Seville’s public squares come in all shapes and sizes. Some are large and officious, others small and illicit; some are patronized by conservative families in their Sunday best, while others are taken over by rowdy radicals in their Thursday-night gear. The life of Seville’s plazas changes with the time of the day, the day of the week and the fiesta of the month.
Yes, public space is still ‘public’ in Spain, meaning it is a charged, highly contested area of gentle conflict. Progress may have usurped the role of public space in much of the rest of the world – or packaged it into a cheesy, sanitized theme-park ‘experience’ – but here it is still considered vital for purposes of leisure, commerce, ritual, making yourself heard, or simply seeing and being seen. This is especially the case in Seville, where stepping out the door requires spending at least half an hour in front of the bathroom mirror – or else risk being mistaken for a guiri (Spanish slang for ‘tourist’). Squares are even among the favourite subjects of joking complaints by Sevillanos, almost up there with politics and football. The riddler’s question most often comes down to why so many contemporary plazas are duras (hard-paved), which is to say treeless, soulless and inhospitable. Answer: so that guiris can sunbathe there.
This criticism does not apply, however, to Jürgen Mayer H‘s Metropol Parasol, a multi-level, multi-use redevelopment of the centrally situated Plaza de la Encarnación that locals have already dubbed ‘las setas’ (the mushrooms). Generously shading the square – now elevated over a market, boutiques and an archaeology museum – is an expansive waffled-timber canopy that looks much more like a grove of stone pines (Pinus pinea, interestingly referred to as the ‘parasol pine’) than a cluster of mushrooms, magical or not. But not to worry: Seville’s esteemed citizens have already found other aspects of Metropol Parasol to criticize, such as serious cost overruns and delays. Such grievances are, of course, indisputable. But I do wish to make the following case before the court of public opinion that has emerged over this structure: a work of public architecture is worth significant extra investment when, as here, it experiments and takes risks in pursuit of a more ecological way of building intended to benefit future generations. Admittedly, the construction of schools and day-care centres should not have been put on hold for the sake of a single high-profile building project, but architecture that builds new knowledge is equally important. We need both.
Let’s begin with the facts. Plaza de la Encarnación is a square at the centre of Seville’s extensive historical core originally occupied by a medieval convent and, later, a 19th century market hall demolished in 1973. After that, for almost four decades, the site was surrounded by metal hoarding initially erected for the construction of an underground car park; a project that had to be abandoned when ancient Roman archaeological remains were encountered. The hoarding remained during the subsequent archaeological excavation as well as throughout the lengthy construction of Metropol Parasol.
The programme of Jürgen Mayer H’s redesign of the square – the winner of a 2004 competition – comprises an archaeology museum, a market, and a plaza with a vast, habitable parasol-like structure supported by six columns that rest on foundation pilings remaining from the discontinued car park. Construction of Metropol Parasol encountered delays and cost overruns caused by the complexity of building over archaeological remains, as well as by the complexity of the parasol itself. Using exposed laminated timber for the first time on such a large scale and in such a hot climate necessitated the development of a new method for protecting wood from high levels of ultraviolet radiation and heat.
Yes, Metropol Parasol is experimental. But the experimentation was not undertaken purely for the sake of form. This investigation focused on the formal possibilities of a construction system new to a climate zone that occasionally sets global high-temperature records. By curving, folding and nurbing the parasol, the architects tested the permutations and possibilities of the system. It is experimental architecture at its best, if you ask me, because the inventions developed to make this structure endure offer lessons and new possibilities for application. So why not simply use good old steel or concrete instead of wood? Because wood is the building material of the future. Wood is not only renewable; it also sequesters carbon, making it perform even better than a carbon-neutral building material. Finding new, more complex applications for wood is crucial today, especially in conditions of intense heat – a scenario that awaits more and more regions of the planet.
How better to catalyze a research agenda than by way of an ambitious public-space project that produces findings for everyone to see and (bonus!) to enjoy. Architecture is the most public of the arts, and when it involves extensive research and development, as this project does, it builds public, open-source knowledge. Spain is often criticized for investing less than other European countries in research and development. I wonder how the rankings would look if experimental public architecture were part of the equation.
This less-visible, long-term aspect of Metropol Parasol should be taken into consideration if the project is to enjoy a fair trial in the court of public opinion. But even leaving aside its value in terms of embodied knowledge, Metropol Parasol is fantastic as a public space, a fact that cannot be denied. It is a work of art imitating nature, a strategy that makes much more sense in a dense historical urban context than the addition of just another building. Metropol Parasol is an adventure-filled promenade of unexpected delights to walk over, under, around and through. Beneath the canopy, a generous stairway leads from Calle Imagen, the busiest street in the heart of the city, to the elevated plaza. Reminiscent of the Spanish Steps in Rome, these wide stairs invite pedestrians to linger and relax. The rather baroque handrails terminate by turning in broad arcs, closing in on themselves to enclose micro-gardens and openings through which archaeological remains can be seen below. The elevated plaza is a spacious surface designed to host all sorts of events, including the Holy Week procession, Seville’s most important traditional fiesta.
Metropol Parasol is still too new to judge how well it will be appropriated and whether it will become an organic, living part of this vital historical city. For this to happen, the controversy has to die down, the politicians have to move on to other issues, and Sevillanos have to stop looking at the structure as a foreign intrusion and truly make it theirs. It is, after all, a public space both simple and complex enough to offer something for everyone. Unlike most icons, which are semi-public if not outright private, this square is open 24/7 and of interest to one and all, not just to architects and guiris. Hey: experimenting in public is not a crime.
[Originally published in Mark Magazine #33]
This article was written before the events of May 2011, when public squares in all major cities in Spain became sites of spontaneous protest against high unemployment, corruption, and a distancing of political leadership from citizens. Plaza de Encarnación became Seville’s site of spontaneous protest (as can be seen here), specifically Calle Imagen and the “Spanish Steps” leading to the elevated plaza.