Building as Research

[originally published in Mark Magazine #25]

Truss space
Two facades with different pillow systems: ETFE fog configuration and ETFE diaphragm configuration.

The range of building materials and construction techniques available to contemporary architects is unparalleled in history. New materials – in conjunction with digital processes such as computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, parametric design and rapid prototyping – have dramatically expanded the possibilities of design. Were it not for the threat of climate change and the ongoing economic crisis, our future would be a matter of ‘the sky’s the limit’. Suddenly, all the freedom we have hardly learned to handle has a new mission: finding more sustainable ways to produce, consume and discard. The promise of technology remains unchanged, of course – it is still going to save the day and thus save us from ourselves. The mantra hasn’t changed either: architecture that is fresh and intelligent and innovative will eventually prevail over a building industry that is old-fashioned, uninspired, formulaic and wasteful.

In reality, though, innovative architecture and a boring building industry are two sides of the same coin: one being the R&D department of the other. The invention of the curtain wall is a case in point: originally modern and vanguard, curtain walls eventually became a mass-produced, commercially available, off-the-shelf product in a straightforward transfer of technology in the direction of banality. Viewed from this perspective, innovative architecture is to the building industry what Formula One is to mass-produced automobiles, or what haute cuisine is to processed food: an industry-sponsored elite and a glamorous field in which to invent, research and test new technology for the purpose of applying the findings en masse.

Barcelona’s new Media-TIC building, which has led to two inventions being patented by architect Enric Ruiz-Geli of Cloud 9, can be seen as a prototype for field-testing innovations before eventual commercialization. Despite its unorthodox construction and appearance, it is a building involving research partnerships with private manufacturers. It pushes the envelope, in this case both literally and metaphorically, in the service of advancing construction technology – something which supposedly ‘iconic’ or unorthodox buildings have always done to a varying degree, either wittingly or unwittingly.

Although it is in essence an office building, Media-TIC follows few if any of the tenets of commercial office development. Instead of a central service core, it has a central void; instead of a regular steel or concrete structure, it has a gigantic exoskeleton from which the floors are suspended; instead of the marble or granite traditionally used to tart up public areas, it sports DayGlo green paint throughout. The only conventional rule of property development it seems to follow is ‘location, location, location’: Media-TIC is situated in the middle of 22@Barcelona, an ambitious urban-renewal plan to transform a 19th-century industrial zone into a 21st-century knowledge-and-innovation district.

This area, popularly known as Poblenou or ‘new town’, lies to the northeast of Barcelona’s historical core, within the famous gridded urban-expansion plan devised by civil engineer Ildefons Cerdà in 1859. In fact, Media-TIC is situated only a few blocks from the intersection of three of this plan’s most monumental urban axes, Diagonal, Meridiana and Gran Via – a gesture that was intended to stimulate the creation of a new, more modern city centre away from the overly dense and tuberculosis-infested medieval one. As was generally the case with Cerdà’s plan, Poblenou’s built reality turned out to be quite different from what he had envisioned, and instead of a new city centre this area became home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of textile mills, smokestacks, warehouses and workers’ living quarters. In the latter half of the 20th century, as manufacturing throughout Europe and North America went into decline, the area became increasingly abandoned, until a plan was initiated in 2000 to convert approximately 200 hectares, or 115 city blocks, into the knowledge-and-innovation district 22@, a name that makes reference to the previous zoning code, 22a, which stood for heavy industry. The new mixed-use 22@ designation permits ‘the coexistence of all nonpolluting urban activities’ and promotes greater density and ‘ecological efficiency’. It is only now, one and a half centuries later, that Cerdà’s modern city centre is finally coming to fruition.

Five knowledge clusters make up the 22@ innovation district: information and communication technologies (ICT), media, medical technology, energy and design. As the name implies, the Media-TIC building is intended for the crossover of two of these sectors – ICT and media – and forms part of a larger ‘audiovisual campus’ that spans several city blocks. The bright-green cubic building occupies a chamfered corner site across the street from a factory, Can Framis, which architect Jordi Badia recently converted into an art museum. Other neighbors in the area include national and regional broadcasting companies, institutional bodies, content producers, advertising firms, ICT start-ups and university research facilities.

The architecture of the Media-TIC building, inside and out, seeks to create an environment conducive to both formal and informal encounters among the various knowledge sectors it is intended to host. The structure of the entire building, for example, is designed to keep the ground floor completely free of columns or vertical shafts, converting what is normally a labyrinthine lift lobby in most office buildings into a large open space for conferences, presentations and celebrations. This column-free space was achieved by suspending all floor plates from large trusses that crown the top of the building. The construction process was a spectacle in itself: with only the foundation and two rows of 32-m-high braced column pairs in place, the entire array of trusses – including the two floors contained within them – was raised slowly into place using hydraulic jacks. With the construction site momentarily resembling a triumphal arch, the rest of the floors were hung from the rooftop trusses by means of slender steel tubes.

This structural system results in a fascinating variety of spaces on different levels: the top two floors, situated entirely within the depth of the phosphorescent green trusses, are traversed by thick vertical and diagonal steel members, while the floors below have slender vertical columns adorned with large steel flanges that connect them to the undersides of the trusses. The rest of the floors below have slender columns without adornment until the ground floor is reached, which is column-free. The assembly of such an unorthodox structure for purposes of spatial permeability and open-spiritedness recalls the construction of the Pompidou Centre in Paris by Piano and Rogers, an important forerunner of this building and a milestone for architecture-as-research in general.

The Media-TIC’s outer skin is another unusual feature, employing ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) ‘pillows’ that can be inflated or deflated to moderate heat gain as well as daylight in the building. The pillow pattern varies on each façade in accordance with solar orientation. On the southeast façade, an ‘ETFE diaphragm configuration’ uses a printed pattern on both sides of the pillows to let daylight pass through when inflated and to block it when deflated. Similarly, the southwest-facing pillows use an ‘ETFE fog configuration’ into which nitrogen gas can be injected to minimize solar heat gain. The inflation or deflation of the pillows is controlled in real time by sensors and pumps that manage the movement of gases, directing them where they are needed at the time they are needed.

With its breathing, pulsating body parts, Media-TIC recalls the mechanical systems depicted in Terry Gilliam’s classic science-fiction film Brazil. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about the Media-TIC building is that it is performative in both the ‘art’ and the ‘machine’ sense of the word. Either way, what this building does is far more interesting than what it looks like, especially when seen as a work of research-in-progress. Will its ETFE pillow system work successfully and eventually make its way onto curtain-wall façades of office buildings the world over? Only time will tell.

Postscript: click here


Make a one-time donation to support the work of Criticalista

Make a monthly donation to support the work of Criticalista

Make a yearly donation to support the work of Criticalista

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.