El Despertar
Curated by José Esparza Chong Cuy
La Casa Encendida, Madrid
28th February 2020 – 10th January 2021


Like a strange dream that seems to go on forever, The Awakening reanimates a building whose life appears to have expired long ago. Through an immersive installation comprised of fragments that make up the body of a building, a forgotten edifice is reactivated to provoke speculative thought about its past and future. In this exhibition in one scene, artist Alvaro Urbano (Madrid, 1983) uses as a case study the celebrated Hexagon Pavilion, designed by architects José Antonio Corrales and Ramón Vázquez Molezún. The building, now languishing in a ruinous state in Madrid’s Casa de Campo park, was first presented as the Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and is considered an important example of modern Spanish architecture. After years of abandonment, it is hard to believe what it once was and what it contained. Here—where the architecture and vegetation seem to be frozen in time, where the building itself holds a pictorial and sonic landscape that speaks of the past experiences lived within its walls, and where a pair of raccoons intermittently dwells—an endless twilight bathes the space in color and brings it to life. Like an unscripted film that captures daily existence, The Awakening constructs a parallel life for an exhausted building in order to revive seemingly dormant histories.


The year is 1958 and the city is Brussels. It’s the first World’s Fair to be held after World War II. At this international gathering, the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs are celebrated under the slogan “A world for a better life for mankind.” The highlights of Expo 58 include the Atomium by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, which resembles a gigantic iron crystal; and the Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier in collaboration with Iannis Xenakis, which resounds the music of Edgar Varèse’s Poème électronique. Spain, though still a dictatorship, sends a proposal with an avant-garde architectural language: a prefabricated construction system that adapts to the terrain and can expand or shrink as needed. Known as the Hexagon Pavilion, the building’s structure, designed by architects José Antonio Corrales and Ramón Vázquez Molezún, can be dismantled (as specified in the open call for ideas issued by Spain’s Interministerial Committee). Several ideas about what to present inside its walls are rejected, including proposals to leave it as an empty building or to showcase a conceptual exhibition featuring only Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of neurons, a bullfighter’s cape, and an orange. The Hexagon Pavilion’s unique architecture wins the Gold Medal at Expo 58. After being presented in Brussels it is moved to the Casa de Campo park in Madrid. During its first years there, it houses the Ministry of Agriculture, and from 1967-1975 it serves as the headquarters of the Commission for the Agricultural Fair. Afterward, like other structures in that section of the Casa de Campo, the famous Hexagon Pavilion is abandoned and sinks into a ruinous state.


Note on the setting: A bright twilight fills the scene with a mustard-colored hue, a mixture of yellow and green with a hint of blue. A heavy, persistent fog hovers close to the floor and slowly rises, making it hard to see far away. The atmosphere is mysterious and almost gloomy. The feeling it inspires is closer to a contemplative state of mind than to the notion of a specific time of day. 

The scene opens with a group of hexagonal umbrellas sprouting from the ground. We are inside the Hexagon Pavilion, the brainchild of architects Corrales and Vázquez Molezún. Its canopies emit a light that is constantly moving and seems to breathe. Soon, the camera lens pans, and its angle gently widens. It becomes clear that this place is not the renowned pavilion, but rather an abstraction of it.


The Body of a Building


The Awakening is not a film, but rather an exercise in reanimating a building that was once inhabited, abstractly bringing to life the stories it contains. Both in its actual form and in the cinematographic representation within this exhibition, its various elements—the columns, the brick walls, the stairs, and the spaces they create, such as corridors and squares—shape the body of its architecture. This almost-ghostly apparition of the pavilion shows that a building’s body is more than the sum of its constructive materials. The stories it holds—stories about how and when it was designed and built, as well as the bodies that experienced it—also give it form and substance.

Alvaro Urbano’s work focuses on the material culture of the built environment we inhabit in order to highlight the stories it contains. Driven by his interest in fiction and narrative, Urbano’s work is always alive, like props for a film or an everyday scene. Even in the smallest details he creates, such as metal sculptures of cigarette butts and seemingly dry flowers, Urbano always attempts to describe a scene that has already happened. Although the spectators always seem to arrive too late and miss the action, they can still speculate and reconstruct the event.

Animism, which proposes that material objects have a conscious life and soul, is a recurring element in Alvaro Urbano’s practice. Playing with fiction and making use of humor, his sculptures and installations tend to imitate the theatricality of urban life, which often seems absurd and monotonous. (…)

The Awakening proposes an experiment in order to tell a story in an open, speculative way. It abstractly highlights events that are part of a building’s history in order to interpret them at another moment in time. This new way of experiencing forgotten spaces proposed by Urbano opens the door to new readings of the past, present, and future.

The Hexagon Pavilion has undoubtedly had a checkered history with highs and lows, from its celebrated unveiling in Brussels to its complicated relationship with Franco’s Feria del Campo [Agricultural Fair] project in Madrid. As it now stands, abandoned and derelict in the Casa de Campo, a dream version of the pavilion is awakening.

Texts by José Esparza Chong Cuy

All photos by Trevor Lloyd