine, n.308

urbanizr says:    I want rollerblades!     February 17, 2010 at 4:11 pm

archipod says:  It makes me want a sandwich.  February 19, 2010 at 8:50 am

Plate tectonics: two projects in comparison.

It is still not clear what moves the world, and the ground on which we stand, but an aid to understanding comes from Alfred Wegener, who, in 1912, formulated the theory of continental drift, which led to the theory of plate tectonics. One theory that was confirmed in the 1960s and contends that the outermost part of Earth’s crust is divided into a dozen stiff fragments of different size: the plates. They move in relation to each other, giving rise to phenomena such as earthquakes, eruptions, but also shaping the continents as we know them. Plate tectonics tells us about the enormous energies that compress and expand the Earth’s mantle and the forces that powerfully form and deform the topography of the land, creating the landscape that we admire every day.

The La Llotja Congress Center, designed by Mecanoo, and the Rolex Learning Center, designed by Sanaa, were opened in early 2010, almost simultaneously; a project in Spain, by a Dutch office, one in Switzerland, by a Japanese office. With completely distinct poetics, and with very different functions and sites, the two buildings appear to have a common approach: the creation of an artificial topography that constitutes a kind of second ground, recumbent on the earth’s crust.

The two projects are united by two characteristics that bind them at birth, then leaving them free to organize the space in almost opposite ways: both are built, in sections, from two parallel slabs, which are then deformed to perform the required functions, but these deformations are within well-defined geometrical parameters. It is an absolute limit, a square or a rectangle, which appears to cut the building in question clearly, with no connection to its internal spatiality. Thus, both, despite a sharp edge that defines them, appear to be indefinite: their size, in plan, may increase or decrease, without transforming the underlying concept of the building.

They appear, at first glance, to be the results of a mechanism, similar to the one described in plate tectonics: a kind of architectural orogeny, which, from a flat sod, through enormous compression, has created “inhabited” space.

If the mechanisms are similar, the ways in which these pressures led to the final result are not.

Feininiger vs. Wols.

In 1926, Lyonel Feininger painted Gelmeronda IX, a glimpse of the city that turns into a crystal clear vision, a deformation made of sharp facets.  Feininger’s world does not exist in three dimensions, it is rather a complex construction of overlapping two-dimensional planes. Lights, volumes, people acquire a fabulous dimension, thanks to these sharp cuts, which makes the contours disappear and paradoxically feather the edges, creating a whole of sky, light, buildings, and humans.

They are deformations, thus, similar to those seen in Wols’ Painting (1944). Here a fluid and inhospitable world finds an order within a boundary, a thin red line, which includes a number of epicenters of force, which change the surrounding universe, like magnetic poles in a surface of metallic powder. The color itself is lively around these points, blue and red spots that explode against the mono-tone background.
The two painters, though so different in the ways in which they express themselves, build a cosmos in which reality unfolds through distortion, since a linear world is no longer rich in emotions, in stimuli for humans.

La Llotja and Rolex Center work on analogous positions: if both appear to arise from an orogeny, a telluric movement that gave form to the building, the Mecanoo project follows the path of crystal deformations, as in work by Feininger, without a single curved line, but with clear geometrical cuts; the building of Sanaa, instead, is deformed by fluid movements, precluding any straight line.

Both buildings, then, are built from the crushing of a plate, but the Rolex Center works by subtraction, freeing up space where Wols painted the epicenters of strength.  Mecanoo, instead, consists of addition and so the building rises like a mountain, without losing mass, but rather, increasing in density.

Where Sanaa creates patios, Mecanoo defines volumes.

The Japanese architects seem to move with more coherence: the basic rule, the parallelism between the slabs, never fails, event at the cost of creating problems, sometimes too formalistic. But this self-imposed rule creates a disarming beauty, the one that is felt when a basic principle gives rise to a richly complex universe.

The work of Dutch architects immediately breaks the primary laws, maintaining the unity of the plate only on the outer edge. Yet the building is stronger than the Swiss one: the same power that has compressed space, make that the slabs outdistance one to another, opening to the sky and to the earth. They built a mountain range, and in the vacuum created they observed the growth of the more diverse functions.

Mecanoo vs. Feininiger, Sanaa vs. Wols.

The work of Mecanoo, compared to that of Feininger, does not acquire that lightness coveted by the painting, that loss of the edges of objects and thus their weight, their materiality. The building works in opposite ways, through the outer coating consisting of a dark, earthy, stone, which gives the impression that the building itself rises right from the surface and is thus a direct extension. The work of adding, or rather, the absence of subtraction, does nothing but clinch the three-dimensionality of the project, its being massive, dense. It arises therefore as an integral element in the landscape, an artificial form that acts as an intermediary between the inhabitants and the surrounding landscape.

This also happens in the Swiss project: just as the painting of Wols is brutal and dirty, with a restless strength, the building of Sanaa has an almost inconsistent lightness. Although the two parallel slabs that enclose the space are firmly established and charged with a considerable force, the spaces give a receding idea, as if you are in a place built with a large sheet of paper that you can fold and transform with no effort at all. The interiors of the building, with a clear gray, tend to destroy the idea of mimesis with nature. The telluric forces that built this artificial topography, the same energy that we read in the work of Wols, is transformed here into a diaphanous fluid, in a delicate sequence of ups and downs.

This lightness is largely due to the construction of a fleeting boundary, which is similar in both projects: a glass facade, tense between the two slabs that compress the plan. Unlike the painting of Wols, where the uniform background states within a fixed boundary, the two buildings do not actually have an edge. The glass facade, in fact, is an expedient to close the internal space to external agents, but by being perceived as an advantage that cannot prevent building dilatation, or deformation under the impetus of a new telluric movement.

The facade is also a permeable membrane that allows the interpenetration of the outside inside and vice versa, in a continuous succession of cross-references between one part and the other.

Aldo Rossi says.

With the architectural  tools we therefore foster an event, regardless of whether it happens, and in this will of the event there is something progressive. […] Therefore, the sizing of a table, or a house, it is very important, not, as thought the functionalists, to fulfill a particular function but to allow more functions.

Finally, to allow everything in life is unpredictable.

Aldo Rossi, A Scientific Autobiography, 1981.
Thirty years ago, Aldo Rossi captured an essential aspect of architecture: it is a support for human activities, a catalyst of human behaviour.

The close relationship between the inside and the outside, obtained through the dematerialization of the boundary of the building, found a major boost in the act of compression, and, therefore, of deformation. Through this act, in fact, ambiguous places are defined, but fraught with awesomeness, as when one discovers the “below” between the folds of a rug. The people who visit, and inhabit, the two buildings are located either above or below these architectural folds, in spaces that have no well-defined function.
Yet the ambiguity that arises from this non-definition is the basis of the wealth of these places. They are waiting for people’s lives, their, more or less original, use. They are, in short, in search of human emotions.

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