words Justin McGuirk
This is not a skyscraper. Not according to its architect, Jean Nouvel. He prefers to think of it as a geyser.
Seen here from an industrial area in the north of Barcelona, the much anticipated Agbar Tower is nearing completion. The building will be the headquarters of Aguas de Barcelona (Agbar), the municipal water company, and Nouvel has designed it to evoke water. It even rises out of a pool with waterfalls.
Located just off the Plaça de Glòries Catalanes, the tower is on the Diagonal, the main axis linking the city centre to the sea. The road’s south-eastern section has been under development for more than a decade and the tower has become the emblem of a newly regenerated district.
At 142m high, the building is not the tallest in Barcelona – the twin towers of the Olympic Port are taller – but it stands in glorious isolation. This appears to be one reason why Nouvel, in his written description of the tower, distinguishes it from the skyscraper “in the American sense of the word”. His project architect, Jean-Pierre Bouanha, explains: “What I think he meant was that it’s a signal, more like a traditional campanile, marking the beginning of the new Diagonal.”
Like Gaudi before him, Nouvel derived the form from the obtruded rock formations in the mountains of Montserrat, an hour north-west of Barcelona. However, he compares the organic shape to “a geyser at a constant pressure”.
The 35-storey, reinforced-concrete structure has a multicoloured facade that recreates the prismatic effects of a film of water. The cladding is made up of aluminium panels in 25 colours behind glass louvres. Where there are windows – and there are 4,400 of them – the glass is transparent; otherwise it is etched to be merely translucent. Such details are part of the facade’s elaborate solar protection system. The louvres are titled at 14 different angles calculated to deflect direct light as the sun moves across the sky.
The tower is actually elliptical, giving it a slightly narrower profile seen from the east or west. The storeys are hung off a circular concrete core that runs through the building to one side of centre and contains the services and emergency stairwells. Six lift shafts rise up inside the outer walls.
Asked how it compared with London’s similarly bullet-shaped Swiss Re tower, Bouanha said: “You can’t compare them: two different structural systems and facade treatments, and one was made to be in London and the other in Barcelona. Only the silhouette can be compared but any similarity is pure chance … still, we were surprised when we first saw it.”