La Pagoda / Miguel Fisac | Classics on Architecture Lab

Architects: Miguel Fisac
Year: 1967
Photography: Fundación Miguel Fisac
City: Madrid
Country: Spain

The Pagoda, a modern-pop building designed by Miguel Fisac in Madrid, symbolizes modern Spanish architecture despite its brief existence. Construction began in 1965, and it was demolished in July 1999. Known officially as the JORBA Laboratories, the building featured rotated superimposed floors creating hyperbolic paraboloids. Its demolition, driven by regulatory issues and professional jealousy, turned the Pagoda into a myth of architectural heritage.

Jorba laboratories, madrid, 1967 - © fundación miguel fisac
Jorba Laboratories, Madrid, 1967 – © Fundación Miguel Fisac

The Pagoda epitomized architectural innovation in Madrid. Completed between 1965 and 1967, this landmark stood until its contentious demolition in 1999. Near the A2 highway and Barajas Airport, the Pagoda was a symbol of Madrid’s modern architectural spirit, known for its daring design and structural brilliance.

Commissioned by Jorba Pharmaceuticals, the Pagoda was intended as a striking visual landmark for travelers. The complex included storage warehouses and an office tower, showcasing Fisac’s elegant “bone beams”. Fisac’s design, driven by a request for a visually impactful building, featured rotated floors connected by hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces, requiring no curved formwork. This bold design captured attention and showcased Fisac’s profound understanding of concrete.

Fisac noted in a 1969 interview that “the building was intended to be a pharmaceutical laboratory, a subject I am well acquainted with, as I am not only the son of a pharmacist but also have experience working with Laboratorios Alter and later with Made. JORBA insisted that they had purchased a plot of land with an elevated area and wanted it to serve as an advertisement.”

The tower’s structure was crafted from white concrete, with its texture achieved using meticulously designed wooden formwork. Fisac’s expertise allowed him to create distinctive hollow bone beams, post-tensioned with steel, which supported the structure while addressing challenges of weight, waterproofing, and light. These beams exemplified Fisac’s inventive approach, merging functionality with aesthetic appeal.

Fisac explained, “I see that I have a square of 16m on each side; I start rotating it by 45 degrees, and I begin to get some surfaces beloved in geometry: hyperbolic paraboloids. The ultimate goal was precisely that: for the building to be striking, and indeed it was, it’s just that some people found it too striking.”

Fisac demonstrated his attention to detail by starting the façade from the top, preventing concrete from staining lower sections during the pour. This method reflected his precision and commitment to perfection. The resulting silhouette, with its interlocking hyperbolic paraboloid surfaces, became a dynamic and memorable part of Madrid’s architectural landscape.

The Pagoda’s brief existence and dramatic demolition contribute to its mythic status. The process of mythification in architecture involves recognizing the intrinsic value, historical context, and the dramatic nature of its demolition. The Pagoda’s unique design and untimely destruction have elevated it to a symbol of architectural heritage.

The Pagoda belongs to a generation of modern-pop buildings that set trends and redefined Spanish architecture. Its resemblance to Asian structures earned it the nickname “Pagoda” among Madrilenians. It was part of a movement that broke away from the Franco regime’s historicist trends, placing Spain on the international architectural stage alongside iconic works like Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal and Hugh Stubbins’ Kongresshalle.

Despite its architectural significance, the Pagoda was excluded from the 1997 Urban Plan’s list of protected buildings. This oversight, coupled with real estate speculation and administrative failings, led to its destruction. In July 1999, the Pagoda was demolished, sparking widespread protests from architects, historians, and the public. The demolition marked a profound loss for the city’s architectural heritage.

The demolition scandal cast the building in a new light, elevating it to a status it never enjoyed during its existence. The JORBA Laboratories complex had become disused by the 1990s. When the LAR Group purchased it for its new office headquarters, they found that Fisac’s original design no longer met updated fire safety regulations. Unable to convince the City Council to preserve the structure, despite its high technical and symbolic value, they proposed relocating the project. After another refusal, the demolition proceeded almost secretly during the summer when the city’s population was reduced.

Miguel Fisac emerged as a key modern architect in post-war Spain, known for his controversial, innovative approach. His extensive career spanned over 60 years and included more than 450 projects. Fisac’s work evolved from a classical style to an organicist approach, influenced by his travels and the architecture of Erik Gunnar Asplund and traditional Japanese design. Key projects include the Hydraulic Studies Center and the use of his patented “bone beams” in concrete construction. His expertise extended beyond architecture into industrial design, furniture design, and painting. However, his buildings and fascination with concrete are most renowned. In the 1950s, Fisac began his prolific relationship with concrete, which influenced many of his iconic projects, including the Pagoda.

Fisac was a bold architect, proposing innovative solutions to specific problems. He experimented with unique construction techniques and patented numerous elements. Concrete was his preferred material, with which he created flexible formworks and “bone beams”: hollow triangular-shaped pieces of prefabricated concrete that spanned long distances with post-tensioned steel bars. This solution provided lighter roofs that ensured waterproofing and uniform zenithal light.

Fisac experimented with modular concrete early on, developing post-stressed hollow concrete beams reminiscent of bone structures. These beams often appeared in his work from that period. Later, he explored concrete formworks, creating new surface conditions in set concrete. For the Pagoda, Fisac used wooden formwork to create patented pre-cast panels for the exterior, giving him full control over the form of his design.

Since devising this solution in the early 60s for the Center for Hydrographic Studies in Madrid, Fisac used the bone system to span long distances without columns. The head of the beams formed the wing, displaying its section to the exterior, in a show of radical expression and absolute construction sincerity.

Despite significant achievements, Fisac faced challenges in urban planning and social housing, and his professional recognition came late, notably with a 1993 retrospective in Munich. He received the Gold Medal for Architecture in 1994, the Antonio Camuñas Architecture Prize in 1997, and the National Architecture Prize in 2003. Yet, the erasure of the Pagoda remains a poignant reminder of the challenges in preserving architectural masterpieces. Fisac’s architecture is characterized by its experimental nature, structural rigor, and a deep connection to the environment.

The Pagoda is now part of the collective memory, demonstrating our inability to value and actively protect contemporary architecture before enough time has passed to appreciate its value as a shared heritage. The demolition speaks of Spain’s stance towards contemporary architectural landmarks and highlights the continuous abuses in urbanism and urban planning. It raises the question: will society repeat this formula, or can it develop the intelligence and sensitivity to protect contemporary symbols?

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