[Originally published in Baumeister December 2021]
Older buildings are no longer what they used to be. Until recently, the argument for not demolishing a building was chiefly one of heritage conservation, but since the arrival of the anthropocene, it is increasingly one of energy conservation. As is now widely recognized, demolishing an existing building that is still structurally sound entails, in general, a loss of “embodied energy” that a more energy-efficient replacement cannot compensate. This is significant, for it means that even the most banal and ordinary buildings in our cities –the bulk of the built environment– now have more “green” value than new architecture.
Is the age-old discipline of architecture, then, over and done with? Only if new construction continues to be considered architecture’s non plus ultra, and the rehabilitation or adaptive reuse of existing buildings a somehow lesser art. But this need not be so: increased interaction with older buildings makes available historical materials and techniques that cannot be viably produced today, and that therefore have great potential to lend contemporary architecture “new” vigour, as in fact we are starting to see more and more. A sort of “archaeological” process inevitably emerges when working with existing buildings; one that involves chance and the element of surprise, enabling an architecture that is more aleatory and less deterministic.
A project recently completed by Josep Ferrando in the Catalan town of Reus provides an illustrative example of an archaeological design approach. Centre Social El Roser is a transformation of a 1929 prison into a social services center consisting of a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, and a community space; the first comprehensive facility of its kind in Spain. But that is not all: in 1979 the prison was previously transformed into a kindergarten, of all things, which effectively means this project is a transformation of a transformation; and one that is rather surreal. Ferrando has taken advantage of this unique opportunity to engage with the building’s varied past, the outcome embodying not only energy but also a degree of “complexity and contradiction.” A selective removal process was undertaken under Ferrando’s supervision in which hidden constructional layers were exposed and then transformed. Indeed, the project is just as much about what has been revealed through removal as it is about what has been added or modernized.
Situated at the urban periphery of Reus, at the corner of a busy arterial road and a quieter side-street leading to a residential neighbourhood, the architecture that dominates from afar is unmistakably that of the original prison, an H-shaped ensemble whose exterior stone and brick walls imbue it with the austere character of a 19th-century industrial complex. The bulk of the original prison has been kept intact in this latest transformation, except for one end-wing that has been reconstructed anew, and two smaller infills inserted between parallel wings. The new architecture is entirely steel and polycarbonate, the idea being “to contrast the stereotomic mineral materials of the existing structure with a lighter, more ethereal and tectonic architecture”, states Josep Ferrando citing Kenneth Frampton’s interpretation of Gottfried Semper.
Whereas the original prison was entered from the arterial road through a monumental and authority-imposing noucentista portal at sidewalk edge, with the subsequent kindergarten transformation the entrance was moved to the much safer side-street, where a courtyard bound by a garden wall that has been removed by Ferrando is now a small open public space shaded by trees. The only portion of the former garden wall that has been retained is a curious stone entrance archway; an element that was never part of the original prison at all, but that was relocated there as part of the kindergarten transformation from a historic hotel demolished in the town center. The archway is now supported by new, slender steel colonnade, “a gesture that recalls the now absent garden wall” explains Ferrando. Thus, a public space at the front of the social services center now contains architectural elements from no fewer than three different historical periods as well as two geographic locations: a palimpsest plaza par excellence.
In the interior spaces of this work, almost all paint, plaster, and suspended ceilings have been carefully removed to expose the structural materials at the core, in large part stone and brick belonging to the original prison, though there is one space in which the plaster and pastel colors of the kindergarten have been restored. A very unusual discovery was made in the process: the structural system of the sloped roof consists of slender, elegant iron trusses that are in this case spanned by sloped Catalan vaults instead of purlins.
Throughout the building interior, doorways between enfilade spaces have been repositioned to make them align, enabling long axial views through building wings. This “spatial correction” required demolition and reconstruction that, in the context of so much exposed stone and brick, become noticeable interventions. Even mortar leaks from formwork not perfectly fitted to the rugged walls have been left visible. The interior of the social services center is, then, largely characterized by rough, raw surfaces that create the ambiance of an ancient Roman ruin, a wine cellar, or indeed a Medieval prison. The project is austere, and Ferrando states that this was intentional: “It was important to recuperate the original prison structure, which the kindergarten covered up. The suspended ceilings of the kindergarten made the space seem like any other; it might as well have been the seventh floor of another building. By stripping almost everything away, the space is once again situated between earth and sky.”
The new soup kitchen, which is also a café-restaurant as well as a depot and distribution center for food donations, replicates the volume of the prison wing that it replaces, but with an envelope made entirely of polycarbonate. While this is coherent with Ferrando’s design concept of sharply contrasting the old and the new, a greenhouse is arguably not the ideal building type for accommodating a kitchen and dining space in a warm (and warming) Iberian climate. Contrast is indeed the leitmotif here: if the greenhouse is overly bright and hot, the spaces of exposed stone and brick are overly dark and cold. Had “human comfort” perhaps been selected instead as the overarching concept (not entirely inappropriate given the nature of the program), the project would undoubtedly not have turned out with such a high level of architectural rigor. Such is our discipline’s culture, alas.
Centre Social El Roser exhibits an admittedly fascinating, indeed enviable level of architectural rigor and coherence, especially considering it is an adaptive reuse project. Or perhaps because of it? Elements from different historical stages as well as the present-day are combined in a manner that is legible and revelatory, and that has allowed elements such as chance and surprise play a part. It contrastingly exposes much more of the original prison than of the previous transformation into a kindergarten, but in doing so it also makes much more visible and indeed tangible the immense amount of energy it embodies.