travel article by Pierre Mainguené, Circa Tours
designs in modern architecture are far from rare, but you might think that to
see the best ones, you have to travel long distances. For example: the Opera House
in Sydney, Australia, the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris, the Pearl
of the Orient across the river from the Bund in Shanghai, or the new cathedral
in Los Angeles. Well, there is a place where a significant number of these structures
can be found all within one country: Spain.
this is not just my own personal opinion. It is also that of the Museum of Modern
Art (MOMA) in New York, one of the most respected museums in the world. In early
2006, to highlight the fact that Spain is THE hotbed of modern architecture right
now, MOMA organized an exhibition called "On-Site" specifically dedicated
to current new structures already built or under construction in that country.
The exhibition featured some of the most famous contemporary architects, many
of them from Spain, and several Pritzker Prize laureates.
in the spring of 2006, all this buzz prompted me to go see for myself.
visiting great architectural projects from Madrid to Bilbao to Barcelona and Valencia,
I also took the opportunity to deepen my appreciation of modern art produced by
Spanish painters. Some of the names are easily recognizable: Juan Miró,
Salvador Dalí and the master himself, Pablo Picasso.
when has flying into an airport been an exciting experience (especially in the
last few years)? Since the spring of 2006, at Barajas Airport in Madrid. Why?
They have a brand new terminal fashioned by the latest architectural techniques...
and it's huge! After you "de-plane" and start dragging your luggage
into the terminal, your first impression is brightness, cheerfulness and especially
color. (The size strikes you later.) The whole interior, from top to bottom, is
based on a simple color scheme. Depending on where you are in the building, you
may be in a yellow, green, red or blue zone. And, as you walk along, one color
imperceptibly fades into another and then another. It is quite pleasant to look
at. It is also peaceful and restful for all the harried travelers finally getting
to their destination after long overnight flights from faraway places.
very quickly, you start noticing something different about the engineering and
the architectural style. Unlike traditional buildings of this sort, nothing is
plumb, level or square (except the floors). Nothing is circular or even angular.
The bamboo-clad ceiling waves in even and graceful curves high above your head
and heavy supporting columns take off in oblique directions, just like tree trunks
and branches rise to meet the forest canopy. Airports are not known for being
refuges for contemplation and meditation - their mission is to move people quickly
and efficiently. This one is different, however. Close your eyes and turn on the
Gregorian chant... You might think you are in the nave of a Gothic cathedral.
you rearrange your European itinerary to see this architectural wonder? It depends
on your level of interest in innovative modern building design. But, if you are
traveling by train or driving through Madrid, be sure to take a quick detour to
Barajas. It is well worth the visit. For the record... While the new terminal
was being built, it was the largest construction site in Europe. It is designed
to handle 70 million passengers annually.
new airport is wonderful, but Madrid has a lot more to offer, of course: the Prado
Museum, the Royal Palace, the Plaza Mayor; day trips to Segovia, Toledo, Aranjuez,
etc. And, if you're interested in modern art, a visit to the Reina Sofía,
one of the best museums of modern art in the world, is de rigueur. It is
located a stone's throw from the great Prado Museum and across the street from
the Atocha Train Station. The building itself boasts several modern architectural
features, with its two outside glass towers housing the elevators and the new
addition designed by world-renowned architect Jean Nouvel.
the main purpose for the visit is the art on the inside. The Reina Sofía
houses a large display of works by various contemporary artists plus a very fine
collection of the three giants of modern art: one room is dedicated to Salvador
Dalí, two rooms to Joan Miró and three to Pablo Picasso, including
Guernica, the famous Spanish Civil War painting. This painting is large (over
25 feet long by 11 feet high) and occupies one room all by itself. At any given
time there are dozens of people scrutinizing, analyzing and admiring it. Afficionados
of modern art shouldn't miss this experience. The collection is a veritable treasure
of Madrid on the Bay of Biscay, straddling the Nervion River, lies Bilbao. This
industrial urban center of around a million people has traditionally been one
of the main economic engines of Spain: steel mills, shipbuilding yards, large
banks, etc. Bilbao is located in Vizcaya, one of the seven Basque regions whose
people are known for their industriousness and spirit of adventure. Case in point:
the Guggenheim Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum.
interest of this museum lies in it contents, of course, but even more so in the
architectural style of the building itself. Designed by Pritzker-Prize laureate
Frank Gehry, it opened in 1997. (Gehry also designed the new Disney Concert Hall
in Los Angeles in the same style.) This architectural style is difficult to describe.
A good analogy might be something like the layers of an onion or the petals of
a rose (or wood shavings, perhaps) spread apart and then twisted in various directions.
Except that the surface of the building is not onion skin or silky rose petals,
but titanium sheets combined with limestone and glass. The overall look is also
reminiscent of the hull of a ship floating on the waters of the Nervion River.
inventiveness in architectural design had never been seen prior to the Guggenheim,
and for this type of construction to be possible, the draftsmen needed the assistance
of computer software programs. Whichever way they did it, the result is simply
amazing. One wonders how the whole structure manages to hold together and not
collapse in a pile of mangled construction materials.
continue our journey south and take Frank Gehry with us. (You'll see what I mean
in a minute.) Destination: Laguardia, located in another Basque region called
Alava, about an hour's drive or so. This region, along with its neighbor La Rioja,
on the other bank of the Ebro River, produces world-class wines and is especially
famous for its robust reds.
in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, Alava offers an easy rolling landscape,
mild climate and vineyards everywhere. It is an ideal place for wineries to multiply,
spread, consolidate and, in the process, amass large quantities of money for their
owners. As these fortunes grow, new brands need to be created and fresh images
must be marketed. One way some wineries achieve this is by using avant-garde architecture
for the construction of their buildings - which brings me back to Frank.
the little town of Elciego, the headquarters of the Marques de Riscal winery was
in the last stages of construction at the time of my visit. Frank did the design
for them. This time, he "pushed the envelope" (so to speak) of the Guggenheim
style. He made the Guggenheim convoluted shapes flow even more freely as if a
storm were blowing on the outer surfaces and making them flap like flags in the
wind. The result is absolutely astonishing.
think about this! The sole purpose for the edifice is to be a temple to Bacchus,
the god of wine. We have come a long way since the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle
Ages, haven't we?
few miles away, just outside Laguardia, another famous architect by the name of
Santiago Calatrava recently created the Isios winery. (He also designed the new
Olympic stadium in Athens, Greece, and the ultra-modern City of Arts and Sciences/Performing
Arts Center, in Valencia, Spain - more on this later.) Although not as much "out-on-the-edge"
as the Marques de Riscal winery, its soaring, wavy roof set against the backdrop
of the blue sky and the green mountain range is a sight to see.
crossing the ancient kingdoms of Navarra and Aragon, I reached Catalonia on the
sunny shores of the Mediterranean. Like the Basques, the Catalans have their own
culture and language, and like the Basques, they are an extremely creative and
most stunning manifestation of their resourcefulness, as it relates to art and
architecture, is the "Modernista" movement, which was in full swing
at the turn of the 20th century. (This movement was the Catalan version of the
French "Art Nouveau" movement that was in vogue at about the same time.)
Some of the most notable features of the modernist style of architecture include
elaborate patterns of brick and limestone decorated with intricate ironwork, colorful
ceramics and glowing stained glass. And, to make things more interesting, flat,
straight and angular forms are replaced by soft, artistic and curvilinear shapes.
A chimney pot, for example, is no longer a square or cylindrical smoke stack.
Instead, it can take on the appearance of a dragon or the helmeted head of a futuristic
creature peering over the city roofs.
architects participated in this flurry of unbridled creativity: Josep Puig i Cadafalch
(Codorniu winery in Sant Sadurni d'Anoia), Lluis Doménech i Montaner (Hospital
de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau and Palau de la Música in Barcelona) and the
great Antoni Gaudí, just to name a few. Gaudí was the most prolific
of the group, and Barcelona abounds with examples of his work: private residences
(Casa Milá and Casa Batlló), public parks (Park Güell) and
churches (La Sagrada Familia and the Crypt at Colonia Güell in Santa Coloma
could say that La Sagrada Familia is to Barcelona what the Eiffel Tower is to
Paris. This unfinished cathedral, which harmoniously blends Gothic, neo-classical,
naturalistic and futuristic styles (and maybe a few more I haven't heard of) is
breathtaking. But, what impresses me the most about Gaudí's work is his
engineering genius. Similar to the Barajas airport terminal, where the columns
rise in oblique directions to meet the roof, so do the pillars of La Sagrada Familia
and the Crypt at Colonia Güell. But there is an enormous difference here
in Barcelona. The Barajas engineers used computers to do their load calculations.
Gaudí couldn't do that a hundred years ago. All he had to work with were
bricks, mortar, pencil and paper and... his monumental mind.
is paradise for modern art lovers. We've all heard these famous names: Joan Miró,
Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Both Miró and Dalí are native
sons of Catalonia and Picasso spent some of his early years there. (He had his
first exhibition in Barcelona in 1900.)
can enjoy Miró's work at the Foundation Joan Miró in Parc de Montjuïc.
The permanent collection displays paintings, sculptures and a few tapestries by
the artist, including the "Solar Bird" and the model for "The Sun,
the Moon and a Star," a 40-foot sculpture on public display in Chicago.
can find Dalí's work in Barcelona, but to really immerse yourself in his
art and life you need to take a day trip to the city where he was born, Figueres,
and the tiny fishing village he used as his refuge, Port Lligat. Figueres has
his museum (actually called a "theater-museum"), of course, with a plethora
of his surrealist creations: drawings, paintings, object compositions and even
Port Lligat, the cluster of fishermen's houses he linked together into a small
living and working compound brings you into his extravagant world. His bedroom
may not be as ornate as the Sun King's but he tried, in his own way. Around his
fanciful lap pool you can still hear the sounds of wild and decadent parties just
a few decades ago. Spending a day with Dalí makes your head spin. It's
to Barcelona with the grand master, Picasso. Málaga (his birthplace), New
York, Paris and Antibes may have fine displays of his work, but Barcelona has
some of his early works that illustrate his enormous talent as a "traditional"
artist and his transition into the "modern" Picasso we all know. The
museum also has an entire room dedicated to his studies of "las Meninas"
by Velázquez. You can linger on or sit down and meditate to give yourself
time to absorb it all... So much art in one single room... So much creative inspiration!
is more. Not to be overlooked, a little farther south on the Mediterranean coast,
in Valencia, is Santiago Calatrava's "City of Arts and Sciences." This
ultra-modern complex includes a museum, a planetarium, a promenade and a recently
finished performing arts center, plus the Oceanografic, a futuristic marine park
created by another Spanish architect, Felix Candela - all within easy walking
distance from one another.
museum's outer structure is reminiscent of a giant whale or some prehistoric mastodon's
skeleton resting on its side. Next to it, sitting in the middle of a man-made
pond, is the planetarium with its glass dome glowing in the sun and mirroring
in the perfectly still turquoise water. On the other side of the bridge, you can
hardly miss the voluminous shape of the performing arts center.
are hard to come by for an accurate description of this building. At first, depending
on your vantage point, it looks like a gargantuan egg performing a balancing act
on its side. Then, as you walk around and stand back a few paces, images of a
warrior's helmet come to mind - Etruscan perhaps. Some people have even commented
that it looks like the head of some kind of insect. Well, I will leave these various
images to your own imagination. But, one thing is for certain. This building is
absolutely spectacular. And, with all these "out-of-this-world" creations
all gathered in one place, you might wonder whether you were on a science fiction
movie set or just arrived on some distant intergalactic planet. Pinch yourself!
you can see, there is no shortage of world-class modern art and architecture in
Spain. And the places I visited on this itinerary are only the tip of the iceberg.
The MOMA "On-Site" exhibition I mentioned above lists over fifty projects
and locations, from Galicia to Cartagena to Tenerife, and the projects currently
on the boards promise to continue this avant-garde trend for years to come: a
museum in Cantabria, a park in Alicante, country homes in Girona, etc. Discovering
the fruits of such a vast amount of talent is simply exhilarating. For an unforgettable
overview of the best in modern art and architecture in the world, Spain is the
place to go.
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