May 30, 2014

Good Citizens: CrystalZoo Improves Life in Spanish Town

Just a few miles inland from Benidorm, a Mediterranean resort positively choked with high-rises, La Nucía feels a world away. This quiet Spanish town is no backwater aesthetically, however. CrystalZoo Estudio de Arquitectura has completed a handful of commissions there, two of the latest being diminutive buildings with outsize personalities. “We’ve been lucky,” principal José Luis Campos Rosi-que notes. “They have let us do almost everything we proposed.”

The Extensión Administrativa Bello Horizonte, a municipal satellite office, brings government to the people. The Centro Social Mirador El Tossal is a community center. Both aim, in their different ways, to encourage neighborly interaction in a town with a diverse population, mostly retirees from France, the Netherlands, or the U.K.

But first, when it comes to architecture firms, what’s in a name? CrystalZoo is partially Campos’s nod to the Spanish translation of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. In addition, the hybrid etymology is a reference to the Crystal Palace, London’s 1851 marvel by Joseph Paxton—its visionary inclusiveness has been a longtime source of inspiration for Campos. He furthermore sees zoo as a positive metaphor for the kind of mega-firm almost unknown in Spain,  where the lone-wolf practitioner is still the norm. “I liked thinking that, if we had an office filled with people with different talents, we would be a greater force. In a zoo, there is strength in the number of animals,” he explains. 

Now, back to La Nucía. CrystalZoo has built a reputation throughout the Alicante region by designing high-impact architecture for budget-conscious clients. La Nucía’s Extensión Administrativa Bello Horizonte is no exception.

Taking a markedly different tack from that of typical administrative buildings, the angular starfishlike shape is almost entirely clad with a pixelated composition in three shades of green hexagonal ceramic tiles. Definitely hard to miss. It imparts a verdant touch to an arid landscape and symbolizes the eco bona fides of progressive La Nucía.

Full-height windows at the ends of the starfish arms, each a trapezoidal bay, offer glimpses into the workings of local government. The 1,800-square-foot interior is largely open, with the polished concrete on the floor and the lighting coves at the perimeter of the ceiling suggesting an art gallery. In the central space, an oblong, reception is flanked by waiting areas conceived as reading rooms for visitors to work in as they wait. Behind the reception desk, a bay contains a private office where council members come to talk with their constituents. “The dynamism comes from the internal flow of visitors and staff,” Campos offers. 

Dynamism starts with form at the Centro Social Mirador El Tossal. Negotiating a precipitous, irregular drop between two streets, the structure emerges, like a giant box beam, from a hillside otherwise covered in pine and olive trees, then angles downward to meet the earth again. The long sidewalls of off-white concrete, admittedly more subtle than green tile, are nevertheless punctuated by an array of round windows, which have earned the community center comparisons, by Dutch neighbors, to a block of cheese.

The long roof deck is part scenic overlook, part urban plaza. There’s no set function for this aerie. However, a canopy angling up at one end suggests a small band shell for musical performances.

Inside, the 3,500 square feet encompass a multipurpose space, a projection room, and an office for use by residents. Everything is painted a bright yellow worthy of Dick Tracy. Campos loves old-school comic books. 

He describes these two La Nucía projects as “city-making.” And other municipal governments are taking notice of how even tiny buildings can improve the urban fabric. In Alicante, innovation has clearly found a home.

Project Resources>>

Project Team: Juan Parra; Leticia Ballester; Ivón Omar Fernández; Francisco T. Espí: Crystalzoo Estudio De Arquitectura. Idee: Structural Engineer. Diego Salinas: MEP. Grupo Bahia; Prom95: General Contractors.

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