Every spring, artisans in Valencia, Spain, sculpt giant caricatures of historical and mythical figures—and then set them ablaze. The tradition is part of Las Fallas, a week-long festival that coincides with St. Joseph's Day, named after the patron saint of carpenters in the Catholic Church. Several years ago, Tomás Amat, founding principal at Tomás Amat Estudio de Arquitectura, recruited renowned wood-falla artist Manolo Garcia for a new café project in his hometown of Alicante, a port city on the country’s Mediterranean coast. The two had met through an earlier project and Amat considered Garcia to be the only person to execute his design.
The café occupies a small plaza among a collection of red-tile-roofed warehouses that operated as tobacco factories for most of the 20th century. In 2010, to preserve the site’s heritage, the facilities were converted into Las Cigarreras Cultural Center, a museum and performing arts venue. Inspired by Barbarela Studio’s nearby Jardin Vertical, Amat envisioned the freestanding 2,600-square-foot café as an insect in a garden. He designed a long, low structure split into three parts: “head” (kitchen), “body” (seating area), and “tail” (entry pavilion). A pair of tall steel beams bent like a cricket’s hind legs flank the structure, completing the allusion.
Designed for Alicante’s mild winters and hot summers, the 600-square-foot tail is covered by a free-form wood shell, crafted by Garcia. “There’s nobody [in] the world who could make it like him,” Amat says. Garcia began by sculpting a 1.5-foot-long plaster model based on a digital mock-up by Amat. As the basis for everything else, the model had to be perfect, the Spanish architect says. He and Garcia even tweaked the curves and wrinkles by hand, creating a piece that looks like an insect’s molted skin, scrunched up and discarded. (Amat’s affinity for curvaceous forms perhaps stems from the two years he spent at Zaha Hadid Architects.)
Garcia then blended digital fabrication technology with traditional craftsmanship in a process that Amat claims is years ahead of the mainstream architectural profession. The plaster model was digitally scanned and then transversely sliced into a series of sections, which were then exported to CNC-milling machines. “The people in Valencia have developed really complex methods to make these shapes,” Amat says. “To scan in 3D now is very common, but they [were] using it eight, nine years ago.” The CNC machines cut five transverse frames and 48 longitudinal purlins that serve as the pavilion's base structure. Made from pine and measuring each roughly 1 inch wide, 4.5 inches deep, and 32 feet long, the purlins are spaced every 10 inches and are screwed directly into the transverse frames.
This wooden skeleton is then wrapped in approximately 10-foot-long strands of unfinished elm, each of which is 0.5-inch wide and 0.1-inch thick and submerged in water for an hour before being stapled to the wood frame. The shape of the swirling skin follows the contours of the underlying structure, but each strand is placed "sobre la march," Garcia says—or "on the fly." He along with nearly a dozen laborers built the pavilion in four sections in a Valencia warehouse and then erected the pavilion on-site. The shell is protected with a spray-applied polyurethane finish.
The café opened in 2015 and is now known as La Cigarra (The Cicada), a name coined by the local politicians that stuck due to its resemblance to las cigarreras—a term that also applies to the women who work in tobacco factories, rolling cigars. Despite its modest size, the project, undertaken by Alicante's city government, took more than four years to complete, primarily due to funding issues.
Amat says what began as a €200,000 (about $225,000) budget quickly dwindled to just 1/10 of that. “[The city] keeps calling me until they say, ‘Tomás, listen, we have €20,000,’” he recalls. Initially, Amat suggested half-jokingly that they buy some Coca-Cola, some Heineken, and a few chairs, because “for €20,000, we cannot do anything.” But Amat eventually proposed a public-private partnership and secured donations from local companies—DuPont Corian, Finstral, and Tecnocemento, among others—whose logos now adorn the head and body of the building.
Unlike the rest of the café, the tail is unbranded except for a series of inconspicuous, laser-cut wooden tags running down the side of one of the pavilion’s many folds. These tags display only two names: Manolo Garcia and Tomás Amat Estudio de Arquitectura.