M.J. Wells on Flores & Prats’ transformation of a workers’ cooperative as the Sala Beckett theatre
Within Barcelona’s Poblenou neighbourhood, on the corner of Pere IV and Batista, is a 1920s building that is emblematic of the ordinary and unloved aspects of the European city. Previously home to the Peace & Justice Workers’ Cooperative with a bar, gym and meeting rooms, the building was an important part of the local community before failing into disuse and disrepair. In 2011, following a design competition, Flores & Prats was appointed to restore, reorganise and extend the building for the Sala Beckett theatre company.
Established in 1998 by Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, who met while working in Enric Miralles’ office, Flores Prats has worked extensively with existing landscapes, buildings and structures. These range from the Palau Balaguer – the rehabilitation of a baroque palace in Palma de Mallorca – to Edificio 111, 70 social housing units on the periphery of Barcelona. A decision was made early in the life of the practice that its size and operational strategy should always allow for a specific working methodology: both partners would draw the projects by hand to investigate site, context, and the act of drawing itself.
This is not simply a reactionary tendency; construction information leaves the office in the form of carefully calibrated CAD drawings, produced once the design has been determined. But before this, both hard leaded and softer coloured pencils are used to draw on layers of tracing paper, which enables both partners to think, test, and converse through drawings. This dedication to the discipline of drawing means that Flores & Prats tends to let the work speak for itself, and shows a quiet determination combined with a sensibility which is easily overlooked by contemporary architectural culture.
The brief required two theatre spaces with backstage areas, rooms for drama and writing classes, a bar-restaurant, offices, and apartments for guest writers and directors. Work began with an extensive survey of the existing fabric, which established an inventory of doors, windows, and flooring that could be reused in the new building. Site surveys were redrawn in plan and elevation before being made in 1:10 scale models of each wall plane or 1:50 models of rooms. Parts of the existing fabric have been restored or mended. Other elements have been repurposed within the new composition.
Three new glazed aluminium doors, finished in RAL 2001 (‘Vermillion’), lead from the street into a public foyer, with a ticket office to the left and the bar-restaurant on the right. Influenced by Le Corbusier’s private houses, the foyer is the figure that connects the multiple rooms arranged about it. Existing polychromatic ceramic tiles were carefully collected in order to lay a carpet-like floor between the Sala Beckett’s public rooms. Typical of Flores & Prats’ studied attention to detail, a 1:1 scale drawing of the tiled floor’s curving geometry was made so that workers on site had a template when the floor was laid. As elsewhere in the building, niches are made through the play of walls as vertical surfaces, through subtle inflections and distortions, to make space for different social situations. One space might form a quiet place to sit. Another makes a long bench to wait for friends before a play begins. In the theatre an inflected wall behind the stage gives actors a space for props and costume changes.
Access to the bar from the foyer is through existing glazed timber doors surrounded by new windows. Dark-stained on the foyer side, their frames are painted a bright green in the bar. New smooth plastered window reveals and the existing curved exposed concrete soffit have been painted a softer pastel shade of green. Otherwise, the walls of the bar have been left to bare their construction: raw load-bearing masonry is revealed from behind damaged plasterwork with a wainscoting created by a layer of 1970s mosaic tiling. This is not the result of Flores & Prats labouring towards a fashionable Arte Povera aesthetic; it was simply cheaper to work with the existing fabric. Moreover, rehabilitating elements is part of a wider strategy to adapt the building to its new use without wiping clean the memories of its former place in the community.
Behind the timber bar itself, which curves across the room, are four existing windows, appropriated from the first floor, and recomposed with a new, curved window that looks onto the main staircase. There is an ambiguity or uncanniness to this new composition of reused elements. Members of the old cooperative, returning to the Sala Beckett, have traced their memories of the building through new elements that reoccur in surprising places.
On one side of the foyer, a staircase has been removed but the echo of its profile is left raw on the wall. A new staircase with white marble treads turns from the half landing above and floats down to open into the foyer where the previous stair would have started. Above, the smooth plastered soffit has been folded and manipulated away from the vertical plane of the walls, so that light from first-floor skylights is brought into the ground floor, and the figure of the upper foyer is visible from below.
Recalling Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1975 work ‘Conical Intersect’, this sculptural incision distorts the structural logic of the existing building. At first-floor level the foyer operates as an organisational device between the two theatres, the classrooms at the rear of the building, and a courtyard. Natural light and ventilation have been carefully provided through this courtyard and the newly formed light wells.
The plan is organised as an enfilade with only one corridor – a fire escape essential for the theatre – present in the whole project. As the plan form suggests, structure tends to be hidden within walls. There are exceptions: in the bar and backstage rooms, columns are deployed not just as structure but also as figures that organise space. This effect is emphasised by the use of colour: existing freestanding columns are painted in bright glossy colours, with the walls painted in more muted pastel shades. As with every aspect of the design, Flores & Prats calibrated these tones carefully through photo collages with colours applied onto tracing paper laid over site and model photographs.
While on the one hand the project suggests some form of continuity between old and new – however complex – it also works with uncertainty and ambiguity. The Sala Beckett is obviously an architectural composition but, as in life, some things have been decided before. The new work relies upon rehabilitation and editing of the existing building in order to document its past. In executing it, Flores & Prats has not constructed a grand narrative or verbose concept; just a building that can again be a part of its community.
Flores & Prats Arqs
Marc Comas, Schuler-Schook
Sala Beckett with Institut de Cultura de Barcelona and Generalitat de Catalunya