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“Transforming Cityscapes: Winning Entries of the 8th Ibero-American Architecture and Urban Design Biennial” at the Art Museum of the Americas

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Tucked away behind the rear of the ornate and palatial Organization of American States (OAS) across from the Ellipse near Constitution Avenue is a gem of a small museum — the Art Museum of the Americas at 201 18th Street, NW. Once the official residence of the Secretary General of the OAS, the building was converted in 1976 to house the organization’s bourgeoning art collection and the launching of an art and architecture exhibition program.

Art Museum of the Americas. photo--courtesy Organization of American States.

Art Museum of the Americas. photo–courtesy Organization of American States.

The Museum’s recently concluded exhibition, sponsored by a host of governmental bodies, was one of its best. The role of Spain was emphasized at the opening of the exhibition by the presence of both Spain’s permanent representative to the OAS and the Spanish Ambassador to the United States. Also present was the co-curator of the exhibition, noted architect Ginés Garrido, whose Madrid architectural firm — a partnership with Francisco Burgos who is also a co-curator of the show

(Garrido designed the monumental Manzanares River Park, the highly praised $5 billion restoration of Madrid’s river banks and the burying in tunnels the expressway that had sliced the city into two separate parts, replacing that expressway with a once again above-ground flowing Manzanares River, together with beautiful parkland, plazas, and promenades on its banks — to say nothing of the views from the promenade of such sights as Madrid’s National Palace.)

Garrido provided an articulate and engaging introduction to the more than two dozen structures and sites honored by their selection for display in this 8th Ibero-American Architecture and Urban Design Biennial. Spain with five and Portugal with six selections were joined by three each from Brazil and Mexico, two from Argentina, Colombia, and Paraguay, and one apiece from Chile and Ecuador.

João Luís Carrilho da Graça, António Adão da Fonseca & Carlos Quinaz, architects, Residence 4x30, São Paulo, Brazil

João Luís Carrilho da Graça, António Adão da Fonseca & Carlos Quinaz, architects, Residence 4×30, São Paulo, Brazil

Across the entire body of structures and sites in these nine countries, the range of buildings and ensembles of buildings, and urban environments is astounding. From light-filled urban residences on lots measuring four-by-30 meters to masterful, medium-height skyscrapers of high-end luxury apartments and beautifully appointed low-rise apartment buildings — described in the catalog as “social housing,” the architectural  designs were uniformly ingenious in conforming to the restrictions of their respective sites and in their compatibility with the surrounding built environment — be they entirely new buildings or adaptive re-use or extension of existing historic structures.

Other winning entries included new and novel pedestrian bridges linking parts of towns heretofore at least partly cutoff, as well as projects resulting in the energizing and conversion of historic streets to pedestrian boulevards. The emphasis on walk-ability and the enjoyment of the urban experience was literally magical throughout the exhibition,  thanks in part to the stunning architectural and landscape photographs and the dramatic light boxes in which they are displayed.

The first of my favorites was the four-by-30 meters house in São Paulo, Brazil. A modernist, rectilinear structure, the building presented an open garage and dark-colored, opaque privacy wall to the street, both sheltering the inhabitants from pedestrian views but with the open garage engaging the urban landscape. The house is two stories with a penthouse structure and roof deck and an inner, central garden that reflects the architectural design’s emphasis on light. The catalog describes the garden as being “cut back in volume and built in a way that creates three sides flooded with light.”

The two sites selected from Colombia are especially dramatic in their contrast.

Juan Felipe Mesa Rico & Giancarlo Mazzanti, architects, Stadium for the South American Games 2010, Medellín, Colombia.

Juan Felipe Mesa Rico & Giancarlo Mazzanti, architects, Stadium for the South American Games 2010, Medellín, Colombia.

The first is a four-stadium sports complex built for the 2010 South American Games in Medellin. The description in the catalog — and pictured in plans and drawings and photographs of the completed structures — by the firm winning the competition for this ambitious project is amazing in its clearly articulated complex strategy for “a partly covered public space with sports facilities and gardens.” The urban location was specified; its valley solar and wind orientation detailed; “a geometric roofing system composed of parallel strips aligned with the sun’s track in order to temper its effect” proposed; and the relationships with the surrounding mountains specified along with techniques for channeling of rain water from the roofs to the city water supply network; concluding with the depiction of the transparency of sports venues that do not required mechanical cooling. The resulting stadiums and their flexible roof systems have a soaring beauty.

The contrasting Colombian site selected is that of the Palomino Collective Intelligence project, which is “an open eco-social experiment that aims at analyzing, understanding, and addressing the [design/build] problems of a territory, a region, a town and its inhabitants using specific designs and architecture” — in this case, the town of Palomino. The examples pictured are cleverly constructed of available materials and always colorful. This project reminds this writer of the Samuel Mockbee Rural Studio program in Hale County, Alabama, sponsored by Auburn University; both it and the Palomino project are equally heartwarming.

A spectacular, very large and more traditional project is the architecture of the Adolfo Ibanez University in Viña del Mar, Chile, on a nearly 50-acre site in the hills of the city overlooking Valparaiso Harbor and the Pacific Ocean. Its catalog description of the “breathing space” concept inspiring the university structures is only part of the resultant building’s fascinating beauty. The catalog entry begins with asserting that the “concept is articulated from the interior voids and developed from the spacing of the floors, at simultaneous depths and in different directions. They are not different floors but rather an ensemble of multiple levels.” The continuing description is consistently fascinating and the picture of a building interior in the exhibition — a double overleaf in the catalog — is an absolute knockout.

Luis Moreno Mansilla &  Emilio Tuñón Álvarez, architects, Relais-Châteaux Atrium on Plaza de San Matéo</em?, Cáceres, Spain.

Luis Moreno Mansilla & Emilio Tuñón Álvarez, architects, Relais-Châteaux Atrium on Plaza de San Matéo

By contrast, a quiet and understated adaptive re-use of two historic structures in the heart of the old city of Cáceres, Spain is presented in which two neglected buildings — one a smaller three-story auxiliary building, the other a tall, two-story residential structure — were combined to create a small restaurant and a 14-room hotel around an atrium and with a small garden and terrace; one building is aligned with Los Condes Street and the other with San Mateo Square. The result is charming and respectful and contains stunning interiors; it further serves the highly desirable function of restoring dilapidated historic structures.

The single most attractive structure pictured in the exhibition is a small, modernist masterpiece consisting of a one-story, curved residential structure with glass curtain walls placed between white stuccoed “bookends” and facing a kidney-shaped swimming pool. Located in a rural setting in Tepoztlan, Moreles, Mexico, it is the classic example of the saying that when modernism as an architectural discipline really works it can be both brilliant and beautiful.