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Biological Research Centre of the Cajal y Ferran Patronatos, C.S.I.C.

Date: 1951
Address: C. Velázquez, 144, on the corner with C. Joaquín Costa, Madrid View on Maps
Condition: Restored with alterations
Other: At present Secretaria General del Mar, a section of the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Medio Rural y Marino. tel. 91 3476010/11/13/14/15

The Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas wanted to build an institute of microbiology on a plot close to the campus, but off the premises, on the corner formed by the streets of Velázquez and Joaquín Costa. They commissioned the project to Fisac, who had worked on other projects for the C.S.I.C., in 1949. The first thing that Fisac did that year was to travel around Europe to be able to study at length similar types in other countries, but behind this understandable technical interest there was also the appeal to see closely the work of modern architects and to explore creative modes that went beyond the classicism with which he had already experimented with as much success as dissatisfaction in previous buildings for the Consejo. For this trip he got a grant of eight thousand pesetas with which he crossed Europe almost to the North Pole in the company of his friend and colleague José Antonio Balcells. France, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Denmark and Sweden provided Fisac with important experiences of architecture for laboratories, but in particular they brought him into contact with the architecture of Günnar Asplund, whose project for the extension of Goteborg City Hall meant a real discovery about what could be the path to creating an architecture relevant to its time and circumstances. After this experience Fisac conceived a building with a ‘V’ shape plan adjusted to the alignment of the two streets, which dissected its vertex with a higher body and a concave curvature towards the exterior leaving a big garden courtyard and open towards the south. The two longitudinal wings house the laboratories while the curved tower houses the rooms for the animals, so a clear separation is established into three buildings that work in an independent way although they are linked on some of the floors. The strong symmetry of this plan, which extends even to the position of the stairs and the open porticoes on the ground floor which connect the streets to the central courtyard, is subtly qualified by the treatment given to the concave façade, -somehow the main one and the most visible, which instead of emphasising the central axis, directs the attention of the viewer towards two elements fixed in the smoothness of the clean, mute brick bowl: a projecting pulpit that breaks the line of the cornice on the left side, and a sculptural fountain made of white stone and bronze which is attached to the base on the right. These two inclusions in diagonal and the device of taking advantage of the presence of the stairs in the centre to put two small hollows in this chequered facade create diagonal tensions with great magnetism as well as a perfect balance. The pulpit as a presence that projects forwards and the sculptural figure that pushes the base board of the building towards the interior, also suggest a turning movement that counteracts its kinetic power to the dense and mute eight-floor clay tower, and they answer to a concern of this architect at that time, which led him to declare that ‘there is no art without tension or beauty without balance’. The visible skin of this central volume and the folds that give indirect light at the end of the corridors of both laboratory blocks, as well as the heads of these blocks, are built with solid brick, rough, earth-coloured and paired with deep embedding, while all the faces of the lateral blocks, full of windows, and the left side of the tower are finished with a type of hollow brick designed by Fisac himself.

This invention is the first patent in a long series of experiments that Miguel Fisac carried out in search of a coherent language with the new building techniques and it comes from the reflections about facades when they have lost their structural and massive sense as they hang from a load bearing structural skeleton. He did not see any sense in using solid brick to ensure the necessary isolation, but on the other hand he did not want to renounce the use of clay as a longer-lasting, safer and more economic material than prefabricated sheets of metal, plastic or wood. He then considered a hollow brick with an inclined exterior face and finished with an edge that overlaps the line below. Thus, they are watertight against rain and they also have an ‘interesting’ artistic presence which mirrors the light nature of such surfaces and somehow reminds us of the slats in wooden Nordic constructions. The insulation is achieved through a cavity filled with insulation material and an interior fold in the wall with hollow bricks. The wooden windows, painted in white, are fitted between the two layers, and have the peculiarity of tilting and are formed by two sheets of glass that have a cavity between them in which is the adjustable blind. These hollows with vertical shape and of Nordic inspiration are aligned with the surface of the façade to accentuate the impression of lightness which expresses its authentic nature, in contrast with the sunken recesses in the solid walls of the tower. In a similar way to the idea of “units of work” that the windows established in the Instituto de Optica, in this centre it becomes a module that allows flexible distribution of the plans of the laboratories.

The work has the quality of producing one of the most beautiful corners in Madrid, with both a plasticity that is both powerful and gentle at the same time, which hides under its apparent simplicity great wisdom in managing the proper and necessary elements of architecture and which achieves with minimum resources a sense of serenity and certain mystery. As in so many works by this author important attention is paid to the role of artists in his architecture, this is evident here in the biomorphic fountain with a human figure that is resting on the wall and the water running between its fingers, done by the sculptor Carlos Ferreira based on an idea proposed by the architect, or in the stone fountain in the courtyard which displays small mice made of aluminium by Susana Polack as homage to our debt t these victims of scientific advances, and recalling those drawn by Fisac during his confinement in the Civil War. The details of the stairs away from its mural box, the porticoes over the steps towards both streets, with their ‘v’-shaped pillars covered with thin slabs of white stone from Colmenar and the exposed beams, the stone skirting base that protects the lower parts of the hollow bricks, the landscaped garden in the courtyard –lost for years but now recovered, and many other details mark this work as one of the most refined carried out by Miguel Fisac. It deserved more care in the recent restoration undergone when it became the headquarters of the Secretaría del Mar because despite having recovered the brick walls, the silhouette of the tower has been erroneously altered with installations on the terraced roof, and the original quality of many interior spaces has been lost.


© Noemí Gª Millán, Mike Lumber

© Fundación Fisac

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