Reflecting on the Archimarathon 3: Structure

This is a third article on the Archimarathon in Spain & Portugal. If you haven’t read the first one, click here to the first one!

As I observed quite a large number of buildings over two weeks, I noticed that many of the quality projects had beautiful structures that were part of the finishes. I’m going to explore two projects: Oriente Station by Santiago Calatrava and Chillida Leku by Eduardo Chillida.

Engineered structural beauty: Oriente Station

The first encounter with this building complex was when we arrived in Lisboa (Lisbon) after three-hour super early morning bus ride from Mérida. It was still dark outside and the illumination of the structure by numerous LED lights even highlighted the structure of the building. As the sun rised and artificial lights turned off, the diffused light entering into the lower level of the building showed a different face.

Two key materials – concrete and steel – had a key role in the design of the structure. (*whilst glass is also an important component, I will leave it out for this time for the sake of the discourse of the structure…)

Concrete is used for the main bridge-like structure where train stations sit on. At the same time the series of twinned arches created the large space underneath (spanning a large distance), the arches themselves interacted with the circulation paths of the upper level and were designed to be the finishes rather than hidden. Since the arches are structural members, individual columns are enormous (which is inevitable), however, the arch details such as the slenderness at the end of the arches (where arches meet the ground) and the play with curves and triangulation by the intersection of arches, make the structure ‘sweeping’ with a sense of lightness.

Steel is extensively used for the structure of the bus terminal and the canopies of the train platforms. The form of steel at the bus terminal (see the image at top) has the curves and arches that respond to the arches of the concrete bridge structure, but with greater elegance. The arches seem to follow the ascending movement of the staircases, engaging with the commuters’ point of view; the structure is more than the load-bearing element, it can elicit an emotional response from viewers. The canopies over the train platforms immediately reminded me of the ribbed Gothic vaults but in skeleton. The parabolic contours of the vault are represented as sequences of the straight lines, creating a degree of the optical illusion and a sense of complexity.

My understanding is that this beauty in the structure of Oriente Station was engineered based on the mathematical and scientific calculations in order to optimise the structural efficiency while preserving the visual aesthetics that Calatrava conceived.

Rawness in the beauty of the structure: Chillida Leku

On the other hand, the Zabalaga country house at Chillida Leku is a building restored by Eduardo Chillida that represents the beauty of the structure in a different sense. Both from outside and inside the building, you can observe the structure made of timber members with their individual characters and the masonry elements. It was Chillida’s intent to retain the identity of the house and this idea is realised through embracing the appearance of the materials including the wooden structure.

Sketches of the intersection of timber elements

While visiting this house, I enjoyed observing the way timber elements interact; each had varying dimensions, surface qualities and material conditions, but integrated into each other so beautifully. The fact each component of the structure had unique appearances seemed to be in harmony with the meaning of the place, reflecting Chillida’s design intention. The visibility of the structure could be interpreted as an expression of the transparency and the clarity of the space, which was enhanced by the natural light from skylight that illuminated the structure.

Although Oriente Station and Chillida Leku are of different types/ scales of architecture and having varying characteristics, I appreciated their structures in different ways. Oriente Station’s engineered and calculated structures celebrates the harmony of the linear and curved forms, while the country house at Chillida Leku engages with the characteristics of the individual elements of the restored timber structure.

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