To congress by definition means a formal meeting and discussion between a group of people. Therefore, buildings that host this kind of activity are required to provide: large-span spaces, good access and circulation both within and the urban context.
Even if these requirements are successfully met, congresses cannot avoid the problem of ‘flexibility’. Assembly and gathering of people demand constant transformation and mobility, especially since no convention is the same. As stated by Rem Koolhaas: ‘Flexibility is not the exhaustive anticipation of all possible changes [… it] is the creation of margin – excess capacity that enables different and even opposite interpretations and uses’ (S,M,L, XL).
To find the traditional meaning for congress, we can first look at its synonyms and trace the origin of congress to ‘conference’. The older root of ‘conference’ however is ‘convention’, and its origin comes from the Latin word convenire. The root of to ‘convene’ are found in the word ‘convent’, and there we can find a first reference to a building. Although we can link convents and congresses, we could look further back and will find its non- sacred precedent. In fact, convents come from the idea of ‘assembly’ and ultimately from the Roman Assembly, which was embodied in the comitium. A building defined by a simple open-air space formed by a circular auditorium.
If we generalise, congresses have always been places for different kinds of meetings with the aim to share knowledge, discuss current issues or show new discoveries. And because of this multitude of actions and exchanges that take place in them, congress halls must be flexible enough to frame them. Congress halls, then, are the paradigm of flexible and multi-purpose spaces.
In addition to that, the potential to room big multitudes turns congress centres into building of a unique scale, not only to the city, because one is usually enough, but also to the surrounding they generate. In some cases, they take a passive attitude and become part of an existing cloister, in other cases; they propel new initiatives and set up a new urban condition around them.
Four Case Studies
a. Congress Centre, Venice – Louis I. Kahn (1972)
b. Palazzo delle Poste, Rome – Adalberto Libera (1938-1954)
c. Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Luzern – Jean Nouvel (1995-2000)
d. Congrexpo, Lille – OMA (1994
Hierarchy and Layering
Facts and Evidence
The comparison of five case studies, side by side, determines some common facts. The disposition of the main elements consistently occurs as equal pieces that can be exchanged in linear combinations. Thus the common scheme of disposition is along a linear axis. New congress centres are rarely arranged around a central courtyard, however, there are some historical examples, which resulted from the conversion of existing buildings, such as schools, convents, palaces or trade centres.
The main programme of the building is defined by three particular elements: the foyer, the auditorium, and the open hall. These three are articulated by the addition of particularities or transformation of some components. The most distinct element, and at the same time the least specific, is the space for exhibition. As shown in the time-line, the amount of flexible (or generic) space has increased over the last thirty years, up to a point at which it represents more than 50% of the total surface area of the building. At this moment, the typology becomes ambiguous and arguably turns into a large-span shelter.
The location of the building has eventually changed from that in the city centre to the outskirts, an outcome of the increasing demand for space and increase in land value. The fact that new congress centres can be developed in the periphery of the city has increased its character of a space that is only temporarily used for events, as there is less pressure for its constant use. In addition, the facilities associated with these events, such as food, sanitary supply, etc. are no longer present in the vicinity of the building as they are only temporarily provided. So, therefore congress centres no longer require an urban condition except from an infrastructure to which it connects. These congress centres do not participate in the urban, in fact, have no relation to the outside.
Spaces of Discontinuity
Congress centres are spaces for the people to assemble. Their potential is on of density and by definition of an urban condition of centrality. This potential of encounter between people is an opportunity to address some spatial shortages of the city. Therefore, congress centres could be used as an element of spatial articulation and organisation of the city, instead of becoming accessory to it. The presence of large-scale entities, not necessarily of big size, within the discontinuities of the urban fabric could be an interesting challenge to test some of the lacks and excesses of the city.