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Young Spanish Architectural Firm Spreading a New Aesthetic

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The designs and built environments created by Spanish architectural firms in the 21st century are continuing the rise to world-wide prominence of Spain as one of the primary birth places and nurturing environments for new conceptions in the construction of sustainable structures and sites dealing with fundamental human needs. These include, in the case of Luis Vidal’s firm, transportation hubs, healthcare facilities, education and office campuses, housing developments, and civic structures for new museums and art galleries with several of these projects having been designed for mixed-use purposes.

Building on the 20th century achievements of establishing — as characterized by Clare Melhuish in her recently published book Luis Vidal + Architects: From Process to Results (2013), “a strong and distinct aesthetic signature for Spanish architecture through a range of high-profile projects, especially cultural and civic buildings, sports facilities and bridges” by such renowned architects as Santiago Calatrava and Rafael Moneo, Luis Vidal and his 21st century firm, asserts Melhuish, has a decade later established for itself “an international identity through a portfolio characterized less by flashy landmark architecture than [by] big extendable buildings — notably airports and hospitals — which organize complex processes of human mobility, circulation and interaction into coherent, negotiable built landscapes of social practice.”

photo--courtesy Embassy of Spain Cultural Office

photo–courtesy Embassy of Spain Cultural Office

The introduction in Washington on April 30th of Vidal and his firm was and event co-sponsored by Washington’s DC/AIA District Architecture Center and the Embassy of Spain,  as part of its 2014 Spanish cultural program for the U.S. and Canada known as Spain Arts and Culture. The event began with walk-through of the “Encounters” exhibition, drolly and understatedly described by the Center as “an interactive exhibition with a surprising touch of augmented reality.”

Both Vidal and his architectural partner Marta Cumellas, who was also the creative director for the book being celebrated later in the evening, led the walk-through which consisted of lively and engaging interactive 3-D displays of the firm’s 80 projects in 18 cities viewed by selecting among thousands of disks, humorously called flowers, that were named and numbered on paste-up boards interspersed with images designated for electronic selection using iPads and other mobile devices. An exhibition of this type was first inaugurated by Luis Vidal + Architects (LVA) in 2011 for presentation at the European Parliament building in Brussels and many are now revealed in detail in the 2013 book.

Interacting with the exhibition was both delightful to experience and just plain fun, especially since the firm’s projects are extraordinary, ranging from beautiful and inviting new hospitals in Spain designed and constructed using an ingenious process philosophy to airport terminals in Spain and England and a spaceport in Denver Colorado.

Nuevo Hospital de Vigo illus.--courtesy Luis Vidal + Architects.

Nuevo Hospital de Vigo illus.–courtesy Luis Vidal + Architects.

The Vidal firm’s design philosophy for its hospital projects partly derives from its experience with airport terminals This was described by Vidal in his lecture and outlined in the book in a nine-point chart — an overlay of three triangles — called curative architecture, a design process aiming for a healing environment in a built environment. The philosophy is further elaborated in the book’s photographs, plans, and drawings for these firm’s hospital projects, which include that of Europe’s largest hospital campus — six large structures in a garden-like setting between a slope and a valley in the town of Vigo, Spain, a port city on the Atlantic Ocean, and two other innovative hospitals in Ibiza and Madrid — both designed and constructed using the same healing philosophy.

The LVA firm’s airport projects are equally stunning, beginning with the nearly completed (June 2014) cathedral-like Queen’s Terminal 2 at London’s Heathrow Airport, which is the world’s first airport terminal to be awarded BREEAM rating for its sustainable building design, and that of the built design for ingenious shed-like terminal with an iconic roof structure atop the much smaller terminal in Zaragoza, Spain. An earlier project for Vidal saw the volume, colors, and intuitive circulation provided in Vidal’s design of the new Terminal 4 at MadridBarajasAirport accord him wide recognition.

Spaceport Colorado illus.--courtesy Luis Vidal + Architects.

Spaceport Colorado illus.–courtesy Luis Vidal + Architects.

LVA’s design for the Denver, Colorado, spaceport, in collaboration with its partner the U.S. engineering firm HDR, is in appearance a space age marvel; its total design reflects Vidal’s contention that “as we cruise towards the next century we must respond to the planet’s challenges with social, economic, and environmental responsibility.”

Two other fascinating LVA projects feature the firm’s continuing pattern of partnering with other firms, for example in the case of the design of the Campus Palmas Altas office complex for the technology company Abengoa’s headquarters in Seville, Spain, with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The resultant building received the first LEED Platinum certification in Europe. A second project now in the design phase is with Renzo Piano Building Workshop for the Botin Center in Santander — a new community center conceived to be “a space destined for art, music, literature, and cultural exchange.”

Luis Vidal’s lively lecture noted several remarkable details regarding LVA: namely, it was formed 10 years ago, three years before the financial crisis of 2007, yet the firm has been profitable all 10 years, growing to a staff of 72 architects and becoming the largest architectural firm in Spain. Its percentage of projects outside of Spain has grown from 40 percent to 80 percent. Its early growth was highlighted by the firm winning four competitions in a row — and by its eagerness to take on challenges.

Botin Arts Center illus.--courtesy Luis Vidal Architects.

Botin Arts Center illus.–courtesy Luis Vidal Architects.

LVA’s success with its built projects has been a result of its process approach to architecture, one that begins with a collaborative triad of a great client, a great contractor, and a great design team — all working within the adherence to a set of 10 principles set out in the book. These involve the following: intuitive paths, with no signage necessary; super color graphics; functionality; flexibility; extendibility; balanced services in fourth generation airports; the breaking of barriers; a blending of natural and artificial light; the use of color to reduce the visual appearance of distance; and the importance of texture and acoustics. And, concluded Vidal, buildings should be designed to be destinations in and of themselves.

As noted in the 2013 book and press materials, LVA has received international recognition for airport designs that embrace flexibility, cutting-edge technology, environmental responsibility and efficiency. From urban planning to architecture and industrial design, LVA has developed more than 80 projects of different scales, many of which have also been recognized with prestigious awards, including the interior design of the restaurant at Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum (winner of the Architecture Prize of the City of Madrid for the Best Commercial Establishment, 2005), Can Misses Hospital in Ibiza, Spain, and Vigo’s New Hospital in Galicia, Spain (winner of the Design & Health International Awards 2012 Future Health Project category).

Although the exhibition moved on to the AIA’s Center for Architecture two blocks south of Washington Square in New York (536 LaGuardia Pl.; 212-683-0023) and remains on view through May 20th, the Luis Vidal + Architects web site ( makes it possible to experience a comparable 3-D engagement with the firms many, many projects. The book: “Luis Vidal + Architects” by Clare Melhuish should be in every architect’s and city planner’s library, and assigned reading to students in architecture, construction engineering, and urban planning.