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Is it necessary to tile our city?


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Diario de Navarra

Miguel A. Alonso del Val

Professor at the School of Architecture

The avalanche of funds earmarked for the refurbishment and energy improvement of our buildings and cities, through the European Recovery Plan called "Next Generation", poses a cultural problem of the first magnitude for the conservation of the environmental and architectural heritage of our cities. Some worrying signs have already been perceived, as the president of the Navarre Delegation of the high school of Architects referred to in a recent interview when he said that "if the only goal is to cover buildings with tiling so that they are well insulated and consume little energy.... in 10 years we are going to be in a city that we will never know. You will be in plenary session of the Executive Council II Ensanche de Pamplona and you won't know whether you are in the centre of Palencia or Cuenca".

These phrases explain the threat in a very expressive way and reminded me of a summer conversation with Josecho Vélaz himself, on the front line of the Paseo de la Zurriola in San Sebastián, where one can see how a rationalist building has been totally disfigured by a cladding that is insensitive to its architectural values. Certainly the plastering epidemic, like the coronavirus pandemic, is a threat that does not understand geographical or political limits either.

This visible reality which, for the time being, appears sporadically in our neighbourhoods, is the result of the simplistic translation of the broad concept of energy regeneration as the simple replacement of the façade material with an insulating layer and a waterproof and homogeneous material, as unnatural as possible. This fact, in the context of subsidised investment and the need to spend European funds at all costs, can produce a clear opposite effect to that of another regenerative and socially positive rules and regulations , that of accessibility. A rules and regulations that has produced an improvement in the finish and performance of the portals of our city that are a sample of the good work of so many architects in the years of the crisis.

The pernicious effect would be to achieve, in a few years, the disappearance of a recognisable image of the city, of a great tradition of architecture built mainly in brick, although also in stone or concrete cladding, which dominates the landscape of our twentieth-century extensions. A material quality that speaks of the traditional construction quality of Navarrese architecture, which would be restricted only to the Old Quarter and the few listed buildings in Pamplona and its district.

Because the problem is not cladding to improve energy performance: the problem is to do so without adapting to the original geometric composition, or to the material or texture of the pre-existing building. To blindly and standardly apply a technical system with the dimensions of a private enclosure to a public façade, since, in these matters, the size and layout of the pieces matter a great deal. Or doing so without assessing, in so many cases, that the great loss of energy is produced in carpentry, glass and shutter boxes that are not replaced or in roofs that are not treated.

This deaf destruction of the city's building fabric, which is the common heritage of us all thanks to the bequest of some magnificent craftsmen of the so-called caravista brick, under the alibi of achieving an energy improvement, has already left some pitiful examples in the Segundo Ensanche and in the Barrio de San Juan. It also threatens to spread to the whole of the district without, theoretically, the town planning regulations or municipal byelaws being able to put a stop to such interventions, which are so much in demand due to the objectives of reducing energy consumption and which must necessarily be specific and appropriate to each architectural object that defines the fabric of the city of Pamplona.

For all these reasons, in addition to appealing to our own collective, asking us to use logic and not a recipe to be faithful to the art of construction, which has always meant a creative manipulation of cold technical systems or mere commercial prescriptions; it is important to point out to citizens that the façades of private buildings are also an element of common enjoyment for the citizens, an asset shared by all which, through the historical condition and the differential personality of the public space, identifies us and gives us signs of identity.

It is a shared inheritance whose safekeeping is the responsibility of the public authorities, especially the municipal technicians, who have more than enough criteria and preparation to demand a good response. Their responsibility is not to deny the improvement interventions, nor to paralyse the investment of European funds, but to demand that they are carried out with criteria of quality, not only material and technical, but also architectural, in the sense of plenary session of the Executive Council . Criteria that must take into account the scale and urban position of each building, the layout and rhythm of its full and empty spaces, the texture and composition of its constructive fabric, its colour, etc., the architectural values that make so many humble buildings in our urban landscape unique and, of course, all those that have acquired the status of unique buildings in the city.