Circle of Life

[Originally published in The Architectural Review December 2019/January 2020]


Article 12 of the 1964 Venice Charter of the International Council on Monuments, states the following: “Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.” This document, which establishes the heritage restoration guidelines still in use today, explains why so many historic building restorations emphasise a sharp contrast between old and new; a visual trope that has come to express a certain idea of historical rupture or discontinuity between past and present. Never mind that most historic buildings are, themselves, products of multiple interventions and adaptations throughout the ages. For some reason, historical changes are never considered ‘falsifications’, whereas contemporary ones are – which is why the latter must always be ‘distinguishable’.

Architects Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats do not subscribe to this ethos of discontinuity, so in their project to transform Barcelona’s Cooperativa de Pau i Justícia (Peace and Justice Cooperative) building into the Sala Beckett theatre and drama centre, they decided to reuse as much as possible the very architectural components that make up the old building, resituating and adapting them to fulfil similar roles within a new configuration. The outcome is an architectural metamorphosis that is not readily distinguishable; one that appears, on the surface, as though little – if anything – has changed. The reuse of the building and many of its components has revived an urban social relationship with the neighbourhood that was interrupted by decades of abandonment after the demise of the cooperative in the 1980s, almost a century after its founding. Ironically, it was precisely the building’s lack of heritage protection that permitted Flores & Prats to create this architecture of continuity.

In a city such as Barcelona, which underwent a sea change in the late 20th century from industrial port with shanty towns to an internationally recognisable tourist brand, such an attitude is significant. Architecture performed no small role in the transformation, and the city abounds today with many works that dramatically symbolise disruption and discontinuity, such as Torre Glòries by Jean Nouvel or Media-TIC by Cloud 9 Architects. Pronouncing a clean break from a miserable past through architectural character foils was precisely the point then, but today this is becoming somewhat tiresome. ‘Barcelona is erasing much of its past; it is an amnesiac city’, Eva Prats exclaims. ‘So much is being forgotten and discarded.’

Sala Beckett is on Carrer de Pere IV, a medieval road linking old Barcelona with Girona and France that became the artery of Spain’s largest industrial district during the 19th century. From the exterior, the building looks much as it always has, its facade turning a corner onto a side street where a service entrance is located. The completely reconfigured interior nevertheless maintains much of the building’s basic original structural organisation: a central circulation spine entered from Carrer de Pere IV serves two large parallel volumes (one on each side) as well as a third perpendicular volume at the far end. The spinal space, now the theatre’s foyer, features sculptural openings in its ceiling and walls that invite glimpses into the upper-floor foyer and views into the theatre’s offices and café, recalling an urban passageway. With its tall ceilings and windows and doors that enable seeing and being seen by passersby, Sala Beckett’s café has today become an urban institution in its own right, frequented by both neighbours and artists, young and old.

The heart of a theatre is nevertheless its performance spaces, of which Sala Beckett has two: a modern black-box theatre on the ground floor and a smaller space for more experimental work on the upper floor, each with flexible seating tiers to enable different configurations. A new, somewhat playful, stairway climbs gracefully from the foyer’s ground level, connecting it to the upper theatre, rehearsal spaces, classrooms and a generously glazed outdoor terrace that not only lets in daylight but also provides further access to an attic-level classroom and a plant room.

‘The reconnection of this building with its neighbourhood was a priority for us’, explains Ricardo Flores, ‘so it was important to keep everything that could be kept. We did not want to rid the building of its ghosts’. The design strategy amounted to nothing less than reusing as many original building parts as possible to turn a 19th-century cooperative (partially transformed in the 20th century into a swimming pool and gym) into a modern theatre facility that meets 21st-century building-code requirements.

Throughout the building, traces of changes are visible on interior walls. A mosaic on a wall in the foyer reveals the outline of a former stair that has been moved to the rear of the building, while café walls reveal the ends of iron joists from a mezzanine removed to ennoble the café with a double-height space. These subtle traces of the former cooperative are the very ‘ghosts’ that enchant the new theatre.

Old elements that could potentially be reused were carefully removed, inventoried and stored instead of being tossed into landfill. Flores & Prats’ finely drafted drawings of recuperated building components alone took up no fewer than 80 A1-size drawing sheets. ‘We could have simply torn everything down and built from scratch, which would have been a lot easier in terms of satisfying the competition’s programmatic needs and norms concerning structural stability, fire safety, etc,’ Flores explains. ‘It was a gamble to work with this old building, yet keeping it was the first and most important decision we made, the one that conditioned every subsequent decision.’

The design process for transforming the cooperative using its own architectural components involved detailed physical working models of both the building and the many elements salvaged during demolition work, and then finding the best reuse configurations. ‘The idea was to reuse elements in much the same way they were used before, without “reinterpreting” them’, Prats remembers. ‘Windows remain windows; doors are still doors. We prioritised use-value.’ An example of this ‘use-value’ is the relocation of baldosas hidráulicas (19th-century decorative cast cement flooring tiles that are highly prized today) from the cooperative’s original upper-floor social space to the theatre’s ground-floor café, where they were arranged in a different flooring pattern to frame the café’s new curvilinear bar. Of course, some elements – such as an old door left in place where a section of floor was removed to insert a new stair, now fulfil a more rhetorical use.

To complete such a complex architectural puzzle, many new elements had to be fabricated, of course, and these do appear as such, much in the spirit of the Venice Charter. But beyond Article 12’s ‘old’ versus ‘new’, Flores & Prats have created a third category we might denominate ‘renewed old’, or new building components reconditioned from old ones. Examples of this include old wooden doors and frames enlarged with new wooden additions to suit their new location, or window ensembles that visibly dovetail original parts with new. These three categories appear in roughly equal proportions in the work.

The architecture of Sala Beckett is clearly aligned with the emergent idea of the circular economy, albeit in this case a rather tightly closed circle inscribed within the building itself. Here, continued use is made of old elements; they are not being displayed principally for visual appreciation. And yet this is precisely what also adds to the visual charm: a human, practical and soulful attitude of ‘making do and getting by’. Instead of a ‘cool’ museological-minimalist architecture of visual display, this is a ‘warm’, more playful and ambiguous architecture of appropriation and reuse.

It is important to recognise that behind Sala Beckett’s circular economy of materials lies a great deal of super-human effort, especially on the part of the architects and collaborators (the budget of €2.5 million was not exceeded on this renovation measuring approximately 3,000m2). Labour-intensive, materially frugal architecture such as Sala Beckett’s is the exact opposite of most construction projects in the Western world, which minimise labour and craft while abundantly and wastefully employing cheap new materials. To a bean-counter, Sala Beckett must surely come across as a work of absurdist theatre. Of course, if the prices of new materials were ever to reflect their true environmental costs, then ecological degradation and high unemployment would probably cease, seriously disrupting business as usual. It is precisely here, with its architecture of continuity (not to say ‘sustainability’), that Sala Beckett breaks radically and beautifully from the status quo.

The extra effort involved in such an intense, adaptive reuse project entails extra time, of course, but then this is appropriate for a theatre whose name honours the author of Waiting for Godot. Indeed, ‘slowness’ was one of the very reasons this proposal was selected: Sala Beckett director Toni Casares recognises Flores & Prats as ‘artisans who work slowly, and who honestly express their doubts. […] We don’t produce grandiose theatre that descends from an ivory tower; ours is small-scale theatre often coming from the street in which the actor’s spoken word takes precedence’.

With city life once again passing through its doors, the reconstructed building has become a vital part of the social tissue of Barcelona’s Poblenou neighbourhood. The inaugural play, El Cafè de la Memòria (The Café of Memory), was workshopped at Sala Beckett with former members of the cooperative before being performed throughout its spaces. As if in homage to the work and the building itself, a character exclaims something along the lines of ‘Hey, this stair was never here, and these doors were over there. Yet it’s all still familiar somehow!’

Drawings courtesy The Architectural Review

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