Pinball Space

architects Luis M. Mansilla, Emilio Tuñón Álvarez
project Lalín Town Hall, Lalín, Spain
written by Juan Ruescas Baztán

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The new Lalín City Council building is an experiment. The challenge set by the competition in 2004 held by the City of Lalín, in the Galician district of Deza, was to grant the city of 20,000 inhabitants a facility to interconnect the city hall and other public services. This prompted the Madrid-based studio Mansilla+Tunón to attempt a singular work which was completed in February.




The genesis of the Lalín project can be understood in terms of a diagram, a graphical tool that succinctly defines an initial space where different components can be combined through their relationships. Independent of form, the diagram directly expresses the programme of uses and constraints as links or connections.


At Lalín, M+T make use of the power of the diagram with one objective: to intersect programme elements that are a priori independent. Aiming to arrive at a total area which is less than the sum of its parts, M+T construct an ‘intersection space’, equivalent to the non-disjoint sets of set theory. This sort of ‘bite’ between programmes makes the activities of two different enclosures (A and B) meet in a third shared space (AB) that is part of both but also strictly distinct.


When well-defined but different functions share associated spaces, an optimization of the shared square metres is achieved, not only because they take different parts into account simultaneously, but also because this implies their greater capability. Thus an area with more demanding requirements becomes more efficient, influenced more by its topological relationships and syntax than by its formal definition.


The strategy of M+T, once again, is to step back from the problem into an abstract territory in which to formulate hypotheses. Since these are falsifiable in terms of their internal logic, these hypotheses shift away from the individual to the general. The premise is therefore refined through the laws of a system that is progressively fed data from physical reality. This data in turn leads to new ideas: the process is iterative.

The procedure is not charged with determining the form of the artefact, but rather finding the rules of the game that in the end will allow the particular needs of the concrete project to be met; it is a ‘natural’ procedure in so far as trial and error will reject or temporarily accept premises in order to adapt to what is required.


At Lalín the formulated system consists in the grouping of independent functional cells. This grouping is repeated in successive subsets, in effect establishing a recursive structure. The only hierarchical relationships present between sets are those stemming from recursion levels.


The sets are coherent in virtue of the relationships between their elements, but also by their material aspect, because the matrix is – originally – also a constructive matrix. Without going into detail, the material project is defined by a single detail of the façade and another of the roof. An example is the treatment of natural reflected light, achieving a sophisticated result from a perceptive standpoint.




The project ma­te­riali­zes by grouping cells like constellations, that is, through a geometry of coordinates scattered in space. The constellation is a conventional grouping of elements which are not ne­cessarily associated at the local level but appear to be on the plane. From a morphological viewpoint, the nuc­lear solution is translated into circumferences, i.e. centres (coordinates on the territory) and radii (harmony between corresponding dimensions), according to the maps of the architectural problem. Thus, the final solution be­comes concrete through the intersection of the areas of influence of certain centres of gravity that are functional in nature. The resulting con­cavities and convexities can be understood according to the external or internal position of these generating centres.


The counterpoint to the scattered organization of the constella­tion is found in the knot concept. The knot works through friction, i.e. it requires a geometry of contiguity that guarantees its stability. It is represented with embeddings of the circumference in given topologies, which grants them structure and requires, by the arrangement of its tensions, a space it nevertheless does not fill up.


The Lalín project crystallizes when those precise embeddings are found that make it possible to translate the diagram of its functional relations into the language of space, a condition that makes its cells collide. This proximity guarantees the encounter, the ‘friction’ between programmes, and the design of the knot is the key decision to obtain the right degree of compactness.



Without tenacious continuity of the perimeter there can be no compactness. Only in this way is a set’s cohesion achieved, a set that would otherwise fragment into its autonomous parts. If Lalín is a composition that extends without origin, the continuous contour determines the degree of concentration of its content. The perimeters act as ‘belts’ that grant the whole and its groupings their spatial magnitudes. The success of this radial geometry lies in the direct relationship between the size of a grouping and the curvature of its corresponding belt.


At the same time, border tension grants the artefact’s organization freedom. This is why it has been carefully calibrated, attempting to position the project at the desired point between a closed, internally subdivided, compact volume, and a scattered conglomeration without internal tension. It is clear that, behind an apparent simplicity, at Lalín there is also a concealed focus on these interdependent parameters of physical and programmatic density, and that there is a critical density to be reached. Thus a controlled size of the footprint, inside a larger site, reminds us of the initial objective of making uses and users collide through expansion, and the agreement between centrifugal nuclei. The perimeter circle can be seen as the necessary centripetal antithesis to a decidedly radial geometry.


On the outside, the curved perimeter is materialized through a polygonal glass skin whose facets reflect countless shades of green. This terse but interrupted continuity multiplies its presence in its environment and, at the same time, gives the building a human scale without compromising its abstract character. Even the limited volume seems to pay attention to the surrounding environment, approaching it in an effective manner. Nevertheless, M+T do not sacrifice what the project is supposed to mean: a singular, public building located in a context with little structure. The intervention is sharp but expansive, making its mark on the map as did the central layout of the castros in the past. It shares with those military settlements a faith in its own founding internal laws. Lalín is a central layout where the centres have been multiplied.


Inside, the perimeter is revealed in two ways. First, from a certain distance it appears as a perspective horizon and source of reflected light that seeks its path. Secondly, like a window that is intermittent at times, and at times sifted from the outside, according to the user’s position relative to the translucent, clouded or transparent glass; a fragmented window that does not open to the landscape, but rests on it. Horizon and window are explained from a spatial standpoint.



There are two spatial formulae in the project that strategically balance each other: on the one hand, the actual functional units; on the other, their areas of influence.


The cell-units are separate and independent compartments formed by curved, load-bearing walls of exposed concrete. When they are on the façade, they are cylindrical sectors that are completed by the glass perimeter. When they are inside, they appear as complete cylinders. Each is assigned a function and some fixed users, or are nuclei of communication, facilities or toilets.


Their area of influence, between the black parallel planes of the roofs and the floors, expanding from the extrados of these solid, white cells, the objective of the experiment of Lalín develops a continuum, a single fluid, the ‘pinball space’.


Inside it, the cells and their surroundings, subjected to functional tension, mutually define each other through the ‘bounce’. Bounce is agreement: the space is finite and bargaining takes place. The programmes intersect. The ‘pinball space’ is the home of intersection.


The conditions that allow this interstitial space to function as a place for collision remind us of those of the public space: density, use superposition, and a certain amount of congestion that shortens distances and resolves local problems with local solutions. And as the project confirms, there needs to be a certain amount of surplus space.


This architecture makes use of the contiguity of elements of different sizes whose overlapping remains an open matrix, de-programmed. The intersection is defined by the activities and the agents that temporarily bounce; the ‘pinball space’ is solved according to available resources, services and objects. It is the response to an indeterminate problem, unpredictable because it is subject to change. The problem is installed within it, multiplying its relationships with the whole. The subsequent situation is not designed a priori, it is allowed to happen; to enable rather than to plan, to provide rather than to specify form.


The ‘pinball space’ operates horizontally, between planes that press upon activities, making them centrifugal. It then spreads, transfers, fades, flees. Like a boomerang, it ejects space and makes it return through its concave perimeter. Sensitive to neighbouring pressures, it contracts and expands, squeezing and inflating programmes, or moving closer to or further away from the user, generating moments of great intimacy or situations like those of a plaza. It does not have a size, it has reach. It does not have direction. It resists centrality and compartmentalization. It is an activated field, laden with events that physically surround it but also echo inside it.



The project contains four significant excep­tions, those that M+T usually use to stretch the laws of the established system, creating a balance between rule and exception.


The first is the double space generated in the nuc­lear place of the Council building: the council chamber. Paradoxically, this symbolic ‘centre’ is not materialized as a central cell of the complex but rather as a place of agreement and exchange, a democratic space, thus part of the pinball continuum, although breaking away from its horizontality by means of a double height of concentric lighting.


The second is the vertical connection opened like a ‘negative’ cylinder in the hall area, a resource to define and hold in tension a central public space. Almost like a function cell built as a ‘negative’, it is a light magnet that ‘charges’ the field.


The third exception, the internal plaza or patio, underlines the character of the whole as a forum and skilfully resolves the crossing of paths. The enclosure is a place of encounter and collision, of bouncing, and its space reflects these characteristics with its pinball nature. Nevertheless, to achieve the public presence required of any plaza, it is physically completed with a regular perimeter inside, the largest cell, also configured as a negative.


The fourth exception is time. If contemporary time is no longer a line but rather a network of collective intentions, a map of points whose inner relationships are renewed instantaneously by its infinite agents, then perhaps, as that mentor and friend states, time flows better in curved buildings.