Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eisenman in Santiago

As the first completed section of Peter Eisenman's long-awaited City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela is set for its official inauguration on January 11th, journalists are looking around for someone to blame for its cost overruns, delays and uncertain future.

Besides the project's original political backers, headed by ex-regional President Manuel Fraga of the conservative Popular Party, their list now includes the jury of the original competition back in 1999, as seen in a recent article in El País. Jury member Luis Fernández-Galiano, editor of Arquitectura Viva and the former architecture critic of El País, does his best to defend himself, together with Pep Llinás, while Wilfried Wang gets points for having opposed Eisenman's scheme.

Fernández-Galiano blames continued changes in the plans for the project's cost overruns and delays. Originally set for construction in three years at a cost of 100 million euros, the project has suffered various changes in program under three different elected governments, and has more than doubled in size, to 148,000 m2 (1.6 million square feet). The projected total cost at the moment is nearly 400 million, and not even half the buildings are completed. Next Tuesday, the Princes of Asturias will inaugurate a library and a regional archives. Other buildings still underway include a regional museum, a museum of contemporary art and an opera. Work on the opera has scarcely broken ground, and the project has been scaled back, according to Eisenman in an interview in a local paper, the Correo Gallego.

The previous government of Galicia, a coalition of Socialists and the regional BNG Party, organized a foundation to complete the work in partnership with the private sector. But Spain's current economic crisis and cutbacks in government spending make the future completion of the center uncertain. The current government, now back in the hands of the Popular Party, has allocated less than 34 million for the project in its budget for 2011 (according to another account in the newspaper El Mundo, the 2011 budget for the project is only 13.44 million).

According to Eisenman in the Correo Gallego, "8,000 square meters of the Music Theater have been built, and we're going to start the Art Center this year. When it's finished in three years, we'll start the Music Theater again. With luck, the PP [Popular Party] will be in Madrid and so we'll have a better chance finding collaborators." (Translated from Spanish by DC).

What is really under question, as in so many other pharaonic projects of the last decade in Spain, is the attempt to outdo Frank Gehry in Bilbao at whatever cost and without any realistic program in mind.

In the meantime, reports from the site are better than expected. Much of the credit for the design's credibility is given to Andrés Perea, a respected Madrid architect in his own right, who has developed the project and overseen construction based on Eisenman's initial design. Eisenman himself told El País this about Perea's work in an interview on September 11th:
"[I find the project] intense and very well built. It has been managed incredibly by Andrés Perea. If it weren't for him it wouldn't exist. When we began ten years ago, we made decisions that today I can't even remember why we made them. Perea's work as architect of the executive project has thus been exhaustive....

Honestly. I look at the project and I ask myself, "Did I do that?" I even find it difficult to image who conceived this project, because its so wonderful. Normally when I visit a work, I only find problems, and I end up distancing myself." (Translated from the Spanish by DC).
The City of Culture is buried into the top of Mount Gaiàs outside Santiago, a historical pilgrimage city that is now the regional capital of Galicia. Eisenman's design creates an artificial topography on the hilltop, superimposing the fan-shape of a Vieira shell, a traditional symbol of the city for pilgrims, with the plan of the city's historic core and other devices. I have never had much patience for Eisenman's work, as can be seen in the following quote from an article I wrote for the Galician College of Architect's magazine Obradoiro in 2005. But judging from early photos I may have to take another look:

The City of Culture also manifests an acritical acceptance of the reigning rules of territorial development, despite its pretensions to the contrary. It is a work generated entirely by its own internal logic, in which the strategies supposedly employed to bring the work closer to its site --the superposition of the plan of Santiago and the vieira shell on Monte Gaiás and their subsequent deformations-- are in fact nothing more than strategies to generate an apparently reasoned but unfathomable internal complexity. And underneath this layer of busy nonsense, the plans reveal that the different program spaces have been laid out with an apparently capricious indifference and expediency, suggesting little more than amorphous, anonymous quantities of built space.  

The architect thus plays his obtuse formal game, in terms completely abstracted from the reality of materials, site, context and use --these factors are rather translated into the abstract terms of the game and thereby neutralized as potential sources of true formal dialogue-- and leaves the logistics of programing and construction to the specialists who have reduced them to blunt instruments of technical determinism. The architect thus apes the indifference with which other forces impose their will on the built environment. Eisenman's project, however interesting it may turn out to be in formal terms, has no more relation to the site, the city or the surrounding territory than a typical commercial shopping center.
Batallas en las Colinas / Battles in the Hills
Obradoiro 31, COAG, Vigo, March 2005, pages 8 -13.
Photo © Iñigo Bujedo Aguirre. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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