C.C. Sullivan | November 26, 2013
Electrons flow mysteriously, making everyday things work. Hair driers, iPads, the backup generators that dot suburban yards these days. We take electricity for granted, but a building in the Basque country reminds us that appreciation is due. This high-voltage laboratory for Arteche—a company that offers solutions and equipment for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution—is reportedly one of only a handful internationally and the first in Spain. It’s the stuff of Guinness World Records: a product-testing laboratory with up to 4,800 kilovolts of power, the highest-rated test voltage anywhere. That’s enough juice to fry a small town. To get the job done, Arteche turned to ACXT, an architecture firm with an engineering affiliate, IDOM.
Arteche’s location, in suburban Mungia, isn’t far from the shimmering titanium sculpture that is Frank O. Gehry & Associates’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. But the Arteche lab is even shinier, its visually astounding polished stainless-steel pleats wrapping a mostly windowless structure 100 feet tall with a footprint of about 100 by 200 feet. “The facade is defined by its pleats, which, thanks to their large size and reflectivity, help reduce the perceived scale of the building, giving it a friendly image,” ACXT architect Javier Aja Cantalejo says.
The building’s height was determined by the marvel inside, a 90-foot-tall Faraday cage. Named for Michael Faraday, who invented it in 1836, this test chamber works its magic by canceling any electrical fields generated there—good news for all, since its two mushroomlike pulse generators create power surges as powerful as bolts of lightning, sometimes melting or exploding the test subjects. The paneling, galvanized steel, is welded in a way that ensures the electricity will flow through to a hidden mesh layer, which dissipate charges into the building’s foundation. In contrast to the galvanized steel, the pulse generators are painted red or blue. The result’s a bit trippy—one almost expects Willy Wonka and an army of Oompa Loompas to suddenly break out in song. For a view of the action, Aja provided vision panels of laminated safety glass.
In the surrounding spaces, his creativity shines through, too. Yellow-green vinyl punches up accent walls, a counterpoint to the predominant battleship gray. Flooring might be green or dark gray rubber. Acoustical paneling is lacquered MDF. On the technical side, steel doors have a heavy, non-conductive coating, while all wall joints and assemblies are carefully isolated to prevent random conductance. Lighting must minimize interference with sensitive equipment. (Fluorescent lamps on electronic ballasts and metal-halide floods meet the specs.)
Creating architecture for unsung utilities and infrastructure is clearly all in a day’s work for Aja, whose projects display a wide range of expression and complication. He adds that ACXT tackles lots of technical spaces, often in conjunction with IDOM. The mandate is always to push boundaries of design expression both inside and out. “Clients are attracted to our team, because they’re confident that we’ll know how to respond,” he says, noting that the two firms recently designed a facility for Spain’s electrical-safety certifying body. Equally striking is a recent partnership on IDOM’s own headquarters, near Madrid. Further notable projects are a data center, possibly the world’s prettiest, and a technology center, a sculptural composition of pyramidal shards surfacing from a grassy plot. Other mega-firms could learn a lesson from these Basque brethren, a pair ranked 50th in size worldwide: Never let success make you lose sight of your most fantastic design aspirations.
Patxi Sánchez Aguilar; Ana Isabel Robles; Miguel Angel Corcuera; Miguel García Castillo; Lorena Muñoz: ACXT.