The competition launched by the Autonomous Spanish Region of Galicia in 1999 marked the beginning of the Galician Cultural Centre. Peter Eisenman was chosen from among many international contestants. The brief was for a complex that would embody and present Galicia’s cultural heritage - its book production, archives, arts and theatre - and feature a museum and new technologies centre.
With this huge construction project, the regional government has undertaken a vast promotion programme of Galicia’s past and present identity. The competition set clear political objectives: the new complex should showcase the close connection between culture and architecture and how ancient architectural forms may be passed on to the temples of today: museums and libraries. The area set aside - Mount Gaiás in front of Santiago de Compostela with spectacular views of the medieval town and its cathedral - is a fitting scenario for such lofty ambitions.
The complex now taking shape is a shrine to contemporary living, a modern architectural and conceptual acropolis. The multi-year programme is on an unabashedly grand scale. All programmes respond more or less explicitly to the City of Culture’s underlying objective of asserting the region’s contemporary relevance.
Peter Eisenman has created a central urban core from which the whole complex develops: a “street” plan or modern Cartesian grid to which the buildings conform. This is matched by an overall architectural design of compositional and structural nodes that intersect and interweave to form interior spaces and elevations. The complexity created by a series of super-positions is rendered even more visible by sudden fractures, pointed elements, pillars and columns.
Eisenman takes his cue from the local topography. Architecture and landscape mutually intertwine to form a series of rippling hill-like projections rising from the land redolent with historic and symbolic references. The place is a new destination on the ancient St James’ Way for the millions of faithful who each year make the trek to Santiago de Compostela and the medieval Finis Terrae at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the undulating folds of the buildings simulate the rolling hills all around, so the broad internal thoroughfares hark back to the historic old town across the valley. The scallop shell-shaped parking concourse recalls the symbol of the saint of all pilgrims.
The project under construction continues to evolve, however, as successive Galician governments, although unswervingly committed to the goal of representing Galicia’s historic heritage, make adjustments to the complex.
In January 2011, the Library (15,702 sq m) was inaugurated along with the 11,225 sq m Archive, marking the first step on the way to completion. The second important step will be in September 2011 with the opening of the Museum of Galicia (20,734 sq m).
The project has now progressed from the stage of masterplan for future implementation to finished, accessible constructions. The whole project is itself almost like a journey, its sights set on the creation of a modern place of pilgrimage.
Eisenman’s awesome project comprises a mix of buildings under sweeping undulating roofs resembling the surrounding countryside. It doesn’t matter if the visitor fails to perceive immediately the way each building fits into an overall grid. Although intriguingly distorted, the underlying pattern is fairly clearly marked out by imposing reinforced concrete pillars - their bases serving also as conduits for plant and equipment - and by slender columns. What matters most is the quality of the spaces. In character they are almost bi-polar: both monumental yet intimately welcoming.
By super-posing spaces, Eisenman causes swift changes in rhythm. Glazed curtain wall elevations correspond to vast interiors worthy of a Gothic cathedral. The soaring heights - the tallest building, the Library, has six storeys - rear up proudly to face each other. Massive pillars on a 16x20 m grid support the roof. Rows of smaller columns on an 8x8 m grid mark out environments and corridors, bringing the construction down to a more recognisable dimension. Magniloquence sits alongside intimacy. The horizontal sweep of circulation pathways is abruptly broken by shear vertical façades to form a complex geometry. The result is a series of unexpected perspectives, keeping the visitor’s attention always alert. Galleries and corridors mark out spaces at differing levels. The many viewpoints from above and below lend a stage-like quality. Yet these strikingly dynamic spaces are nonetheless all functionally pertinent.
Inside, finishes are uniform throughout: walls and false ceilings are white; the travertine stone flooring is intersected by long strips of small marble slabs highlighting the underlying grid formation. The uniformly light colour of the walls reflects the daylight streaming in from the huge glazed windows. In the Library, the different coloured books lining the open reference and storage shelves stand out against the muted background, creating pockets of colour in a series of more enclosed environments created by rounded, custom-designed furniture. Different sized reading rooms are equipped with elongated diamond-shaped tables. Bookshelves with oblique-shaped mouldings have been arrayed so as to create more secluded reference and study areas. The imposing height of the central hall creates a sequence of contrasting perspectives at different levels.
On the exterior, stone - the traditional building material in Galicia - has been used for both paving and wall cladding, as a continuum. Granite of varying hues with marble inserts surrounds the glazed lights. A combination of rough-finish and polished slabs reflects the light differently. They alternate in a carefully studied sequence aimed to create the sensation of a variegated yet harmonious urban setting. A wide thoroughfare flanked on both sides by high-ceilinged porticos courses between the parallel volumes of the Library and the smaller Archive building. It is a transitional space moving from an outdoor “urban” setting to the interior, glimpses of which are to be had through the glazed walls.
The whole complex is part of a single organised whole thanks also to an underground road for pedestrians and vehicle traffic. This fair-face concrete sub-level highroad is an architectural entity in its own right. Although not open to the public, it will be a key unifying feature of the entire “City” to come.