Foreign Office Architects | icon 051 | September 2007

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words Beatrice Galilee

You have to use your imagination, but in a few months this stark serpentine structure will be sheathed in a canopy of foliage and wild flowers.

La Rioja Technology Transfer Centre, the latest building to be completed by London practice Foreign Office Architects, is not yet open for business. It’s still a little bare and slightly ferocious, more like a sleeping dragon covered in spidery wires than the secret garden that it promises to be.

It has taken five years for FOA duo Alejandro Zaera Polo and Farshid Moussavi to follow up their extraordinary and influential debut, the Yokahama Ferry Terminal; a unanimously agreed coming of age for the young practice and for digital architecture – proof that the concept of folded space was not just about lofty discourse but could be used to create a real, vast, tectonic and highly functional building.

There is a clear family resemblance between the ferry terminal and this technology centre in Logroño – not least with the multi-levelled emphasis on circulation, and subtle inflections of slowly rising ramps perfectly covered in beautifully detailed and ordered decking.

The building is too tight and too efficient to be considered sprawling, but it is impossible to understand it fully on first approach – each of the three approaches offers a different reading of it. However, there are two approaches to the roof, and from these not only can you understand the logic behind the design, but you can appreciate the remarkable views of this wealthy region.

Logroño, in northern Spain between Bilbao and Barcelona, is an area with fertile soil. It made its money with fine wines, high-end olive oil and asparagus, but alongside these it has the somewhat unexpected title of Europe’s second largest holder of ISP addresses. Looking to capitalise on this auspicious regional interest, the council of Logroño approached Madrid and was granted a sum of money to build a centre of technology, a place for training, online research and the incubation of local internet start-ups. The designated site is beautiful – on the east side of a newly completed park along the Iregua river.

FOA is concerned with the practical application of advanced design technologies such as biomimetics and creating a genuinely beautiful, effective space. The ramps that stretch along the back of the building are engineered to the point that they become a metaphor for the land itself – a complex series of changing angles and directions, they possess their own topography. Hundreds of cables extend from planters on the ground, over the ramps and up to the roof on all sides. The impression of moving plate tectonics is used to spectacular effect and these long decked parades are far more than circulation devices – they enclose and wrap, stretching over the roof, penetrating the building, playing with perspective like a fluid series of moving landscapes. The wires twist constantly like cat’s cradles over the sun-bleached decks.

What could have been an ordinary, private office building has been opened up to the public via the roof, presenting views of the surrounding park and countryside that would ordinarily have been closed off by the main road that runs alongside the site. The building fits neatly against a bank below a bridge, leaving room for wild flowers to grow, the cables mirroring its slope. The zigzagging centre hides a deceptively simple concept. It’s essentially a long corridor with office units along one side, giving the narrowest possible profile in order to allow as much open space and as many views and vistas as possible.

This narrow plan gives rise to two very  different elevations and a remarkable treatment for what is essentially a tedious proposition providing a number of flexible office units. The first floor is a progression of offices to be rented out to web-based businesses, along with the school and lecture rooms. On the second floor is a canteen, lecture hall and laboratories. While the east side has a conventional glass facade, on the west – facing the bank – is a cascade of ramps. Internal circulation – lifts and stairs and toilets – is carefully placed in the kinks and elbows of the building, leaving the arms for the repetitive units to look out over the gardens. Each room has the same generic size and plan – albeit with immaculate attention to detail and floor-to-ceiling Miesian windows. The corridor feels luminous, with light from the translucent white glass of the office walls, and will eventually become a dappled green space as plants shade the west-facing external windows.

“The idea was that the building captures this outside wall,” says Zaera Polo. “We remain as close as possible to the ground. We liked this idea of creating internal-external gardens.”There is a certain romance to the building, with butterflies flitting between the wiry metal railings and the dark-green steel structure, painted to match the colour of the garden wire – it’s exciting to think how these slick, edgy corridors will feel when the whole thing is slowly ensconced in flowers. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting any work done here. The  corridors are for lingering, the roof for long lunches, the floor-to-ceiling windows, even with their electronic blinds, do not encourage concentration as they survey the acres of growing land.

This has been a good year for FOA. The duo has completed three projects in Spain, where they enjoy something like celebrity status, and it’s no surprise that the Spanish are embracing them – it’s a country that is building more and better architecture than anywhere else in Europe.

FOA has been investigating the use of landscape and nature in its work for some time now, enjoying the hybrid between artificial and natural – its apartments in Madrid, which were also finished around the time of this project, make similar use of shade to soften a geometric form, this time with natural bamboo. The practice has also been involved in the engineering of a landscape for a garden in Cornwall, a shopping centre in Istanbul with a green roof and London’s Olympic park.

Logroño is no stranger to commissioning contemporary architecture – its 1973 town hall is an early Rafael Moneo project. With this new commission, it feels that the city’s apparently seamless progression from a fertile agricultural and wine region towards a digital era could be no better represented than with this small but important offering from FOA.

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