[originally published in Mark Magazine #21]
The operable roof (sculpture)
As any sports fan can confirm, the architecture of elite sporting venues is the forefront of technologically inventive design these days. This should not come as any surprise: it is consistent with current record-shattering technological advances in sport itself, as well as in the dynamic new ways sporting events are captured for television, which provides sport with its ‘real’ audience. Retractable roofs, flexible seating configurations, interchangeable playing surfaces and architectural gymnastics go hand in hand with developments such as those controversial friction-reducing swimsuits or nerve-racking video feeds transmitted live from the cockpit of a Formula 1 car. In the increasingly faster, higher, longer and stronger world of elite sport, the setting cannot afford to be seen to lag too far behind the spectacle, and if there is one kind of architecture that is ideally suited for viewing by a global audience, it must certainly be that of world-class sporting venues. In this game, ‘brought to you by your friendly corporate sponsor’, an ordinary box is simply not a win-win strategy.
Granted, the new home of the Madrid Open Tennis Tournament is a ‘magic’ box and not an ordinary one, but boxes in general have been out of favour for the last while, not only when it comes to sporting venues. They are things that business gurus, many of whom seem to be great admirers of Frank O. Gehry, have been repeatedly telling everyone to ‘think outside of’ – at least until their empty cash boxes prompted them to change their tune in favour of square government handouts. Boxes are also things that the theoretically infinite formal possibilities of computer-aided design and manufacturing are supposed to have rendered obsolete. But isn’t the geometry of the cube or box one of the most fundamental building blocks of architecture? Perhaps rules no longer exist in this discipline, unless of course Bernard Tschumi’s ‘the first rule of architecture is break it’ counts as one. These days it would seem that anything goes – as long as it’s not a box. And here is precisely where the comparison between sport and architecture breaks down: sport is tightly regulated by conventions, governing bodies and strict rules, and if rules are going to be broken, then it had better be while the officials – not to mention the instant-replay cameras – are looking the other way.
The Manzanares Park Tennis Centre, as it is officially called, is an impressive sport complex nestled in a bend of the Manzanares River, in the Madrileño district of Usera. The centre was initiated as part of a larger landscape-urbanism project – the ambitious Madrid Rio Plan – to transform the motorway and slum-laden banks of the river into a linear network of recreational parks, as well as to provide this city with an international tennis facility that would match Spain’s achievements in the sport and reinforce its candidature for the 2016 Olympic Games. The 16-hectare site is bordered on one side by a modest suburban neighbourhood and on the other by the river. The more general vicinity includes two major motorways, a high-speed rail corridor, and water and power plants.
Conceived as islands in an artificial lake, the tennis centre is a tranquil ensemble of buildings, gardens and water. La Caja Mágica, or the Magic Box, is the monumental centrepiece of this archipelago. More than magical, the complex conveys a sense of mystery at first sight, for nothing on the outside suggests that it contains three indoor-outdoor stadiums that together seat up to 20,000 spectators. For all we know, it could be a warehouse.
Shielded from the street and adjacent neighbourhood by a long, stretched-out ancillary building that serves urbanistically as a garden wall and topographically as a retaining wall between city and river valley, the Caja Mágica is approached from the city side through a gateway in the wall. At this point, a long footbridge that traverses the central building begins its trajectory, eventually reaching another park, designed by Ricardo Bofill, on the opposite riverbank. The bridge connects with the Caja’s main public ‘street level’ 8 m above a more private ‘lake level’; the former contains services for spectators and the general public, while the latter is dedicated to athletes, support services, VIP reception spaces and technical installations.
In addition to the Caja Mágica’s three indoor-outdoor clay courts, the largest of which seats 12,000 spectators, the tennis centre’s long wall-building houses another 11 indoor courts for training and practice, tennis federation offices, a swimming pool, a clubhouse and a tennis school. An island with 16 outdoor courts forms a Tennis Garden, and another island normally used as a car park doubles as a Media Garden during major events.
In addition to professional and Olympic tennis tournaments, the Caja Mágica is able to host other types of sporting events, as well as political rallies, fashion shows, rock concerts and the like. Its flexibility is due mainly to three retractable roofs, one over each court, which convert the building into both a functionally and visually transforming structure. Each of the rectangular roofs, the largest of which measures 102 x 70 m, is mounted on a hydraulic mechanism that permits vertical tilting in combination with horizontal sliding, providing each stadium with three spatial configurations: hermetically closed, tilted partially open, or completely open to the elements. The permutations and combinations of the system allow for a total of 27 configurations of the roofscape. The roof planes are so large that, when tilted up, they increase the height of the 35-m-high building another 20 m, making it recognizable from distant points throughout the city.
While the Caja Mágica’s roof is certainly its most complex technological breakthrough and a spectacular icon that should satisfy local politicians, corporate sponsors and the cravings of camera lenses, the building’s exterior image also raises some subtler points that are easily overshadowed. For one thing, the building’s parti conforms to several lessons of Le Corbusier. As a platonic solid raised on pilotis and capped by a sculptural roof, the Caja Mágica can be seen as a sort of Villa Savoye on steroids (pardon the unsportsmanlike expression). At the same time, the building is clearly not dogmatically Corbusian, preferring to play around with the master instead. What this shows us is how certain radical, early-modernist forms have become archetypes over time, which is precisely what early modernism rejected. In other words, perhaps the modernist box has been around long enough, and gone through enough ups and downs, to be ‘almost all right’ now, to borrow a phrase from Le Corbusier’s arch rivals.
In fact, it is precisely the lightness of the Caja Mágica’s exterior veil – its mysterious translucence as opposed to objective clarity – that situates its architecture far from traditional modernist dogma. The metal mesh that shades and conceals the building’s content, providing only a vague glimpse inside when the building’s interior is illuminated at night, is a key element of this design. The stainless-steel mesh was developed especially for this project in record-sized panels measuring 25 x 7.2 m. Its effect is quite remarkable, generating an element of surprise when the building is entered, for it is only once the exterior metal mesh is penetrated that the characteristic ‘inverted pyramid’ forms of a stadium become apparent. Only now do we know it’s not a warehouse. Even more significantly, the building’s skin, in conjunction with the inverted pyramids, creates a fascinating left-over space in between, which is characterized by dramatic overhangs, angled structural supports, lifts, stairs and bridges: probably one of the closest built approximations to Piranesi’s Carceri to be seen anywhere. Not bad for an entrance lobby.
To this critic, it is the interior spatiality of the building more than its exterior appearance that makes the box magical. While a part of this has to do with the spectacular operable roofs and their ability to modulate daylight and the acoustics of the stadiums, it is actually thanks to the overall site strategy of the Manzanares Park Tennis Centre that this very unusual and surprising Piranesian space results within the Caja Mágica, a strategy that consists of accommodating the complex programme in a few, simple, carefully placed elements – a box, a wall, a bridge and some islands – and, more specifically, of clustering three stadiums within a single box. The more obvious kneejerk strategy would have been to disperse the three stadiums around the site as autonomous expressionist objects set upon a green lawn, not unlike the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. The strategy that has been deployed at the Manzanares Tennis Centre takes advantage of compatibilities among architecture, landscape and urbanism. This may be radical for architecture, but in sport it’s nothing new: it’s called team play.