Up Close and Personal

[Originally published in Bauwelt 4.2023]

One of the growing problems facing Spain today is the ongoing depopulation of its interior rural countryside. As high-tech agri-business displaces traditional farming, Spain’s rural towns and villages are shrinking, their young fleeing to cities in search of better opportunities while elderly residents’ lives are made increasingly difficult by the closure of public services, shops, and public transportation routes. In some cases, villages have been abandoned altogether, converted into authentic ghost towns whose buildings are slowly crumbling, while others –those blessed with especially important historical buildings or those situated in especially beautiful landscape settings– have found salvation in tourism, be it of the heritage, gastronomy, or leisure sport variety. But although tourism provides jobs, it also often destroys regional cultural traditions and displaces local population, as has occurred in places such as Ibiza. What to do? 

Illueca, a small agricultural town in the province of Zaragoza whose most famous son is Antipope Benedict XIII, is a textbook example of the woes facing the Spanish countryside, its population descending gradually over the last two decades. Like many towns, it has looked to tourism, recently converting Pope Luna’s castle into a three-star hotel, but it has also enticed citizens to stay by building a cultural facility.  

Situated within the historical urban core only a stone’s throw from the town square, on the very site of a cinema that went out of business some years ago, the new Auditorium of Illueca is the result of an architectural competition held by the local council in 2017 with the aim of revitalizing the area’s cultural life. As mayor Ignacio Herrero explains: “We noticed that people were increasingly driving all the way to Zaragoza just to go out in the evening. This new theater is intended to boost local cultural offerings, which together with local bars and restaurants will allow citizens to be able to enjoy culture closer to home.” 

The new state-of-the-art auditorium is a venue for theater, concerts, and film screenings, while also containing a music school and a practice room for local musicians (including a local hard rock band). The competition was won by Magén Arquitectos, a Zaragoza-based office headed by the brothers Jaime and Francisco Javier Magén, with a proposal that completes an irregularly shaped city block with an assemblage of four distinguishable building volumes –vestibule, auditorium, stage fly, and services, each of varying size and height— that establish morphological continuity with the fragmented and heterogenous organic urban context.  

The tallest volume, the stage fly, abuts a four-story party wall of an adjacent apartment building, while the lowest two volumes, the vestibule and the services, are positioned at two edges of a street corner, with the medium-height auditorium positioned in-between. The result is an irregularly stepped building profile in tune with the surroundings as well as the south-sloping site. Capping each of the volumes are gently inclined gabled roofs orientated in different directions, so that the fragmented building mass surreptitiously blends-in with the irregular roofscape of the town.  

The topography of the terrain is equally irregular. A height difference of 2.5m exists across the site, which the various building entrances are positioned to take advantage of. The main entrance, located at the southeast corner of the site where two streets intersect, establishes level zero of the building, above which the bulk of the auditorium and the stage are raised. The stage and its exterior service door coincides with the highest topographic point of the site, at the northeast corner adjacent to the party wall shared with the neighboring apartment building, while the entrance to the basement music school and practice spaces (which also serves as an emergency exit) at the lowest point in the southwest corner coincides with the intermediate landing of a stair descending to the basement level. 

The auditorium’s fragmented massing, roofscape, and topographic integration indicate a highly contextual approach on the part of the architects. The finer details, however, reveal that the building is in fact highly modern. The entranceway, for example, consists of a concave space sheltered beneath a convex corner cantilever of brick latticework, behind which a covered outdoor in-between space extends the full height of the vestibule’s glass wall. The brick latticework creates an intricate shade pattern in the entranceway and vestibule along with hundreds of sunbeams, creating a delightful play of light and shadow. At night, the cantilevered corner over the entranceway becomes illuminated from within, functioning as a modern theater marquee. As architect Jaime Magén explains: “the auditorium’s overall form is traditional, while details such as the cantilever are modern. A balance between both is necessary.” 

Brick latticework is also used to screen several windows of the building, as well as to hide rooftop air conditioning equipment. The vestibule, the space of transition between street and auditorium, is clad in the same brick as the exterior facades, though here with extensive areas of a sideways-turned cored brick layered over sound-absorbing material. By using an interior wall for sound-absorption, it was possible to avoid installing a suspended acoustic ceiling in favor of leaving the underside of the concrete roof slab exposed. The interior of the auditorium, by contrast, is finished in beechwood wall panels and a suspended plasterboard acoustic ceiling that is folded and angled, mimicking the pitched roof above, and creating an ambience that is much more refined, as befits such a space. The brutalist vestibule effectively acts as a character foil to the more formally dressed auditorium. 

Tucked beneath the auditorium, in the lowest level of the facility, is the music school, which is independently accessible from a side street entrance. It is not cut off from the rest of the facility, though, but can be glimpsed from above through a set of windows positioned between fan-shaped pillars supporting the sloping underside of the auditorium; a subtly constructivist moment in the middle of the Aragonese semi-desert.  

The Illueca auditorium’s coupling of an urban massing strategy that is contextual with tectonics that are modern is a particularly Iberian architectural tradition. It can be traced back to the work of mid-20th century architects such as Alejandro de la Sota or José Antonio Coderch, to name only two, and continues in much contemporary work. This may explain why in the 1960s and 70s, the post-modernist revolt against modernism that took place in the rest of Europe and North America was much more subdued in Spain, where CIAM doctrine had taken less of a foothold. It was not really until the boom of the 2000s that large-scale megaprojects started getting built in Spain, by then under the guise of “iconic architecture.” 

The camouflaged urbanism of Illueca’s auditorium reflects a growing rejection of the tendency to revitalize Spanish towns and cities with signature buildings. The Bilbao effect worked wonders in that city, but it was disastrous for Santiago de Compostela, Valencia, and Oviedo. Curiously, an earlier revitalization plan for Illueca recommended the construction of a conference center, a facility that, had it been built, would cater mainly to visitors, not locals. The Illueca auditorium, by contrast, is clearly intended to cater to the regional populace, and to foster local creativity and culture. The auditorium has not been designed as a detached sculptural object to be admired from afar, but as a building with which to become emotionally attached from nearby. It is up close and personal, not unlike small-town life itself.  

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