In 1974, the literary magazine El Urogallo dedicated its first issue of the year to a collective reflection on “The Contemporary Human Dwelling.” Under that ambiguous framework emerged about twenty contributions with very diverse considerations. In “The City and the Conception of the World,” Enrique Tierno Galván defends the need to develop the city as utopia, understood as a rational solution. Alain Arias-Misson, in “The Public Poem,” describes the city as a focus of signifiers turned into a “language machine” that would serve to construct its concrete poetry. This diversity mirrored the complexity and multiplicity of ideas that the political, cultural, and global context favored in defining concepts related to architecture and the city.
Among the most thought-provoking contributions to this issue was “The Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles,” by José Miguel de Prada Poole.1 In the essay, the architect promotes an architecture in which its material would reflect the temporal nature of its own existence. Therefore, in a significant nuance, he avoids, as early as in the title, the term ephemeral—commonly used in architecture to define a short-term construction—and uses instead the word perishable: the ephemeral is short-lived; the perishable lasts as long as the material that defines it.
The text by Prada Poole sets forth the reasons that he believed the urban configuration to be too rigid in the traditional city. For him, the economic and social structures in an urban context make the city “last too long.” For that reason, the city is incapable of adapting to new and ever-changing demands. By this premise, which takes into account the factors that shape the city and its architecture, Prada Poole conceives the city of the future through what he calls “the three stages of a nonexistent architecture.” In this conception, the traditional city would, in successive transformations, morph into an immaterial city, without inertia, in which the solid buildings would be replaced by the accumulation of foam that would “appear and disappear, converge and disperse according to the different needs.” Each building would become a “bubble” defined according to the physical and atmospheric conditions best suited to its intended use. The city, as it was known, would be replaced with an “intangible reality permeated by stimulatory waves.” That city, vanishing and shapeless, might seem a chimera, but it is ultimately a clear declaration of principles.
Maybe we shouldn’t interpret the essay by Prada Poole as a naïve description of architecture but rather as a poetic manifesto of his own work projected into the future, which is the standpoint from which we consider it today. Not coincidentally, the text was written while he was developing one of his most unique projects: the ice-skating rink in Seville. According to his own words, architecture must be the “adaptation of the natural order to the human order in some cases and, in others, the adaptation of the human order to the natural order,” and to achieve that delicate balance it “must meet, in both cases, the same goal: life.”2 With its organic shape that is the result of the construction system used—pneumatic structures akin to soap bubbles—alongside the functional scheme of its plan, the ice-skating rink was considered the first vitally satisfactory “sensorially sensitive architecture.” Immersed in American counterculture, nomadism, and body art, Prada Poole in this moment understood architecture as a wellspring of stimulus, built of a technology rooted in lightness, capable of altering both psychological and environmental conditions. In his city of soap bubbles, “information would travel through information channels accessible to every citizen, creating a tight network more important than the networks of transportation.” Those channels—which today exist and are known as the internet—would allow “the networks of information, accessible to all, to facilitate the construction of a global city and society.” Perhaps that magic city, built of stimulus, information, and pure energy, has more in common with the global city of the twenty-first century than we might imagine, and the propositions put forth by Prada Poole then, as like a visionary, form in part the reality in which we live today.
As technical advancements played an increasingly larger role in everyday life, optimism for technology, too, advanced within the new consumer society. The moon landing on July 20, 1969, could be considered the highlight of this technological apogee: one giant step for mankind saw its hopes for a better world renewed, thanks, paradoxically, to that old, nostalgic feeling of conquering new territories. The event took place in a present with grand visions for the future—a future that was the obsession of at least some part of society and more than a few of its architects as well.
Within this atmosphere of technological optimism, the Calculus Center of the University of Madrid (CCUM) was born at the beginning of 1966. The CCUM was the result of an agreement between the university and the US company International Business Machines (IBM), which donated, among other equipment, an IBM 7090 computer. This powerful machine, which years earlier was used for the calculations that allowed the arrival of the Saturn rocket to the moon, was one of the first to include transistors, which multiplied sixfold the computational speed of its predecessor. The conditions stipulated by IBM for installing the computer at the university was that it would not be used solely for technical or administrative tasks; it had to be put at the service of faculty and students as a tool for research. To encourage this goal, IBM allocated a budget each year to provide scholarships to explore new possibilities for academic research that could be advanced by the use of the computer.
Proposals by the artists José Luis Alexanco and Manuel Barbadillo to initiate computer-aided research spurred the creation of the Seminar on the Automatic Generation of Plastic Shapes (SGAFP) at the end of 1968.3 At that time, seminars on “Composition of Architectural Spaces” and “Linguistics” were already on their way at the CCUM, and their initial success explains in large part the support that was extended the new seminar.
The SGAFP officially opened with a meeting on December 18, 1968. Among a considerable group of artists and architects, the meeting was attended by Prada Poole and his then-wife, artist Soledad Sevilla. The meeting minutes reflect the initial intent of the seminar to explore the “application of computers to sculptural composition and perception,” for which “the generalization of the models of a generative grammar for the description of the formal structure of a painting” was deemed possible; it considered particularly useful the initial study of the work of Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, and Kazimir Malévich.
Antecedent to producing a “generative aesthetic” was the establishment of an “analytical aesthetic,” based on known works of art, that would seek to reveal aesthetic structures such that they could be described in mathematical terms. Prada Poole, already involved in the study of applications related to art, tried to translate and quantify specific aesthetic values with the help of computer processes. The outcome of his research was the software program Estetómetro (1971), which he used to try to measure those values, with the goal of achieving a “quality index.” With Estetómetro he was trying to put this goal ahead of the direct translation into a language or the elaboration of a new grammar applied to the generation of new works of art. In this sense, an important aspect of his research was the marked interest in the physical and perceptive values that define a beautiful and balanced work of art and, thus, allow the objectivization, through an aesthetic reality, of certain indices or elements traditionally considered subjective in art history. The goal of Prada Poole, then, was to reveal the specific elements of an aesthetic, at once empirical and numerical.
In the project for Estetómetro, Prada Poole identified three aspects that needed to be considered when tackling an analytical experience in a work of art: the conceptual field, the perceptive field, and the physical field. The conceptual field—relating to culture, sociology, or politics—needed to be approached through the preparation of surveys, the taking of samples, and direct observation. Regarding the perceptive field, Prada Poole demonstrated a strong interest in systems of perception—of a physiological and psychophysics basis—that affect our appreciation of a work of art. Yet, without question, his greatest interest lay in the description, in mathematical terms, of the aesthetic elements that were going to be needed in future investigations. This led him to focus his research on the third aspect: the physical field.
For his tests, Prada Poole chose the work of Piet Mondrian. The characteristics of Mondrian’s paintings correlated directly with the type of analysis proposed, such that any results were as evident as possible. With the development of Estetómetro, Prada Poole proposed the application of linguistics and psychology through a transposition of the semantics and the syntax of those sciences for art. But the most novel and remarkable aspect of his research was his methodology of previous analysis using the computer: a lineal method, with evolutionary ability and, thus, the ability for adaptation and improvement of its functions—a quality fundamental to understanding his analysis and proposals for “pneumatic structures of variable response” or what today we might call “smart structures.”
Architecture and the Computer
With the principles of the Modern Movement in crisis, Prada Poole developed his first architectural projects within a very polarized context. On the one hand, there were architects who believed that change was necessary but were unable to dissociate themselves totally from the past. They chose postmodernism, which, although it left the past behind, didn’t totally reject it but used it as a reference or point of departure. On the other hand, there were other architects who opted to abandon the past and fully trust in technology, convinced that this was the definitive solution to the question of architecture’s role in society. Prada Poole found himself among the latter group, which was in the minority against the former.
With the CCUM experience, Prada Poole had already understood the role that computation ought to have had in the field of architecture. It wouldn’t be a mere tool or aid in design, an approach that was most common among architects who were originally interested in computers. From Prada Poole’s point of view, computation needed to be integrated into the building, becoming a part of it, as like another architectural element; computation needed to serve towards the generation of a “computationalized architecture”—that is to say, an architecture that was not merely designed with the aid of the computer but that constituted a computer in itself. It was a type of architecture that necessitated fluid communication between the building-computer and the field of its insertion, each relating with the other in an active way as part of a continuous exchange of information.
Some of the academic projects of Prada Poole of that period already demonstrated a prior interest in material structures in architecture. That is evident in the project of a Gas Station (1962)—where he explores light structures applying models by Robert Le Ricolais—or the design of a Folding Structure Pavilion (1963)—where, for the first time, he considers the possibility of using a double-layer pneumatic envelope to achieve the best thermal insulation with the lightest weight possible. His concern can be summarized very clearly in the drawing of the structure of a single-celled alga (the diatom Navicula), dated 1964, where he wrote: “a structure is only useful if it affords maximum performance with minimum material (or energy).”
His fascination with the organization of material structures alternated with other types of structures—in this case, organizational and informational—tested in his projects for universities. For the competition to design the new campus for the University of Madrid, in Alcalá de Henares (1969), he proposed a new model of distributing the different departments, in the form of a network. Through basic relationships, the project emphasized the way of organizing the spaces and the information of the different knowledge areas that come together in the education of students. The project cast the building as a vast knowledge repository, contained in a structure that allowed the synthesis of as much data as possible: a building-computer? The result is a campus without departments, organized around cross-curricular topics, through which each student could flow as desired, gaining a knowledge founded on the transmission and exchange of information.
In 1968, coinciding with his early research at the CCUM and under the influence of cybernetics, he began his first projects in “pneumatic structures of variable response.”
Cybernetic science is based on the premise that both humans and machines are part of a system of control and response—that is, a system of messages. Aware of the work of Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, Prada Poole accepted the paradigm shift that turned communication into the essential tool for understanding society. To illustrate this principle and its operation, Wiener had compared society with the new model of the universe proposed by physicist Josiah W. Gibbs. According to that model, the universe would be defined by a series of systems that are organized, closed, and tending to chaos. Gibbs called that tendency “entropy” and proposed a new scientific method for its analysis: thermodynamics. In a manner analogous to the principle of constant increase of entropy, in society, information would start from a regulated system that, moving through different entities, would progressively degrade in terms of what remained that made sense.
With his structures, Prada Poole laid out the possibility of establishing a new system of active communication between the medium and the building through the building’s structure (understood here as an open system), enabling it to adapt to the various structural forces extraneous to the system. In this case, the structure would be similar to a contingent but organized system that, with a reactive response, tries to counteract its own entropy or structural failure. The different forms of communication would be tools that would help the organization of the structure, turning it into a kind of “anti-entropic” entity, where the exchange of information would in fact allow equilibrium: “just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, information is a measure of organization.”4 By contrast, traditional structures are fixed; they respond to passive structural models that do not take into account their own degradation. Their behavior as it relates to the world beyond does not depend on the complexities of that world. These structures thus operate like a clock or any other preprogrammed complex mechanism, which make no considerations of their surroundings: deaf, dumb, and blind automatons, incapable of altering their activities with the changes in their environments.
In this light, the proposal by Prada Poole regarding traditional structures can be understood as the difference between behavior that was pre-established and one that was contingent. While traditional structures are severely limited—calculated for the maximum load that the structure might withstand in its lifetime and oblivious to the factor of time—smart structures can take infinite variations within a pre-established range. For its operation, Prada Poole proposed a series of sensory elements or receptors connected to a computer that was able to receive inputs—the changing conditions of the environs—emanating from the outside world. In this way, one achieves a structure not only designed for a hypothetical maximum load but also adaptable to a variety of forces. This signaled the transition from a fixed and invariable structure, inevitably over-designed, towards a reactive structure, with a capacity for adaptability.
The way in which these new types of structures adapt to their environments is the result of a complex process. This type of response takes place when the data received (input) requires a large number of operations in order to obtain effective results with exterior effect (output). In this case, that effect is caused by the behavior of the structure against the external factors that affect it, both past and present, which in turn allows the evolution of the responses with the passing of time. Prada Poole defined this evolution “structural learning,” and it was what made it intelligent. Its behavior is determined by the combination of two types of information: on the one hand, the information received by the sensory elements and, on the other hand, the information stored in the memory. The combination of both factors—data and memory—allow a responsive reaction, in a learning and evolutionary process similar to an organic structure.
Prada Poole found in nature the models that allowed him to understand these principles. In technology, especially in electronics and computation, he found a way to translate those principles into a “living architecture” using pneumatic structures.5 His interest in form and in using the least amount of material and energy possible link his ideas to those set forth by the projects of Buckminster Fuller. The Fullerian concept that perhaps most clearly describes the principles that most interested Prada Poole was that of “ephemeralization.”6 This concept can be defined as the evolutionary progression that allows a system to achieve better results with fewer resources. From a theoretical point of view, the aim is to do everything with nothing, hence its name.
The evolution of the natural system rewards those that use the least amounts of resources and energy to satisfy their needs. From the point of view of artificial systems, technology is the tool to achieve that goal. Various principles put forth by Prada Poole follow from this tenet and aimed at achieving the optimum result with the minimum use of energy. This technologically driven process is directly linked to the better use of natural resources, and, in this respect, form plays a fundamental role. It is not coincidental, then, that the formal scheme chosen by Prada Poole for the design and construction of the Expoplástica Pavilion (1969) was Fuller’s dome. Nonetheless, the choice of a spherical geometry was based on a formal approach more strictly than a structural (and, thereby, Fullerian) one. Whereas in the Fullerian geodesic domes, the loads are supported by the bars, in the structure proposed by Prada Poole, those loads are supported by the membranes spanning the voids between the bars. Regardless, the subdivision into pentagons and hexagons would prove useful in achieving a precise formal definition of the individual elements comprising the sphere, one whose individual elements would then be assembled with the use of zippers, the end result being that it could also be completely disassembled.
An aspect in architecture that is traditionally variable and controlled is climate: exchange between the building’s sensors and the environment provides the required comfort for its users. However, the challenge proposed by Prada Poole was to consider what is conventionally the most stable element of the building—the structure—as the variable solution. Once active and reactive communication between the building and the environment had been addressed, his next step was to apply that technology to foster communication between the building and the user as well as between different buildings. That was the ambition for the Casa Gusano (Worm House) or Casa Jonás project (1970): a floating movable structure where the exchange of information between the user and the house allowed the latter to change its position depending on the unique characteristics of each occupant. With this project, Prada Poole anticipated, forty years ago, a model for a smart city where new exchanges of information would have a direct impact on the relationship between urban dwellers and urbanism, proposing a socially networked architecture.
A New Idea of Community
The second half of the 1960s saw the birth in the western world—primarily France and the United States—of numerous underground movements highly critical of traditional life. What they had in common was their inspiration in the so-called “irrational philosophies.” Urbanist and writer Luis Racionero, guru of some of the underground movements that timidly emerged in Spain during that time, considered those philosophies not as irrational but as different from rationalism and, as such, equally structured, consistent, and effective.
In a world that was increasingly more technical, replete with machines capable of automating large swaths of industry as well as domestic tasks, there was a surge in the creation of leisure spaces where existential and philosophical questions began to surface. There was a need to organize extraordinary events and new forms of freedom that became the basis of a revolutionary period. In this “new era,” for some people, the shorter the duration of architecture, the greater was its value. What this group of people began to prize was the architecture of the event, of a celebration and a party, where the specific qualities of location and weather conditions defined the project: a device of permanent change, where the architect was but one of the actors that determined its configuration.
“The people, the youth of the New Culture will meet in Ibiza to be together, to listen to music, to dance, and to build the space in which we will live for a few days. We ask designers from the world over to help us create the instant city that our minds will shape over those several days. In an event centered around environmental design, behavior and form can come together over a week of design, construction, music, mime, fair, festival, and improvisation.”7
Luis Racionero was the author of the manifest that gave name to the Instant City in Ibiza, which helped the self-determined ad hoc committee launch an international call to students who wanted to attend the VII Congress of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) that was going to take place in Ibiza in 1971. Due to the unexpected success of the call, the organizers, led by architecture students Fernando Bendito and Carlos Ferrater, asked José Miguel de Prada Poole for the design of a plan to help build a city in which participants could stay. Asked in an interview about how he would define the project, Prada Poole answered that it would be “a City of Freedom not anarchic, because the greatest freedom is always found within a superior order. Not the unique order that is typically found in the city, but an order.”8 That is, a flexible order that allowed the greatest number of possibilities within a range previously established and, thus, avoiding as many frictions as possible: freedom born out of a new rule.
Prada Poole designed the project based on a simple formal structure comprised of a series of cellular units able to develop a system of aggregation, seemingly without limit, that could be configured to varying scales in accordance with the needs of the moment. During the construction and aggregation of the units, there emerged an interesting dialectic between order and disorder that would allow the inhabitants of the city to adapt the overall scheme to the variable needs and circumstances of the project. The result was a city that was the product of a collective creation, emerging from individual needs, and, at the same time, conforming to a general scheme that allowed organic growth in a continuous evolution.
The Instant City project appeared in many international underground magazines but also in mainstream publications such as Architectural Design. In its December 1971 issue, the British title dedicated several pages to the project, along with other proposals by Superstudio and Peter Cook. It emphasized the self-built and self-sufficient architecture that aimed to shape a social structure, where individual freedom was able to “act against the most basic ideas of the Instant City, if desired.”9 The project aligned itself with other proposals that were the legacy of the May of ’68 protests, as well as experiences like the Woodstock or Isle of Wight music festivals, where the individual could not be separated from the collective.
The irrational philosophies that activated the underground movements tried to endow society with an ostensible purpose. The values they promoted subordinated technological means to human ambitions. These values were, perhaps, closer to the technology and order defined under the City of Freedom proposal by Prada Poole, which favored new uses of the mind, different from those traditionally advocated by the rationalists.
A large number of the inhabitants of Instant City, who came from different parts of the world, favored or were part of the hippie movement. The success in participation and the desire to test new types of living by means of this experience cannot be understood without the emergence of some of the fundamental values of this movement, born in the US in the mid-1960s. The hippie movement had inherited from the Beat Generation a taste for the nomadic life, inspired by the renowned 1957 novel On The Road by Jack Kerouac—a life that rejected the growing consumerist lifestyle in favor of other ways of engaging with nature, anticipating new environmental values. The best demonstration of this attitude was the pneumatic cell built by several Canadian students, which incorporated an existing tree in its interior, an image that would become one of the icons of the project.
Instant City was a purely experimental project, as it was not strictly addressing real needs. It was a perishable architecture, unprecedented until then in the Spanish architectural field. It was a pivotal moment of change as much for the use of pneumatic structures and flexible materials as for the activities, relationship to place, self-construction, and, in general, for its approach to the process as a collective creation that reflected and extended the experience of the city itself.
In art as well, the spectator stopped taking a passive role and came to embody an active part of the artistic act. This trend was evident in the Encuentros de Arte de Pamplona (Pamplona Encounters) that took place between June 26 and July 3, 1972. The art festival, modeled after Documenta in Kassel, took over the city with art projects, concerts, performances, and installations of all kinds, done by over 350 national and international artists.10 The Huarte family, who sponsored this initiative, asked painter José Luis Alexanco and musician Luis de Pablo to take charge of the organization of the event. Both artists asked Prada Poole, with whom they had coincided during the research about art and computation in the seminars at the CCUM, to design a large pneumatic structure for the Pamplona Encounters.
After a failed proposal—the first project was designed to be installed at the Plaza del Castillo—the final project involved building eleven large domes, of twenty-five meters in diameter and twelve meters in height, and two proposed but unbuilt “tunnel-routes to nowhere.”11 In total, the project covered 5,000 square meters (53,820 square feet) in the area around the Citadel.
The colors chosen for the PVC membranes (white, yellow, and red) filtered the light and spread it across the space, creating an undefined interior atmosphere. On top of the optical effects created, there were slight variations in pressure and temperature, as well as the presence of perfume used to conceal the smell of plastic. “I know of little or no architecture that takes as its emphases the aspects of sound, tactility, and olfaction. Those are words that are never included in the repertoire of professional architects.”12 That is what Prada Poole said about the ingredients of an architecture that explicitly addresses “sensorially sensitive” experiences. The domes turned out to be an evocative space, built solely of air and plastic. Nobody remained indifferent, as demonstrated by the description of the space by the artist Isidoro Valcárcel Medina: “The space possessed something magical, so immense, with light coming through the domes to create an orange effect and the steady sound of the fans.”13 It was a heightened experience, in line with some of the artistic interventions that took place during the Pamplona Encounters.
Several setbacks during its construction forced the opening to be delayed until June 29, 1972, three days after the original date. The next day, hundreds of people got together in the interior in the afternoon. The gathering, which had not been authorized, had to be dispersed when a heated debate around political repression started. It is important to note that the Pamplona Encounters took place during a time of strong social and political tension: the terrorist group ETA had detonated two explosive devices on June 26 and 28 in Pamplona and distributed pamphlets against the event across the city.
Maybe the short duration of the “Pneumatic Mosque,” the nickname that some locals used for the project, made it a truly ephemeral event: a collective party that identified itself with the celebration of place, in the form of a proposal that rejected the idea of a specific architecture for an extraordinary event. In the Pamplona Encounters, Prada Poole succeeded in exploring the possibilities of architecture in the artistic field, where the role of the architect was increasingly ambiguous as the work took over the landscape and acquired greater technological complexity. Like the large pneumatic monolith by Christo and Jeanne-Claude for Documenta in 1968, the domes posed the question outlined by Jasia Reichardt in the issue of Architectural Design dedicated to pneumatic structures: “Where does the art stop and the engineering and aerostatics begin?”14
Form and Universe
Within the same timeframe, some Spanish artists started to shift away from the conventional puritanism of geometric abstraction, moving into more kinetic definitions of the works of art, as in op art. In that sense, art also introduced the element of time as an artistic concept using, as in architecture, series and variation, attempting to focus the debate on the relationship between art and reality.
One of those artists was Soledad Sevilla. Prada Poole and Sevilla got married in 1967, and it can be assumed that their personal experience, plus the strong interest in geometric art during the second half of the 1960s, had an effect on the work of both. During the first years of her artistic career, her works were influenced by normative art, a Spanish movement that proposed art that was serial, had chromatic purity, and was atonal; one of its main characteristics was the rejection of subjectivity.
In the preceding years, between 1964 and 1967, Prada Poole had developed most of his doctoral thesis at the School of Architecture in Madrid. The research project, supervised by the architect Alejandro de la Sota and disguised under the title “Urbanism and Prefabrication: Analysis of the Industrialization of Housing,” analyzed the need for a structural and dimensional coordination of space. It, in itself, constitutes a complex geometric analysis aimed at the objective definition of morphological relationships in architecture. This work, applied to architecture, connected him directly to the work developed by Sevilla and the rest of the artists of Spanish geometric abstraction. This fragment from the introduction to his thesis illustrates this point:
There is no unit that does not have an order that is specific to it, just as there is no predetermined order without a unit that is determined by the type of order. Unit and order, form and organization, are aspects of the same thing. […] It is clear that, in a pragmatic way, this means that, to prefabricate, there must previously be either a precise model of a repetitive form, or a formal model that can be deconstructed into common elements (a system). In any case, it seems evident that we need to know what we are going to prefabricate. Sketch out the shapes to try to determine the maximum number of shared dividers and define the solution. Know from the beginning the catalog to establish later the grammar—if possible, a generative grammar.
This generative grammar of division and organization outlined by Prada Poole could be used to define some of the works that Soledad Sevilla did during the following years and that defined the rest of her career. Before coming into contact with the “geometrics” of Madrid, Sevilla met José María Yturralde and Jordi Teixidor, both members of the Catalan group Antes del Arte, a pioneer group of machine art and technological art. From that moment on, Sevilla abandoned her normative art and aligned herself with geometric art via optical, perceptive, and structural proposals.
Prada Poole also implemented some of those principles in one of his early works, built in Leon in 1967. He called the project, a housing complex, Edificio Picos (Peaks Building). In the design of its façade one can notice, as if it was a large painting, his interest in modulation based on geometric grids. It is a game of volumes that co-opts the perambulation of the pedestrian to produce a certain kineticism, underscored by the variegated shadows cast by it over the course of the day. The project was published three years later in a special issue of the French magazine L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui dedicated to Spanish architecture from the schools of architecture in Madrid and Barcelona. The text that accompanies the publication, written by Prada Poole, highlights the experimental character of the proposal. In the text, he self-criticizes the archaic, albeit obligatory, construction system and praises the scientific aspects that can be appreciated with the play of light and shadows. It is precisely this quality that relates this project with the work that Soledad Sevilla and other Spanish geometric artists started to produce during that time.
Prada Poole continued to think about form beyond architecture, understanding it as a question of general knowledge. In one of his most unique theoretical studies, done in 1981, during his time as a guest researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he sought to determine if it would be possible to assign a form to the universe. He imagined a flat and graphic universe, finite but unlimited. He created several conceptual and geometric analogies, starting from the mutual agreement about its large-scale isotropy and homogeneity. This universe, translated visually, would look the same in any direction an observer might cast their gaze. Translated mathematically and geometrically, it would imply a mathematic continuum and perfect symmetry.
Prada Poole approached the problem in a systematic and ordered way and explored the model of a Euclidean universe, taking into consideration that the world of matter, contrary to the mathematical one, is discontinuous. Starting from that model, he generated a series of images about how someone would perceive the universe, in ideal conditions, if it was as homogeneous and isotropic as possible. In those images, Prada Poole assumes that there exists not one single image, no matter the model that is chosen, as the image would depend on the direction of the symmetry of its axis or if it is random.
Morphology has been an important aspect in the work of Prada Poole, especially from a relational point of view. Many of his works can be understood as grouped forms that establish a structure of relationships between them to complement the initial formal structure. The grids of his projects, even when they don’t allow spatial divisions—the domes for the Pamplona Encounters are a good example—are the basis for understanding the connections that can be found between them. From the point of view of the construction of his architecture, the projects by Prada Poole have been coherent with the formal analysis outlined in his doctoral thesis, where he proposed the study of industrialization, finding its origin to be located most profoundly in form. Through that, he explored the principles of solids and voids, as well as the notions of order, connection, and relationship, from their most abstract notions. Ultimately, it is the establishment of grammar that makes everything possible.
The Energy Crisis
Issue 563 of the Italian magazine Domus, published in October 1976, carried on its cover a photograph of a strange grouping of shiny white domes reflecting the last rays of the light of day. Neither its shape and placement nor the landscape of olive trees and grains that surrounded them offered any clues about their function. Something similar must have happened to many people, because, during its construction in the periphery of Seville, a rumor spread about the construction of a sophisticated and secret installation to support the US Army, already present in the nearby base of Morón de la Frontera. On the pages within, the magazine cleared up any doubts about the building: a harmless ice-skating rink designed by José Miguel de Prada Poole— indeed, a strange structure, able to generate great conjecture but whose interpretation and analysis posed a significant challenge. Other publications such as the French magazine Techniques & Architecture and the US magazine Fortune were interested in the project and dedicated several spreads to it, replete with photographs where, in a thoroughly succinct way, they mentioned, beyond the sports and entertainment program, the constructive system and the deployment of a pneumatic structure.“15 16
Prada Poole received the commission for the ice-skating rink in 1973, a time in which social, economic, and manufacturing structures, increasingly interconnected and interdependent upon each other, had an Achilles’ heel: the sources of energy. This reality was made clear that year, when the embargo from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) provoked the spike in petroleum prices that gave rise to the first energy crisis of our history. The dependency of society on economic structures and on petroleum necessitated hitherto a renovation in the relationship between humans and architecture and between architecture and nature.
The projects by Prada Poole understood much earlier the role of architecture in mediating this relationship. His proposals were not objects in a field but devices that interacted both with their users as well as the environment that surrounded them in a continuous exchange of energy. The ice-skating rink, commercially known as Hielotrón (Icetron), is the best example of this dialog. The name itself is confusing, as it connotes of machine or device more so than a building. Hielotrón was indeed a perfect cold machine installed in one of the most extreme climates in Spain. It was an inhabitable device that had to maintain a huge thermal differential (up to 30ºC / 86ºF). It was subject not only to variations in outside temperatures but also to fluctuations on the interior resulting from the varying flows of the public. The project was successful in its aims, achieving the lowest energy consumption of any ice-skating rink at that point.
Architecture de l’air, the 1961 project by Yves Klein in collaboration with the architects Werner Ruhnau and Claude Parent, had certain similarities with the project in Seville. Similar to the ideal architecture proposed by the French artist, the mechanical systems that control the climate of the Prada Poole project are buried underground.17 These two different realities serve in mutual complementarity to generate a single architecture: the material beneath the ground and the immaterial above. The function of the latter is to maintain, as in the roofs of air of the project by Klein, the necessary temperature and humidity conditions by means of an impossibly thin membrane, while the ground beneath hosts the requisite mechanical systems that make those precise conditions possible.
The end of the era of cheap oil also required a rethinking of some of the most fundamental aspects of architecture as they related to energy. Among those who grasped the importance of energy was the Italian group Superstudio, who, instead of proposing a nonexistent architecture, imagined an architecture coursed through with conduits for energy. The ducts, hidden under a Supersurface, facilitated life in a controlled environment that would give rise to a habitat without obstacles. In a similar way, in the ice-skating rink, the mechanical systems were coursed through hollow concrete rings that circumscribed the edge of the domes, at once serving as a structure for anchoring the membranes as well. By means of those rings, the conditioned air circulated the perimeters of the domes and flowed into the rinks through a series of ducts. The result was a pool of cold air, denser, that settled on top of the ice rink, while the height of the domes, equivalent to a five-story building, kept the warm air, less dense, high up enough above to create a perfect thermal gradient. In this way it was possible, even in the warmer months of the year, for users to skate in short sleeves over a perfect ice, kept up with a minimum usage of energy.
Prada Poole did not pursue an immaterial architecture, built only of pure energy, as Klein had dreamt. However, he did take into account numerous aspects related to the immaterial condition. The building had a white translucent membrane that was designed as a very large screen on which to project images. On the interior he envisioned hundreds of speakers and misting stations for essences that, when in operation, would have created a new equivalent space: a virtual atmosphere of material-immaterial elements—images, sounds, and smells—where users could experience places they had never experienced before.
The short life of the Hielotrón—it barely lasted three years—did not frustrate Prada Poole, who acknowledged this fact as being part and parcel of his conception of that evanescent soapsud that gives rise to the perishable architecture of soap bubbles. Nevertheless, this brief interlude saw Prada Poole awarded the National Prize for Architecture in 1975, the biggest and essentially only Spanish recognition befitting the work of an architect as uniquely singular as his architecture.
Prada Poole’s erstwhile mentor and thesis supervisor, Alejandro de la Sota, wondered once if meteorologists would become the architects of the future.18 Prada Poole worked as such, even claiming that “microclimate control” would be a new science capable of combining engineering, architecture, and urban planning. During his time at MIT, between 1981 and 1983, this stance started his initial investigations around tensile structures aided by computer models. Using those light structures, he envisioned large venues climate-controlled through an architecture that was better adapted to the climate conditions of its environment.
The project for the Techo Plegable al Aire Libre (Open-Air Folding Roof) in the Killian Court at MIT (1981) allowed him to approach a new line of experimentation with tensile structures that would lead to the construction of the Palenque for the Expo ’92 in Seville. The original idea for the building was to use transparent membranes to create a large artificial cloud supported on a network of poles towering some thirty meters (ninety-eight feet) above the ground. The cloud would be able to control the light that would blend with the misting water above the roof. Prada Poole sought to create an air of unreality: an ethereal experience that—in conjunction with the landscaping, another key aspect of the project—could amplify the experience of a traditional plaza, turning it into a plaza-park-building.
In some of his subsequent works, architecture ceases to serve as shelter for humankind against (or within) nature. This is the case of the floating city of Sea Colony (1986) and La Casa del Paraiso (Paradise House) (1991), where architecture engulfs the landscape, becoming an artificial nature that serves both to defend and regenerate the landscape. On its interior, human beings coexist with animals and plants in a closed and transparent ecosystem: the interchange between interior and exterior would be perfectly controlled by means of computers. Architecture thus becomes a regulatory system, where the cycles of ventilation, relative humidity, and temperature are modulated to achieve climates privileged to foster life.
From his earliest work, Prada Poole has approached architecture as a probabilistic, predictive exercise in the face of an increasingly unstable, unpredictable reality. Alternative visions of the future have been a constant in his projects, on occasion extending into “architectural fiction” in which the project dabbles speculatively, albeit rationally, on scientific, technical, and social advances anticipated of the future.
On one occasion, he mentioned that his interest in anticipating the future can be traced to his childhood, when he started to read science fiction novels.19 These stories, published since 1953 in the form of bolsilibros (pocket books), were part of the Future, science-fiction novels collection that were the first collection dedicated to that genre in Spain.
The second issue of the collection, titled “Prisión Sideral” (Astral Prison) and published by the under the pen name of J. Hill, had actually been written by José Mallorquí, a screenwriter and author best known for his series El Coyote. On its cover there were three characters, protected by space suits, walking away from a strange construction. The extraordinary resemblance between the building from the cover and the Hielotrón domes helps us understand the close relationship between those science-fiction stories and the captivating visions given expression in Prada Poole’s work on the “Perishable Architecture of Soap Bubbles,” a work in which science and fiction come together to refute the maxim “Ars longa, vita brevis . . .” (Art is long, and life short . . .), which alludes to the fact that the a priori conditions will always already have changed by the time the construction of the building reaches its completion.
The well-worn adage by Hippocrates continues: “. . . occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”; to wit: “. . . opportunity fleeting, experimentation perilous, judgment difficult.” It is necessary to examine other approaches, some of them implicit in the projects by José Miguel de Prada Poole, where the proposition, resolution, and dissolution of architecture come together in a fleeting moment: a lethal triple somersault that the current perspective allows us to revisit, with fresh eyes, unencumbered by the uncharitable reception Prada Poole’s ideas have received.