7 May 2011

The Metropol Parasol – Largest Wooden Structure in the World

Some think that it is out of place, a blight on the landscape of an ancient city.

Yet many of the residents of Sevilla love the recently opened Metropol Parasol and see it as something which will serve to rejuvenate their city while still nodding to the past beneath it.

It certainly turns heads – and what’s more – it is officially the largest wooden structure in the world.

There are certainly no tears shed for what it replaced.  A car park, long since regarded as an architectural dead space in Sevilla made way for this enormous structure.  As its shape does not signify any particular use it is appropriate that the Metropol Parasol has a number of functions. It also has a number of detractors, of course, who see it as completely out of place and an inappropriate imposition on the skyline of the city.

The Metropol Parasol has a cultural purpose as well as a commercial one. It is an archaeological site – a number of years ago Roman houses were discovered where it now stands and the parasol serves as a cover for these interesting relics of the ancient world.  In fact the presence of these ruins dictated the architecture – to an extent at least. There is also a farmer’s market, a plaza and a number of bars and restaurants which will, it is hoped, serve as a new tourist destination in Sevilla.

Not only that, but there is also a panorama deck at the top of the Metropol Parasol from which wonderful views of this remarkable city can be enjoyed – if you are not afraid of heights and a feeling of being in mid air. A construct with duality - culture and commerce take equal and center stage, the Metropol Parasol is a new icon for Sevilla and indeed for Spain.

Like any huge construction project, this one quickly gained a nickname.  Sevillanos refer to it as the Mushrooms of the Incarnation. It has dimensions of 150 by 70 meters and an approximate height of 26 meters.  That’s some big mushrooms.

The structure is on four levels and is the largest ever wooden construction in the world.  For the architect, Jürgen Mayer H (yes, he placed his middle initial after his last name for some reason) the building presented him with his greatest professional challenge to date as the wood would only support the building through the use of powerful (and expensive) modeling software. One can imagine the messages on his answering service, due to the many voices that praised and put down the choice of this project on this particular site. One thing he will never have to answer for is the beauty of his design.

A building with 8,000 timber elements took a huge amount of computing as, if a single parameter is changed, then it has implications for many of the others.  The wood is not bolted but rather it is connected using steel rods and glue – which was potentially a huge risk considering the baking summer temperatures that Sevilla enjoys (or endures depending on your nature). The glue had to be tested to ensure it could survive the baking heat of a Spanish summer. As such it just happens to be the largest building in the world to be held together by glue – another record.

The shade of the parasol covers 5,000 square meters in the Plaza de la Encarnación and cost a cool 90 million Euros – that’s something over 130 million of your US dollars. Is it worth it? Well you can certainly spend an age studying the multifaceted sculpture like shapes that make up the building. Plus the powerful software used in its design ensured that no two parts of the structure are identical – it is replete with non-repeating elements. Any fan of modern architecture would surely be entranced?

In order to leave the Roman ruins at its base undisturbed the columns of the Metropol Parasol had to be arranged in a somewhat unorthodox way. As a result of this necessity the mushroom torsos where the lifts and stairs lead to the walkways were imagined – with no little ingenuity and perhaps even inspiration.

It is, seen from some quarters as a magnificent thing, audacious, ingenious, resolute and strikingly constant. It is also astonishing in its content, this loading up up of ancient times, the here and now and the future in a single structure.  Its detractors too, find plenty of adjective to describe the parasol.

As a highly complex wood composite structure which sets new levels for timber engineering, the Metropol Parasol is the most intricate and multifaceted timber structure ever assembled. Its exceptionally outsized dimensions, three-dimensional load bearing system and ingenious geometrical appearance have been enormous challenges.  Whether the finished building passes muster is surely up to the individual.  Let us know what you think!