Vilanova de la Barca is a small town located on the eastern bank of the Segre River, near the Catalan provincial capital of Lleida, Spain, that was founded in 1212 as a point from which to cross the river by ferry boat, hence the place-name of “new-town of the boat”. Centuries later, in 1938, the Medieval church of Santa María de Vilanova de la Barca found itself in the crossfire of a fierce Spanish Civil War battle that destroyed the entire town. Only the rib-vaulted apse of the Gothic structure containing Romanesque elements remained relatively intact: the rest of the single-nave church to which one aisle had been added in the 18th century was suddenly reduced to a set of ruinous stone walls.

[Originally published in Baumeister January 2020]

After the war, Vilanova de la Barca was reconstructed as a completely new town once again, adjacent to the ruins of the old new-town, with a new church and town hall built this time in the official National-Catholic architectural style of the Franco regime. The ruinous “old church” stood abandoned for almost eighty years; the old square it faced eventually becoming a traffic circle and parking lot as the new town grew and expanded over the old one. In 2015, construction work began on the transformation of the old church into a multi-purpose hall, designed by AleaOlea Architecture and Landscape.

“Ruins are a physical expression of the difficulty of living with the past, especially a violent past”, Thomas de Monchaux wrote in the pages of The New Yorker Magazine after the 2016 terrorist attack in front of Berlin’s Gedächtniskirche. This helps explain, perhaps, why the ruins of the old church at Vilanova de la Barca –the only remaining visible trace of the original Medieval town– were left abandoned for so long: Spain has still not come entirely to terms with its problematic past. To be sure, the economic crisis that hit Spain in 2007 didn’t help either, causing an initial, more elaborate proposal for a multi-purpose space for Vilanova’s old church by architect Antoni de Moragas to be sent back to the drawing board. AleaOlea, which grew out of Moragas’s firm, took over a significantly budget-trimmed project, delivering the remarkable outcome we see today without a great deal of restoration experience in their curriculum.

Of course, when it comes to the perception of architecture that incorporates archaeological ruins, we must be reflexively aware of the “Romantic gaze” that such a sight provokes in us. After all, ruins are very seductive; even more when put into relief by contemporary architecture. A ruin imparts its authenticity onto a new work that showcases it, an authenticity acquired by use over a long period of time, and this cannot easily be created anew although some architects –including Herzog and de Meuron with Ai Wei Wei at London’s Serpentine Gallery— have made attempts to varying degrees of success.

Vilanova’s new multi-purpose hall is a bright, optimistic, and beautifully detailed work of adaptive reuse; a valuable lesson in how old and new architecture can co-exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. On the one hand, an abandoned ruin has been granted a second life, while on the other a work of new architecture gains in stature, elegance and legitimacy. Surely a “win-win situation” if ever there was such a thing.

The fact that this is an adaptive reuse project is significant. For one thing, the ruinous old church is only catalogued as heritage of “local cultural interest”, resulting in fewer restrictions regarding architectural intervention possibilities. Furthermore, the purpose of this project was not –at least ostensibly— to serve as a “memory” space condemning violence or injustice. There are no cathartic spaces à la Daniel Libeskind. On the contrary, the project’s attitude is quite pragmatic: to make the most of the old church so that it can once again serve the local community with dignity. No more, no less.

The project is thus a reconstruction, but not exclusively for purposes of heritage conservation or memory. It is mostly used today for holding exhibitions, performances, as well as private events such civil wedding celebrations. Not only has the use changed, but so has the building’s orientation within its transformed urban context. Originally, the church’s western front façade addressed the old square, but now the secular building faces east: a glass opening in the former apse now exhibits the old church’s worn out wooden doors. This is no doorway, however: the main entry sequence is actually through the former cemetery, now a verdant forecourt between the old church and a new house next-door; a conversion made complicated by the presence of human remains. The original front entrance, meanwhile, is now a lesser rear entrance, such that the building has effectively been turned completely around. Not exactly the stuff of painstaking museological conservation projects.

Upon entering the building from the forecourt, the first sight encountered, across the nave, is a glass-enclosed patio-courtyard that bathes the hall’s interior with indirect daylight. This inaccessible terrarium created out of one of the bays of the old church’s single Baroque side-aisle contains a pear tree that produces white flowers in spring, at the base of which lies an arrangement of ornamental stones contributed by neighbours who had salvaged them from the ruins.

The new additions to the old church consist mainly of completions of damaged stone walls in white brick, and a monk and nun tiled roof over thermochip panels supported by thin steel trusses spanning the nave. The new ceramic materials contrast with the original stone of the old church, a deteriorating sandstone, creating richly variegated wall textures.

The new brick walls are similarly variegated in texture, but in this case by design. On the exterior, Flemish bond coursing is employed throughout, either smoothly faced or with slightly projecting stretchers, or else with openings in the place of headers to create light-filtering screens that shade south-facing windows. This clever play of possibilities on the same brick pattern is delightful, recalling thematic variation in musical composition. And speaking of music, the interior bricks, also white, are sailor-orientated to expose perforations to improve the hall’s acoustic performance. These contrast with existing walls whose many irregularities reveal earlier architectural transformations. “We welcomed the many impurities visible in the walls”, explains Roger Such, a partner at AleaOlea; “our intention was never to somehow purify the old church.” In a similarly casual spirit, the new hall is not an airtight building with a perfectly controllable interior climate, but rather a shelter whose temperature is regulated mostly by the thermal inertia of all the masonry. Indeed, a half-centimeter gap was intentionally left around steel frames of wall openings precisely so that the space would not be air-tight.

The building interior is thus completely devoid of ducts, radiators, chaseways, and any so-called “smart” technology features. Even the suspended lighting consists of little more than wires, sockets, and LED lightbulbs. Yet, the carefully considered arrangement of these simple elements amounts to a veritable artistic installation inside the raw space.

The multi-purpose hall at Vilanova de la Barca conforms with what is arguably a certain Iberian restoration tradition that favours continuity of use over museumification as a form of conservation; an approach that is not without its detractors as it typically involves subjecting the ruins of archaeological sites to architectural intervention that is not always to everyone’s taste. The most famous example of this is undoubtedly the 1980s restoration of the ancient Roman theatre at Sagunto, by architects Giorgio Grassi and Manuel Portaceli, which intended to make the theatre usable again by reconstructing the proscenium and covering much of the ruined seating with new limestone. The work was challenged judicially, culminating in a 2007 Supreme Court of Spain decision ordering the architectural intervention to be “undone”. However: undone to exactly which of the many prior interventions, asked the architects? More recently, architect Carlos Quevedo Rojas’s restoration of Matrera Castle in Andalusia, in which ruinous walls were incorporated within new structural walls to prevent the castle from collapsing, was widely compared in internet memes to the 2012 botched amateur restoration of the Galician town of Borja’s Ecce Homo fresco by Cecilia Giménez, an 82 year old local citizen concerned about its state of decay. Indeed, as art historian Agustín Cocola Gant has documented, Barcelona’s “Gothic Quarter”, named so at the turn of the 20th century to brand it as a heritage district, contains many medieval buildings (including the cathedral) that underwent important neo-Gothic augmentations as late as the 1930s; an effort inspired by Violet Leduc’s restoration of Carcassonne.

Roger Such of AleaOlea explains: “We were always aware that we were working on a historic building with an important heritage value that came mainly from the passage of time and the memory of the inhabitants of Vilanova, but we never let this be an impediment to our work and the task of altering the building when necessary. I understand that this is a controversial point, but from my perspective, in an intervention where present and past coexist, all periods have the same validity, so we must seek coexistence between styles and times and favor making sound use of buildings. Intervening should not be fearful; it must be done with the same convictions with which an architect confronts a new work. The architectural project must always take precedence.”

The multi-purpose hall at Vilanova de la Barca by AleaOlea is a powerful architectural intervention that has made an abandoned, ruined building useful to the community again. Created with an economy of means and a pragmatic attitude, it builds (both literally and figuratively) upon ruins to deliver a bright, modern space within a post-war reconstructed urban context. If the vast majority of historic buildings underwent alterations throughout centuries to keep them useful, then why shouldn’t this practice continue today?

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courtesy AleaOlea
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