It is extremely difficult to predict when a building is going to reach a symbolic condition able to survive its own destruction. The process to mystify a specific building can be sped up exponentially when unique historical circumstances and a theatrical demolition are added to its intrinsic qualities.
This is the case of “The Pagoda,” the stunning building that the Spanish architect Miguel Fisac designed in Madrid and that, nowadays, is only present in our memory. In the rise and fall of “The Pagoda” we find a elements of tragedy but also of comic opera: reports of religious conspiracy, administrative apathy during summer holidays, speculative businesses, professional envies, and politicians unable to appreciate an architecture whose unfair destruction has turned into myth and martyr.
But let’s not lose perspective. Spain, mid-twentieth century. After a Civil War (1936–1939) that had eliminated any traces of modernity from the first decades, the timid openness of the Franco dictatorship in the mid-1950s allowed to evolve from the “neoherreriana” historicist architecture that the dictatorship itself had favored. It started a second period of modern architecture with a new generation of young architects that incorporated Spain into the international scene. From that generation, known for a restrained style strongly influenced by the purest rationalism, stood the heterogeneous figure of Miguel Fisac.
Fisac was born in Daimiel, Ciudad Real, in 1913, in a religious environment, mostly rural, and without any architectural tradition in his family. The political situation in Spain affected him greatly, both personally and professionally: the start of the Civil War in 1936 interrupted his architectural studies; and the war itself forced him to align with one of the sides, the franquista, probably abiding by his Christian beliefs. He was one of the first members of the Opus Dei, one of the most conservative wings of the Catholic Church and one of the most powerful and influential institutions in the Spanish society at the time. He rejected it twenty years later.
After a first period of his career where he self-imposed the purest rationalist style for his architecture, he became dissatisfied with the results and, during a trip around Europe in 1949, he discovered another type of architecture that had detached itself from the rigid approach of the Modern movement. From that moment on, his architecture became closer to the organic style of the Scandinavian masters that employed a more expressionist language.
Fisac was a daring architect that proposed bold solutions to specific problems, a self-taught builder that experimented with unique solutions, and an experienced technician who patented numerous construction elements. Concrete was his favorite material and with it, he created his flexible formworks as well as the so-called bone beams: hollow triangular-shaped pieces made of prefabricated concrete that could span long distances with post-tensioned steel bars. With that solution, the roofs of the buildings could be lighter but also could provide waterproofing and a uniform zenithal light that enriched the covered spaces. A single element that did not require any extra additions to solve all the problems: structure, natural light, and waterproofing. As the architect himself said then, “while testing how to connect a square or triangular-shaped element with a wall to achieve the desired zenithal light, I came across a shape that resembled that of the bones of the vertebrate animals. I requested cattle bones from the butcher and, when I noticed the similarity, I realized that I was on the right path.”1
Since he devised that solution in the early 60s for the Center for Hydrographic Studies in Madrid, Fisac used the bone system to span long distances column-free. The head of the beams that stick out would form the wing and would show its section to the exterior, in a display of radical expression and absolute construction sincerity.
He used once again the bone beams for the production and storage warehouses of the Jorba Laboratories that were built in Madrid between 1965 and 1967 next to the highway that connects the capital city with its airport and Barcelona. Two differentiated areas defined the complex: the column-free warehouses covered by that ingenious technical solution and a freestanding tower that housed the office area.
The tower, located in the area closer to the street, included several administrative areas as well as a library. The client asked Fisac to create a striking element that could be attention grabbing to those driving on the highway, the only way to move around in this area of the periphery. Fisac created a memorable building with a peculiar shape: the square-shaped floors of the tower rotated 45º alternatively. The square shape of each floor remained only in the plan of the windows, between the height of the ledge and the window lintel. The overlapping floors created a ruled surface of hyperbolic paraboloids.
While the structural solution for the warehouse building responds to the truthful construction system of bone beams, the tower was more theatrical in its technical solution: the structure was formed by metallic columns and slabs covered in concrete using wood formwork that was able to solve the resulting complex shape.
Fisac, an extremely detailed-oriented person during the construction process, wanted the façade to be built from the top down so that the poured concrete would not spill onto the lower floors.
The resulting building, an intriguing and suggestive shape that changed depending on the light conditions, soon became the symbol of a new Spanish architecture. Due to its expressivity, it was also warmly received by the majority of the citizens of Madrid that would enjoy it while driving to the airport. From that moment on, it was popularly known as “The Pagoda” due to its resemblance to the traditional tiered towers from East Asia. It was the only Spanish building included in “Transformations in Modern Architecture,” the 1979 MoMA exhibition dedicated to the International Architecture of the 1960s and 1970s.
But popular admiration and international relevance were not enough to convince a good number of Spanish architects. Professional jealousy or rationalist fundamentalism projected a shadow of disdain over “The Pagoda.”
In the 90s, the Madrid City Hall started to catalog those buildings worth receiving landmark status. The initial selection was ultimately shortened and approximately seven hundred buildings were left out, including Jorba Laboratories. Without a doubt, the members of the commission that made the selection were more interested in other buildings by Fisac, more conceptual and rationalist, than his Pagoda.
In 1999, Grupo Lar, the new owner of the property, requested a demolition permit with the goal of increasing the built area in the parcel. The local government of the San Blas district approved the demolition permit as the building had not been landmarked.
The first news about the demolition of “The Pagoda” came as the building was starting to be demolished, in mid-July during the summer holidays. Neither the protests by groups of young architects nor the impassioned defense of the value of the building by the president of the Association of Architects or Madrid had any effect.
Fisac, still alive when the demolition took place, argued that it was the revenge of Opus Dei—the organization he had left decades before—to “destroy his image as a person and as an architect.”2 The truth will never be known but, if Miguel Fisac had still been the influential and powerful person he was decades before, his building quite possibly would have been treated differently.
In fact, the demolition of the building had to do more with the blindness of the Mayor of Madrid and the City Hall, who were unable to show any respect for a building that was absolutely worthy of having a landmark status. And it also had to do with economic interests: to be able to build a larger building would provide enormous capital gains. At the end of the twentieth century, Spain witnessed the last big cycle of economic growth based on construction, one where the government allowed everything in search of what they called economic “progress.”
The demolition of “The Pagoda” generated media coverage and a popular response never seen before for a contemporary building. At that moment the City Hall, ashamed, suggested Miguel Fisac the possibility of building “The Pagoda” in another location, to what he responded categorical, “this is a total farce.”3
“The Pagoda” is now part of the collective memory. It demonstrates our inability to value and actively protect contemporary architecture for which not enough time has passed to understand and appreciate its value as shared heritage.
The demolition of “The Pagoda” speaks by itself of what was, and is, Spain, and its stance towards contemporary architecture landmarks. It also demonstrates the continuous abuses committed in urbanism and urban planning.
Will we repeat this formula over and over again, or will be able to create an intelligent and sensitive society able to protect our contemporary symbols?