Waste Not

“Hey, Mom, let’s go visit the recycling center!” It sounds like either a TV nerd skit or a line from an urban-utopia thesis, but since June the Biomethanation and Composting Plant in Pinto, an industrial suburb of Madrid, has combined modern waste treatment with a sort of living museum that acquaints Spanish students with its inner workings.

Designing city dumps isn’t exactly the glamorous stuff of architectural dreams. But in its work on the Pinto facility (as well as the Valdemingomez Recycling Plant, completed in 1997), the Madrid firm Abalos & Herreros has taken the opportunity to get down and dirty with their high-concept approach to blending the natural and the artificial. Along the way they’ve also helped create a fairly revolutionary approach to waste disposal and recycling by literally exposing the inner workings of those processes to the general public.

Everything about the Pinto plant screams sustainability. Like any modern treatment facility, it will vastly accelerate the conversion of trash into methane and garden compost for the community. The methane generates electricity that will in turn power towns in the area, with any excess sold to the private sector for a modest state profit.

The plant’s most striking distinctions, however, are physical. Although located remotely—next to a 30-year-old trash heap—the soft-white building facade is strangely inviting. This place is a dump, you think, but the tone is impressed instead of repulsed. As with any A&H project, the Pinto structure is dominated by polycarbonate, a material architect Inaki Abalos likes because it’s cheap, saves money on lighting costs, and is extremely flexible. “We deal with the idea that nature and artifice have changed positions,” he explains. “So it is a hybrid material that produces a symbolic representation of our society. It has technical figurative meaning.” Similarly aluminum and wood used elsewhere in the facility are not only recycled but recyclable, making the structure’s materials 100 percent renewable.

Inside, the second-floor vestibule contains models, charts, and interactive exhibits detailing the plant’s technical mechanisms, with views of the old landfill to the left and the garbage-truck drop-off below to the right. The multitiered roof stretches out in back, each level covered in a material that mimics the surrounding landscape of dry plains, from red clay and gravel to crabgrass and even water. Abalos calls the roof a “deconstruction of the local palette,” which was inspired by a group of 1920s Spanish artists known as the Escuela de Vallecas.

From there the belly of the beast literally opens up to visitors, who tour the heavy machinery from a series of elevated walkways modeled (oddly but aptly) on med-school operating theaters. From the trash-grabbing pulpos (Spanish for octopuses), past the massive rotating turbine filters, all the way up to the pine-scented exhaust filters and the methane tanks adorned with jovial “Space Invaders”—style icons, biomethanation has never been so funky. “It’s like a huge toy,” Abalos says.

Beyond their design innovation, the Pinto and Valdemingomez projects have also emerged as an unexpected boon to Madrid politicians, who have turned the potentially messy issue of garbage into a populist money-saving benefit for the city. They’ve also helped Spain to attain recycling and pollution levels mandated by the EU. “Since Valdemingomez,” Abalos says, “almost every recycling plant in Spain has become a kind of public institution.”

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