Raul Barrenech | July 01, 2011
Skateboarding, rock climbing, graffiti spraying, hip-hop dance-offs. Those are just a few of the activities allowed, in fact encouraged and state-sanctioned, at the Factoría Joven in Mérida, Spain. This "youth factory," one of several recreation centers being built by the regional government, isn't what you'd expect from a public project-in form or in function.
The youth factories "humanize the city streets," minister Carlos Javier Rodríguez Jiménez explained after the dedication of the Mérida location by the husband-wife architecture firm Selgas-Cano. Lucía Cano calls the project a "grand marquee that's open to the entire city, embracing everyone who needs to be there." As José Selgas adds, "It doesn't filter anybody out." The entire structure is a welcoming portico.
A bright orange roof swirls above translucent white pods, contoured green turf, and concrete ramps and steps where Mérida's official population of 19,000 young people, defined as age 14 to 34, is welcome to try out their skateboards and mountain bikes after school and on weekends. A climbing wall, with its origami-folded surfaces of green and yellow, anchors one end.
The high-visibility, low-budget youth factory, sited just outside the city center, near the Albarregas River, was constructed for the equivalent of $1.8 million. Including outdoor areas, the square footage totals nearly 17,000. A multipurpose space, a computer lab, and a dance studio occupy the three largest pods, each roughly 800 square feet. Additional pods contain a meeting room, restrooms, and storage.
Besides sheltering indoor activities, the pods have steel frames capable of supporting the armature that gives shape to the two-layer canopy floating over the entire complex. Both the opaque orange top and the translucent white underside are corrugated polycarbonate barely ½ inch thick, simply bolted into place. "Its one of the most lightweight but durable materials there is," Selgas says. Extending the canopy well beyond the footprint outlined by the pods gave youngsters a bigger play area protected from Mérida's sunshine, which turns downright scorching in summer.
Fluorescent lighting embedded in the canopy lets kids hit the skate ramps long after sunset, too. "The canopy becomes a giant lamp that protects you but can take flight at any moment," Cano says. Meanwhile, the glowing activity pods transform into a real-life Candy Land seemingly built of Life Savers.
The bowl and ramps that draw hordes of skateboarders and bikers are scooped out of the 5-foot-thick concrete plinth that Selgascano poured instead of sinking foundations into the history-rich soil. Mérida was once the Roman Empire's largest Iberian outpost. Consequently, the modern-day city sits on top of a layer of archaeological artifacts, many of them yet to be examined. "The plinth preserves the past that exists beneath the ground and reinforces the idea of two distinct worlds, a lower realm of concrete and earth and an upper one of polycarbonate and steel," Cano says.
Opaque orange polycarbonate, like the top layer of the canopy, also encloses the restroom pod. Other pods have vinyl or painted concrete flooring that's orange, too. For their enclosures, however, Selgascano used the translucent white polycarbonate from the canopy's underside.
Equally handy for letting natural light in and artificial light out, the translucent white walls are punctuated by doors and windows strategically placed and obliquely angled to generate cross ventilation, an important aspect of the government mandate to keep energy costs to a minimum. And about 80 percent of the furnishings are hand-me-downs from government offices. Selgas and Cano gave cans of paint to the youngsters and let them determine a new palette for the recycled tables. The only purpose-built item is a communal computer desk that Selgascano fashioned from the pallets used to ship the polycarbonate—after the general contractor agreed to donate them.
"The youth factory is the simplest project we've ever designed," Cano says. Maybe so, but the result is anything but straightforward. Think Dr. Seuss meets Oscar Niemeyer.
Diego Cano; Lara Lesmes; Andrea Carbajo; Lorena Del Río: Seglas-Cano. Jardinería de Extremadura: Landscaping Consultant. Gestalt: Skating Consultant. Top 30: Climbing Wall Consultant. Boma; Lanik: Structural Engineers. Ayuntamiento de Almendralejo: MEP. Procondal: General Contractor.