Photo: Luis Ros

Photo: Luis Ros

Cloud 9’s Media-TIC building in Barcelona finds new expression for sustainable design, finds Lucy Bullivant.

Enric Ruiz-Geli, founder of Barcelona-based architectural practice Cloud 9 and teacher at the AA and Bartlett schools of architecture in London, believes that while buildings currently produce 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, architects have the capability to construct buildings that only consume the energy they produce. In his eyes this would be ‘an architecture that performs the way nature does’, as generously as trees function. To date, fully-fledged examples of this approach have been thin on the ground, but Cloud-9’s new Media-TIC building in Barcelona powerfully epitomises green design as an all-in-one ethic and aesthetic.

Won through international competition five years ago and situated in the city’s new science and IT district, 22@Barcelona, this digital technology hub uses distributed sensors to control solar shading by ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) skins on the south-east and south-west facades. ETFE’s light and anti-adherent nature make it very versatile, but this membrane protects with a sun-filtering factor of 0.20.
This dynamic interface has two different formats to match the building’s orientation to the sun. The south-west facade filters solar radiation through a screen of vertical cushioned panels containing nitrogen and oil, which coalesces as a ‘cloud’ sunscreen.

The mosaic of milky white ETFE cushions that adorns the 40 by 40 metre south-east facade on Calle Sancho d’Avila calls to mind images of molecular biology or complex information design, belying the idea that sustainable architecture lacks any special aesthetic through their visibly ‘performative’ qualities. The inflatable cushions are embedded with sensors reading the heat and the angle of the sun. Layers of ETFE create three inflatable chambers within each triangular frame, which provide both shade and thermal insulation.

Ruiz-Geli collaborated with Agusti Obiol de Boma of Catalan engineering firm Boma on the structural design, adhering to the rationale that a fitting appearance for a digital media centre had ‘no gravity, no mass, was not tectonic.’ Rather, its essence is ‘in connectivity, [it] has bonds, it is in traction with strings.’ (Ruiz-Geli also draws parallels between the delicacy of structure in Media-TIC and the warehouses of the neighbouring Poble Nou district).

The frame, which won last year’s European Award for Steel Structures, works principally in tension rather than compression, with floors suspended from the double-storey-height truss at the top of the building, producing a 36 by 40 metre column-free interior for the public ground floor. Boma’s solution, in which the structure is braced against deformation by an irregular steel lattice over the surface of the building, used parametric processes to calculate the optimally efficient weight and distribution of steel. Even so, the structure accounts for 40 per cent of the construction budget, rather than the 25-30 per cent that is typical in Spain. Over 60 factories were involved, with ETFE supplier Vector Foiltec prototyping facade panels at its factory in Bremen, Germany, to test the fog filter.

Information technology firms are gradually moving into the building, and the sociologist Manuel Castells is relocating his Interdisciplinary Internet Institute soon. Four floors of rented offices for ICT firms, three floors of small business spaces for start-up firms and a roof garden sit above a 300-seat hall and Internet education spaces on the first floor. The ground floor comprises a gallery adjoining a U-shaped patio; below are two levels of basement parking.

Just as its structure takes the form of a distributed net, so the building has a distributed intelligence system employing 300 sensors, ranging from presence sensors in the lobby and common parts adjusting the performance of services according to the level of occupancy, to sensors controlling artificial light levels according to the distance from a window. Each of the facade cushions is controlled by its own sensor. As Media-TIC is a commercial building with public access, its physical adaptations can be observed by a large number of people both inside and from the street.

Photo: Enric Ruiz-Geli

Photo: Enric Ruiz-Geli, Luis Ros

Photo: Enric Ruiz-Geli, Luis Ros

Photo: Enric Ruiz-Geli, Luis Ros

Media-TIC’s nickname, ‘the digital Pedrera’, after Gaudi’s organic La Pedrera on Passeig de Gràcia, hints at the intention to ‘perform nature’. While Gaudi was driven by nature’s geometric beauty, Ruiz-Geli’s priority is bringing nature’s adaptive, productive qualities into building, to ‘create an architecture that teaches us something’.

‘Buildings should stop being the cause of 40 per cent of global warming, and be the solution’, says Ruiz-Geli. By becoming ‘factories of energy’, they can do that, he adds. All Cloud 9’s buildings from the Pabellón de la ‘SED’ for the 2008 Expo in Zaragoza, to Evru’s cave, a studio for the artist realised in Barcelona (2008), the Villa Bio in Liers (2005), or its proposal for the New York City Aquarium at Coney Island, have strived for a ‘natural’ aesthetic, but Media-TIC exemplifies most deeply the practice’s sustainable design principles and its synergistic approach to intelligent, energy-efficient buildings and innovative construction techniques.

While sustainability is now a central preoccupation in architectural production, for the most part this is manifested in passive techniques and low technology. It remains rare to find buildings such as Media-TIC – presented by Ruiz-Geli as a case study at this year’s 3CON conference on Industrialised Integrated Intelligent Construction in Madrid – that combine the most sophisticated technologies in their design, construction and operation in such a way that it constitutes an aesthetic in its own right. Gaudi would have seen the point.

Lucy Bullivant is a London-based architecture critic and curator.

Project team
Architect: Cloud 9; design team: Enric Ruiz-Geli, Javier Pérez Contonente, Francesco Ducato, Felix Fassbinder, Max Zinnecker; structural engineer: Boma; services engineer: PGI Grup; qs: Tècnics G3; project manager: Pamias; contractors: Dragados, Sacyr; steelwork: Monvaga; ETFE: Vector Foiltec.

AT212/ October 2010 p86

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