To some, the phrase “It’s all a blur” might be an admission of a poor memory, but to Manuel Rodenas and Jesús Olivares, of Spanish architectural practice Cor & Asociados, “blur architecture” – their name for buildings with indistinct outlines or “diffused limits” – is to be encouraged.
They use the term to describe their design for the Central Office of The Confederation of Employers of Albacete (FEDA), a non-profit organisation that represents and supports businesses in the region (Albacete is a city in south-east Spain). From the outside, this looks like an apparently conventional, white, starkly rectilinear office block but for its intriguing, semi-transparent, perforated facade. This skin – which Rodenas likens to a “veil” – is made of poly(methyl methacrylate), a lightweight alternative to glass.
The organisation previously had offices scattered throughout the city but decided to bring them together under one roof. “FEDA needed a new iconic building to present itself to Albacete,” says Rodenas. “This was the seed of the project. Although it was completed last year, the process took a long time because of our economic crisis and because our budget was cut by 35 per cent. We spent four years redesigning the building to make it cheaper. We think this made it better because we took away anything that was unnecessary.”
This was the architects’ first project after leaving university. Before construction began, they met the directors and staff to ascertain their needs and working culture. These centre on an egalitarian belief in “self-managed teams” (rather than a hierarchical one with staff working under managers). Accordingly, Rodenas and Olivares designed an open-plan space with what they call “reprogrammable” floors – a flexible design that can adapt in future to changing requirements. There are currently 30 employees, but the building can accommodate up to 300 people. “We proposed a structure with few columns, so the elements in the space can be easily rearranged later to suit different needs. We also included a technical floor that incorporates such services as electricity, air-conditioning, heating and plumbing, leaving the other floors free of these.”
At the moment, the 870sq m floors – all accessed by a staircase in the reception area – are organised as follows: reception, glass-fronted meeting rooms and rooms for training staff and employers on the ground floor; offices on the first floor; a business school and library on the third, and a conference and press-related rooms on the top floor. Although there are meeting rooms, the emphasis at FEDA is on informality, stresses Rodenas. “It’s more common to see people gather spontaneously around a table than go into a meeting room. Other rooms include a cafe and changing rooms for sporting activities; for those who want to use public sports facilities nearby or just go for a run.”
It’s not the building’s interiors that excite Rodenas and Olivares, however, but its skin. In one sense, the project is part of a trend for eye-catching facades with the potential to have softer, more expressive qualities, challenging the impersonal aesthetic of steel and glass that has long been the dominant language of contemporary architecture. Take Foreign Office Architects’ work on the John Lewis department store in Leicester: its patterned, lace-like exterior nods to the city’s history of textiles, and to the fabrics and haberdashery famously stocked by the shop. The FEDA building’s comparatively abstract outer layer, however, doesn’t make literal references to anything Albacete is famous for: instead, it is determinedly abstract and as such is more open to interpretation, variously resembles a hairnet or a fascinator, and, on a more mundane level, even an anti-pigeon device.
The facade isn’t merely an aesthetic afterthought but is central to the architects’ philosophy, and stems in large part from a dislike of monolithic, static, dully familiar architecture. “The idea with the FEDA building is to counterbalance its strong, clear volume with its blurring facade,” says Rodenas. “This results in a delicate, volatile effect. Looking at this diffuse landmark creates a slight feeling of strangeness.” And for all its visual ambiguity, the building does aim to elevate the area: “It’s in a new neighbourhood between the old city and an industrial area. The architecture isn’t interesting there apart from two historic buildings once used to make flour.”
Cor & Asociados’s “blur architecture” aims to make both a psychological and aesthetic impact, adds Rodenas. “We’re researching the idea of rehumanisation of architecture, of emotional architecture. We’re interested in creating atmospheres, sensations, not just in how buildings look. We’re interested in how people feel in buildings. We have an intuition that architecture has to change its goal.”
The appearance of facade changes too, thanks to contrasting optical effects created by different weather conditions, which make it appear either solid or ethereal. (In this sense, it’s similar to the John Lewis store, which glows softly at night because its decorative envelope is subtly illuminated from within.) When it’s bathed in bright sunlight, the FEDA office’s skin looks – to quote Rodenas’s organic, anthropomorphic term – “fleshy” and thick, since the graphic shadows it casts on the building make it appear more 3D, while on cloudy days, it becomes wispy and diaphanous.
The building and its skin represent polar opposites, he adds. By contrast, the architects have designed the inside space so that when people enter it, they feel no difference between being indoors and out. A small garden by the front entrance also contributes to creating what Rodenas calls a “friendly relationship with the user”, as do speedily opening automatic doors to the building and acoustically efficient, sound-absorbing elements inside.
For the architects, providing an open-plan space that staff can adapt to their personal needs as time goes on was a central concern: “We want employees to be able to build their workplaces in a highly emotional way,” says Rodenas. “We believe this will create a new office landscape that’s less anodyne, more interesting, more real. “Rehumanising architecture is, as far as we’re concerned, an obligatory step to rethinking workplaces.”