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Strange New World

Seeing Spanish architects' inventive designs reminds us of what we're missing in red-brick Richmond.

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What if the new Huguenot Bridge looked like this pedestrian bridge in Shanghai, China, designed by Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba?
  • What if the new Huguenot Bridge looked like this pedestrian bridge in Shanghai, China, designed by Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba?

The Spanish economy may be in a deep ditch, but its architecture is hitting exhilarating heights — that is, if the 33 projects featured in "Young Architects of Spain" are any indication.

While no biographical information is provided regarding the architects, the exhibition at the Virginia Center for Architecture offers insights into how these talented professionals develop their work. That's shown through elegant color photographs and facsimiles of sketches, floor plans and building elevations. Well-written and concise texts accompany the images of these aggressively modernistic projects — or "interventions," as the Spaniards apparently prefer.

Some of the projects are deceptively simple, such as clever flower stalls designed to enliven Barcelona sidewalks. Others, like a concert hall for Budapest, Hungary, or a convention center for Bilbao in the exhibit's native country are decidedly more complex. But each design deserves careful scrutiny to best catch the subtleties and to experience the visual drama that many of the projects deliver.

One of the most dramatic of these aggressive designs is a youth hostel in Cáceres. Architect Carlos Ballesteros Alarcon plays off the harsh infrastructure of nearby highways and creates an elongated concrete and glass structure with repetitive windows that reveals that this is, indeed, a hotel. But the adeptness with which this box is set into a barren hillside, plus the surface richness of the structure's concrete shell, ennobles the overall site.

You've never seen public housing quite like this. A Spanish architecture firm designed the honeycomblike Carabanchel complex in Madrid.
  • You've never seen public housing quite like this. A Spanish architecture firm designed the honeycomblike Carabanchel complex in Madrid.

A building that establishes its own landscape is the honeycomblike Carabanchel public housing complex in Madrid by the firm Dosmasunoarquitectos. (How do they fit that on a business card?) It channels architect Moshe Safdie's boxy, celebrated and widely published Habitat 67 residential complex at the 1968 Montreal World's Fair. The basic core of the apartment complex is constructed of concrete, but bedroom extensions, prefabricated in a lighter metal material, can be added as desired. The entire sculpturelike facility is painted a bright shade of white. The projecting rooms have been likened by their designer to "clouds over the voids."

For sheer visual and spatial fireworks, a pedestrian bridge in Shanghai, China, designed by Pedro Pablo Arroyo Alba is a highlight of the exhibition. The design goal was to link two approaches on respective sides of a waterway that aren't aligned. So Alba establishes a zigzagging bridge. Because this pattern is intrinsically structurally unsound, it's the framework of the steel side walls that provides support. This "room over the water," as the architect calls it, is lightened by the use of wooden surfaces for both the floor and roof.

In the United States, and particularly Virginia, residential architecture often is the last place to look for bold, contemporary design solutions. We tend to retreat to more romantic and historicist patterns (traditional pitched roofs and white picket fences come to mind). But "Young Architects of Spain" features numerous house designs. The Kesller house in San Sebastian de los Reyes, designed by Alberto Morell Sixto, is a wonderful structure with a double-storied living room overlooking a swimming pool, and a wrap-around library on the mezzanine level.

Especially because Virginia architects and clients tend to prefer red-brick structures with sandstone trim in some watered-down version of classicism, this show is an eye-popping, must-see modernist primer on what's being built at other points on the globe. And by experiencing an onslaught of 33 exquisite projects at once, the force and validity of modernism is difficult to deny: buildings with connectivity to the landscape, strong spaces, focus on materials and especially, the possibilities of lighting. S

"Young Architects of Spain" runs through Friday, Aug. 24, at the Virginia Center for Architecture, 2501 Monument Ave. Free. For information visit virginiaarchitecture.org or call 644-3041.

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