The thing inside the sawmill
by Franziska Horn
Jul 11, 2014

Only a few steps away from Madrid’s world-famous Museo del Prado with its neo-classicist façade, in the calm of the Calle Alameda you’ll find a, well, somewhat heterogeneous building. At first sight, the slender façade with the plain merlons high up above the main entrance do not really catch the eye, they shimmer in a decent grey. During the day, that is. What visitors may not guess is that, once dusk falls, the 35,000 LED nodes across the 144 square meters of the façade turn into an action screen that can be used in many ways. Which perhaps describes the building’s purpose: It is the Prado Medialab, providing an analog home for digital culture, including research, production, and dissemination.

The Madrid cultural scene is currently debating a new “Movida Madrileña” – a new cultural turn the likes of which were last experienced at the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. By way of proof, the pundits cite trailblazing projects such as the Prado Medialab, planned and realized by the architects at Langarito Navarro. “The crisis of recent years forced many a small office to close down, whereas others survived,” comments Maria Langarita, the female half of the duo. “Precisely the economic crisis prompted people to think about what their own real strengths were and to reinvent themselves and their urban surroundings, challenging their own creativity,” she continues.

A conglomerate of interlocking boxes

Anyone viewing the Medialab from the courtyard at the back will readily discern the building’s DNA: A three-storey concrete structure cloaking an empty volume inside of which boxes are stacked one on top of the other as if a child had casually created a tower of building blocks. The outer concrete structure is the relic of an industrial building and stands for the early 20th century idea of modernity: A former sawmill, the “Serreria Belga” was built starting in 1920 by Manuel Álvarez Naya and was one of Madrid’s first reinforced concrete structures. Langarita Navarro architects decided to leave the old core structure intact, gut the building, and fill the resulting emptiness with a flexible body that they nicknamed “La Cosa”, the “thing”. This “thing” is a conglomerate of interlocking boxes and very cheekily eschews any historical references, standing instead for optimum visual freedom and liberty in content. The old historical cement structure thus provides the frame from which the new inlet demonstratively seems to fall, with the old literally now “home” to the new. “The two buildings follow a respectively unique logic, whereby the two logics are fundamentally different. We wanted the old and the new to be visible as such,” explains Langarita. A visual generational conflict?

“When planning the inside volume we avoiding anything that was in any way reminiscent of or could be associated with the old shape of the sawmill,” she says. And the architects therefore placed a three-storey structure with translucent walls in a frame that can be spot-lit in various neon colors. Wooden laminated boxes define the entrance area or serve as a “room in a room”. The architects have thus developed a concept that goes far beyond the conventional ideas of reconstruction, they’ve left the structure of the old grounds untouched as an historical quotation, but ensured the interior responds to contemporary needs. “We don’t want the ensemble to be considered a finished product, but as an open, mobile, mutable element. The components can be taken apart and used again,” comments Langarita. “We are inscribing something over the original situation and using the space for current interests.”

She gladly concedes that the enterprise has a touch of irony about it, terming it “caustic coexistence” in architects-speak: “We’re definitely not going to be the last to work on this structure. The Medialab is itself a transitional phase.” Maria hails from the Catalan city of Zaragoza and founded the architectural office in 2005 together with her spouse, Victor Navarro. “We’re both very different creative types; perhaps I am more conceptual in outlook and Victor more visual. And sometimes we simply swap roles, much to the benefit of our projects,” Langarita says. Both were born in 1979, and while she studied at the Universidad de Navarra (ETSAUN) and currently teaches at Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid (ETSAM), Victor trained at the ETSAM and now teaches at the Universidad Europea de Madrid.

Architecture as a tool

It sounds as though both have made it: “After a tough time initially, at the moment we’re starting to receive an increasing number of enquiries for projects,” Langarita says. No doubt that also has to do with the number of awards they have won, including a commendation as new talents in the “Mies van der Rohe Prize 2013”, the XII Bienal Española de Arquitectura y Urbanismo Prize, the “FAD Prize 2012”, the “ar+d Award for Emerging Architecture 2012”, the “COAM 2013” and the “AD Heineken Award Nuevos Valores 2013”. On top of which they exhibited and presented at the XI Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, led the summer workshop at the XII BEAU Universidad Menéndez Pelayo and were jurors at the X Architecture Biennale in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

What typifies the architectural approach taken by Langarita Navarro? “We work swiftly, take our cue from the respective cultural context, and focus on energy issues. We do not define ourselves by some typical visual style, do not consider architecture and object, but an instrument or tool, and see ourselves as the toolmakers,” Langarita explains. In other words, they clearly turn their backs on the work of star architects such as Zaha Hadid and Frank O. Gehry – and champion the new generation with its unpretentious aspirations. “What is typical for us is the approach, not the shape of the building!”

A figure hangs from the window

Taking this approach to the profession, in 2011 Langarita Navarro embarked on a comparable project, a “nomadic” music academy in Madrid’s largest cultural center of Matadero. The “Red Bull Music Academy” runs as an annual, experimental music event that moves from one metropolis to the next. LNA adopted the logic of a Matryoshka to create a “building in a building” for the Academy – and not just in the physical sense, but also in the literary sense, as the one envelopes the other in both time and place.

In the field of private residences, Langarita Navarro have caught the idea with original ideas: For the outside walls of the “Baladrar House” on the Costa Blanca, which was completed in 2012, they combined undressed stone with concrete and covered the spacious window openings with avocado-green grilles. The house’s interior is arranged like a cascade over the steep slope on which it stands – which has been skilfully integrated into the construction plan. As the icing on the cake, the representative photos of the interior have been arranged like images from the scene of a crime in a TV thriller, had a figure hang out of a window as if he had been shot. On another, naked female legs stick out from under a sofa, and at next glance a threatening male figure wearing a wolf’s mask peers down from the balcony. What does this tell us? No building ever suffered from a touch of irony.

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Playing with boxes: Langarita Navarro architects implemented an inlet (“La Cosa”) in the concrete structure of the “Serreria Belga”, a former sawmill. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Cheekily eschews any historical references: inside the Medialab Prado. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Translucent walls lightened up by neon lights, create a fresh atmosphere. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Victor Navarro und Maria Langarita founded in 2005 their office. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Natural stone, concrete and avocadogreen: “Casa Baladrar” at Costa Blanca. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Greetings from Guy Bourdin: Photos made by Langarita Navarro. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
„Red Bull Music Academy 2011“ by Langarita Navarro, at Matadero Madrid. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects
Like a Matryoshka: The little ateliers are a house-in-the-house. Photo © Langarita Navarro Architects