City as Landscape

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #27]


Is the pleasure of architecture intellectual or sensual? Of the mind or of the body? This theoretical debate, which is currently raging between the parametric-blobo-diagrammatic-conceptualists and the mythopoetic-tectonic-perceptual- phenomenologists has been going on for some time now, and who knows when, if ever, the two sides will settle their differences. While this debate is essentially academic and therefore largely irrelevant, it nevertheless reflects a more general sign of the times: we seem to be living once again in an irreconcilably divided world of binary oppositions in which the ideological middle ground of moderation is going the way of the modern middle class, which is to say slowly disappearing. Extremism, the new world order, is increasingly served up in copious quantities everywhere, from the global blogosphere to local-yocal tea parties. It’s a polarized world out there, and you don’t want to be caught in the middle of it.

Peter Eisenman is no stranger to polemics. He is among the most outspoken figures in architecture, a field with its fair share of charismatic personalities spewing provocative sound bites for the mass media. Throughout his career, Eisenman’s designs, teachings and writings have transgressed established norms in order to test the theoretical limits of architecture, asking the question: what is architecture really about and whom is it really for? The way he sees it, architecture is more of an autonomous ‘art’, one that must be vehemently defended against the broader (mis)understanding of architecture as a ‘service’ in which the client is always right. For him, formal investigations, especially geometric operations, should take precedence over functional imperatives in the architectural design process. To drive the point home, his House VI, for example, built for Robert and Suzanne Frank in Connecticut in 1975, has a column skewering the dining table so that diners are separated from one another, while a slot in the floor, walls and roof of the bedroom forces the Franks to sleep in separate beds, apparently against their wishes. Essentially, Eisenman’s credo comes down to ‘architecture for the sake of architecture’; clients and users be damned. A fundamentalist position if ever there was one.

It is noteworthy that Eisenman should receive his largest, most ambitious commission in Spain, a country whose history is still the subject of passionate debate, and that the instigator behind the City of Culture should happen to be Senator Manuel Fraga, the recent premier of Galicia. Fraga is known for having coined, in the 1960s, the highly successful advertising campaign slogan ‘Spain is different!’ while serving as Minister of Information and Tourism in the Franco regime. While the pharaonic City of Culture is ostensibly intended to make Galicia a hotspot on the world cultural-tourism circuit, thereby granting it greater presence on the international stage, it’s hard not to also see it as being in the ‘service’ of redeeming the legacy of a veteran politician, not unlike a French grand projet. All architecture is political, and Spain is not that different in this respect.

The Cidade da Cultura de Galicia, as it is referred to in the regional language, overlooks the beautiful city of Santiago de Compostela – the third most important Christian pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome – from the top of a verdant hill, Monte Gaiás. Situated at the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, Galicia was believed in ancient times to be finisterre, or the world’s end, and its landscape is not the placid Mediterranean postcard image most people have of Spain. It is one of the stormiest and rainiest regions of Europe, an area so rocky and green that it comes closer to resembling Ireland than anyplace else. Galicia’s terrain is rich in granite, and everything from Santiago’s cathedral to traditional farmhouses and granaries is built of massive pieces of stone, which in the cool and humid climate develop a layer of bright orange lichen on the surface.

The design of the Cidade is generated by Eisenman’s trademark technique of superimposing several found grids, in this case principally a map of the historical centre of Santiago and a diagram of a scallop shell – the historical symbol of the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route. The idea behind this diagrammatic crossbreeding process is to conflate the traditional hierarchy of figure-ground urbanism, causing figure to become ground and vice versa. The built outcome, which must surely have involved a lot more sculpting and styling than the rhetoric of the process would have us believe, is a series of parallel, sinuous buildings under a single warping roof plane referencing the hilly topography of Galicia. Incisions in this artificial topography become the City of Culture’s streets and public spaces, making the buildings appear to be the result of a series of ‘artificial excavations’ rather than structures built from the ground up, which is of course how the construction process is proceeding in reality.

The first buildings of the Cidade to be completed at this stage of the project – after a decade in which the cost tripled – are an archive of 14,000 m2 and a library of 26,000 m2. These will be accompanied in the coming years by a museum, a centre for music and performing arts, an international art centre, and a central services building containing conference facilities and administrative offices. All buildings are linked below ground – the ‘real’ ground, that is – by a service tunnel navigable by large transportation vehicles, while a four-lane motorway adjacent to the Cidade is expected to be equipped with off-ramps for direct vehicular access.

The topographic roofscape of the Cidade recalls other canonical works, such as the Yokohama Port Terminal by Foreign Office Architects, that also eschew ‘object’ buildings in favour of ‘topographic’ ones. Such a landscape strategy is, of course, politically expedient at a time when brick, mortar and asphalt are replacing nature at an alarming rate, and goes some distance to explain why landscape, nature and all things green have become the latest models for architects to emulate. Interestingly, the landscape metaphor is carried through in the interiors of the Cidade as well, with their smoothly flowing walls and floors and bright, airy spaces. Generous pochés as well as interstitial spaces ‘fill’ the gaps between programmed volumes and building shell, providing some unexpected views and impromptu gathering places. The library is exemplary: even though it is contained in a cavernous hall, intimate reading nooks are created by means of C-shaped bookshelves whose tops conform to an undulating plane similar to that of the Cidade’s roofscape.

The superimposed grids that guided the design process are reflected in the spatial organization as well as on the surfaces, both inside and outside, through variations in the types of stone, glass, metal and other materials selected for the project, resulting in some surprising tectonic showmanship for an architect as conceptual as Eisenman. In this regard, the Cidade marks a significant turn in the architect’s career, a turn towards materiality and fine detailing. What we have here is something that amounts to much more than a full-scale model of a diagram: Cidade is a synthesis of rigour and sensuality.

All extremisms do have one thing in common: they are inevitably about denying something to someone. The Cidade is really not so extreme, precisely because it allows its architecture to be enjoyed in multiple ways.


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