This building crowns a prolific career of poetical research and technical invention by Alejandro de la Sota. It also demonstrates the long creative evolution of modern architecture in Europe. Two of his earlier buildings, the Government Building of Tarragona, in the late 1950s, and the Colegio Maravillas in Madrid, of 1961, are among the most outstanding examples of the kind of post-war architecture we call 'realist'. The León building shows that the trend is not exhausted. It is a public building but de la Sota in his realist, anti-rhetorical way has excluded all rhetorical devices from it. In his characteristically anti-monumental approach, his concerns are pragmatic.
For the walls, he used panels usually employed in Spanish supermarkets, remarking, 'Here they were used for a quite singular, very important building, and the result is perfectly acceptable.' Couleur local was respected by painting them in 'León colour'. Equally pragmatic was the spatial organization of the building which, in accordance with implicit realist principles, had to take account of the constraints of the programme interpreted in the framework of spatial structure.
This organization is of paradigmatic simplicity: a rectangular prism divides space into 4x8x11 3-dimensional grid units. Within this subdivision a 4 x 8 x 4 sub-system is embedded for bearing elements. Finally, interwoven in a parallelepiped pattern, partitions are positioned to create a paratactic arrangement of functional zones. Such an overlay of three systems could have belonged to any ordinary, mainstream building, but in this case the effortless exactness with which each system nestles inside the other results in a faultless, original synthesis. As the prominent Spanish architect Julio Cano Lasso has observed, de la Sota 'has transformed reality into poetic material* and, indeed, the building gives the kind of satisfaction works of poetry offer.
Envisaging as a coherent whole every component of a building, structural, spatial or functional, requires skills acquired from a long-accumulated knowledge of the tradition of classical and modern international architecture. This tradition involves the practice of physically embedding heterogeneous spatial components - structural, functional, ornamental, iconographic - one inside the other without imposing on each other's integrity and without creating new contradictions. This was successfully accomplished in Spain at least as far back as the work of the Renaissance architect Juan Herrera. But it can be regarded as going even further back, to the classical principle of taxis, the rule system for partitioning space, and its prime paradigm, the classical temple.
De la Sota dutifully acknowledges this debt, and in an essay, 'Experiences', he placed a photograph of himself posing in front of the Parthenon and referred to Schinkel as the 'passport' that saw him through his studies. He also credited Juan and Emilio Moya. Modesto Lopez Otero and Pascual Bravo, all adherents of the classical tradition.
Nevertheless, de la Sota refers to another tradition, that of going beyond tradition. In the entirely original structural, divisional and functional zoning frames of the Post Office building, the freshness of his approach to such coordination problems is inspired by the work of two other great Spanish innovators. Antonio Flores and Antonio Palacios.
'We suffer from the ceiling', de la Sota says, referring to the low level of accumulated knowledge and 'collective memory'. This leads to 'an architecture that was - and threatened always to be - the same'. His solution is to recommend the 'union of different elements in order to obtain a third . . . [which] contains something new'. And this is precisely the case with the León building. As much as one can identify in its conception the classical canon (the formidable Herreran 'cube', with all its historical connotations of repressive order), one is equally reminded, in the scheme's poetics of newness, of early Gropius, Breuer and Neutra, and even Hannes Meyer, Max Bill or the Eameses. Characteristically, de la Sota's unpretentious description of his building was that 'the idea was to make a cube that works, and that would be adaptable to future changes'.
Memory and invention, de la Sota tells us, can be turned into conflicting tyrants: 'Legacies from the past tend to be overvalued, so that fear and nostalgia are mixed together to oreate a way of thinking in which restoration is deemed more worthy than re-creation. But it is
(Above) The east side
(Opposite) Conceptual drawing and first floor plan not so.' Newness might also win, he reminds us. For a realist, much as memory is not an overriding norm, newness is not autonomous According to de la Sota, newness is endows with precedent experience. As in a garnet chess, one of de la Sota's favourite metaphor for design. 'Moving a simple pawn can be enough for the whole game to take on a net light... a change in the placing of a pillar, a change in the quality of one of the materials in the ... conception of the job will complete!, alter the resulting architecture.' The way in which different components are combined ir the León Post Office does indeed bring to mine the intelligence required in a game of chess
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