Waffle urbanism

A visit to Jürgen Mayer H.'s Metropol Parasol, one of the most daring and controversial urban interventions to be completed in Europe in recent years.

 

Architecture / Ethel Baraona Pohl

This article was published in Domus 947, May 2011

Watch the video by Pedro Kok

In his 1964 book Investigations in Collective Form, Fumihiko Maki defined the basic concept of megastructure, writing: "The megastructure is a large frame in which all the functions of a city or part of a city are housed... In a sense, it is a humanmade feature of the landscape."

With a height of almost 30 metres and with six supports that underpin a complex and daringly engineered waffle structure, the Metropol Parasol by Jürgen Mayer H. could justifiably be considered a megastructure. Although it does not house all the possible functions of a city, this new and artificial urban landscape does contain several of them—commerce, leisure and public space. It was conceived to revitalise Plaza de la Encarnación, which was once the intersection between the cardus and decumanus of the Roman city[1], and the site chosen in the 18th century for Seville's first drinking water fountain, reinstating the square as a focal point of the city 200 years ago. However, the square lost all urban importance in the second half of the 20th century, following the demolition of Encarnación Market in 1973. How could a place of such central importance for the city have ended up unused and closed to the public for over 40 years?

Curiously, with its gigantic proportions, this megastructure anchored in the heart of the city seems to have arrived late on the scene. The economic crisis and political problems currently beleaguering Spain have made this project the focus of intense controversy. The same design that won several awards in 2004, not to mention the tender, now attracts harsh criticism from both architects and the public.

The new construction restates the urban quality of Plaza de la Encarnación: a historic square which had been used for many years as a car park.

A project of such importance and scale as Mayer's could be seen as a radical attempt to initiate a process of metamorphosis within the urban space. In this respect, some people judge it as an inappropriate response to the spatial and historical identity of Plaza de la Encarnación. Equally, however, one might argue that the project's dimensions and form are in themselves a protest, highlighting the need to recover the urban meaning of words such as "square" and "market". In practical terms, this means bringing back the noise, the people, the exchange and all the daily hubbub thanks to the attractive force of this spectacular structure. This space traces out new lines in a city founded in the eighth century BCE. Although officially inaugurated on 27 March, and yet to be completed, the Metropol Parasol has already provoked diverse and vociferous reactions.

Las Setas, or "the Mushrooms", as it is commonly referred to among locals, simultaneously constitutes structure, facade and roof. Its genesis is contemporary, but at heart it is a baroque form for a baroque city. Mayer's parasols generate an artificial landscape that sets out to retrieve the emblematic value of architecture, placing it in a context in which the symbolic is an inherent part of social and cultural history. So why is it provoking so much criticism?

Opinions about the project touch both extremes. Acolytes of parametric architecture praise the structural design and bravery of the concept; other architects, meanwhile, see it as a narcissistic celebration of form that is totally out of scale and context. Hence it is an urban intervention that engenders passion and loathing, approval and rejection—but never indifference.

The frame is made of wood laminate and steel joined by means of a heat-resistant glue. The Parasol is the world’s largest construction to be held together with glue, and one of the most complex ever to have been built in wood.

It is difficult to appreciate how conservative we become when our utopias make the jump from designs on paper to concrete reality; and it is just as hard to come up with an explanation for this attitude. When, 50 years ago, Archigram, Superstudio and Archizoom—and many others—designed megastructures and mobile cities such as those envisaged by Peter Cook or Yona Friedman, the technical means to build them did not exist, and all those dreams remained confined to drawings, magazines and the occasional book. They remained etched in our collective memory as Paper Architecture. But I sometimes wonder what might have happened if some of these projects had actually been built? What would New York be like if it were crossed from end to end by Superstudio's Continuous Monument? Or what if Constant had filled the planet with his New Babylon modules? Would they still seem as romantic to us as they do in their unbuilt form?

 
The project’s dimensions and form are in themselves a protest, highlighting the need to recover the urban meaning of words such as 'square' and 'market'
 

Mayer refers to Metropol Paraasol as a “cathedral without walls”, an architectural promenade above the rooftops of Seville.

Could it be that the fascination we feel today for the utopias and radical architecture of the 1960s and '70s stems from the fact that they are precisely that, unrealised utopias? These speculative projects attempted to respond to specific urban, social and political problems at a time of conflict in our history. But once a utopia is built, the poetic feeling of the impossible is lost, and the new building enters the category of the probable, of the achievable. One among many others.

In a certain sense, Jürgen Mayer's project is reminiscent of Friedman's Mobile Architecture, not only due to its form but also because it is possible to walk along its upper part, which will function as a series of panoramic platforms for visitors, leaving the raised square under the parasols free and open. The lower level below the square accommodates the new Encarnación Market, which mixes the tradition of the Seville marketplace with a shopping mall—traditional trading juxtaposed with globalised commerce. Against this backdrop, it is important to pause and reflect on our perception of architecture and the city today. Do we still believe in utopias?

According to Mayer, the distinctive curvilinear forms of the Metropol Parasol are derived from the Cathedral consecrated to Santa Maria de la Sede.

Quoting Jules Michelet's maxim "Each epoch dreams the one that follows it", Walter Benjamin once posited that "in dreaming, [each epoch] precipitates its [successor's] awakening"[2]. Each new adventure of political and historical dreams, including architecture, advances us towards this awakening that Benjamin describes. It is probably the word "awakening" that frightens us and makes us so conservative. The present climate of deep economic recession has cast grave doubts as to the feasibility of completing the project, and the variations in its budget have made it seem all but impossible [3]. It may be that the arrival of "the improbable" takes us by such surprise that we won't even have time for reflection. We reject what we are unable to explain. As Gilles Ivain stated in his Formulary for a New Urbanism [4], we are evolving within a closed landscape, with points of reference that incessantly drive us towards the past. However, to this he adds: "Architecture is the simplest form of articulating time and space, of modulating reality and engendering dreams."

Detail of the shaft of one of the umbrella units.

Having visited the city of Seville and experiencing the space of Plaza de la Encarnación, my immediate reaction was that we must strive to see the present objectively from the perspective of the future, resisting the urge to look to the past from the viewpoint of the present. The forces of retrospection indicated by Ivain already exist, and always will, but so does our ability to imagine and define the future.

We will have to wait another 50 years in order to look back impartially and evaluate how what started out as Paper Architecture has completed its trajectory towards reality, adapting itself as a consequence to its surroundings. In 50 years we will probably be dreaming of things that are unimaginable today, and the Metropol Parasol will likely be recognised as an innocuous expression of a bygone era. As long as we architects nurture our ambition to stretch the boundaries of the possible, there will always be a deranged "paper architect" or "iPad-architect" there to challenge the limits of our achievements. Then the question will no longer be: "Do we still believe in utopias?" Instead, we will be asking ourselves: "Can utopias grow old?"

Let's hope the answer is an emphatic "NO".

In order not to spoil a Roman archaeological site, the waffle frame of the new complex, built in reinforced, concrete, wood laminate and steel, touches the ground at only six points.

NOTES
1. Division of Seville and its surroundings into main sections, 1914.
2. Michelet wrote Chaque époque rêve la suivante in Avenir! Avenir! Europe 19, no. 73 (15 January 1929). Walter Benjamin quoted and paraphrased this in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media (Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2008).
3. Los problemas crecen bajo 'las setas' ("Problems grow under 'the mushrooms'"). Article by Reyes Rincón published in El País, 25 July 2010.
4. Book of passages by Walter Benjamin. [L 2a, 6] p. 416. Notes and materials. Oniric architecture, museums, thermal baths. Original title Das Passagen-Werk, Rolf Tiedemann edition, Akal 2004.

The “mushroom-shaped” structure is set on a base that accomodates a new market, an archaeological museum, bars and restaurants. The project is designed to create areas of shade that are vital to the use of public spaces in a sun-baked city like Seville.

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