Melbourne-based architecture and urbanism researcher-designer Amelyn Ng, who took home the student prize at this year’s Dulux Colour Awards, reviews the CaixaForum Madrid with fresh eyes. Zooming in on the architectural components Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron have inserted to an old power station – now one of the most visited museums in Madrid, Ng believes there is still something be learnt from this ‘old’ icon.


The well-known CaixaForum, nestled in the heart of a central district in Madrid, was conceived by its arcihtects Herzog and De Meuron in the early 2000s as a city ‘magnet’. One might think that iconic buildings such as this would be, by now, washed-up versions of their former glory, declining with the test of time, program and long-term occupancy.

However, as I reflect on my first-time pilgrimage to the building in Madrid this May, it is evident that this core aspiration continues to be lived out, thirteen years on from its conception. As I approach the building I am greeted with a pleasant surprise: this building has managed to maintain that elusive natural magnetism that many iconic buildings fail to grasp years down the track. The building mass is unflinchingly solid, and like the exertion of a gravitational pull it attracts a diverse mix of users: the high-energy tourist flock, high-school students on an excursion, the high-art inclined visitor, an elderly next-door neighbour, a teenage couple killing time, restaurant waiters on their smoke break…

The building’s monolithic presence and striking materiality are, indeed, true to the magazine photographs. Its sheer weight is made magical by its seemingly floating appearance. The architecture, while having retained its entire perimeter of existing facades, had clearly broken the traditional conservation approach. Many Australian architects would shake their heads at the very notion of ‘facadism’, having seen one too many heritage warehouses unmercifully gutted and redeveloped into luxury apartment blocks, where the token retained facade fails to be reconciled with its new architecture.


^ Corten latticework on the exterior

This phenomenon has become so widespread that now has its own Wikipedia definition – “an architectural and construction practice where the facade of a building was designed or constructed separately to the rest of a building.” (Curiously enough, the first image used on Wikipedia to demonstrate the term is an example close to home: the old brick Architecture building at Melbourne University.)

However, in the case of CaixaForum, the discussion of façadism has been intelligently rethought and carefully executed. Instead of a flimsy one-sided facade that would only suggest loss of a richer history, the CaixaForum’s exterior suggests dynamic addition. Here, the heritage power station can be circumambulated and read up close in its full volume, as if it were still standing there, intact in the city. The datum of the roofline is silhouetted against a dark sheath of corten steel, made to weather naturally along with its heritage counterpart.


^ Looking up: junctions between old and new

The old and new are just separated by a fine steel lip, shadow lined on either side. Here, the rote preservation of a building in its ‘optimal’ historical state is rejected, and replaced by the express encouragement of the ageing processes of compatible materials. Herzog and de Meuron have not taken a nostalgic, precious approach. They have configured the narratives of history, materials and form into a cohesive, modern object. The sharp juxtaposition between old and new is far from a poor or distant marriage; in fact the former power station and its abstracted corten ‘crown’ are nestled together, unapologetically yet with finesse. It has become a didactic, three dimensional dialogue between technical ability and urban memory. The brick volume is lifted effortlessly from the ground by the crisp folding of a continuous, shadow-lined steel plate, making for an impressively consistent detail at eye level as one circumambulates the building.


^ Floating mass: perimeter edge is articulated by the continuous line of a folding steel plate

And how can one forget the monumental green wall? Just around the corner, rich textures of well-tended vegetation cover the neighbouring blank wall’s expanse, forming a ‘soft’ counterpoint to the ‘hard’ architecture of the main gallery volume.


^ 'Soft Approach': Well-maintained green facade lends a softer, textured edge to the square

150611_Madrid2.jpg< Green wall maintenance: a rigorous day-to-day upkeep

The forecourt is transformed into a dramatic diorama facing onto the main street, Paseo el Prado, and echoes the botanical gardens beyond. It stands testament to the rigorous maintenance routines in place – though perhaps a touch too controlled for natural irrigation and self-sustenance. Also surprisingly well-maintained is the sheltered open foyer; even though its silver triangulated facets that made up the entire soffit feel slightly dated, all is forgiven as a cleverly-sited running water feature delivers a cool, salubrious breeze through the space, providing relief to the heat of noon just beyond the Forum’s threshold.

No building review, of course, is complete without weighing up its shortcomings. The insidious ‘interiority complex’ of iconic buildings has once again manifested itself within the CaixaForum’s walls. There is the fact that almost all the power station’s windows have been bricked up save for two modern incisions which slice unapologetically through the original openings. I suppose that in view of the highly controlled exhibition environment required by the gallery, the architects’ decision for blind windows was the more cost-effective choice, than the alternative of having to refit each opening with modern frames and spend more on climate-control equipment.

There is also the fact that CaixaForum’s interior experience is highly dissociated from its monumental 150611_Madrid6.jpgexterior. The power station’s original brickwork is barely visible from the inside – presumably overridden by another prerequisite in the gallery brief. I wonder what the brick shell would have looked and felt like from the inside, looking out of it rather than merely at it? Would it really be so detrimental for art to be displayed alongside heritage red-brick instead of white plaster? As I stand in the unnatural glow of the triangulated fluorescent grid in the raised, metallic foyer – and indeed later in the white-walled gallery spaces above, I can’t help but compare the space to my visit of the Thyssen-Bornemizsa Museum down the road just moments prior, whose atrium of natural light and potted ferns bathed the salmon-pink walls in a welcoming comforting glow – a true Spanish welcome.



^ CaixaForum foyer: stepping into an aluminium-clad, fluorescent-lit interior space

CaixaForum’s crowning glory, the perimeter of corten screens, is also somewhat mistranslated in the user experience, letting down the way it relates back out to its surroundings from the inside. As the saturated visitor ascends the sculptural concrete stair in anticipation for a breathtaking view over Madrid’s cultural district, he or she may be met with slight confusion and disappointment. When one finally makes it past the poorly-marked entrance to the cafe, what seemed like a fine, feathery lacework from the ground is actually more like a thick-grilled metallic mask, thereby obscuring the entire panorama of Madrid behind a dark, pixelated silhouette. In terms of visitor experience, the ultimate dislocation between interior and exterior occurs here at the pinnacle; an unfortunate end to what was an intriguing journey of urban mediation and rediscovery.



^ Corten screen masks true views of Madrid city

In view of all its architectural and civic gestures, it becomes apparent that the key to the CaixaForum’s continued success lies in its exterior interfaces such as the undercroft. This low-ceilinged public plaza is effectively a 24-hour sheltered urban shortcut making permeable what would otherwise be a solid, private institution at street level. While it is a bold architectural diagram, its urban impact is nuanced and appropriately subtle. The sacrifice of prime net lettable area has been in a way compensated in terms of urban value. CaixaForum is now as much connector as a catalyst, having created a much-needed edge condition in a neighbourhood of traditional impermeable blocks.



^ Undercroft: a low height plaza allows sheltered access across the site

As an exterior volume the CaixaForum returns something to the street, and the street back to it. In the morning it welcomes neighbourhood joggers and dog-walkers; in the afternoon it attracts all manner of admirers, tourists and schoolchildren. As the day wears on, it offers respite from the elements and the traffic bustle, as well as an open corner square for gathering. The green wall acts as a local way-finder and meeting point, far more effective than the traditional tourist signs that clutter other cultural hotspots in Madrid.

In the evening, business-people filter through the site to a cluster of bars and restaurants beyond. Indeed, there is still something be learned from this ‘old’ icon, I think to myself, as I stand in the cool of its shade, watching the ebb and flow of civic life around and under the hovering mass that is at once foreign and native to its context, impressing itself gently on the urban fabric with all the intrigue and familiarity of an newly discovered, new-old ruin.


About the author:

150610_Amelyn.jpgAmelyn is a Melbourne-based researcher-designer of architecture and urbanism, with a particular interest in tactical behaviours and civic agency.

She has worked at a variety of practices such as John Wardle Architects, JCBA and Fieldwork Projects (current), across a diverse range of project scales – from masterplanning and institutional buildings to apartments and single residences. Her recent university-funded trip to Madrid for the biennial Archiprix International Workshop allowed her to collaborate with local studio Estudio SIC and other young architects on the major housing and evictions crisis.

The notion of architectural agency and citizen-based, operable infrastructures are common themes across her design projects.

While working towards her architect’s registration, she is developing various personal research projects and hopes to present/exhibit/write about/realise them in a way that will critically reshape, challenge and diversify what we currently consider to be public space in the city.

Contact her at [email protected]


All photography by Amelyn Ng. Lead slider image: