The fruit of six years’ work by four architects, the Vegas Altas Congress Centre (VACC) graces the open, arid landscape of Extremadura, Spain’s most isolated and rural province. Visible from the motorway and only a five-minute walk from the town of Villanueva de la Serena (population 25,000), the project was conceived by Luis Pancorbo, José de Villar, Carlos Chacón and Inés Martín Robles, a group of Spanish architects who generally work independently but together produced the winning proposal for a cutting-edge congress and event centre in the back of beyond.
Inspiration from the Ground Up
The Vegas Altas Congress Centre clearly refers to the endless plains of Extremadura, with its predominantly agrarian culture and history. (Villanueva de la Serena was once an important post for La Mesta, a powerful medieval guild of shepherds and ranchers.) The complex sits cheek by jowl with fields of grain along the Zújar River. Given its backstory and location, it’s fair to say that the project is rooted more firmly in landscape design than in architecture. ‘Our main aim was to unite the surrounding farmland with the town,’ says Pancorbo. ‘This led us to base the design on a ha-ha.’
The ha-ha, allegedly a French invention, is in essence a ditch supported by a low stone wall. It was devised to stop livestock from wandering into the gardens of country estates and, unlike higher walls, to allow for uninterrupted sightlines. Its name comes from the familiar exclamation of surprise, which could in this case be the verbal reaction of someone who’s unwittingly toppled over the wall. The VACC’s ha-ha is in the form of an underground plaza that leads to a pair of underground auditoriums. A second and entirely different building, both aesthetically and structurally, creates arresting visual interest above ground.
The region’s uniform landscape is punctuated by a handful of recurring landmarks and signifiers. Bell towers on the horizon denote civilization, as every town and village has an ancient church at its centre; many of these belfries host the large nests of storks, the avian species for which Extremadura is famous. During the harvest months, hay is gathered and compacted into enormous bales that dot the terrain like giant sun-yellow building blocks. Such references play a role in the design of the VACC’s ‘tower’.
‘The problem we had with concealing the auditoriums – to make them look like part of the landscape – was that underground structures are not immediately visible to passers-by,’ says De Villar. ‘Because the project was built with public funds and is a potential source of civic pride, visibility is a must.’ Their solution was the ‘cube’.
With a 21-x-21-m footprint and three spacious floors – which house a restaurant, rehearsal rooms and offices – the cube has a striking, almost artisanal appearance, thanks to its ‘jacket’ of plaited rope. The architects drew inspiration from the Congress Centre in nearby Badajoz, with its basketlike appearance (the work of Spanish architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano). Their initial plan was to use plastic for the plaited envelope, but further investigation led them to a factory in Oporto, Portugal, that manufactures ropes for cruise ships and freighters. ‘This is the largest dimension they could make,’ says Chacón, holding up an impressive length of rope measuring 12 cm in diameter and comprising 12 interwoven strands in autumnal hues.
No less than 10,600 m of plaited rope was needed to wrap the cube from bottom to top. To keep it taut, 3-m lengths of steel inner tube were inserted into the core of the rope in all areas except the curved corners, where a hollow core facilitates the bend. The material was attached by hand to steel wires, which were fastened to the load-bearing wall of textured reinforced concrete by means of horizontal steel beams. ‘We had the concrete dyed ochre to resemble the surroundings,’ says Martín Robles. Across the concrete shell, a lively medley of irregularly shaped openings enables light to enter the interior and invites occupants to enjoy the outdoor scenery.
Inside, some walls have been rendered with boards applied to wet concrete to produce a handmade, ropey texture. In contrast, the off-white walls of restaurant and rehearsal rooms are clad in practical corrugated polycarbonate. Acid-green stairs and mustard-coloured floors accentuate an otherwise natural palette.
‘When we started researching the site, we discovered a lot of subterranean water,’ says Pancorbo. ‘This caused major problems – which we eventually solved – but it also prompted our decision to give the auditoriums a liquid, aquatic feel, an ambience completely different from the warm, dry atmosphere above ground.’
To achieve this goal, the architects used a deep-green polycarbonate for the walls and ceilings of both auditoriums, one of which seats 800 and the other 275. For the walls, they used corrugated polycarbonate and for the ceiling a grid of tiles. The plastic surface changes, in accordance with the amount and incidence of light, from one opaque or translucent variation to another. Strong direct light from above produces a rippling effect, like sunbeams dancing on a pond.
An overhead deck – which doubles as the roof of the auditoriums – is equipped with skylights and will eventually hold a garden, presently planted with young native trees. The design of the garden corresponds to the patchwork of agrarian fields in the immediate vicinity. If all goes to plan, over time it will become one with its surroundings and serve as a unifying element linking city, countryside and VACC.
Neither the auditoriums nor the cube has been furnished, not even with the equipment and infrastructure needed for concerts or public functions. De Villar likes to assert that the architects’ greatest challenge was to stay within the €10 million budget – right down to the penny – but he also has to admit that nada is left over for operating the VACC.
Chacón optimistically believes that funds for finishing the project will become available after the regional elections scheduled for May 2015. Others, however, are concerned that it may become yet another of Spain’s architectural white elephants, a category that includes public works, sports facilities and even airports whose only function to date has been satisfying the egos of small-town officials with direct and unaccountable access to the public purse.
Martín Robles points out that Vegas Altas is far enough away from other congress centres in Extremadura to be viable. In view of Spain’s tourism boom – including business trips – his is a fair argument. Nonetheless, although the striking aesthetic qualities of the complex can be appreciated from the motorway, its social and cultural benefits remain to be seen.
Photos Roland Halbe