As is well-known, Spain’s recent building boom-turned-bust has left behind a legacy of halted construction projects that are now in a state of decay. While most of these contemporary ruins are banal and rather ordinary buildings, there is also a small number designed by internationally renowned architects.
The thermal spa town of Balneario de Panticosa, high in the Pyrenees Mountains of Huesca, Aragon, is a place where two examples can be found; both designed by Pritzker laureate Alvaro Siza: a high performance athletic training centre as well as an apartment hotel complex. Planned as part of a wholesale renovation of this historic mountain spa that includes a grand hotel by Rafael Moneo as well as a thermal bathhouse by Moneo Brock Studio, construction on both of Siza’s buildings had to be halted when the private developer encountered financial difficulties. While the apartment hotel complex was a raw concrete structure when it was abandoned, the training centre, by contrast, was very close to completion, awaiting only the interior finishes. Throughout the training centre’s interior, dangling wires can be seen ready for lighting fixtures to be installed, while boxes containing everything from bathroom sinks to electrical appliances are littered throughout the building. The construction sites were seemingly abandoned with such haste from one day to the next, in the middle of all sorts of duties being performed, you would think a neutron bomb had gone off.
The design of the high performance training centre is certainly the more idiosyncratic and inexplicable of these two Siza projects. From the exterior, especially from the steep mountainsides above, the training centre appears as a low, two-story structure comprised mainly of two arms containing a collection of loosely arranged architectural fragments scattered in a courtyard; somewhat like a still-life of fruit tastefully arranged in a bowl. Inside, however, we discover that the building extends several levels more into the bedrock, housing a full-sized basketball court of which there is little evidence above ground. The diverse underground spaces, illuminated by occasional spurts of daylight descending down light wells, are linked by a series of ramps and stairs that seem to go in all sorts of inexplicable directions, likening the promenade architecturale that it offers to the experience of entering deeply into a labyrinthine cave. Indeed, as in a cave, the environment of the training centre’s subterranean spaces is dark and humid, with water seeping into the building in various places. If, as has been famously said, “all great architecture leaks”, then here we have concrete proof. But we also have proof here that architecture, even when it is in a tragic state of ruin, can still be defined as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.”