Orchid Educational Pavilion

Orchid Educational Pavilion

Architect
FGP Atelier
Location
Oaxaca, Mexico | View Map
Project Year
2018
Category
Pavilions
Rafael Gamo

Orchid Educational Pavilion

FGP Atelier as Architects

Context
The Orchid Pavilion is located in the heart of Oaxaca, Mexico within the walls of the Church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzman (constructed 1572-1666) – now the Botanical Gardens of Santo Domingo. The Pavilion sits within one of the most biologically diverse ecologies in the world and as part of an ensemble of cultural experiences. Beyond the physical site, the Pavilion is located in a part of Mexico with a unique building tradition, labor force, and construction expertise that would be integrated into the design. The project was funded by a mix of public and private support and, as a result, required a phased design approach.

 

The project also sits within the context of FGP’s broader body of work that had been primarily focused on large-scale transportation, urban, residential, retail, and commercial projects. The design of the Educational Pavilion gave Francisco an opportunity to work on a very intimate scale with an intense attention to detail. It was also the first time that he had built a project in Mexico since leaving his own country to pursue a master’s at the Harvard GSD in 1998. Designing the Pavilion offered a chance to synthesize many of the ideas expressed in his larger-scale work. The Orchid Pavilion was completed at a time when Francisco founded FGP Atelier and, as such, marks a point of departure and thesis statement for the work that he hopes to accomplish in the coming decades.

 

Objectives and Performance
The Orchid Pavilion is conceived as a contemporary cultural building in contrast with its historic context around the idea of minimum use of resources and minimum environmental impact. It is a self-sustaining “machine” for harvesting. The idea of total transparency was critical in the design. The flooring planks for the staircase and the viewing platform are an open grid to allow light and views from all directions into the chambers. Its design is based on five elements: the west chamber (hot chamber), the east chamber (cool chamber), the central staircase (which collects rainfall), the viewing platform, and the ‘invisible systems’ (geothermal, evaporative cooling and power). The east and west chambers are rectangular glass boxes oriented on the north-south axis to provoke natural cross ventilation. They are located on either side of the central staircase and designed to run on very different thermal criteria. The conditioning is provided through a geothermal system that injects cold air into the chambers from the underground soil via one turbine that is powered by solar panels (which are located 100 meters away in the roof of the complex’s administrative building). The central staircase brings the visitors through the chambers up to the viewing platform from where stunning views into the church and the botanical gardens can be experienced an opportunity as well to contemplate the curated plant content from an elevated perspective. Underneath the staircase rainfall is collected and stored into the complex’s main well to be used by the evaporative cooling system that supports the cooling and irrigation systems. In addition, the majority of the building has been crafted, manufactured and assembled on site. Finally, Francisco invited his longtime friends Werner Sobek and Matthias Schuler to make the structure as light-weight and sustainable by design as possible.

 

We specifically aimed for the following goals:
1-Zero Energy Consumption
2-Zero Water Consumption
3-Zero Waste

 

The Greenhouse does not use any power from the city grid to run the fans (for Air Pipe System) and the sprayers (for evaporative Cooling). The electricity that is required is generated via PV panels that are mounted on the roof of the main administration building. Due to the sensitivity of the Orchids, no artificial lighting is required for neither day and night conditions, reducing further the energy demand. The buried air pipe system uses two Fans (main and back up) to pull outdoor air through a single intake cavity located in the east wall of the site’s northeast boundary (where the ambient temperature is the lowest throughout the year). The Air is then circulated through the buried air pipe network which is approximately 132 meters in length and wraps around the Greenhouse 10 meters below grade.

 

The evaporative cooling system of Overhead Sprayers mounted at the nodes of the roof structure create humidity for conditioning and harvesting. The Viewing Platform in the perimeter of the pavilion provides partial overhead shading and cross ventilation. It is constructed with a tight steel grating that provides partial passive shading to the interior of the chambers. Flaps located in the North and south elevations and the Roof, limit greenhouse temperature to go above ambient conditions; but never below; this is where the performance of the Buried Air pipe System and the Evaporative Cooling is critical to maintain the Chambers within expected ranges below 26 degrees centigrade and 70% humidity. The use of the above strategies eliminates the need of HVAC equipment which is not only costly but inefficient.

 

Technology and Aesthetics
The Pavilion provides a unique experience within the Botanical Gardens through its materiality, transparency, and the way that it frames the garden and the city. It is a reflection of the fragility of Life on Earth. As an entirely self-sustaining ecosystem, it challenges visitors to consider how they might live in a more sustainable manner as well as to reflect on what is required to sustain the life of a delicate orchid and that might be required to sustain our own delicate existence over the coming century. This bespoke tailoring of an architectural object and the atmosphere it supports is a mission that runs throughout FGP’s work. In particular, these projects pick up on the themes of transparency and free integration with a context, using layered building skins to mediate between the interior and context, using geometry and material to challenge the capacity of the architectural object, creating a dialogue between classical platonic form through materiality and digital design tools, creating atmospheres supported by sophisticated hidden sustainable systems, using transparency to explore privacy and publicity, and the way that these components can be integrated at the level of the cell. The result are buildings and urban plans that express greater freedom and sustainability in order to help the inhabitant live a more productive and creative life. The Pavilion, in particular, marks a shift from a strictly formal approach to dwelling relying on rigid fixed geometries that can be deployed to any site around the world to an ecological approach that does not merely optimize energy performance or integrate the architectural object into a broader system, but manifests the ecology in an architectural language defining materiality, tectonics, and hierarchy of systems, spaces, programs. In doing so, it becomes an integrated whole.

 

The Following is an excerpt of Sam Thorne’s article on Frieze Magazine published on March 11th of 2016, on his visit to the Pavilion.

 

When I visited in December, I was shown around by the gardens’ founding director, Dr Alejandro de Ávila Blomberg, a botanist and anthropologist – as well as curator of the nearby textile museum – with a poet’s turn of phrase. (Explaining that one tree was covered with ferocious spikes to ward off long-extinct megafauna, I heard him murmur: ‘It’s protecting itself from ghosts.’) De Ávila Blomberg wanted to show me the gardens’ newest addition, some 12 years in the making: a sleek greenhouse that looks like a hybrid of Renzo Piano’s glass pavilions and Archigram’s 1960s proposals for walking cities. Designed pro bono by Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido, this is the Chicago-based architect’s first building in his native Mexico. The pavilion is defined, more than anything, by light and lightness. The small amount of energy it needs is provided by solar panels, while modular units mean that the structure can be extended, dismantled or moved entirely. The pavilion’s architect calls it a ‘machine for growing orchids.

 

It is also something of a blueprint for the museum of the future. How can you combine environmental sustainability with structural flexibility? How to balance usability and aesthetics? How to modulate light levels, humidity and temperature while, at the same time, planning for a future that cannot be known? Set within this museum-like garden, Gonzalez-Pulido’s light-footed pavilion offers several propositions to the questions that the next generation of museum planners will have to answer. A garden in the high valleys of Mexico may seem an unlikely place for such provocative thinking but, as Ian Hamilton Finlay once remarked: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.’

 

Text by the Client
Anthropologist and Biologist Alejandro de Ávila B.

Hormones and global warming explained in a greenhouse

Part of the research that led to the birth control pill we use today was conducted in Mexico City in 1951. A team of European and Mexican chemists worked together to convert diosgenin, a steroid compound extracted from plants, into progesterone, one of the hormones that regulate reproductive cycles in humans and other vertebrates. The researchers relied on a wild inedible yam (Dioscorea composita) as their source of diosgenin. That plant, called barbasco in Spanish, is used traditionally in southern Mexico to catch fish: its heavy tubers are mashed up in streams that have been dammed to slow down the flow. The sap of the yam dissolves in the water, where some of the chemicals it contains are taken up by the fish through the gills. Stunned and unable to breathe properly, since the sap alters the surface tension of water which makes oxygen less available, the fish float to the top and are easy to catch. Their flesh, furthermore, is safe to eat without the need for treatment of any kind.

 

Diosgenin is part of a group of compounds called saponins, which share a common structure and make water soapy. In fact, a sister species of barbasco that grows in Asia is used as a detergent to wash wool and silk in the Himalayas, where it is also utilized as a fish poison. In addition, it serves to treat rheumatism, dysentery and colic. Similarly, the Chinantec people of Oaxaca use Dioscorea composita as a remedy for aching joints. Once Searle and other drug companies began to market the contraceptive pill in 1960, based on the research that had been done in Mexico City a few years earlier, the Chinantec communities and neighboring indigenous peoples became the providers for most of the diosgenin needed by the international pharmaceutical industry, thanks to barbasco. The plant grows most abundantly in fallowed slash and burn maize fields on communally owned lands in the moist tropical mountain slopes of northern Oaxaca. Year after year, indigenous suppliers were able to meet the steep growth in global demand for the wild yam because of the ecological largesse of their traditional agricultural practices. It is clear in this case how a subsistence economy, rooted in the shared cultural values that make feasible a collective tenure of resources, subsidized the big drug companies heavily by providing them with a vital substance at dirt cheap prices. Unknown and uncredited to them, the Chinantec people had a major impact thereby on global population dynamics for over a decade.

 

Saponins in general, and diosgenin in particular, remain the most widely used compounds obtained from plants for human health to this day. Mexico continues to be a major source of these raw materials for the chemical industry, along with China. In addition to fertility control, drugs synthesized from diosgenin are crucial in the treatment of infections, allergies, cancerous tumors, cardiovascular pathologies, diabetes, obesity, and AIDS, among other ailments. The world market value of the steroids derived from plants was estimated to surpass 20 billion dollars per year in the early 1990s. At that time, diosgenin was priced at close to $2 dollars a gram. The monetary value of steroids has multiplied since then, with a rising global population and increased access to Western medicine. Beyond its financial significance, we would argue that no other species gathered from the wild has had such drastic effect in shaping contemporary society as Oaxacan barbasco: think of the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s and 1970s, enabled by the pill…

 

When we planned the construction of a greenhouse in our ethnobotanical garden in Oaxaca, growing Dioscorea composita weighed heavily on our mind, as we felt it would be a cogent example to educate the public about the transcendence of indigenous plant knowledge. And it was not the only species we were eager to plant in the greenhouse. The weather outdoors is warm year round in our city, but very dry during six to eight months, often with no rain whatsoever in the fall, winter and spring. Plants from the cloud forests and tropical rain forests of our state, which boasts the wettest areas in Mexico, would wilt rapidly in the dry atmosphere of the city. The moisture in the greenhouse is provided by nebulizers, which are supplied by the largest rain-fed cistern built in the region so far, a project that had been completed in our garden ten years before we started working on the steel and glass structure designed by Francisco González Pulido.

 

The frequent release of mist in the greenhouse now allows us to cultivate cacao, the “chocolate bean” that was introduced into Mexico from South America two or three thousand years before the European invasion. Indigenous horticulturalists adapted this tree crop to the local climates and soils, breeding distinctive varieties found nowhere else. There are at least sixteen different maize and cacao beverages prepared traditionally in Oaxaca, highly regarded drinks which mark the social and religious life of cities and rural communities throughout the state. Unlike South America, where the sweet juicy flesh of the fruit is the main food gained from this plant, the native peoples of Mexico and Guatemala realized that the seeds could be fermented, toasted and ground into a delectable confection, to which the entire world has become addicted.

 

The high humidity in our greenhouse also allows us to cultivate vanilla, a native vine that yields the most popular flavor in the world today. It is harvested in large quantities in Madagascar, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, countries where it was introduced from Mexico. In terms of revenue, pure vanilla is now more expensive in weight than silver, and ranks second only to saffron among the costliest spices. Colleagues from UNAM, our national university, have uncovered genetic and ecological evidence which suggests that vanilla was initially grown and domesticated in the moist forests of southern Mexico. Again, it was the indigenous peoples of this region who figured out how to cure and ferment the seed pods of the vine in order to develop the fragrance, which does not arise spontaneously in the wild. Chocolate and vanilla go together: in ancient times, the cured pods were used primarily to enrich the flavor of maize and cacao beverages.

 

Food and medicine are not the only fields of interest for us, in selecting the species we can now cultivate within the glass walls. Epiphytes (plants that grow on the branches of trees) figure prominently in our list. These include orchids, bromeliads (members of the pineapple family), several ferns, club mosses, relatives of black pepper and even some cacti. Several of these plants are used traditionally in Oaxaca to decorate churches and home altars during Christmas and Holy Week. Their massive extraction from the wild threatens to bring some species close to extinction. Our new greenhouse aims to educate our local public about the loss of plant diversity through customs that cannot be sustained in a city that has grown from 50,000 to over half a million people in just a few decades.

 

Orchids, in particular, are gathered for sale in our city because of their beautifully shaped and colored blossoms, often paired with a heady aroma. Visual and olfactory appeal were designed, so to speak, by natural selection in order to attract animals. In 1862, only three years after publishing “On the origin of species,” Charles Darwin wrote a book about the coevolution of orchids and their insect pollinators. As we lead students and tourists into the greenhouse, we do not shy away from evolutionary thinking. Quite the contrary: we take a strong stance against creationism, trying to convey in plain language the basics of descent with modification, Darwin’s prime notion. Closely related species look alike at first glance, a resemblance inherited from their shared ancestor, yet their flowers often differ in tandem with their pollinators. By cultivating those showy epiphytes in our garden, where some are visited by butterflies, others by moths, and yet others by little bees of metallic green color, we aim to make vivid a lesson in natural history for schoolchildren, particularly.

 

The most eloquent message within the glass panels is not primarily about plants, however. Visitors who step inside the tropical chamber are struck immediately by the smothering warmth, while we point out to them that there is no heating device in operation here. The high temperatures are simply the result of the sun’s radiation flowing in easily, but not exiting the glass at a comparable rate, in the same way that the carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide we spew out into the atmosphere are trapping solar energy and warming our planet. As we walk around the greenhouse with our visitors, we have no qualms about sharing our conviction that humanity is just as likely to become extinct as some of our Oaxacan Christmas orchids, if we cannot overcome our global addiction to fossil fuels.

 

In the temperate chamber of the greenhouse, we have installed pipes that bring in air which has been cooled down, simply by pumping it for a long stretch at a depth of two meters below ground. Visitors walking into the temperate compartment invariably comment on the pleasant breeze, after experiencing the oppressive heat of the tropical chamber. The effect is called geothermal cooling, and we try to explain to our audience how we could all be using this simple technology to keep comfortable temperatures indoors in our schools, our hospitals, and our homes in cities and rural communities all over the world, rather than waste energy in expensive air conditioning systems. Most visitors nod in consent, and that is the moment to deliver the punchline: we are doomed if we do not go green. For what is the point of building a greenhouse if the whole planet turns into a sauna?

 

Material Used :
1. Saint Gobain / Glass
2. Aceros de Monterrey / Steel
3. Aluvisa / Hardware
4. Cemex / Concrete

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