Marking the occasion of the completion of the Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain, architecture critic Rowan Moore remarked: “Oh my God, it's an icon. How very last decade. Did the city of Seville not get the memo? Big, flashy buildings are out; hair shirts are in.” Moore’s comments concerned the poor timing of the March 2011 debut of Jürgen Mayer H.’s visually arresting pavilion, given Spain’s declining economic situation since the project’s inception in 2004. Nevertheless, the critics and public alike have begun to recognize positive contributions of the structure, which exemplifies the impressive and unexpected use of materials.
Architectural ventures such as the Metropol Parasol are risky enterprises. Material experimentation at this level can lead to innovative approaches in building design and construction, which are essential for the advancement of the architectural discipline. However, such experimentation is not always welcomed by conservative audiences. In an article published on ARCHITECT earlier this month, I sought to address how three pre-21st century buildings have come to be appreciated over an extended period of time for their important design contributions, despite initial criticism. The following three works, all completed within the last decade, have been recognized for their significant applications of material technologies in a much shorter time frame. I credit one reason for this more rapid acceptance to a growing expectation of—and even comfort with—experimental architecture, particularly in metropolitan areas. Another factor is the way in which these projects justify their presence to the public. Each demonstrates an inventive use of a different material—stone, glass, and wood, respectively—as well as building program.
The façade of the Copenhagen, Denmark, headquarters for law firm Horten by Danish studio 3XN exhibits a pioneering use of stone-clad insulating panels. Completed in 2009, the building marks a startling departure from conventional perceptions of law practice as stodgy, with its rippling envelope reminiscent of a multifaceted geode. The façade is the result of two years of material research concerning ways to improve the dimensional precision and lightness of stone panels. These attributes are of fundamental importance to the formal approach of the cladding, whose undulating composition is designed to enhance occupants’ views of the nearby waterfront while reducing glare from the sun. Despite the jarring visual effect, the rationale is sound: the angular tweaking of the exterior allows for a large number of employees to have a perceived corner office with a desirable view. Meanwhile, the avoidance of direct sunlight reduces the building’s energy consumption, which the firm says should be 10 percent lower than what’s required by the country’s building code.
The panels themselves also reduce the building’s energy utilization. Composed of thin strips of travertine backed by an insulating foam core that is encapsulated between layers of fiberglass sheeting, the composite panel design minimizes the stone’s weight while increasing the envelope’s thermal performance. The precision of the panel prefabrication also enabled the construction of such a geometrically complex skin.
Another project noted for its material innovation is Tokyo-based SANAA’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Designed as a standalone exhibition space for the museum’s respectable collection of glass art, within a city that was once an important glass producer, the 74,000-square-foot pavilion houses a demonstration hot shop and temporary galleries in addition to permanent exhibition spaces. Given the curatorial focus, glass was a primary material choice for the architects. In fact, floor-to-ceiling glass panels dominate the building’s vertical axis—employed to wrap the entire facade as well as partition most of the interior spaces. Many of these 13 ½-foot-tall glass sheets are gracefully curved, creating remarkable visual effects and allowing the surrounding tree-filled landscape to permeate the interior. “One thinks that glass is transparent, but many layers of glass make a completely different atmosphere,” said Kazuro Sejima, co-founder of the 2010 Pritzker-winning SANAA, in Matter in the Floating World: Conversations with Leading Japanese Architects and Designers, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). “Sometimes glass appears to be a very hard and cold substance, but in Toledo the glass is softer. Although the Toledo glass is very transparent, when you view the curved panels obliquely the glass gradually changes.”
Because the envelope consists of two layers of glazing with a habitable interstitial zone, the thermally regulated façade is also a smart energy conservation strategy. Upon the project’s opening in 2006, then–New York Times’ architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff considered it to be an understated triumph precisely acclimated to the human condition. “Once you drift outside again, the tree branches seem to sway more gently, the light feels softer, the world more tender,” he wrote. “Most important, you are more attuned to the distances between people. There are few higher compliments you could pay a building.”
And what of the Metropol Parasol? According to Arup, which provided engineering services for the project, Mayer’s outsized urban pavilion is one of the largest timber structures built yet. It consists of an open-air timber lattice frame that is characterized by six interconnected, mushroom-shaped roof forms. The lofty frame provides welcome shade to its site—the Plaza de la Encarnación—which was previously a dilapidated space following the close three decades prior of a central market in the historically significant neighborhood. To create the wood megastructure—which measures 492 feet long, 246 feet wide, and 92 feet high—the design team used interlocking panels of Kerto-Q, a microlaminated timber composed of glued 3mm-thick softwood veneers, from Finnish manufacturer Metsä Wood. The material exhibits significantly higher shear strength than solid timber, and the panels are joined with more than 3,000 custom steel nodes designed for rapid onsite construction. Together, the timber panels and steel connections form a strong, multidirectional lattice that imparts a gracious silhouette while allowing clear views through to the sky.
Not only is the Metropol Parasol technologically innovative, but it is also experientially novel. The soaring construction is visually both heavy and light, covering a large area yet permeated by sunlight. The predominant use of wood imparts warmth unexpected for a structure of its size, which would traditionally have been framed in steel. Not surprisingly, the unconventional design met early resistance. “The reaction of Seville’s residents was horrific at the start,” said Cristina Gómez, property manager for project contractor Sacyr in a video filmed by Arup. “People did not understand that such modern architecture could exist in harmony with the city center, which has a very traditional structure.” Despite the locals’ initial reluctance to the Metropol Parasol, it has since been embraced by the community as its presence has not only increased the plaza’s functionality with the addition of a market, shopping center, and other public spaces, but it also has greatly elevated the number of tourists and locals who frequent the neighborhood, enhancing its revitalization.
The application of a lightweight structural frame of microlaminated wood was of fundamental importance to the creation a successful public space, as the nimble parasols are large enough to provide ample shade yet light enough that their foundations do not disrupt the ancient Roman ruins on the site. Additionally, the visual and tactile warmth of wood is generally more appealing to visitors than materials such as steel and concrete would have been. And traversable via a rooftop walkway, the Parasol’s canopy offers impressive views of the surrounding city. “It gives me energy … just seeing the structure and all the surroundings, and the changes it has made,” said Rosa Vásquez, a local jeweler whose shop is located in the Metropol Parasol, in Arup’s video. “Metropol Parasol is the best thing that has happened to me, really.” A compelling argument for architectural innovation if there ever was one.