The Valladolid Effect

The Millennium Project is both a sustainable landmark and an accessible riverside venue.

Cloud 9

EXP Architectes

DAD Arquitectura

The Millennium Project

Valladolid, Spain

“They were looking to have a Guggenheim effect,” says the architect Enric Ruiz-Geli. “But the city was smart in saying that a Guggen-heim effect could be achieved through urban retrofitting.” The Barcelona-based architect is talking about his latest project, a new community hub and recreation center in the historic Spanish city of Valladolid, on the banks of the Pisuerga River. In 2008, the municipal government launched a $12 million initiative to rehabilitate a parking lot and green space on the city’s waterfront. Now open to the public, the Millennium Project is Valladolid’s bid to reprise some of the magic that made Bilbao a destination for design tourism.

To pull it off, the city enlisted Ruiz-Geli’s studio, Cloud 9, along with an entire cast of designers and builders, each charged with a different role in shaping the five-acre riverside campus. The French scenographers at Les Petits Français were tasked with creating water features and outdoor lighting, the French firm EXP Architectes took on public space and landscape design, and DAD Arquitectura, from Ávila, Spain, was responsible for underground parking spaces and the energy infrastructure of the compound.

Because the program entailed a broader plan for ecological remediation of the site, effective collaboration was a must. The Pisuerga River had suffered years of environmental degradation due to the growth of local industries. Cloud 9 and its collaborators saw their venture as an opportunity not only to give an urban space back to the community, but also to revitalize the waterway. “The number one thing we did was to get more oxygen into the water,” explains Ruiz-Geli. A geyser, installed just a few yards off the western bank of the river, churns the water at regular intervals; the aeration supports increased biodiversity. Additional features, like a water management and collection system, render the river more attractive for both aquatic life and for humans, who can now launch pleasure boats from piers built specially for the purpose.

The vision for the Millennium Project goes beyond the perimeter of the development itself. Ruiz-Geli is something of a green crusader. He’s active in the Spanish chapter of Greenpeace, and collaborated on the 2008 Venice Declaration that called for a green “Third Industrial Revolution.” True to this creed, the team in Valladolid has turned the Millennium Project into an omnium-gatherum of eco-machinery: extensive bicycle and electric-vehicle parking is situated beside the street, photovoltaic modules and wind generators line the newly refurbished bridge that spans the river, an LED screen with “climatic information” educates visitors about energy and emissions, and benches made of recycled materials dot the grassy lawns and paved walkways.

The primary structure of the complex is itself recycled; it served as the main pavilion at the 2008 Expo in Zaragoza, Spain. The 56-foot-high dome, Cloud 9’s most visible contribution to the project, boasts a number of environmental bona fides. Its steel frame is sheathed in white hexagonal panels made of a multiple-ply, ETFE fabric membrane that “allows natural light to go in, but heat to get out,” as Ruiz-Geli notes. More importantly, however, the building will host the public functions that are the project’s raison d’être—ultimately, the space’s programming may prove to be the most innovative aspect of the whole initiative.

Far from being an esoteric temple of culture, the pavilion will be home to events and festivities organized by and for the people of Valladolid. This civic-minded approach promises to make the Millennium Project not only environmentally sound, but also socially and psychologically sustainable as well. If it works, a “Valladolid effect” may displace Bilbao’s example as the wholesome, community centric model for small cities looking for an urban makeover.

“We wanted to make sure, and this is in our contract, that the pavilion would have an agenda that allowed anybody to have a birthday party there,” says Ruiz-Geli. “On a Sunday morning, somebody might say they want to do an event about baking bread. And now that can be hosted in this very elite building.”

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