Stairway to heaven - Issue 115 - Magazine | Monocle

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An idiosyncratic inventor pitches his dream project at a dinner party; a tussle between a bohemian community and a corporate menace ensues. There’s a cameo by a mysterious cave-dwelling monk and even a mystical plot twist marked by the hand of God. Pitched as a film script, this convoluted story would never have passed the first skim-read – yet the wild story surrounding Valencia’s residential complex Espai Verd is neither fiction nor far-fetched fantasy. Not only is it very real but this improbable episode also stands as a monument to the power of architecture to reshape reality itself.

“I’ve always been a visionary,” says Antonio Cortés Ferrando. As the architect behind the building, and a resident ever since, he has an affection for every corner of the 15-storey edifice. Admiring the multitiered entrance fountain he describes how the trickling water creates an internal micro-climate. “Architecture that doesn’t put people first is merely sculpture,” he says.

The 69-year-old has already led us up the central patio’s pine-covered artificial “mountain” (built from soil extracted for the subterranean carpark), waved us through foliage on the upper tropical-garden plateau and identified tree species sprouting from dozens of capacious balconies that seem to ascend like a colossal overgrown staircase. After setting a cracking pace around the third-floor jogging track, running through a wide corridor and circling back past the pool (four laps, we are told, make a full kilometre), we experience an impromptu encounter that provides a colourful insight into quotidian life here.

Two elderly gentlemen are having an animated discussion about the merits of clear or opaque safety glass for a newly installed handrail. Both are “founders” who, enticed by a pioneering promise to bridge urban and rural milieu, joined the co-operative in the 1980s. Ferrando listens to their argument, calming the conversation with a reminder that “truth can be found on both sides”.

As the men agree to disagree and drift back to their homes, the architect admits that living inside his own creation requires a degree of courage – especially when 108 apartment dwellers come forth with a barrage of opinions about its brutalist design. “Like all great cathedrals this is still a work in progress, meaning the community constantly seek my opinion,” he says (with a hint of pride).“But this is not a dictatorial regime by any means; we’re a community.”

Built in four phases over a decade, Espai Verd (“green space” in Valencian) emerged on the urban fringes as a riposte to the 1980s penchant for mass-construction. Conceived as a compact city, it was shaped by ecological, technological, and humanistic principles – none of which were especially popular when a newspaper advert first asked people to buy into the bold idea in 1981. “It was Antonio’s passionate vision that won us over,” says founding resident Maite Queratt, recalling the fateful dinner party where a handful of family members and friends agreed to form a co-op to fund the construction. “We signed up that night.”

The structure took until 1986 to get off the ground. “That’s when the real adventure began,” says Queratt with a laugh. “There were constant delays; each meeting with the builders ended with a 10 million peseta price hike.”

Sensing the financial strain, the construction company offered to fund the final stage themselves with one crucial proviso: the founders would have to forego ownership. “We were young couples, some of us with children; we had already sacrificed so much,” says Queratt. “We refused to surrender so easily.” The offer was rejected. “The newer residents don’t really understand what we all went through because they didn’t live it,” she says, revealing that more than half the original founders are still residents. “Building was a democratic process; it forged strong bonds.”

Up on the 10th floor, in a living room featuring a five-metre-tall ficus tree, Ferrando the architect is banging away on his piano. “I love improvising,” he says with a cheeky smile. “My architecture professors told me to leave the vegetation to gardeners, so I read and taught myself.”

This same inquisitive spirit pushed him to incorporate his notional ideas into the building plans. Foundations were turned 45 degrees for optimum sunlight. Apartments were given offices based on his prediction that people would eventually work more from home. Chutes were installed in the walls to accommodate broadband cables (this when the internet was the nascent craze of futurists). He designed artificial-intelligence systems, reducing repetitive calculation times from weeks to minutes, and bought one of Spain’s first mainframes – huge computers that were used by banks and universities – to automate his ideas into code.

Look beyond the impressive technical components and you’ll spot more spiritual musings. The ever-burning Bethlehem candles in Ferrando’s living room and a multifaith oratory built into the side of that artificial mountain are the most visible clues. The architect also reminds observers that the building’s stacked form intentionally leads toward a higher realm. “Architecture must address the mathematical space for objects and the liveable space for people – but also the sacred space, to help inhabitants discover divinity,” he says. “For me the quest to find that sacred place never ends.”

Under the shade of cypress trees on his terrace he explains how a friendship with a travelling monk from the Catalonian caves of Montserrat inspired the on-site oratory, which hosts monthly multifaith meetings of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Lutherans and Catholics. He also tells a more mystical version of the construction company’s takeover attempt. “That day I was at my wit’s end; feeling defeated, I collapsed on my bed,” he says with a flurry of hand movements. “I had a vision of light coming out of my heart. Filled with peace and strength, I was determined to finish what I started.” His success reinforced deep-seated beliefs: he not only managed to manifest his own universe but has also lived in its epicentre ever since.

Descending, we visit a lower-level duplex apartment. “Being surrounded by greenery all day improves your mindset,” says second-generation resident Mapi Oltra, who lives here with her husband and second-generation resident Juanvi Pascual, and five-year-old son Mateo. As architects they appreciate the building both technically and emotionally. “We invite clients over to see the right way to design a split-level home,” says Pascual.

As the evening shadows grow, doorman Agustín is finishing his chores. He doubles as Espai Verd’s Mr Fix-it: gardening, plumbing, even resurfacing the pool. He’s also an architect, casually mentioning that one of his earlier projects showed at New York’s Moma. “I’m over-qualified to be cleaning this fountain,” he says, smiling. “But my background means I monitor the renovations to ensure the original vision doesn’t unravel.”

Despite having to deal with regular repairs he remains aware of the grander concepts at play. “Espai Verd is a synthesis of ideas about creativity, nature, and light,” he says. “This is a building that was based around functionality, shaped by artistry but realised with contemplation in mind.”

Boris Strzelczyk, a German-born architect who grew up in Valencia, gives tours of the brutalist building. “Many Valencianos dismiss it as weird or ugly but I focus on the way feelings are instilled into the elements,” he says, explaining how he designs visits to ensure interaction with residents. “Ultimately Espai Verd is a hero’s tale. The moral of the story is that you should fight for what you believe in, showing how people band together when the going gets tough.

“Thankfully there was a happy ending,” he adds amid a chorus of chirping birds. “Ask the people here and they will smile and say living in Espai Verd is still a source of happiness.”

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