The new Llobregat Sports Centre in the Barcelona suburb of Cornella is an example of what could be achieved. Designed by Alvaro Siza, the 40,000sq m sports centre is part of a larger sports park development which will include a new stadium for Barcelona’s “other” football club, Espanyol. The site was a flat rectangle of empty land between the dense streets of the post-war suburb to the north and Barcelona’s ring road to the south. Access roads separate it from a school to the west and playing fields to the east.
The building is set back from the built-up urban edge and made up of a distinct group of large interlocking volumes of white concrete which express the primary programmes within: a rectangular box for the 2,500-seat sports hall, an oval drum for the swimming pool and a long bar for the ancillary facilities. From a distance the ridge of hills that keeps Barcelona’s sprawling suburbs pressed against the sea and gives the city much of its topographical character emerge above the buildings. The scarred concrete profile of the sports hall fits effortlessly into the tableau with the line of tree-covered outcrops on the horizon.
Two ramps, each the size of a town square, rise up from the car park and meet at an entrance 4m above the ground. The stilted curves and monolithic materiality of the sports hall disassociate it from other big out-of-town sheds and evoke memories of landforms, while the ramps imply that you have to climb some pre-existing terrain before you can enter the building. These gestures begin to detach you from the reality of the building’s lacklustre surroundings, a process that continues inside to become the main ordering force of the building.
The detailing is sparse, almost nonexistent. The walls are in-situ concrete cast with not quite square panels of smooth formwork. Siza specified that the finished concrete should not be made good in any way so there are already streaks of staining and a patchwork effect where the concrete has cured differently behind each board.
Moving inside, you enter an amazing space 100m long, L-shaped in section. The scale is intimate and you are suddenly aware of subtle differences between being here or there in the larger volume. The interior is precisely formed around human movement and perception.
The circulation area is stark but beautifully lit by precisely positioned openings. Once away from the entrance there are no views back out except at the far end where you are offered a glimpse of the outdoor pool below. Two skylights cut into the ceiling and fill the southern end with a soft glow, drawing you down towards the swimming pool entrance and introducing an other-worldly element to the architectural promenade. Later, when you head back to the entrance to leave, a high-level window frames a view of the rooftops of Cornella as if to wake you gently and remind you to where you are about to return.
Deep thresholds separate the sports hall and swimming pool from the circulation space. At the swimming pool entrance, instead of just a row of doors, a kind of anti-space has been made with two curving walls, not as a distinct room but as a distortion of the circulation space, as if the space itself has been morphed around. An event such as this looks naive on a plan but the reality of the experience only induces awe at Siza’s masterful judgment of precisely where to introduce light, how much to curve a wall, when to step a ceiling.
The poor swimmers and athletes miss most of this and descend a staircase behind the reception desk to the changing rooms below via a more conventional long corridor. Above the circulation area the exercise rooms are arranged in a line and all are naturally lit by conventional windows, skylights or borrowed light from the circulation space. Their ceilings are sculpted with plasterboard to hide artificial light sources.
Siza’s ubiquitous tool, the dado, appears inside the building, although in a less playful mood than usual, and in grey paint rather than stone. It has a constant level in each space and is the same colour as the floor, as if the room has been filled with paint to a given level and then drained. The level varies slightly between spaces to fine-tune the visual perception of each space.
The sports hall roof is a space-frame, the only expressed structure anywhere in the building. The swimming pool by contrast has a shallow elliptical concrete dome roof with 62 circular rooflights. When the sun shines, spots of sunlight reflect off the water and walls like a glitterball in a 1950s dance hall. A ramp descends around one side of the ellipse for spectators to watch events in the pool.
On the ramp, your eye level is roughly at mid-height in the space so the spots of light on the water mirror the rooflights above, like in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion where the ceiling height is set so that the eye is at mid-height, setting up a horizontal symmetry that works with the reflective materials to dissolve spatial boundaries. The same idea recurs in several places, in the sports hall where you enter at the top of the seating rake and in the circulation corridor where the ceiling height drops near the pool entrance.
The indoor and outdoor pools are linked in an irregular-shaped plan, like a rubber duck, a similarity I wouldn’t be surprised to learn was intentional. Where they join, glass doors can be dropped down from inside the wall like a portcullis to separate them. The curving edge flows through like a meandering river.
Outside, you discover a hidden oasis of curving forms. The pool’s edges swerve and turn while the water reflects the arching sports hall roof and the clouds overhead.
An arc of wall and roof close the pool area off to the south and provide a crescent of shade from the summer sun. The scale of the arc increases as it sweeps up and round to meet the drum of the indoor pool.
At one end of the canopy, where the cantilevered roof is at its widest, a support has been inserted. Instead of a simple column, a slender cylindrical shaft emerges from a more massive abstract volume just like Le Corbusier’s column in the east porch at Ronchamp, a typical Siza mannerist reinterpretation from the modern architectural library. To point out such an obvious quote is to fall into his trap, deliberately daring you to doubt his ability and simultaneously exhibiting his effortless handling of form, meaning and memory.