Disappearing Act: Empúries Visitor Reception Centre by Fuses-Viader Arquitectes

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Empúries reception centre. Ruins and museum by Puig i Cadafalch in background.

[Originally published in Baumeister 9/2017]

As the place where Ancient Greeks first set foot on the Iberian peninsula, the archaeological ruins of Empúries —from the Greek “Emporion”, meaning “trading place”— is a heritage site of European significance. Founded by colonists from Phocaea in 575 BC, Emporion aligned itself with Rome during the Punic Wars, resulting in a larger Roman Municipium being built adjacent to it from which the conquest of Hispania was initiated in 218 BC. Emporion was itself built in two stages: the original Palaiapolis (old town) on an island in the Fluvià River grew too small and had to be abandoned after only 25 years, leading to the construction of a nearby Neapolis (new town) away from the river. The Neapolis was eventually Romanized, after which the independent towns, separated by a wall, became referred to as Emporiae, in plural. Emporiae went into decline, however, when it became outgrown in strategic importance by the newer Roman towns of Barcino (Barcelona) and especially Tarraco (Tarragona). Stones used in Medieval constructions in Girona and even as far away as Perpignan, France, have been identified as originating from Empúries, while the site of the Palaiapolis became recycled into the fishing village of Sant Martí d’Empúries in the Middle Ages, today a small coastal tourist resort. The ruins of the Greek Neapolis and Roman Municipium comprise the archaeological site of Empúries, the excavation of which began officially in 1908 under the direction of architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. A Servite convent built on top of the Neapolis in 1606 that was converted by Puig i Cadafalch into a storage facility for the most valuable artifacts excavated from the site is today a museum that stands amidst the ancient ruins.

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Plan (courtesy Fuses-Viader Arq.)

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Reception centre seen from the Neapolis

The new Visitor Reception Building by Fuses-Viader Arquitectes, built into a slope beneath the Roman Municipium adjacent to the Neapolis, is a highly sculptural work of “land-art” comprised essentially of several concrete walls stretching across the landscape and a folded roof plane —also concrete— situated at their intersection. Containing a reception area with ticket desk, a cafeteria-restaurant, a multi-media presentation room, a multi-purpose meeting room, a gift shop, and public facilities such as bathrooms, the Visitor Reception Building directs the flow of visitors from parking lot toward the Neapolis along a lengthy retaining wall that regularizes a subtle change of elevation between the Greek and the Roman towns. Another pair of walls orientated roughly orthogonally to the retaining wall divides the site in two, with entry and exit occurring at the ensuing concave corners. Courtyards puncture the landscaped roof of the building to reveal and illuminate sections of the retaining wall, the conceptual backbone of the project.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy virtue of its lengthy retaining and garden walls, its irregular geometry, as well as its use of cast-in-place concrete, the facility hardly appears as a “building” in the classical sense, but more as a landscape element; a contemporary piece of land art, to be more precise. In this way, the project obviates any question of an appropriate architectural style for such an historical context, making itself almost “invisible” as a building by belonging more properly to the landscape setting. A work of landscape is perceived less problematically than a building in western culture, perhaps since nature appears —on the surface at least— not to have been eradicated by urbanization. In this regard, the design of buildings resembling landscape elements can be seen as highly strategic, employing a form of “camouflage” for reasons of cultural sensibility rather than defense.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASuch an architecture-as-landscape strategy of disappearance is one that has become increasingly pursued in sensitive heritage contexts since the end of modernism. The precedent par excellence is undoubtedly Casa das Artes in Porto, by Eduardo Souto de Moura (1980): an addition to a historic mansion that takes the form and appearance of a thick garden wall along a lateral edge of the property in order to leave the mansion as freely standing and untouched as possible. The landscape element of the Visitor Reception Building is not a single garden wall, but a piece of land-art incorporating several garden as well as retaining walls. Indeed, given its function as an entry and exit point, the building is effectively a piece of walk-through land-sculpture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sculptural quality of the Visitor Reception Building is heightened further by the use of monolithic in situ concrete throughout, the varied textures and irregular angles of which highlight a hand-made, artisanal formwork that is anything but the standard type that has been used in so much construction in Spain over the decades. Indeed, the texture of the underside of the folding roof plane was achieved by lining the formwork with “canyís” (“cañizo” in Spanish), a typical local gardening material consisting of parallel strands of reeds woven together with thin steel wire for use as privacy or shade screens, remnants of which became attached to the concrete after formwork removal. The various concrete walls of the Visitor Reception Building have been formed using rough-sawn lumber, by contrast, the wood grain texture of which transmits a more traditionally heavier and less delicate appearance. Here, Gottfried Semper’s distinction between “Mauer” and “Wand” can be seen to have been cast in concrete: the texture of the underside of the partially floating roof stems from a woven textile mat, while that of the supporting walls suggests solidity and fusion with the ground. Sunlight entering through the various courtyards create a dynamic play of shade and shadow that highlights the different textures and angles of the concrete planes.

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Concrete textured by “canyís” and rough-sawn wood

As a walk-through work of land art belonging more properly to the contemporary landscape than the historical urbanism of its site, the Visitor Reception Building can moreover be seen as an emphatic alignment with architecture as something “sublime” rather than as classical imitation, subscribing to a set of views about architecture and ruins not unlike those held by Giambattista Piranesi, whose “Vedute” portrayed Ancient Roman ruins as landscape. The Visitor Reception Building at the archaeological ruins of Empúries is, ultimately, a work of sublime architecture-as-landscape. In a historical context such as this one, such a disappearing act represents a respectable achievement.

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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.

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