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Suszynski: The factory

There exists a building outside Barcelona that was once a cement factory. This building is called La Fábrica. In 1973, the architect Ricardo Bofill found the factory, all 30 silos of it, and decided to make it into his home and office space for the Taller de Arquitectura. A description on ArchDaily does a good job of summing up the original building’s mystique: “The factory, abandoned and partially in ruins, was a compendium of surrealist elements: stairs that climbed up to nowhere, mighty reinforced concrete structures that sustained nothing, pieces of iron hanging in the air, huge empty spaces filled nonetheless with magic.”

I keep this building tucked away in my head. I visit it often. Like reading, I like to walk down its corridors and imagine that one day, I, too, could build something like it. Not necessarily out of cement, but perhaps, in my own way, with words.

I love this building and I also love the book, “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follet, for similar reasons. “Pillars of the Earth” takes readers through generations of cathedral builders. My favorite parts of the book are when the characters describe the structure of a cathedral: the transepts, the buttresses, the importance of a strong foundation.



In the very beginning of the book, Tom, who is a master builder, thinks about why he is drawn to building cathedrals: “But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good, but perfect. This was because … the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally.”

La Fábrica was born twice. Once as a cement factory, and again as a home and workshop: “The transformation process began with the demolition of part of the old structure to leave hitherto concealed forms visible, as if the concrete had been sculpted. Once the spaces had been defined, cleaned of cement and encompassed by new greenery, the process began of adaptation to the new programme,” ArchDaily says of La Fábrica.



I am a big believer in architecture. As humans, we dwell. We live in systems that we have crafted for ourselves. A system of buttresses, vaults, bedrooms, ceilings, living rooms. But we also live in intangible architectures. Like the architecture of human relationships. The architecture of government. The architecture of democracy.

“’The old stones must be saved for the new church. They won’t be used for walls, because secondhand stones don’t weather well; but they’ll do for foundations. All the broken stones must be kept, too,’” Tom tells his masons.

Adaptive reuse projects can be buildings constructed atop, within or alongside the old. Sometimes new eras call for new architecture. The entirety of “Pillars of the Earth” follows Tom Builder’s family through just one cathedral that sees fire, destruction, fatal cracks. The cathedral is rebuilt, reimagined, suffers, and then a new generation repurposes old stones to build something grander.

There are also structural problems to solve: “… instead of the usual web of mortar-and-rubble, this builder had put cut stones, as in a wall. … in a rectangular bay, the narrow arches had to spring from a point higher up the wall than the springing of the wide ones, so that their tops would be at the same level and the ceilings would be even. The result was always lopsided. This problem had now vanished,” Jack, Tom’s adopted son, realizes.

La Fábrica has a large room used for entertainment and it’s also the central workspace. This room is called “la Catedral.” It has 10-meter high ceilings and as described on La Fábrica’s website: “Decorated with minimal elements, it embodies one of the main fascinating contradictions” of the building. The room is stunning yet brutalist. The great metal cement funnels protrude from the ceiling, framed by massive windows. There is very little decoration, the geometry of the structure is the viewer’s only draw.

I like that Bofill has chosen to call this room the cathedral. In my own head, I have molded the definition of cathedral to mean something grand, spectacular. I can feel the cathedral’s presence on the summit of a mountain for example, and I can also feel the cathedral’s presence when it is crumbling, when the cracks begin to form in the vaulted ceilings of our structures.

Systems are not meant to last forever. We install systems in specific time periods that call for them but there does come a point when systems break down. They rust. They fill with cement. They become obsolete. When this happens with buildings, we have a few choices. We can tear the building down and start afresh. Or, we can use the good bones of the old to build something that harkens to the past, but also looks forward to the future.

I think many of us can agree that the silos of our government have filled with hardened cement. Our system is a bit congested, stuck. But as a country with something as precious and important as a democracy, we are the architects looking upon the potential of its reinvention. We are the ones that can add a flying buttress here, empty the silos there, and make a home for ourselves in which each one of us feels that we have contributed to the grandeur.


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