When this elegant brick building was erected in Palencia at the turn of the 19th century, it was to house petty criminals and serious offenders. No one could have guessed that more than a hundred years later, it would be a hub of learning and culture for the citizens of the small southwestern Spanish town.
Yet what was once Palencia Provincial Prison is now Palencia Civic Center, offering music lessons, meeting rooms, a library, and more. The Neo-Mudejar-style building was converted by EXIT Architects in 2011. Read on.
As the designers explain on their project page, the sturdy building lent itself to renovation. They stripped the building of everything but its load-bearing walls, replacing the roofs with zinc panelling, and infilled the open walls with transparent tiles. The four wings of the prison offered an organising shape, and the architects fills the resulting open spaces with new volumes.
Lighting the dim spaces, which were designed for security rather than natural light, proved a challege. "It is a project that respects the existing building," write the architects, "which is given a contemporary, lighter appearance, and where the natural light will play a key role." Hoping to preserve as much as the existing building as possible, they selected a type of semi-transparent louver to clad the new walls and ceilings. The centrepiece of the structure is its library, located in an old cell block and lit by massive circular skylights cut through the old building. Above, visitors can relax on the roofscape formed by the lights.
Spain is a budget-strapped country, and the EU is watching it closely as the situation in Greece develops. As such, its budget for cultural and public works projects has shrunk rapidly (though Zaha argues that's no excuse for austerity in architecture!). It's a fantastic precedent for a more and more common dilemma, as architects look to do more with less.