Treehouse with a view – Glass sets sail for Renzo Piano’s Centro Botín in Spain
AS we leave the rougher Atlantic seas behind, the main sail comes down just as we pass the lighthouse of Cabo Mayor and turn into the gentler waters of the Bay of Santander. There is no better way than taking to the water for an intimate encounter with Renzo Piano’s latest masterpiece, Centro Botín, a new cultural jewel on Spain’s northern coast. Ahead lies the city of Santander bathed in glorious morning light. The solemn beauty of the harbour surrounded by the rolling hills of a vast natural reservoir bordering the Bay of Biscay is beautifully captured by the naturalist writer José María de Pereda in his novel Sotileza.
Not much may be left of the historic city’s original architecture following a devastating fire in 1941, yet cruising a sailing boat alongside the Paseo de Pereda, an extensive waterfront walk dedicated to the poet, gives an impressive glimpse of the view that instilled such glowing admiration in the writer for his hometown and its surrounding region. Before setting foot in his gardens, the Jardines de Pereda, in the midst of the mostly unoccupied docklands, we catch a glimpse of our journey’s destination.
Wings wide spread as if ready to take off for a leisurely flight across the bay, the new Centro Botín hovers pleasingly on the waterline. Half-bird, half-fish, Renzo Piano’s latest creation effortlessly takes its place among the city’s landmarks and integrates itself in the surroundings as if it were always meant to be here – bringing together land, sea and sky in one focal point. Hailing from the port town of Genoa, the great architect is, of course, no stranger to those elements, and, contemplating the vast landing area preceding the elegant construction, one can’t help but wonder if in his heart of hearts he hadn’t finally added a boathouse to the portfolio, a fitting place to throw dock lines from the Kirribilli, one of the most refined sailing yachts at sea today and also designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshops.
At this early hour, few pedestrians stroll through the gardens surrounding the new cultural centre, built on land that was reclaimed from the sea in 1805 and opened to the public as leisure gardens for the first time a hundred years thereafter. The overwhelming impression of quiet relaxation mingles with a sense of anticipatory curiosity; the relaxation due to an extensive act of urban planning which has relocated the coastal road into an underground tunnel, taking busy traffic and noise away from the area; the curiosity resulting from an intricate interplay of light, shadow and colour throughout the landscape designed by Fernando Caruncho in co-operation with Renzo Piano. The original gardens are doubled in size while preserving their original features, and a pedestrian route now directly links Santander’s city centre with its new cultural centre.
With walkways and squares paved with blue concrete spiced with sulphates of iron and copper, evoking the surface of the adjacent sea, it seems hard to believe that the entire area served as a mundane ferry car park in the past. Where formerly lanes of cars and cargo would have queued for a passage to Portsmouth or Plymouth (shipping lines that continue serving the city), nowadays generous plantations of magnolia and holly, pine and apple, chestnut, boj, yew and cedar are scattered around the terrain, leaving ample space in between for art in the open. Here Carsten Höller unleashes a foray into his scientific past with a temporary installation employing 7.8 Hz flickering light, promising rare sensations when playing subtle tricks on optical perception – a mere precursor to the extensive show of some of the German-Belgian artist’s greatest works on display for the opening inside the centre.
A much more poetic affair is the permanent intervention by Cristina Iglesias, one of Spain’s most eminent contemporary artists. From the Underground is a new commission in multiple parts using stone, steel and water and ranges across the entire garden leading up to the main building. Reminiscent of a work of hers recently unveiled at the private collection of Désiré Feuerle in Berlin, four wells and one pond bring murmurs of slow flowing water to the surface, secrets and allusions from seemingly deep below, lending a magical quality to the surroundings while yet again linking the land to the nearby sea.
If the gardens alone are a delight worth visiting, with the revamped petrol station inviting for a coffee on the way, the building itself is nothing short of spectacular. Raised several metres above the ground on stilts, it is a modern treehouse built half on land and half over the water, integrating with the foliage surrounding it, a gateway between land and sea. Nothing is left to chance here, the pillars measured for size in relation to the surrounding trees, the height determined such that the view of the bay is unimpeded for visitors to the gardens. The smooth volumes of the buildings juxtapose each other as if looking out onto the bay in a friendly encounter, united only in light walkways of glass and steel resembling a ship’s deck; functionality and beauty have taken nautical inspiration here too.
While the design as a whole radiates an organic smoothness, an even more mesmerising and eye-catching detail are the two lobes of the building. Beset with 280,000 slightly rounded ceramic tiles, the façades react to the ever-changing light and weather conditions of the Bay of Santander with reflections of pearl coloured light, referencing sun beams, the sky and the sea alike in an atmosphere of seductive vibrancy.
Four decades the Botíns have been at home in Santander, and following on from the eponymous bank, the arts centre is the second part of an extensive legacy the family have created for the region. In 1964, Fundación Marcelino Botín was founded to promote social, economic and cultural development in Cantabria. Today the organisation is active across Spain and Latin America alike and explores news ways to uncover and support creative talent, aiming to create cultural, social and economic wealth. The new building comes as the continuation of a process that started almost 30 years ago, explains Benjamin Weil, the centre’s creative director.
The Botín Foundation started to develop a strong presence in the visual arts in the mid 1980s, which intensified in the early 90s with two programmes. The first is a strand of summer workshops, inviting a famous artist to work with younger artists and resulting in extensive exhibitions and acquisitions by the foundation. The second is a round of eight visual art grants regularly awarded to young artists. The recipients are supported for about a year and the foundation acquires work from the resulting shows. Both programmes continue to the present day and make up the core of the foundation’s vast collection of contemporary art. In the past these have included Tacita Dean, Gabriel Orozco and Joan Jonas.
In addition, a third important ingredient of the programming has found a permanent home now. Over the past seven or eight years the foundation has been involved in academic research on Spanish master drawings. Resulting from this, a major Goya drawing exhibition in co-operation with the Prado is part of the inaugural programme.
Thus building on decades of experience and a thoroughly shaped programme seems to make for a perfectly uncluttered drawing board when approaching the new building, resulting in a clear-cut layout. The west compound is dedicated to art displays, where large galleries on two levels offer breathtaking views over land and bay alike. The top level boasts an intricate mechanism to modulate the gallery’s intake of daylight, consisting in an outer level of silkscreen glass slats preventing harsh light from entering, followed by double glazing and finally a layer of movable and sensor-controlled aluminium louvres, adjusting to any requirement of natural or artificial light in the exhibition space.
The east wing hosts a wealth of educational and cultural activities, including a vast auditorium with the facilities to stage everything from concerts, readings, lectures, to ceremonies and festivals. Should none of the aforementioned be reason enough to enter, the gorgeous terrace looking out over both sea and city certainly is. Before you head out to the amphitheatre with LED screen for open-air cinema events at the centre’s west façade, there is just about time to grab a bite at café-restaurant El Muelle del Centro Botín, led by two-Michelin star chef Jesús Sánchez, a well-known figure in Cantabrian cuisine. Needless to say, ceramic ceilings and sea views are here too.
by Oliver Krug
Centro Botín, Muelle de Albareda, Jardines de Pereda, 39004 Santander, Spain
Summer opening hours (June to September): Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday, 10:00 – 21:00. Thursday to Saturday, 10:00 – 24:00.
Winter opening hours (October to May): Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 – 20:00. (Closed December 25 and January 1)