words Justin McGuirk
“I’m trying to find a way to design where there is no residue, where everything is used – like in pig farming.” Catalan architect Josep Crivillers Costa is not making this any more glamorous than it already is.
It’s drizzling, it smells and, in fact, Crivillers doesn’t speak English. The photographer is doing the translating, and well he might, because he’s the reason we are all standing in a waste recycling plant outside Barcelona. Up close, the plant is not quite as seductive as the photographs that lured us here. But this is clearly architecture, not just engineering, and at least that’s a start.
As industrial buildings go, waste recycling plants are a luckless breed. They have none of the machine-age heroism that car factories have enjoyed and none of the monumentality that gives power stations, however ugly, a certain authority. Picking through society’s garbage is humble work and, while noble, the unbranded ethos of damage limitation has not been conducive to proud architecture. There are exceptions, however, and there has been a recent wave of them in Spain.
Spain does not have a particularly impressive recycling record; in fact, although somewhat better than the UK’s, it is below the average European standard. But Spain appears to be the most interested in turning the recycling plant into architecture. First there was Abalos & Herreros’ Valdemingomez plant outside Madrid. Then, last year, in Majorca of all places, Crivillers i Arquitectes created perhaps the most advanced plant in Europe and made it an attractive enough prospect to justify its own monorail for visitors. This year Crivillers has completed this second plant, Ecoparc 2, and there are echoes in it of the grand gestures and technological optimism that defined many of the early modernist factories.
A 20-minute drive to the north-east of Barcelona, the plant sits in a shallow depression, largely shielded from sight of the surrounding villages by a crescent mound bristling with thistles. Not so much as a cigarette butt litters the site; only a sweetly sour smell, like rotting melons, suggests that inside this complex are thousands of tonnes of rubbish collected from all over the eastern suburbs.
Despite appearances, Ecoparc 2 – four are planned for the Catalan capital – is not a collection of buildings connected by raised walkways, air pipes and hanging conveyor belts.
It is a 117,000sq m machine. For 24 hours a day its various component parts, operated by 105 employees, sift, sort, rot, clean and despatch rubbish to the tune of 240,000 tonnes a year. Most of this – the glass, PVC, plastic, paper and metal – is recycled in kind. The organic matter is fed into 17 tunnels where it turns into 28,000 tonnes of compost a year. In fact, more than a machine, the plant is like a digestive system, extracting what it wants and rotting down the rest. Three cylindrical towers – they are even called “digestors” – collect enough methane from the rotting waste to produce twice as much energy as the plant needs to run; the rest is farmed out for use by the local communities.
There are so many different stages to the recycling process that the plant has been organised into clear, colour-coded zones. First stop, and the plant’s largest structure, is the holding house: a vast concrete hangar topped with a galvanised steel roof. A plain industrial shed would have sufficed, but the architect, Josep Crivillers Costa, wanted a structure “that felt like a piece of the landscape”. The undulating roof, made up of arched sandwich panels, folds down into the building’s triangulated sides to create a continuous articulated skin. Rooflights between the panels slash the interior with daylight, syncopating what is otherwise a vast empty space. To one side of the control room windows, manned from what looks like a gunner’s seat, a giant metal claw dangles over a deep well of trash – what is it about that combination that spells a fitting end for a James Bond villain?
If it wasn’t for the stink, the holding house would be a dramatic place to work. How else can it be judged? This is a building, or at least a programme, deemed beneath public consumption, removed from the city and concealed behind an earth rampart. Few, other than those who work there, will ever get a good look at it. This is architecture where many architects might not have bothered with such a thing, but at the same time it isn’t strikingly contemporary. It’s almost as though the recycling plant, albeit a new building type, has only just discovered modernism.
The rest of the buildings are in the same mould as the holding house, except that the rather more sophisticated stages of recycling going on inside require them to sprout all sorts of chimneys, air ducts and raised conveyors. Inside, magnets, centrifuges and people sort the rubbish into its essential elements and set it on its path to another zone for cleaning or digesting. It is the appendages – the pipes carrying filtered air and the conveyors angling from structure to structure – that evoke industrial masterpieces from the 1920s, like the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam. More than those, a ramped, zigzagging walkway lends an expressionist quality to what could so easily have been an innocuous affair. Then there are other touches, like the reflecting pool and waterfall below the reception area. As well as taking the edge off the concrete, the water, which is used to treat the washable waste and stored in case of fire, is oxygenated through the fall.
Spain has been piling EU money into civic projects like this one, seizing the opportunity before the inter-territorial development funds shift to eastern Europe in 2007. The design quality of this €51 million (£33.7m) complex can be attributed to both the availability of funds and a Catalan obsession with aesthetics. Crivillers acknowledges that “not long ago this kind of architecture was being done by engineers”.
Crivillers’ practice has developed a speciality in recycling technologies and, as well as schemes such as the Ecoparc, he is concentrating on developing recycled building materials: sheets of pressed Coke cans and multi-coloured particle boards line the halls of his Barcelona office. Most recently, Crivillers has been designing skimpy dresses out of circular aluminium off-cuts from the facade of one of Barcelona’s new Forum buildings. Gradually, a parallel theme begins to emerge. Walking past a steaming mound of compost, Crivillers confides that his other obsession is designing swimwear, although, judging from the pictures, it would be better described as stringwear. “It’s like a holiday from massive civil engineering projects. When I leave the Ecoparc, I prefer to think about swimming suits.”