Noain just got a great building, but is it a great city hall?


Noain is a small town, essentially a suburb of Pamplona, Spain. The population was barely over a thousand in 1960, but the next fifty years saw exponential growth, reaching almost eight thousand today. Noain has been all over the architecture blogs because of their new city hall (seen here at ArchDaily and hereat Architizer, to name a few), designed by Zon-e Arqitectos.

The architecture is great, and the urban design, while not superb, could certainly be worse. The question I want to ask is, does this building say “city hall”?

I looked desperately to find the building that this city hall replaced, but I was unable to find anything. Considering fairly recent changes in the administration of the area, it could be possible that the old seat of government rested outside the city, or that it did not exist at all. The situation of the building on the very edge of the developed area of the city also suggests that this was not a demolish-and-replace job, but an entirely new creation.

The urban design that the building is a part of deserves note.

Click to zoom. From http://maps.google.com/.

The city hall sits at the southwest side of a square plaza, with buildings on four sides. The plaza is a bit wide for its buildings (or the buildings are a bit short for the plaza, take your pick), but it’s still fairly nice, even if it feels somewhat empty. The biggest problem with the plaza is that the building to the northwest is way too small, and the large open spaces on either side of it destroy the sense of enclosure for the plaza. On the north side of the city hall is a fairly busy park, and it would be a shame to destroy an amenity like that to complete the square, but at the same time, the plaza is fairly empty while the park thrives. My solution would be to scrap the square, put the park in its place, and build more around the edges. While a street does separate the buildings from the square, it is a fairly narrow and easily traversable street, and parking is relegated to the backs of buildings. Whether intentional or not, the city hall continues a theme of the buildings around the square having a differentiated base and upper stories, accomplished on the older buildings with loggias and on the newer ones by changes in material and building depth. This gives the buildings cohesion despite different materials and architectural styles. With the exception of the squat structure to the northwest, the buildings are of similar scale.

The exterior is made up of two layers. The first, and probably most interesting is a metal grid structure. Alone, this structure works as a brise soleil, shading the structure from high summer sun while allowing lower winter rays to penetrate. What is the more intriguing part of this layer is that flowerpots on the top and bottom of the structure house Virginia Creeper vines, which grow over the structure. The vines are deciduous, so their leaves shade the building from the sun in summer, but after they fall of in winter greater sunlight is allowed into the building. The creeper also ranges in color from green to a deep red, providing visual interest. Its berries also provide food for birds. Although it is beautiful, and probably my favorite element of this building, I have some fears about introducing non-native plants, which have a habit of becoming weeds when their natural predators and competitors are not present. On the roof, solar panels face the south, while a large skylight lets diffuse light into the entire building and also working as a solar chimney to ventilate it.

The second layer is made up of two sub-layers, one of transparent glass and one of a translucent cover that shields most of the building. This translucent layer allows diffuse light to come in throughout the entire building, and turns it into a light-emitting beacon at night. The double layer also provides greater insulation than a single layer of glass alone, making it easier and less energy-intensive to keep the building at a comfortable temperature.

The facade, on all sides, is periodically broken up by large, rectangular overhanging balcony elements. These are colored bright red, providing some much-needed color, and breaking up a facade that, at least from a distance, may otherwise seem somewhat repetitive. Having a weird thing about railings, I’m not wild about the vertical panes of glass with no rail, which a very determined child or clumsy adult might make their way straight through (and as a former janitor I hate because people seem to get their fingerprints all over every conceivable glass surface), but I do see how it makes the elements seem deeper and more connected to both views inside and out.

The central interior feature of the building is an open staircase running through all levels of the building and connecting to corridors on each floor which then connect the offices and meeting rooms. While there are things I dislike about it (railings), I really like this strong, simple and central element that unites the different parts of the building. The interior walls do not reach all the way to the ceiling, which allows light from the outside to further penetrate into the interior. The emphasis on natural light cuts down on the need for electric lighting, while heating and cooling are accomplished by an energy-efficient geothermal system and radiant floor heating and cooling. The climate control and ventilation systems are all synced up on a central computer system that works to optimize both comfort and energy efficiency.

This is, without a doubt, an excellent building. My question though is, is it an excellent city hall? What about this building says government, stability, democracy? Some would say that government transparency is embodied in the design, but I can see few other elements that conjure up the working of government. Part of the reason that classical and neoclassical architecture is so widespread in government buildings is because it conjures up ideas of power, stability, and tradition, which few modern attempts have been able to match. Now, I do not believe at all that all government buildings need to be neoclassical, but I think it is important to investigate what it is about that architectural style that says to people, “democracy.” Is it the association with ancient Greece? Is it the bilateral symmetry? Is it the repeating elements of column and void? Whatever it is, as much as I like this building, I don’t know if it has the elements that label a building as a house of government.

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About Dave Munson
This blog is about architecture, cities, and myself.

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