Herzog & de Meuron’s new CaixaForum building lurks inside an old electric power station in Madrid’s Paseo del Prado, the main artery that cuts the city in half and where all the important cultural facilities are now housed in a ‘museum axis’ that boasts its world-class category and in which CaixaForum is the latest incorporation.
The building sits opposite the Botanical Gardens, themselves just a part of the mid 19th century interventions that created the Prado Museum and the Astronomical Observatory in Retiro Park and is thus strategically positioned, in geographical, cultural and historical terms, in the midst of what has already become the city’s renewed heart.
In spite of that, the intervention by the Swiss architects is far from a commodity and has made a conscious effort to question several inherited truths about the discipline and the nature of the commission by means of a radical architecture, rich in presence, nuances and complexities, that have turned this building into a controversial success amongst the public and critics.
In fact it is surprising to discover that such a daring structure originated in the mind of the once all-controlling minimalists, and one only wonders in amazement at the outstanding material achievement the construction is, given what the complications – cutting under the old power station and literally lifting its heavy brick fabric from the ground – have meant in a technical but also conceptual sense.
Only by recurring to the recent past in HdM’s production can one begin to understand how their whole career, particularly during the last five years or so, since the completion of the Prada Aoyama Building in 2003, has aimed towards the acquisition of one degree of freedom after another, as if their solid-base Cartesian origins have given them the security to face risks that only later they have dared to embrace aggressively.
The fatigue of a certain phase of ‘Swiss Minimalism’, the exponential increase of their commissions abroad in a world market driven by the culture of the image and the spectacular and their exposure to alien collaborations distorting their certitudes (particularly those with Rem Koolhaas and OMA during the late 90s) seem to have ‘opened the black box’ for Herzog and de Meuron, and a genealogy that was expected to be an organic evolution in a disciplinary line has turned into a non-lineal rhizome with constant leaps of faith and fantastic hits that turn HdM today into the world’s most unpredictable and exciting architectural office.
Probably the secret to all this, market culture apart, lies in a shift operated inside the disciplines’ firmly based roots with the incorporation of certain conceptual displacements to do with the paradoxical and an imbricate notion of time, first experimented by several artists during the 1970s and which permeate architectural discourses today.
If the layered and profound approach to landscape and memory described by American artist Robert Smithson is nowadays common ground for all those interested in expanding the field of architecture towards those of urban and environmental design, the same can be said to have occurred with the ideas on stability and matter challenged by Smithson’s contemporary, Gordon Matta-Clark.
It was Matta-Clark, ten years before deconstruction became fashionable, who was first to unveil a complete programme in the dialogue with existing architectural structures. Something he labelled ‘Anarchitecture’, as the idea was to reveal those conditions already latent in existing structures without the incorporation of any new material layer but rather by means of stripping the apparent to reveal hidden structural devices, physical relations, missing links and visual connections.
The peeling away of the façade of a detached suburban bungalow, for example, not only revealed the fragile balloon-frame lattice structure beneath its bourgeois appearance, but it also raised questions about the character and symbolism that the idea of ‘house’ possesses, besides literally opening up an enclosed interior to a new and unexpected relation with the outdoors.
This, in my opinion, is the way to approach the violent actions that the CaixaForum project performs inside the old electric power station, and only following these artistic translations into architecture can we realise how, by staging the unexplainable and by giving birth to a difficult, uncomfortable and raw hybrid between the existing fabric and the programme of a new museum, the architects have succeeded in providing Madrid with a new attracting magnet, one that not only houses its institutional functions without any compromise but also performs actively in the urban scenery.
This is mainly achieved by three practical devices.
First of all, the Plaza in front of CaixaForum, obtained after the demolition of the petrol station that existed in front of the power station, and which acts as a continuation of the Paseo del Prado sidewalk, thus clipping the building onto that important axis. This plaza also acts as a space for temporary outdoor exhibitions, and so permits a positive blurring of the privately managed museum and the city itself, producing in this way a space for social intercourse.
Secondly, the lifting of the building so that the structure hovers and floats, producing an inevitable ‘suction’ effect on the passing public. This is accompanied by the faceted geometry left beneath the brick volume of the power station, turning the access to CaixaForum into a passage of initiation through some sort of cave or sacred ground.
And thirdly, the spectacular natural and artificial vegetation wall designed by Patrick Blanc that covers the adjacent building’s wall, giving a vertical projection to the plaza and a green background to the events taking place there.
Perhaps most importantly, this green wall acts as a reminder and a connector towards the Botanical Garden, only 50 metres away across the Paseo del Prado, firmly anchoring the new museum to its material context; as much as the employment of Cor-ten steel plates in the sculptural volumes that make up the extra space on top of the brick walls speak of the industrial past of the site, its textures and its resonances.
In this way, CaixaForum, originated in the surreal translation of violent artistic principles into the realm of architecture, ends up tracing links with its surroundings in a classical way, coming full circle and demonstrating the ambition of an architecture as daring and iconic as much as it can be subtle towards context and performance-driven towards the public that has flooded the museum since the day it was opened.