PUT AN ICON IN YOUR LIFE : a review over Herzog & de Meuron's Caixa Forum in Madrid

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During last year all of us have seen many pictures in the media about the last new project in Madrid by Herzog and de Meuron. It has become in a few months the forth most visited museum in the capital of Spain, but this is not a coincidence. The Caixa Forum has been placed on an advantageous site facing the Prado, beside National Museum of Contemporary Art Reina Sofía, and next to the Thyssen Museum completing a triangle that has been called the mile of oil. The outside image of the project is dominated by the completion of corroded cast iron that was added to the already existing brick walls of a former power station, what has created a powerful new picture for Madrid and that is completed with a generous entry plaza and a vertical garden backdrop.

The opinions of this new huge intervention in the very center of the city have been motley, and it is important to analyze these opinions from different points of view, I think it is right to check the following: the architects - who have taken part on the project and who have simply visited it -, the clients and the visitors - non-related to architectural issues-.

The opinions between the architects, who took part on the design and building of Caixa Forum, were focused on building problems, if H&dM have always been defined as very perfectionist with the construction of their projects, the Caixa Forum due to the requirements of the client, had to be finished in a very short period, and this caused some obvious problems on finish, not related to their perfectionist attitude. Even some media gossiped that neither Jacques Herzog nor Pierre de Meuron assisted to the opening event due to their nonconformity with these issues. However they have been very grateful with Foundation La Caixa, the client of the project, because they attended their requirement of buying the former garage that was placed just in front of the power station, in order to create the plaza that right now is used as open hall for the building. This way they reached their targets of giving an extra public space to neighborhood and to the city, a plaza where you find with difficulty a place to sit down. One of the architects of Herzog and de Meuron, Harry Gugger, detailed that the building was "restricted inside a densely populated neighborhood, and this was the perfect chance to solve it". This plaza of 2.500 square meters was also the perfect excuse to open the building to the Prado boulevard and give to the building a main role, the main purpose these architects where actually seeking.

As the own Jacques Herzog declared “the main concept of the project focused on achieving of Caixa Forum a kind of magnet that will attract visitors to the inside. It has been more a project of urban development than architectural" […] “clearing the base of the building an opened but covered space appeared under the brick walls, which now seems to float over the level of the street".

................................................................................................© Mª Ángeles Peñalver

Talking about the clients there is an unanimous decision, all of them agreed with their opinions. The new Caixa Forum, that was created by the Foundation La Caixa in order to reaffirm the presence of the company in Madrid –La Caixa has its headquarters in Barcelona-, has been a success. This new cultural center has turned into what the client searched, a reference point in Madrid and the new cultural icon of the city. Although the budget of the project has increased exponentially, and finally reached the huge number of 60 million of euros, the director of Caixa Forum Madrid declared that it has been “a profitable investment, like anything that is done for the own benefit of the citizens and of the society”.

The director of the Prado Museum, Michael Zugaza added to this that "although the project seems to be abstracted in a dialog with the Botanical Garden –he refers to the vertical garden designed by Patrick Blanc-, I believe that it is going to be useful to construct the relation between the museums that are part of this erudite axis" [...] “the Caixa Forum is a point of union more in this mile of oil”. From his words it can be extracted that Caixa Forum is only another link more in the chain of the museums of Madrid, so the question is if it was really necessary to create this cultural center, or it would have been enough with the existing ones.

Apart from this concepts that obviously are more interesting for people related with the world of politics or architecture, a simple search on the internet, shows a huge quantity of opinions from people who have visited it; their opinions are mainly focused to the aesthetic point of view of the inside and the appearance of the building seen from the street, but there are also some praises to the new public plaza that crosses under the building.

According to visitors opinion there are two inside elements of the building that specially stand out: the entry futuristic stairs and the interior white concrete stairs -with a spiral impressive structure-. About the rooms of exhibition people think that are as many other museums and they don’t give any extra value to the building. But what really impacted the visitors has been the restaurant in the last floor of the building, a wonderful interior design, but they grumble about “this strange metal structure that obstructs the sight over Retiro park”.

In summary I would like to finish with an extract of a text that Fredy Massad and Alicia Guerrero wrote for the Spanish newspaper ABC about Herzog and de Meuron’s Caixa Forum, and that I think it sums up what means this project in the career of these architects “…today Herzog and de Meuron are specialists in designing projects that can answer to their iconic prospects and reach the media impact wished by their clients, but that in their hastiness or ambition they have risked their aesthetic depth and the investigation in the dimension of what is sensitive” […] “they walk towards a reformulation, as show some recent works as Library in Cottbus, the Pavilion in the Park of Architecture in Jinhua, the Olympic Stadium of Beijing or Caixa Forum in Madrid”.

December 2008
Article published on A10 Yearbook 08/09.
Edited by Hans Ibelings and Kirsten Hannema. Link here