Foster and Partners' new Congress Centre in Valencia is intended as a £22 million magnet for visitors to the Spanish city as it transforms itself for the third millennium.
The building, opened last week, is on a busy gateway site (masterplanned by the practice) to the north-west of the city. It provides three maple- lined auditoria, seating 1463, 468 and 250 people. There are also interpretation booths, seminar rooms, catering and retail facilities. It takes its place in a city which, thanks to the personality being stamped on it by Mayor Rita Barbera, includes a major leisure scheme for the port, a new metro and a 'city of arts and sciences' being built to designs by Valencian Santiago Calatrava, and a scheme to liberate 1,000,000m2 of land around the central railway station by sinking the tracks and thereby reuniting the city.
A starting point for the new centre was that no visitor would be more than 30m away from the speaker. From that principle it was decided to fan the three halls into a wedge shape, and a footprint emerged which Foster's incorporated into a plan in the shape of an eye with two arcing facades of unequal length.
Foster explained that the form had developed from the practice's work at the Frejus Lycee in terms of the way the 180m long, 8000m2 zinc-coated aluminium roof 'hovers' above the building, with a concrete structure beneath and a cooling flow of air between. Another technique to ease the burden on the mechanical loads comes from the water features, asymmetric pools that broaden towards the south of the 200m eastern edge of the building. The air is drawn over the pools and into the foyer connecting the halls, cooling down delegates.
'It is an unusually home-grown building,' says Foster; 'it is truly local.' It is also inexpensive, working out at £1000/m2. Foster said Ronchamp had not been a direct reference, but as one of his favourite and most visited buildings, it was perhaps a 'subliminal' influence. 'I wouldn't be unhappy with the comparison,' he says wryly.