Parasol Paraíso (Repsol filling stations, Spain and Portugal)

Long time readers of this blog will be aware of its interest in non-ugly, non-crap filling stations (or petrol stations, fuel stations, or gas stations, depending on which version of English you speak). I’ve been meaning to return to the subject for ages. After all, these are structures which generally detract from their surroundings. This is a shame firstly because there are a lot of filling stations in areas of high population densities, looming over the streets with their monolithic, under-designed canopies sitting there like the architectural equivalent of a black plastic bag caught in a tree. Meanwhile their associated buildings squat underneath, looking frankly embarrassed with themselves, as well they might. Secondly, this is a shame because we already know how to make filling stations attractive and additive to the quality of the street scene (see this earlier article), but we’ve forgotten how…or we just can’t be bothered any more. So it is that a visit to a filling station, which so many of us have to do so very often, is one of the most singularly depressing activities you can undertake.

All the foregoing is precisely why it gives me such intense joy to tell you that in Spain and Portugal, at least one oil company has remembered these forgotten things, and made its filling stations places that actually bring a little joy to users, rather than delivering a feeling of standing on the edge of a pit of architectural despair. Through simple but effective design and architecture, Spanish energy company Repsol has delivered filling stations that make you think, “You know, that filling station really doesn’t look too bad. In fact it looks… rather nice.” It shouldn’t be, but such a response is something approaching paradigm-destroying, and is well worth celebrating.

Repsol filling station. Photo by Repsol [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr album
Repsol filling station. Photo by Repsol [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr album

It was 1997 when Repsol decided that it wanted to overturn everything everyone thought they knew about the world of filling station non-design. To do this, it turned to architecture practice Foster+Partners. Repsol’s brief was to come up with a design which could be used at over 200 filling station sites it owned, and one which would allow it update its corporate identity as expressed at the roadside. Repsol’s filling station sites vary widely in size, locations and layout, so Foster+Partners came up with a clever modular solution, which somewhere deep in its ancestry links to Eliot Noyes’ 1960s Pegasus concept filling stations for Mobil.

Repsol filling station. Photo by Repsol [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr album
Repsol filling station. Photo by Repsol [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr album

Unlike Noyes’ circular parasols, Foster+Partners went for inverted squared-based pyramids, super-sleek and clad in glossy panels which hide all the fittings (bus interior designers take note), giving a very modern appearance. Each parasol is finished in either red, white or orange: the corporate colours of Repsol. Though the positioning of the parasols varies from site to site, Foster+Partners made the decision that one of the red parasols was always to be the tallest, bringing an element of visual order to the various installations. Lighting is built into the underside of the parasols, again beautifully finished, and a world away from the ugly cuboid boxes found under most filling station roofs. The glossy finish of the panels is particularly effective at night, as the parasols reflect the artificial lighting below against a backdrop of dark sky.

Repsol filling station at night. Photo by Repsol [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr album
Repsol filling station at night. Photo by Repsol [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr album

Under the parasols, the buildings, fuel pumps, car washes and even the signage, are all standard elements; cost-effective and easy to transport, simple, unfussy and elegant.

I’m not going to claim that Repsol has transformed its estate. It still has plenty of older-style, much less attractive filling stations on its books. But it has nevertheless revolutionised its visual identity with the large number of service stations it has built to Foster+Partners’ design.

Surprisingly (all right, not surprisingly) Repsol filling stations are dramatically under-photographed. Apart from the images on Repsol’s corporate Flickr album, it’s really hard to find photos of these filling stations. Luckily, Google Street View’s cars have been busy capturing them. You might find the following illustrations don’t work if you’re reading a text-only or email version of this article, in which case click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s website.

Back to the story. One of the things that is most satisfying about Foster+Partners’ design is that it complements a wide range of environments. Given the terrain and climatic variations within Spain and Portugal it was vital that the design didn’t work only in urban areas, or arid areas, but would look good everywhere it was used. Here, for instance, is a Repsol station on the outskirts of Barcelona, in the cooler (not by British standards, mind), wetter, greener north of Spain:

Meanwhile, this one is in Málaga, in the hot, dry south of the country:

Those two service stations were built in locations where plenty of space was available to lay out a filling station. But in the crowded heart of Spain’s capital Madrid, space is at a premium, and filling stations are squeezed into remarkably small spaces. Yet even here, the adaptability of Foster+Partners’ design means that a filling station which is pleasing and easily identifiable as belonging to Repsol can still be built:

With fewer parasols, pushed really close together, the design fits into an awkward, constrained site.

It’s easy to think of filling stations as mundane, prosaic structures; ones that blight their neighbourhoods rather than enhancing them. What Repsol and Foster+Partners have rather brilliantly demonstrated is that we only think of them that way because so rarely has anyone tried to make them anything different. Their project shows what can be done to make them as vibrant a part of the urban realm as any other well-designed building.

Further reading

Foster+Partners’ project page for the Repsol filling station design, here.

Repsol’s service stations webpage, here. There’s a nice section on the standardised signage mentioned briefly in the article above, here.

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