City of Culture of Galicia

City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain by Eisenman Architects

In a recent book Peter Eisenman analyzes Ten Canonical Buildings, what the architect describes as the "close reading" of notable built and unbuilt projects between 1950-2000. This close reading is rooted in the teaching of Colin Rowe, who espoused seeing "what ideas were implied by what was physically present." In other words it is finding what forms of architecture express beyond merely the forms themselves. Since Eisenman devotes his book to other architects, how his buildings fare with the same close reading is not apparent or acknowledged by the architect. Here I'll take a stab at a close reading of what could safely be called Eisenman's magnum opus, the City of Culture of Galicia in San Compostela, Spain.

Now under construction, and not anticipated to be completed in its entirety until 2012, the designation of the project as a city owes as much to its size (almost as big as the medieval city center) as to the configuration of its six buildings. The design overlays on the mountain site a street map of the old center and a cartesian grid; both are then distorted to create a new landscape with fissures between the buildings. Diagramatically the design is a complex double-loaded corridor, with a spine of circulation and a public square between buildings on both sides. According to the architect the six buildings are organized into three pairs, but the primary reading of the project is as topography, where cuts give the only indication that separate structures comprise the whole.

The strategy of overlaying the local and the universal is not an arbitrary gesture. It relates to the historical pilgrimage routes to the city's cathedral and to the contemporary pilgrimages of global tourism, of which Eisenman's building is seen as a piece -- much like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim for Bilbao, also in Spain -- to lure people to Galicia in the country's northwest corner. While the desire to bring visitors to the place predates Eisenman's competition-winning entry, his design attempts to bridge the often sharp divide between the old and the new. The decision to locate the building outside of the old town aids in decreasing an apprent rift, but Eisenman's reliance on landscape and void over building and object makes for an impressive work of architecture that also sets up an attitude towards context and history for the region as a whole.

This attitude could be called respect, arising from the project's location outside of town and its reference to the medieval center in its formal generation, but also rootedness. The whole point of the City of Culture is to bring together into one place the performances, books, newspapers, artifacts, technologies, and services of Galicia. This one million square foot (93,000 sm), 173 acre (70 hectare) [source] piece of architecture becomes a central node for the region, but one that formally knits itself into its surroundings. It would be hard to even consider one of the other eleven competition entries being a suitable symbol for Galicia's future, especially when one realizes that it must also be a symbol of its past.

[City of Culture of Galicia (color) overlaid on the city of Santiago de Compostela]


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