My camera and I have spent the last month hanging around park benches in Santander looking suspicious. In addition to helping a woman into an ambulance and wondering why so many kids weren’t back in school when they should be, I did manage to survey the work since I last blogged about the Botin Centre one year ago. And I wasn’t disappointed with what I found…
My first visit was in the early morning when it was just me and a few dog walkers and cyclists and another in the late morning when the place was buzzing. The third was at lunchtime when it was quiet again. I like walking around here. I think it’s because I get a sense that Santander will be a different place soon. Not that I don’t like it the way it is – I do. But I have a feeling that great things could happen in this space.
It’s true there are people who feel that the city didn’t need this large building in the city centre. People who believe the bay is beautiful enough. People who say the site doesn’t need a walking platform over it to make it any more accessible. And there are those who feel that the talent brought into the city could have engaged with the city and its residents a bit more before hitting the drawing board. I agree with all of these sentiments. Santander was an attractive city before Renzo Piano heard of the place. And this does feel like a project that is happening to the city rather than BY the city. But I can’t help liking what I see.
Although I’m no engineer or architect, it’s clear that progress is being made. Compare the site with my images from 18 months ago. Don’t get me wrong. The area is still a working site with cranes, scaffolding and hard hats but it’s got the feel of a place that will be water-tight in the next few months. As I walk around snapping away, I realise that a lot of what Italian architect Renzo Piano is trying to achieve with this project seems to be taking place. I dig out an early interview of the Pritzker prize winner from 2011 and dust off some of the criticism of the project since it started. I even pop along to a talk on holistic architecture. But most of all, I walk around the site. I sit on the park benches and stare. I sip coffee from the cafe in front of the site. I watch others looking at the site. And I ask myself – what do I make of it all so far?
WHAT I CAN SEE ON SITE
From Where I Stand, It’s Discreet
When Renzo Piano was asked in the interview back in 2011 whether the building would be iconic along the lines of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, he said “we actually started designing the project so that it would not be visible from the city fabric!”. And it’s true that the building seems to disappear from many angles. The landscaping of Pereda Park is instrumental in this – its tall trees covering the buildings and its pathways revealing the new views of the bay (there was a busy road here before). Even when the building (or buildings should I say – there are two) is in full view, it’s nearly always chunky rather than bulky. On the whole, I think Renzo Piano has managed to produce a restrained and rather elegant centre for the Botin Foundation.
It Floats or Hovers (to the layman at least…)
And that’s with all the scaffolding around it still. “From the start,” Renzo Piano said back in 2011, “we were seeking a solution of lightness and antigravity, so we placed the volumes on slender steel poles.” Awe-inspiring for some but ugly for others – whatever your opinion, you can’t get away from the idea that these are two massive buildings plonked on narrow stilts. One of the critiques from the architectural community here is that the pillars are wrong. Too thin. Or that they aren’t where they should be. Or that they shouldn’t be there at all. I take a more naive approach. First of all, I wonder how these narrow little legs can hold up such weight. It’s a bit like watching a pony stand up for the first time. Until you see it for yourself, you don’t believe it can happen. When I stare at the pillars, I’m certainly hoping that the engineering calculations are right and these little pins will actually be able to hold the audience in the auditorium and whatever heavy sculptures and paintings and installations are on show. I’m sure I’ll be a bit nervous when I walk inside the building site for the first time but I hope I’ll get past those spidery little legs (or look through them) and will enjoy the views these pillars afford. So for now, I’ve told myself to wait until the scaffolding comes down before I decide for myself whether the pillars are a problem and impede this building from hovering or floating or wafting.
It’s Light. It’s Bright. It’s Airy
Luminosity and lightness. These are two trademark terms for Renzo Piano’s projects and in my mind, he has cracked it again in Santander. Of course, he did his research. “Santander,” says Piano in 2011, “despite its privileged coastal position, has many gray days.” Too right. I’m usually lucky enough when friends and family are in town but there are some pretty wet and windy days here too. Piano does refer to the southern facing site with its gentle Mediterranean feel but gentle is the keyword here. This place has more in common with Devon or Brittany than Cadiz or Cannes. So how does Piano ungrey grey? In a way he doesn’t fight it, he works with it. He starts with curves rather than hard angles. The rounded edges and tapered shapes or what Piano calls the “continuous wrapper effect from the underbelly to the roof” is highly effective when it comes to throwing the available light around the site. The rounded surfaces from below catch the light bouncing off the water which glimmers and shines and dazzles and bounces off the ceramic tiles so much that it’s had me scratching my head and struggling with my apertures and ISOs on the greyest of Santander’s days.
The Pearly Shells – A Runaway Triumph
And the other trick in Renzo’s toolbox is the shimmering tiles. They’re not all attached yet but the hundreds and thousands of mother-of-pearl-like mosaics that are being attached are both elegant and fun at the same time. Renzo Piano compares them to cells of human skin that he wants to breathe or appear to be breathing at least. I’m a massive fan of polka dots and loved the tiles the moment I clapped eyes on them in 2013. My business card features these very spots in all their glory. My cards are lovely but the real thing is amazing. And depending on the day, they can look like anything from shimmery pearls to reptile-like slinky. I understand that every single tile has the same 15cm diameter but there are four different heights to the contour that, when placed cleverly, lends them a breathing-like quality. On each of my recent walkabouts, the light was beautiful and the polka dots or shells or scales really were reflecting the light perfectly and throwing it around beautifully. On my last two visits, I got to see the construction workers actually fit the tiles. I’ve read that there are apparently 270,000 or 280,000 of them in total (reports vary) so it’s not a job for the faint hearted.
Two Organic Shapes (With a Knife through the Middle)
Likened initially to spaceships and molluscs, the extremities of both buildings are wonderful organically-shaped structures. I love the fun and movement that two buildings create – the interplay with each other is great. Back in 2011, Renzo Piano likened the design to a “boat that has been split in half and raised off the ground”. I love the dissection – and thoroughly enjoy looking into the gizzards and guts of both buildings every chance I get. Aesthetically, it’s been suggested the space in between the two structures should be connected in some way. I’ll wait and see how the pachinko stairways link up these spaces before I cast any judgment.
The Amphitheatre Works – But Bring a Blanket for the Breeze
The latest Botin Centre newsletter leads with a graphic of the sexy and rather enormous screen for the amphitheatre that will, as you’d expect, be fixed to the wall facing the seating. Of course, the space has already been road tested with a smaller temporary screen in its beta stage. The outdoor cinema projections and live music and dance events have worked well and the amphitheatre’s tiers of seating offer a psychological barrier from the sea at night. Remember the gentle Mediterranean feel Renzo Piano mentioned? Instead of Mediterranean, I’d be thinking Atlantean when attending anything here. There’s a cold breeze or sea mist here in the early mornings and late evenings that can get very chilly. That said, in the middle of the day, it’s a nice area to hangout. I’ve even spotted a few people have a sandwich here at lunchtime! You mightn’t know it but Santander isn’t really a food-on-the-go kind of place. Anyway, I think the space is working well and will be even more popular when the exhibition space, cafe and restaurant are open and can provide additional sanctuary from an unexpected shower of rain or mist.
The City Meets the Bay: Head-On
The aspect I most like about this project is the one that Renzo Piano seems pretty proud of as well – uniting the city with the bay. Although Renzo Piano would have liked to re-route the traffic altogether, sending the traffic underground was a compromise that the city’s authorities agreed to. It’s true the tunnel openings are a bit of an eye sore when they pop out at either edge of the park but it is lovely to be able to walk from the Cathedral through the park and onto the bay without having to cross a busy road.
Pereda Gardens – Settling in with its New Bedfellow
While the building site is still out of bounds for obvious reasons, the re-designed Pereda Gardens have already done a lot for the city and for this project. Landscape artist Fernando Caruncho’s handiwork has provided the Botin Foundation with a new public space from which it can project its hopes and dreams for the future on a wide section of the city’s residents that may not have had contact with the organisation in the past. The Summer activities have yet again proven popular – we’ve had chess afternoons, DJ workshops, an open air library, a knitting circle plus lots of live music and the outdoor screening of movies in the original soundtrack (always a winner with me). The Botin Centre choir of 60 or so people sang in the gardens last week to close the Summer programme of activities. I wonder when they’ll start working on a few numbers for the inauguration?
SO THAT’S WHAT YOU CAN SEE – WHAT ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN’T
The Pachinko (The What?)
This Japanese term for pinball refers to the walkways (above ground floor level) that will link the two buildings – and will extend over the bay. I’m really curious as to how these will look. I’m sure it’ll be a popular point to survey the bay. My 2013 blogpost featuring the architectural models of the building is all I have to go on for now. I suppose I’ve a few months more to wait and see the real thing.
The Glass (Really)
I’m not usually the type of person that gets excited about tiles or windows but the Botin Centre’s glass walls should be pretty special. The Northern and Southern facades of the buildings will be fitted with a mechanical device between the panes of glass that will control the level of light that passes from outside into the Centre. Current documentation suggests that the brighter Southern facing panes of glass will have three levels of translucence while the Northern facing side will have two levels. I can’t wait to be inside the exhibition space and see how the works of art interact with the view of the bay. Can you imagine having the backdrop of the bay of Santander – one of the prettiest views I know – as part of your show?
Art, Art and More Art
A huge element of this project is to provide a major exhibition space for the Botin Foundation. I’m sure we are in for a treat with the inaugural Carston Holler show. He’ll know what to do with the light and the view for sure. While we wait to find out when that exhibition will take place, you can get a sense of what’s to come by popping across the road and under the arches of the Banco Santander building. That’s where you’ll find the Sol Lewitt exhibition that runs until Jan 2016. You can read the Botin Centre’s Artistic Director Benjamin Weil’s take on the artist here and see how the show was put together in an interview with John Hogan who drew for Sol Lewitt and is now Installation Director and Archivist at the Yale University Art Gallery.
I had to laugh when I heard a song by Carly Rae Jepson blaring from building site a few weeks ago. It hasn’t happened since BTW. Maybe an edict was issued to switch off the radio. Anyway, the song playing was ‘I really really really really really really like you.’ And I couldn’t help but smile because it’s true. I do like this place. And I’m excited for what it will mean for the entire city.
While I sip on my piping hot ‘café con leche’ in a charming bar on the newly pedestrianised street beside the building site, I allow myself to daydream about what the Botin Centre and the other cultural projects coming downstream can bring to the city. Of course, it’ll bring more people to the city’s beaches and the palace and Paseo de Pereda but it will also bring people to the part of the city that was wiped out in the 1941 fire. The fire broke out in Calle Cadiz where I was inducing myself with caffeine. At the moment, this neighbourhood gets by with its ‘aperitivo’ hour clientele. (The mussels, squid and vermouth have to be tried to be believed.) You can even find a TripAdvisor sticker or two in the area. I do look forward to being back here again when the Botin Centre has opened so I can eavesdrop on conversations in many languages about the art and the building itself. (I learned that it’s ok to eavesdrop when I heard Renzo Piano confess in an interview that he does it when he wants to get some feedback!)
And while I sip, I fast forward to a time when the international newspapers’ weekend sections and travel mags are running pieces on “The Top 10 Vermouth-Bars To Visit in Santander”. I imagine myself being asked about Santander in the old days before it was “on the map”.
As I hand my coffee cup and saucer back to the barman, I strikes me that I’m probably not alone. We are all crossing our fingers. We all want the Botin Centre to do so much. I’ll be back writing on this topic when the Centre opens to outline the impact on Santander but for now, I’ve got to skedaddle and have some of Santander’s great seafood with my rowing buddies…