The evocative title of the exhibition Cities of Artificial Excavation: The Work of Peter Eisenman, 1978–1988 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal in 1994 turns out to be an oracular description of the architect’s City of Culture of Galicia in northwest Spain. Eisenman’s project of a lifetime, now 12 years in design and construction, has involved serious digging and earthmoving to create topographical man-made structures that blur figure and ground. With two buildings just open, the complex’s raw state presents an artificial landscape of thrashing, gnashing stone creatures restlessly rising up from the earth before subsiding into calm ripples.
- Masonry: Iberdouro
- Metal doors: Lama
- Built-up roofing: Pavimentos de Tudela
Eisenman won the competition for the City of Culture in 1999 at the right time economically, and in the right country architecturally. Since the end of Franco’s reign in 1975, Spanish architects have been turning out high-quality Modernist design in a country also receptive to the tours de force of internationally known architects. After Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened in 1997, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the president of the Xunta of Galicia, initiated the 1 million-square-foot research, study, and arts center for his own region. The brief for the City of Culture ambitiously called for a periodicals archive, library, museum, music theater, central services and administration building, and international arts center with a budget of around $145 million.
Eisenman’s winning scheme, folded into the earth and seductively represented by a molded wood model, beat out varied proposals by ten finalists: Steven Holl Architects, OMA/Rem Koolhaas, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Gigon Guyer Architects, Dominique Perrault Architecture, Studio Daniel Libeskind, Juan Navarro Baldeweg, César Portela, Ricardo Bofill/Taller de Arquitectura, and José Manuel Gallego Jorreto.
The 173-acre site on Mount Gaiás can be glimpsed from nearby Santiago de Compostela where the cathedral houses the remains of the apostle St. James, brought to Spain from Jerusalem after his death in AD 44. Since the eighth century, pilgrims have trekked to the medieval town to pay homage to his shrine.
Although Eisenman’s proposal indicated eight buildings, today it’s down to six. Two of the buildings, the 155,205-square-foot Archive of Galicia and the 186,990-square-foot Library of Galicia, opened in January. The 223,889-square-foot Museum of Galicia and the 80,729-square-foot Central Services Building are expected to be completed by late fall, although the museum won’t be installed until next spring. It is easy to see that the scale is daunting. When all six structures are finished, the City of Culture could almost function as a small international airport (except, of course, the planes’ pilots might mistake the buildings for runways). But the projected space needs were not determined by the architects.
The program, conceived at the cusp of the digtal age and during the halcyon years of economic prosperity, got caught in a programmatic and financial time warp. And the government changed in 2005. The archive was slated to be a periodicals library with a large reading room. When it morphed into an archive for storing regional documents, the large space for a reading room was turned over to the exhibition of rare documents. But because of the presence of an expansive south-facing glazed wall, temporary polygonal structures enclose the fragile artifacts. As for the library, the original plan to house 250,000 books grew to a million under the wishes of the Galician administration. Now, while rare books occupy a central glazed core, the ongoing digitization of library collections generally raises a question about future space requirements. It doesn’t mean that these buildings can’t undergo adaptive reuse. But the weak link to the program certainly turns the formal qualities of the architecture into the main event. As if anticipating such questions, the City of Culture has mounted its own exhibition in the archive featuring a video of Eisenman explaining how he arrived at these striated forms.
Eisenman began with the outline and street plan of the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela based on the shape and ridges of a scallop, the emblem for the shrine. He then placed a similar street pattern on the top of Mount Gaiás to separate the original eight buildings and let the site’s topography mold this medieval pattern. Then he overlaid the plan with a Cartesian grid while finally digitally warping the result with a computer-modeling wire frame to generate, he says, “dimension and direction.”
Overlays and interplays of these grids are called out in stonework, mullions, aluminum channels, and glazing, as well as contoured drywall soffits and walls inside the buildings. Lay people might find this flow and deformation a bit obsessive. A different matter is the dynamism of the actual shapes and the surface textures of the swelling and heaving structures. You don’t need to climb all the contours of these convulsing carapaces (as some do) to know you have entered an experientially based landscape where kinesthetic and haptic, as well as visual, perceptions dominate. Even inside, where interior surfaces assume quite different shapes, contracting and expanding spaces heighten the temporal experience of architecture.
Executing these leviathan structures should ultimately cost an estimated $581 million for the six buildings. But the economy has slowed down the construction schedule to a point where no one is talking about the completion date for the last two buildings, one of which is the opera, the other, now slated for a new technologies center.
Originally the design team wanted grass roofs, but found that grass was heavier and harder to maintain than stone. Nevertheless, the local quartzite (in brown, rose, and off-white hues and varied textures) that clads the roofs and walls proved to be hard for the local quarry to supply on time. Stone also came from Brazil.
The hand-quarried stone, cut by machine in 20-inch square blocks (with blocks at the edges specially trimmed), is mounted on a steel armature of curved box beams (or steel girders in the archive) plus steel cross-bracing. The ventilated chunky roof surges over an under layer of concrete deck, waterproofing, and protective insulation. (The interstitial space between the two layers also houses mechanical equipment.) The side walls of mortarless quartzite panels with stainless steel reveals stand out from the buildings like a rainscreen against galvanized aluminum. But while the steel and stone do a lot of work, the actual structure of the buildings is reinforced concrete: the megacolumns are placed on a 53-by-66-foot grid, while a secondary 26-by-26-foot grid of round concrete columns is rotated 7 degrees from the main one.
The glazing posed its own challenge; where a double curvature is called for, flat transparent, reflective, and opaque glass is angled in layers to produce the contour. Since the library’s glass wall soars to a 98-foot height, cable-stayed vertical trusses were needed for wind loads. They are plentiful: It seems even the trusses have trusses. Eisenman wanted (and thought he was getting) gray glass, but it turns bluish and greenish under different lighting. Oddly, the glass sometimes overpowers the stone, and the thick grid of variously sized mullions sometimes overpowers the glass.
This isn’t a work of architecture where you are overawed by the elegant detailing of the mullions: the strength actually emanates from the skillful craftsmanship of the stonework. Eisenman gives much credit for the execution to architect of record Andrés Perea Ortega, plus Antonio Maroño, the architect for the Foundation of the City of Culture of Galicia, who has been on-site since 2001.
Although it is too early to fully evaluate a complex still very much under construction, already it has become a lightning rod for debate regarding its high cost, excessive space, and ambiguous program. At least the current government officials in charge appear to be fully behind it: Perhaps the perfect fit of program to form will evolve in time. As it ages, it will no doubt lose its rawness, but probably keep its brute energy. The gesture is so defiant. Its brazen monumentality and unsettling scale ravenously explore the difference between artifice and nature. Time will reveal its significance.