Ill-Fitting: The Balenciaga Museum

[a shorter version of this text was originally published in Disegno #1]

The Balenciaga Museum: a refurbished 19th-century palace onto which a vast curvilinear glass shed has been added.

Fashion, Architecture, Politics: Image is Everything

The inauguration of a cultural institution is normally a cause for widespread celebration; even more if it is the opening of the world’s first museum dedicated entirely to one couturier. But the long anticipated inauguration in 2011 of the Museum dedicated to Cristóbal Balenciaga in his birthplace of Getaria, a small fishing town in Spain’s Basque Country, must have been somewhat awkward, to say the least. The occasion, as reported in national media, was attended by Queen Sofía of Spain, local and national politicians, and dignitaries and luminaries from the international fashion world, for whom the celebrated Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak created a special six-course gastronomical menu inspired by Balenciaga’s creations. But there were nevertheless two very conspicuous absences at the inauguration: the former mayor of Getaria who spearheaded the project, Mariano Camio, and the architect who gave it its overall built form, Julián Argilagos. They were probably not invited because of the criminal charges they were facing in relation to the project. In 2007, when the building was semi-complete, a scandal broke out triggered by the apparent theft of some handkerchiefs and other pieces from the museum’s collection. More revelations soon followed: serious irregularities in the awarding of contracts, embezzlement of public money, huge cost overruns, and an unlicensed architect (who was also rumored to be the mayor’s lover). The scandal amounted to terrible publicity for a museum dedicated to a legendary perfectionist: Balenciaga was known to work in relative seclusion and to abhor publicity of any kind.

The corruption scandal surrounding the Balenciaga Museum is a textbook example of the close relationship that exists between architectural and political ambition. A spectacular building is capable of providing both the politician who spearheaded it and the architect who designed it with the very same thing each craves to advance their respective careers: a good photo opportunity. The politician craves photos that will generate news headlines, while the architect craves photo reportage in glossy design media. Regardless of the type of media, the greatest buzz is generated by photogenic architecture. Any politician or architect with the slightest ambition knows this: image is everything.

Spain, in the nearly three decades between the definitive end of Franco’s dictatorship and the onslaught of a devastating economic crisis in 2008, was a particularly rife place for architectural-political ambition. As a relatively young democracy, Spain still feels it has a collective “backwardness complex” it needs to bury once and for all. The construction of new democratic institutions, public spaces and infrastructure became a priority in the first decade, to be followed in the latter two by the construction of world-class cultural institutions. Museums, then very much in architectural vogue, became especially important as a way for Spain to brand itself as vanguard. Or, more precisely speaking, Spain’s autonomous regions, almost half of which speak languages that were suppressed during the Franco dictatorship and which afterwards set out to gain greater political power. In Spain, regional identity is a global political issue as much as it a national one, and ambitious architecture was found to be among the most effective vehicles for projecting a regional voice into the global arena.

Building iconic museums developed into a particularly Spanish kind of “space race” among its provincial cities. The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum by Frank O. Gehry (situated only an hour’s drive from Getaria) is the most famous example, eventually becoming an international media phenomenon. The “Bilbao effect” (a reference to Jean Baudrillard’s “Beaubourg Effect”) refers to a form of edifice envy among politicians around the world, for whom building a high-profile architect-designed museum became their preferred way to give their city or region an image make-over. If Bilbao is capable of completely transforming its urban image from heavy-industrial “grunge” to post-industrial “chic”, then so can Barcelona or Badajoz. The Bilbao Guggenheim is only one of many museums in Spain by respected national and international designers. In the Spanish vox populi, the new generation of museums are so much associated with “architecture” that it is often jokingly commented that museums are visited more for their shells than for what’s inside. As we shall see, in the case of the Balenciaga Museum the exact inverse happens to be the case: here, it is the container that does not live up to its content.

The Fiasco

Sure enough, the Balenciaga Museum started out with what are presumably the best of intentions. When Mariano Camio, a charismatic member of the conservative-nationalist Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea / Partido Nacionalista Vasco political party was elected mayor of Getaria in 1983, he saw building a museum in the place where Cristóbal Balenciaga was born and now lies buried as a way to leave a lasting mark on the town while honouring a native son, and, of course, as a way to put the town on the international cultural tourism circuit. Soon after his election he began to contact families who had been patrons of Balenciaga, convincing them to make donations to a publicly owned collection he was spearheading. He created a foundation to administer the collection and to oversee the design, construction and direction of a future (and “futuristic”) museum, recruiting Hubert de Givenchy as its Honorary President. In 1999, Camio and de Givenchy convinced the Basque Government to buy an important collection of Balenciaga’s creations, significantly increasing the size of the Foundation’s collection to over a thousand pieces ranging from dresses for different sorts of occasions to hats and handkerchiefs. Government grants totalling 18 million euros were secured from the Spanish Ministry of Culture and other public sources, and the idea to build a museum had the support of Spanish Royalty, Queen Fabiola of Belgium (whose wedding dress Balenciaga had created), Paco Rabanne, Emanuel Ungaro and Óscar de la Renta, among others.

The museum project began with the refurbishment of the Berroeta Aldamar palace, a summer residence that once belonged to the Marquesa of Casa Torres, Balenciaga’s first client and patron. But it was evident that the palace would be too small, and that an addition would be needed to display the growing collection. This is where Miami-based Cuban architect Julián Argilagos enters the picture. Mayor Camio personally handpicked Argilagos to design the museum, even though he had no experience with a public building of such magnitude. Although the museum was to be built with public funds, no architectural competition was held at the outset–not even an invitational competition. Camio must have been very impressed by Argilagos’s pompous (and erroneous) claim that his museum design, “inspired by Gaudí, American architecture, and Balenciaga himself” would be “the world’s first suspended building”, and that it would “revolutionize world architecture”. This kind of rhetoric sounds overly grandiose even coming from an architect, but it seems to have convinced Camio.

So, just how was Mariano Camio able to handpick someone to design a public building without going through a public selection process? By creating a private company with himself as the sole signing authority (Berroeta-Aldamar S.L.) which would be directly contracted by the Foundation of which he is the deputy president to manage the construction of the future museum of which he is director and Argilagos curator and exhibition designer. That’s how. The Foundation’s Honorary President, Hubert de Givenchy, as well as most of the patrons of the Balenciaga Foundation were living far away from Getaria, and so were not involved in the Foundation’s day-to-day business. Camio could control everything (or so he thought). Incredulously, construction supervision was also contracted to Argilagos, [1] even though it is standard practice, when a foreign architect designs a building, for supervision and all legal-contractual aspects to be handled by a local “architect of record”. Camio must evidently have been convinced that the involvement of any “outside” architect or consultant would only compromise Argilagos’s vision.

The original completion date of the building was originally scheduled for late 2003, but by 2005 construction had only barely begun. By 2007, the foundation, the steel structure, and parts of the envelope were in place, but it was slowly becoming evident that Argilagos could not handle the project by himself. In that year the Spanish Ministry of Culture halted funding when it was discovered that construction costs, initially estimated at 6 million euros, had tripled to 18 million. Camio, increasingly under pressure, fired Argilagos, but not without first paying him an extra 439 000 euros on top of the nearly 1 million he had already been paid in fees.[2] When it was discovered one day that some scarves, handkerchiefs and gloves had gone missing from the collection because they had been handed out by Camio as gifts to some of his cronies “for their support during difficult times”, the scandal finally broke in the media. The Foundation’s Honorary President called for Camio to step down, a parliamentary investigation was launched, and construction was immediately halted.

In order to rescue the project, the Balenciaga Foundation was legally reconstituted in 2008, with Sonsoles Díez de Rivera, a major donor to the Balenciaga collection, appointed as the new director. The new foundation immediately launched an architectural competition. Officially, this competition was  for the museum’s interior and museological design, but it was also obviously intended to correct a wrong that had been committed. The competition was won by Victoria Garriga and Toño Foraster, principals of the firm AV62, a young Barcelona office with a proven record of designing museum exhibitions. But it was a bitter-sweet competition to win: AV62 soon discovered that they had inherited many building deficiencies that had to be corrected late in the game; problems that would further strain an already very limited budget.

The Building

As it stands today, the involuntary architectural collaboration that is the Balenciaga Museum is not exactly the most accurate manifestation of the couturier’s legacy and values. Balenciaga, who likened his métier to that of architecture, was a perfectionist who refined and developed his technique and craft gradually, throughout his entire career. Refusing to follow trends, he was experimental but at the same time extremely rigorous; the two being inseparable from one another in his mind. Balenciaga knew not only how to design, but also how to sew, which he learned as a child while helping his mother, a seamstress. Balenciaga is comparable in this regard to Mies van der Rohe, who had a similar ethic and who also learned to master a craft (masonry) before becoming a designer. Balenciaga’s “Miesian” rigor is certainly not honoured by the awkward building bearing his name; a building which was ill-conceived from the start, then went terribly wrong, only to finally be rescued by another architectural firm. If anything, it might provide us with an example of current-day “complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Overlooking the town of Getaria and the Bay of Biscay from a steep hillside, the Balenciaga Museum is essentially a long, sinuous glass shed added onto a nineteenth-century palace (Robert Venturi would of course have done the opposite, adding the palace to the shed). Inside its vast, bright space, a series of smaller, opaque buildings containing exhibition galleries are suspended from trapezoid-shaped steel arches.  The approach from the town is by way of a series of escalators that take the visitor from the main road passing through Getaria to a plaza in front of the palace and, adjoining it, an opaque, black metal end-facade belonging to the addition. A single, elegant angular pleat in the surface makes a minimal entry gesture. Upon entering one end of the longitudinal hall directly through the main doors beneath the pleat, the first thing that draws the eye are the long, gently curving canted glass walls on both sides. One of the glass walls faces north over Getaria’s rooftops toward town, sea and horizon, but the other faces south, directly into the sunlight as well as onto a four-story high retaining wall only a few meters away from the glass. This massive retaining wall, which is thankfully softened by vegetation, reveals that a steep, anything but symmetrical terrain had to be radically altered in order to accommodate the cross-sectional symmetry of Argilagos’s design.

The shed is symmetrical in cross-section, even though it is built into a steep hillside.

“Ideally” intended for a flat site, Argilagos’s design is essentially a theoretical idea forced onto a rugged topography that had to make way. It is a pre-conceived architectural idea brought to a site from elsewhere. The only adaptation to the site occurs in the plan: the curvature of the building follows a topographic contour line. The Balenciaga Museum is thus ill-fitted to its site. With its long, drawn out form and symmetrically canted glass walls on both sides, it would be much more suitable as an airport terminal for a small Spanish town such as, say, Ciudad Real or Castellón. Mundane things like local building codes were evidently not taken into consideration either, judging by the number of fire escape doorways that punctuate the very glass wall graced with a sea-facing view. Due to the cant of the glass wall, and the fact that fire escape doors must, by necessity, be vertical and made of steel, these doorways become clunky, opaque box dormers tacked onto a complex, sculpted, smoothly warped glass curtain-wall. These doors appear to be such a foreign intrusion on the curtain-wall that they could only have been added as an afterthought, ruining what was presumably intended to be a major design feature of the building.

The canted, curving sea-facing glass facade of the addition is punctuated by clunky emergency exits that appear to be an afterthought.

It is not until we finally reach the innermost parts of the building that it begins to look and feel like a museum and not an airport terminal, in large part because at this point we no longer see the rest of the building. Inside the suspended exhibition spaces, a display architecture consisting of a single, continuous, deeply undulating wall creates smooth, seamless niches within which Balenciaga’s work is sensually  displayed, not unlike saints in the chapels of a church. The undulating walls in each of the six different exhibition galleries vary in curvature and colour according to the museum’s six different curatorial classifications: “Early Years, Day, Cocktail, Evening, Bridal and Essential.” The hidden lighting sources, the subdued lighting levels, and the unframed glass set into the smoothly curved niches amount to a simple but effective exhibition design strategy that displays Balenciaga’s work with dignity and elegance.

Good News?

It is a miracle that this museum was completed in the end, in spite of all the problems it suffered. The museum has become a popular attraction in Gipuzkoa province, despite a building that disappoints for the most part. In the end, the problem is perhaps not so much the building itself as it is the missed opportunity that the building represents. It is what this building could have been that disappoints above all (a type of disappointment only ever suffered by architects and politicians). It could have been so much better; something Balenciaga might be proud of. Instead, he must surely be rolling over in his grave.

In the meantime, a criminal investigation launched when the scandal broke resulted in Mariano Camio being charged with embezzling public funds, falsification of invoices, and administrative disloyalty. He denies all charges. Julián Argilagos, along with another Cuban architect, is charged with practicing without a license, and is the only one of the three indicted who has yet to appear in court to testify, citing poor health as well as financial ruin as excuses not to travel. Argilagos claims on his YouTube channel that AV62 violated his intellectual property rights by not seeking his permission to make changes to his design. AV62, on the other hand, feels that their right to have been provided a fair opportunity to be awarded this project from the very beginning was violated, and that they have to now cope with the disappointment and frustration of not having been able to do their best work (although they certainly did the best they could under the circumstances). And Mariano Camio? Curiously, nothing can be heard from the person who is ultimately responsible and who should have known better than anyone else that when it comes to excessive architectural-political ambition, media can also backfire.

The care taken by AV62 in the design of the exhibition spaces redeems the museum.



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