Building Block

By rendering the most basic urban element vertically, MVRDV gives rise to a distinctive housing model.

Suburban-scale developments are sprouting at Madrid’s rapidly expanding city limits like weeds in a garden. Banal blocks of apartments are quickly being constructed to fill housing demands in the growing city. In a plan to counter the sprawl of these cheap residential buildings, the City of Madrid has been hiring architects—such as MVRDV, Wiel Arets, and David Chipperfield—to create exceptional buildings.

Residents began occupying one of the first completed projects—Mirador, a 21-story mixed-income building designed by Rotterdam-based MVRDV—in July. Units in Mirador average half the usual market rate, and there’s an income cap for residents (about $44,000 for a family of two). The distinctive facade reflects what is happening internally. Varying shades of gray indicate blocks of apartments containing units of different sizes, and orange stripes reveal circulation patterns. “The area is quite grim in terms of architectural looks,” MVRDV partner Jacob van Rijs says of the northern neighborhood Sanchinarro. “This building is an icon for the district. You can’t miss it coming in from the airport.”

Mirador’s central void features a 12th-floor courtyard and the four stories of apartments spanning the courtyard, supported by a massive truss, create a scenic frame. “Besides the hot temperatures, the only distinctive feature is the mountains,” Van Rijs says. “The building is actually framing that skyline.”

However, it wasn’t the building’s unusual appearance that proved controversial, but the fact that the architects proposed something so fundamentally different from the typical low-rise apartment. “We had to go to the mayor to explain why we had to change the zoning,” Van Rijs says. By taking the form of a typical housing block with a central courtyard and lifting it vertically, MVRDV simultaneously added density to the neighborhood and a distinctive element to the skyline. Now that Mirador is finished, it has been well received. “It is quite amazing that people understand the concept—and not just those in the design press, but people in the normal press,” Van Rijs notes. In fact the project has become so popular that it has appeared in recent advertisements for the city.

Both the overwhelming popularity of the Mirador apartments and the ten-year waiting list for affordable housing speaks to the success—as well as the need—for Madrid’s new architectural housing program. “The residents now have a choice,” Van Rijs says. “These new towns are not exciting. But they are well located in terms of traffic. They don’t have good atmosphere yet, but that may change.”

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