Circuit City - Morphosis in Madrid | icon 054 | December 2007

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Words Justin McGuirk

This machinic estate may look like it revisits the standardised purgatory of mid 20th-century system living, but it doesn’t.

There are few chances today to write about social housing. Architecturally speaking, this is the age of the museum and the corporate icon. Which is not to say that we don’t build social housing anymore, just that there isn’t much to say about it, other than to complain that it is short on ideas and idealism. This is not the case in Madrid.

Driving along the M-40 ring road around the eastern and southern fringes of the city, you can’t avoid the evidence of a staggering population explosion. Megalithic apartment blocks form a seemingly endless perimeter wall between the city and the scrubby plains. All brand new, the buildings share a standard seven-storey stockiness, and the majority of them look like terracotta-coloured prisons. Interestingly, these are the private developments. Against this cookie-cutter landscape, the social housing projects leap out.

With a combination of ethics and civic pride, the municipality has reserved the showpiece architecture for the poorest stratum of society. There are new buildings by global practices such as Foreign Office Architects, David Chipperfield and MVRDV. They are all in some way striking and ambitious, but mainly they address the facade. The only project that reconsiders dense living for this climate is by Los Angeles-based Morphosis, and is in the district of Carabanchel, to the south west.

I first came across this building as a model in the Morphosis retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in March last year. What stood out at once was the way the facade of the tower was mirrored by the horizontal groundscraper protruding from its base. Making the foot of a tower merge with the cityscape is a conundrum that a number of our more experimental architects have set their minds to recently, and Morphosis generalissimo Thom Mayne’s solution seemed fiercely logical. But it also looked relentlessly dense and complex, and summoned up nightmarish visions of social housing experiments past. Here was “a machine for living” if ever there was one – an urban motherboard ripped out of the central processing unit of Mayne’s brain. But that was an illusion. In fact, the design was humane rather than inhuman. All that circuitry was sunshades and pergolas. That layout was not experimental but deeply traditional.

In mid October it is still hot in Madrid, and the sun’s glare is bouncing off the whitewashed walls of the estate. But once you walk into one of the outdoor corridors the first thing that strikes you is how cool it is. Instantly, the layout of the project sets it apart from the entire surrounding area. The city may have brought some of the world’s best architects to bear on the set pieces, but it took less care over the general masterplan. The entire district is laid out like an ugly Barcelona, with hulking pink apartment blocks lined up along broad avenues. The level of variation is Soviet.

In contrast, Morphosis’ estate has been laid out like a miniature town. It’s a diverse, low-rise landscape on a human scale. Book-ended by two short towers (one seven storeys and the other six) is a network of two-storey family houses and apartments hugging covered “streets”. Here and there the streets open onto little “plazas” with freshly planted oak saplings, while running through the middle is a “paseo”, or thoroughfare. The feeling this place evokes is of an Arab medina. This is a techno-Tangiers whose winding alleyways have been rationalised into a grid so that you can’t get lost. It’s a kasbah with underground parking for all.

The estate could so easily have been neutered by bureaucracy. The regulations governing housing in Carabanchel are incredibly rigid, with every room dimension prescribed. And yet this is a highly complex place. The 141 units are broken up into 35 different types, from two- and three-bedroom apartments to four-bedroom family houses. And every home has access to a diverse set of outdoor spaces – a kitchen will have an open-air utility room, a living room will open onto a fenced garden and an upstairs bedroom onto a terrace from which you can look down into the garden or the adjacent plaza. Consequently, the interiors are bright and porous.

But more interesting than that is the interplay of public and private spaces. From one courtyard, where perhaps a few teenagers have gathered, you might see the silhouette of a child playing in a garden behind a perforated steel fence or look up and call out to someone crossing an elevated walkway or chat with a woman hanging laundry on her terrace. No one has moved in yet, so it’s deadly quiet, but you can almost hear this place resounding with community life. And that’s the idea. It’s a natural by-product of their climate that the Spanish like to commune in the open air. “People here belong to the street – they like to live in the street,” says Begoña Díaz-Urgorri, a former pupil and then employee of Mayne’s in Santa Monica, and now the project architect here in Madrid.

All that imagined life will be lived beneath a heavily patterned canopy of pergolas and chimneys. The latter are based on the wind chimneys of Andalusian houses, in turn based on a traditional Arab device that keeps fresh air circulating naturally through the house. They’re to be found on all the buildings in this area but Morphosis has aestheticised them, turning them into a level sequence, even when the roof heights fluctuate. And if owners decide that natural ventilation isn’t enough, then air-conditioning units can be installed, and cleverly hidden between this project’s signature feature: the pergolas. These metal lattices are what transform this “organised labyrinth”, as Díaz-Urgorri describes it, into a masterful project. For the time being they have a striking but rather arid geometry, like a Constructivist or even De Stijl motif. In the afternoon, they striate the estate with long, syncopated shadows – a photographer’s dream. But when they are overgrown with plants those angular edges will soften and this miniature town will be soaked in dappled light.

As it was with the model, so it is with the real thing: the pattern of pergolas continues seamlessly from tower facade onto the horizontal roofscape. Formally speaking, it ties the two axes together. But the more important union here is the way that Mayne has incorporated “house” into housing, which, in Britain at least, is the great fault line along which developments divide – they are almost always one or the other. This is both, and the result is that the project feels like a town and not an institution.

The only thing that struck me as strange about the estate was the fence around its perimeter. This is a gated community. But, then, every other development in this area is too, by law. Madrileños may like to commune on the street, but they take their privacy and security seriously. In a working class neighbourhood at the very edge of the city, the fence is realpolitik. And even with the fence, who’s to say that in ten years this won’t be a crime-ridden sink estate in a suburban ghetto? By then, this article might look like delusional twaddle. To me, the estate feels like a place residents can take pride in. But if the worst happens, it won’t be the architect’s fault – blame the city planners.

Ironically, it’s questionable how long this will remain social housing. Where the purchase of council homes is a recent development in Britain, here there is no tradition of renting. These homes can’t be sold on for 20 years but they are so desirable that by then a current owner’s offspring could make a hefty profit by selling up. The construction manager told me he’d love to buy one, if only he was eligible.

With its Fez-meets-Archigram idiom, this looks like late modernism. It’s worth remembering the influence of those angular North African villages on Le Corbusier. But where the Swiss magus translated that image into rigid uniformity, the American has maintained a varied complexity. Some may see Mayne as merely the acceptable face of deconstructivism – a doomed movement of mannerists. Personally, I look at all his macho metal fender-bending and see one of the essential architects of our times, another contrarian realist (like Koolhaas) holding a mirror up to society’s fear and confusion. The big surprise at Carabanchel is to find Mayne the traditional Spanish architect. What we have here is a pueblo for the 21st century.

images Nic Lehoux

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