Madrid skyline to get a touch of nature

Argentinean architect Emilio Ambasz to design green museum in city center

A virtual impression of the inside of the building with a staircase that "wraps around itself."
A virtual impression of the inside of the building with a staircase that "wraps around itself."

Argentinean architect Emilio Ambasz has decided to locate his Museum of Art, Architecture, Design and Urbanism in Madrid on the Paseo del Prado, close to the CaixaForum, the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofía museums. The project, which will turn an abandoned lot into a 3,672-square-meter, five-floor building covered with plants that act as natural thermal control mechanisms, and with a foliage-covered roof that will collect rainwater, exemplifies Ambasz's concept of introducing greenery into the heart of the gray city. With a budget of 10 million euros, the Emilio Ambasz Foundation will take care of the design and construction as well as the running of the museum, which will include a program of grants for young architects.

"I know it sounds presumptuous, but I lay claim to being the precursor of current architectural production concerned with environmental problems," says Ambasz.

Presumptuous, perhaps. After all, Ambasz isn't particularly concerned with the technical aspects of sustainability, such as saving energy. But is it also preposterous? Not entirely. Back in the 1970s, when postmodernism was busy scandalizing pretty much everyone, and decades before architects started slapping wind turbines on to skyscrapers and calling them green, Ambasz was burying architecture under grassy knolls and floating buildings on disposable barges that could recede, in his poetic estimation, into a single "island of flowers." They were paper projects that lived vivaciously off the page.

"He was doing this when no one was talking about ecological architecture," Japanese architect Shigeru Ban said in a recent phone interview. "He was doing more basic natural things, without following fashion."

I have always striven to present alternative models of the future so that we can change the present"

Ambasz's work points both backward and forward to a utopian vision not everyone shares. "Emilio," says US architect Michael Graves, who taught the younger architect at Princeton in the 1960s, "is built on hype."

From the beginning, Ambasz says he was obsessed with reconciling nature and artifice. His first built project, the Lucile Halsell Conservatory, in San Antonio, Texas, completed in 1988, is a collection of chimerical glass cones planted into earth berms like diamonds, invoking some vision of Arcadia, either ancient or futuristic, or maybe both. "It is unlike any conservatory ever built," critic Paul Goldberger wrote in The New York Times. "It is at once a place for the display of plants, a ceremonial public square for San Antonio, and a poetic essay on the relationship of man-made and natural structures."

Similarly, the Fukuoka Prefectural International Hall, completed in 1994, with a squat, landscaped ziggurat set down in the heart of a brick-and-steel metropolis, belies the notion that cities are gray, and suburbs green. "People see architectural works as artifacts able to counter the surrounding physical elements by means of their rational shape," the architect Mario Botta writes.

Green architecture is often characterized rather drably by its function. "It looks at nature as an unlimited resource to which architecture has a beneficial relationship," says David Gissen, author of Subnature: Architecture's Other Environments. "It understands trees as processors of carbon, but it doesn't have any larger philosophical questions about what nature and architecture could be."

He was doing this when no one was talking about ecological architecture"

To anyone peering out over the skylines of New York and Dubai at the soulless glass skyscrapers that rise against all necessity and then congratulate themselves on their sustainability, it's clear that Ambasz couldn't possibly be the father of so-called green architecture, let alone a distant relative. The green-building movement has enjoyed a meteoric rise -- as proved by government subsidies and the system of rating buildings on an environmental basis -- but it lost an art component around the time green ceased to be a color and instead became a metaphor. Ambasz's architecture is green because it's literally green. Like the work of contemporaries such as James Wines and Ken Yeang, it concerns itself with larger philosophical questions. "To my mind, the real precursors [of green architecture] are the people who were doing solar houses and earth houses and living in tepees," says architect Michael Sorkin, who edited a book on Ambasz. "What he did for the green-architecture movement was to give it a kind of esthetic respectability."

Many of Ambasz's projects focus on features such as the presence of light, the murmur of water, the manipulation of perspective and the inhabitation of space. "I have always striven in my work to present alternative models of the future so that we can change the present," Ambasz once said. "If there is any strength to my architectural ideas, it comes from the fact that I believe that architecture has to be not only pragmatic but also move the heart."

Madrid Mayor Ana Botella thanked Ambasz, describing him as: "An Argentinean Spaniard, who made his name in the United States, and is today internationally known. We had to compete with New York, London, Paris, Florence, Bologna, and even Buenos Aires, but he chose Madrid."