Media-TIC, another Sad Spectacle?

In an article I wrote a few years ago on Barcelona’s Media-TIC building, for Mark Magazine #25, I concluded my optimistic text by asking: “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.”

Well, the answer to my question is published in an op-ed piece titled “Smart City 2023” in today’s El País. According to this article, it turns out that the pillow system stopped working only days after the building was inaugurated (which is when I visited it), and that the building is so expensive to heat and cool that it has been abandoned.

This is not the first time a building by architect Enric Ruiz Geli has problems. Unlike Villa Nurbs, which remains to be finished, at least this one reached completion, and at least it worked as planned for a while. Though it makes me wonder if the energy efficiency certification it so proudly received upon completion is still valid, or how it could ever even have received such certification in the first place. It also makes me think that architectural “sustainability” that depends entirely on active, highly technological mechanical systems may not make the most sense in the end.

What is most disappointing, however, is that this experiment was created as an incentive for start-ups in the information and communication technology field. It was done with the vision that, in the long term, it would transform Barcelona into a Mediterranean technology hub.

Oh well, so much for that idea.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

5 comments

  1. Hi Rafael,

    It is with the respect I have for you that I provide you with my most sincere impression on your post. As you know I am neither an expert or a prolific writer – but, because I am also very interested in this particular project, as it relates to my own research in responsive envelope systems, I would like to make a few comments:

    After reading the 3 articles referenced in “The view from Madrid” article on the Media-TIC building, unfortunately, I was left with more questions than answers. Generally speaking, I very much appreciate the rigor with which you critically comment on various architectural projects and interventions. Whether it is a social commentary or a philosophic one, I feel that you have made a good onus to the title of your blog “Criticalisimo”. In this case, it seems to me that more rigour, or supporting facts, would have been helpful.

    I am myself a big skeptic of active envelope systems and excessive ornament (if we alternatively consider the TFT panels as such) but neither one of the articles in either “El Pais”, your blog or “the View from Madrid” provide any actual evidence on the current state of affairs of the building. For instance if someone openly states that: “Sin embargo, pronto se convirtió en el edificio más caro de mantener de todo el parque existente, debido al colapso del sistema inflable días después de su inauguración.”

    It will be great to see a simple average maintenance cost per m2 of a similar commercial building, particularly if it states it as been the most expensive. Furthermore, the argument made is supposedly supported on the premise that the operational failure of the TFT system. However, no repair or maintenance figures are presented – I am not sure if it is possible to attain such information, but did it ever have a single good month of operation? How much did it cost to fix it? Warranty?. Did the “certification” include a follow up component?. Since the blog posts source the article from “El Pais”, it seems suitable to also look at their closing argument:”Finalmente tuvo que cerrarse por la falta de inversores interesados en comprar un edificio con unos gastos de climatización desorbitados.”

    In this case I am also interested in knowing where this came from? What is the occupancy rate of the surrounding building stock? Building cost of the building per m2 compared to its neighbors? Actual operational costs?. If the criticism comes from its failed promise of sustainability, perhaps a life cycle analysis (even a half hazard one will do) could support the argument. I realize that this kind of information may not be readily available, but it seems that at least some hard evidence should be included when making these kinds of statements about a project.

    1:2

  2. 2:2

    I feel that there might be a really good lesson to be learned from this building: perhaps it is a true failure of design, technology and economies at different levels. However I am left with the feeling that all three articles lack supporting evidence. I cannot figure out if is a simple dislike of unconventional architecture, a fear of technological misuse or personal animosities (“Ruiz-Geli has always struck me as more about posture than substance”). During my undergraduate degree, I worked as a research assistant rating and analyzing various “sustainable” rating systems and in my limited experience with this, I found that it was the failures of projects (and the rating systems that supported them) that were most useful at generating change. Most importantly, most of this projects failed despite of either praise or criticism for their technological or architectural might. In this light, it is odd for me to see an article that supports what otherwise should be a very straight forward argument on premises that can easily be disregarded as unrelated. (projects uncompleted, certification standards, posture or stylistic approach (“If authorities permit this kind of extravagance in the name of experiment”). Overall, I agree that we need to be more critical about what we do as architects – but we must also be weary of hearsay.

    Cheers,D

  3. Last week, Enric Ruiz Geli kindly received me in his office and guided me throughout the Media-TIC building for over two-hours. I had requested his response to that El País article which suggested that the building had to be abandoned due to the malfunctioning of its technology. Enric was very forthcoming, showing me both the building's virtues as well as its problems. One problem, for example, is in the pillow system that uses nitrogen fog to prevent heat gain through the glass curtain wall facing southwest: when it's sunny and the fog is turned on, the fog causes very high glare, causing discomfort to office workers. The building operator has therefore decided not to use the nitrogen fog and to use air conditioning instead, in conjunction with interior pull-down blinds. So, the building is not 100% perfect. But then no building ever is. The El País article is therefore misleading when it says that the building's systems stopped working after a while. It works, but unfortunately it causes a discomforting side effect: glare. The article also gave the impression that the building had to be abandoned, when in fact it's about three-quarters occupied at the moment. Lesson learned: never take a newspaper article on faith, even if it's El País, Spain's newspaper of record.

  4. Kerrie Verbart

    Hi Rafael,
    I am curious to know why the blinds couldn’t solve the glare issue when operated in conjunction with the fog injected EFTE pillows? Did you see the fog injected nitrogen demonstration, or could this be a case of a system malfunction being masked by this story? Perhaps the newspaper had some truth? What makes you trust one set of information over another, or am I missing something here?
    I am also curious to know how the installation and use of an air-conditioniong system impacts the energy assessment of this building and the claims of if being almost net zero, along with the award it received based on these claims?
    Sorry for all the questions, I am researching this building at the moment and am trying to get my head around a few things. I hope you are able to assist.
    Regards,
    Kerrie

  5. Rafael Gomez-Moriana

    Hi Kerrie, I assume you read about the blinds in another article titled “Reality Check: Spain” (see https://criticalista.com/2014/08/01/reality-check-spain/). You’re right, of course: roll-down blinds and fog-injected pillows could easily be used in conjunction since each serves a different purpose.
    To answer your questions, no, I never saw a demonstration of the nitrogen fog system. What I learned upon re-visiting the building was that the nitrogen fog pillows didn’t cool the building sufficiently (after all, that’s an ALL-glass facade facing south-west…in Spain!), requiring supplementary district cooling to be used, so that in the end the building management decided that it wasn’t worthwhile operating the fog system.
    The newspaper piece is, on the surface, a fictional speculation set in the future, so it is not to be read as investigative journalism. But it was written by someone who worked in the building, so as a piece of criticism it is not without substance.
    How this impacts the building’s energy assessment and its almost net-zero claims? I suspect that the building’s short-comings are being down-played by the owner (the City of Barcelona) in order to avoid public embarrassment and to capitalize on the many awards the building has won. In the end, it’s a *symbol* of sustainability much more than it is a sustainable building, and that’s precisely its problem from an ethical point of view.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s