Metropol Parasol

December 1, 2011

With the aim of transforming under-utilised urban space in Sevilla, Spain, Jurgen Mayer’s ambitious project is shot through with dualities, providing awe and irony in equal measure.

Set among the narrow streets of the old town, the Metropol Parasol soars over the Plaza de la Encarnacion in Sevilla, Spain. Conceived in 2004 by J. Mayer H. Architects, it was not completed until 2011 at the staggering cost of 90 million euros. Intended to be an injection of life and culture in an under-used space of the city centre, this ambitious and imposing project is a complex example of the transformative potential of architecture. It is the world’s largest bonded timber structure, where six enormous parasols emerge from a stone and glass plinth covering an archaeological site. The sculptural forms are typical of the architect, who began work as an artist and is known for the clarity of his conceptual, experimental and bold work. The parasols articulate a stark contrast between material and void, using Mayer’s characteristic sharp lines and clean contours to exaggerate qualities of light and space. The giant shade structure slices the sky into pieces and provides a series of spaces for new urban activity to evolve.

The first encounter with the project is overwhelming due to its sheer size and contrast with the existing fabric of the old city. Its enormity within the plaza demands attention, with structures merging to form a continuous surface, their masonry-wrapped bases counter to the floating polyurethane-coated timber canopy. The parasols create an interface between new layers of program, with the plaza filled up by social and commercial infrastructure. Entering at street level, the plinth contains two enclosed levels with a farmer’s market operating in the Plaza de Abastos. Below is a subterranean layer, the Plaza Antiquarium, with Roman ruins on display, and above, the expansive Plaza Mayor. High above these dense layers is the Plaza Panoramica, a rooftop walkway and lookout, with planned restaurant venues. The complex is a ‘vertical plaza’, where urban layers co-exist one above the other, becoming more or less active at different times of day in a conceptual overlapping of past, present and future. The experience of these layers moves from dark to light, beginning with the atmosphere of a dimly lit museum housing the sunken ruins, to the bright glare of the rooftop panorama. The lower levels are designed by others, with simple commercial interiors and non-descript connections to the surrounding streets and pedestrian spaces. The glass skin to the market offers some sense of connectivity, and the few punctuations made between the plaza levels with views to the canopy above are striking.

Plaza Mayor caps the market with an expanse of grey stone, its trunk-like columns growing from the plaza surface and connecting to strategic points between the ruins below. This podium is separated from the street by a large number of steps and escalators, severing it from surrounding shops and cafes. The space is empty but for a handful of semi-circular stone benches, small fountains and a limited amount of planting. The columns are already marked by graffiti and the vastness of this space gives the sense of an empty stage waiting for events to unfold. The surrounding facades are framed by the organic shapes of the parasols, with the timber and steel canopy creating extraordinary negative spaces around its periphery and revealing itself like a mirage to surrounding view corridors. At one end, mature trees sit alongside a lone parasol, creating an interplay between the square’s natural and artificial canopies. Overhead, the twisting metal pathway of the Plaza Panoramica creates a continuous loop, weaving across the top of the canopy. Although the restaurants on this level are not yet complete, this incredible terrain allows the exploration of the city from above, with expansive views complemented by the sounds and smells of the streets beneath.

From afar, the structure seems like a superimposed image, an impossible foreign object encased within the square. The undulating lattice shapes are utterly photogenic, but their surreal digital aesthetic differs from the reality of the building up close, where the materiality and craftsmanship are disappointingly inconsistent with the architects’ demanding standards or the sophistication of the rigorously executed structural design. Parts of the building already appear tired and worn while others remain unfinished, likely the symptoms of construction during a financial crisis.

The architects call the Metropol Parasol an ‘urban cathedral’ and it can be compared to the cavernous spaces of Sevilla’s Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede. The liquid curves of the canopy and its tree-like columns echo the cathedral’s monolithic interior with a sense of the uplifting, making it an exhilarating experience to move through such a dynamic space. One cannot help but gaze upwards to the floating grid that casts geometric patterns across the plaza, filled with changing washes of light and the sounds of passing life. This tapestry of light and shade establishes a territory that the architects describe as an ‘attractor’, hoping to generate change and new forms of interaction.

Interestingly, the project has recently become the preferred site for large-scale demonstrations, an ironic choice given the enormous spending during the economic crises. Though, it’s proved the ideal backdrop for protestors to gain heightened media coverage due to its aesthetic notoriety.

Sevilla’s purposefully narrow streets, the planting of orange trees and the suspension of simple sheets of fabric provide refuge from the summer sun. In contrast, the Metropol Parasol is a scaled-up version of a finely perforated shade cloth, an oversized grid with large apertures casting lively shadows. As more than a shade structure, however, the building attracts activities by providing new spaces for events to occur and an ‘atmospheric cover’ for public events at night. Having provided the framework for new happenings, the project will rely on the activation of its spaces by the insertion of different programs or events. The structure does not seem self-sufficient as an attraction, but requires habitation by activities that can unfold across its layers. In particular, the Plaza Mayor needs to be programmed as its atmosphere (and perhaps relevance) depends very much on its use. The project’s ultimate success will depend therefore on the reaction of the local community and their adoption of its spaces for different purposes.

The project is characterised by many dualities and has attracted mixed reviews, positioning it somewhere between a work of art and architecture. It is a shade-giving structure that is dominating and heavy, with a bare material palette that doesn’t help to soothe the summer conditions of the urban centre. It was conceived and developed through advanced digital technologies, but still subject to the slow process of building approvals, funding and construction. A modern icon set amongst an historic old town, the scale of the building is incongruous with the more intimate atmosphere of surrounding streets and plazas. Unlike a typical plaza void the site is covered by programmatic layers, which create a fixed terrain occupied in a non-traditional way.

The Metropol Parasol is a product of the unlikely union of technological progress and economic decline, a bold, digitally engineered form that the people of Sevilla are still coming to terms with. As described by the architects, the project expands the materiality of architecture, reaching beyond the physical with the exploration of ‘space’ as ‘a platform for communication and socio-cultural interactivity’. With the potential to attract new ideas, involved participation and engagement within the city’s heart, the parasols provide the infrastructure for change, a brave experiment in the potential for architecture to catalyse a heightened sense of awareness.

Lucy Humphrey is a Sydney-based architect, and has been a tutor, guest critic and lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture.

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