It happened just before Christmas. El País published a full-length article about Renzo Piano’s Botín Centre in Santander. Around the same time, the Botín Centre was included in an article on the BBC website entitled Buildings to Look Out For in 2017. In a bid to head off the inevitable “Guggenheimification” of Santander, I jotted down “10 Reasons Why the Botín Centre is Not the New Guggenheim”. But a funny thing happened.
Although the buildings are physically very different, (as you can see in these images from the Guggenheim website), the two projects share many aspects in common. If you’re ready to see what they are, join me in this very-lighthearted Guggenheim v Botín Centre debate.
1 The City of Santander v the City of Bilbao
If you are sitting at a desk in Williamsburg, chances are that you are scratching your head about this post. Surely both cities have a lot in common? Well, yes and no. Spain is a country of deep regional loyalty and these cities are in different regions. Yes, both are located in Northern Spain and the cities are only separated by a mere 100km (or 62 miles) of pretty decent motorway. And both have decent sized ports and a long tradition in maritime trade. And both are surrounded by mountainous terrain – as anybody who has flown into either can testify. But the similarities end there.
Santander is a much smaller city – about half the size of Bilbao actually – with a population of 176,000 compared to Bilbao’s 347,000. And there’s a huge difference when it comes to economic activity. The region of Cantabria (of which Santander is capital) accounts for just 1.2 percent of Spain’s GDP compared with the Basque Country which produces 6.07 percent of national GDP.
Although it seems almost hard to imagine now, Bilbao was a heavily industrialised city. Think Liverpool or even Birmingham (long before Selfridges Bull Ring which curiously reminds me a little of somewhere). And a huge part of the charm of the Guggenheim’s success was seeing how effectively a city with an industrial past could re-invent itself.
Santander has never really had to re-invent itself in the same way. It’s true that the 1941 fire destroyed much of the old city, and forced the authorities to undertake a massive rebuilding programme. But the case of Bilbao was and is different. Santander has never had the boom and bust of an industrial past. It relied instead on tourism ever since beach holidays became fashionable in the mid 19th century. Its biggest moment was attracting the Royal Family by offering the site for a Palace. And although it’s been 86 years since the Royal Family spent the month of August here, Santander still sounds glamorous and vaguely regal in the way that Brighton and Biarritz do too.
That’s not to say it hasn’t experienced its share of poverty and heartache. In less than a stone’s throw from the Botín Centre, you’ll find the statues of the Raqueros and the Machichaco memorial to back me up. But Santander is a very different city to Bilbao. In the same way that Edinburgh and Glasgow are very different. Both great histories and fantastic places to visit. But very different.
2 Renzo Piano & Frank O Gehry
If I found comparing Santander and Bilbao hard, this is even trickier. At its most basic you have the Italian architect Renzo Piano who designed the Botín Centre and Canadian-born Frank Owen Gehry who designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Renzo Piano was born in 1937 and Frank Gehry started out life in 1929. Both are Pritzker Prize winners – Renzo was awarded his in 1998 and Frank was a bit ahead of him in 1989. As you’d expect, their buildings and their personalities are radically different. But there are elements that are common to both the Guggenheim and the Botín Centre.
You could say that what Gehry has done in Bilbao with titanium, Renzo Piano is doing now in Santander with his polka-dot ceramic tiles. Both architects are seeking to reflect the light which is a good thing in Northern Spain. (It’s teeming rain right now and I was soaked to the skin earlier on this morning as well.) Perhaps, though, the manner in which they wanted to use the light is different. Gehry was seeking to reflect the light – in a bold way – to make the building dazzle even more – especially on a dull day. But I think Renzo Piano is seeking to reflect the light in a chameleon-esque way. He’s hoping the reflection of the water will make the Botín Centre connect and possibly even merge with the bay.
Piano is highly experienced when it comes to designing museums, not that you’d call Gehry a novice, mind. Renzo Piano’s first big job was on the Centre Pompidou (known as Beaubourg) which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and he’s been working his way through museum plans ever since. Read what he has to say about designing the perfect museum in this article from a few years back (which is still relevant today). While I’m not qualified (or bold enough) to say whether Piano has achieved perfection here (and many say he has not), I do think he has been rather clever. I like how hard it is to take a photo of the Centre in its entirety without being blocked by trees. I like how different the Centre looks as you walk around it. There is nothing uniform here. It’s elegant and it makes you scratch your head. And smile. I smile a lot around here.
3 Does Size Matter – Is Big Better?
In the case of the two buildings under scrutiny here, the square meterage varies significantly. Guggenheim Museum is almost twice the size of the Botín Centre. The Guggenheim consists of 11,000 square metres which is subdivided into 19 galleries. The Botín Centre is 6,000 square metres which is divided between two separate structures – one for the gallery spaces, the other for the auditorium. It was originally designed to be bigger but after a consultation with the city in September 2011, Renzo Piano decided to scale down his design by a third. “We do not want to give the impression of great size of arrogance,” he said in an interview with Richard Ingersoll in December 2011. The master speaks and I shall listen. Bigger isn’t always better.
4 Can Anything Be Better Than A Giant Puppy? The Art & Sculpture Debate
I don’t want to come across as too whimsical. It’s hard to compete with the joy the Guggenheim has brought over the past two decades. I still remember the first time I went and enjoyed an overdose of Basquiat. And every visit since has offered me something new – whether that’s a different take on the sculpture outside or exploring the work of an artist inside. It’s impossible to single out one piece. The populist in me would plump for Jeff Koons’ Puppy or even his tulips – both of which are obligatory photo stops. And I can’t forget that spider who goes by the name of ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois. And Richard Serra’s amazing snake called ‘The Matter of Time’. Each time I visit, I pause to think about the previous visit. Who was I here with? What did they like? Did they shout as they ran through the giant steel sheets? Did they get a soaking at the outdoor fountain?
How can Santander compete with all this? Well just like many visits to the Guggenheim, I expect the building itself in Santander will be a talking point. The Foundation is keen to create experiences too. Just take the choice of Carsten Holler for the inaugural exhibition. I’m already enjoying his lighting work in the re-modelled Pereda Gardens. And you can see some images of his work from a recent show in Milan – I wonder were these images perhaps lined up to be shown in the Botín Centre when it was expected to open in 2014? I can’t wait for the unveiling of the outdoor sculpture by Cristina Iglesias. And going on what I’ve recently enjoyed in the Botín Foundation exhibitions’, I’m in for many more treats. I’m still mesmerised by the Sol Lewitt drawings back in 2015. The Foundation has been in the business of buying and showcasing art for decades and the Botín Centre, with Art Director Benjamin Weil at its helm, has had time to prepare some curatorial surprises. I look forward to exploring each piece and, going forward, seeing how artists respond to the Centre and its location – because that’s essentially what really makes a good space great.
5 Are You Fading Away? What about the Cafés & Gift Shops?
Museum cafés are a life saver. When whoever you are meeting is running late. When you are taking the family around an exhibition and you need a break. When you’re from out of town and you are starving and you can’t work out when or where to eat. Bilbao has set the bar very high here.
It’s so easy to shop in the Guggenheim. The range and quality of the books has always been outstanding and I enjoy the quirky Puppy paraphernalia alongside the contemporary jewellery and design-led gifts. I’ve no idea about what type of gift shop is coming to Santander. The Botín Foundation has been printing its own books and catalogues for years so I’m sure that side of things will be well-catered for. I’m looking forward to seeing what souvenirs will be created. If you find a Renzo Piano keyring, mug or tea-towel inside your letterbox next Christmas, you know who to thank…
In the Guggenheim today, you can grab a coffee and sandwich or opt for a real dining experience in the Nerua restaurant run by Michelin-star chef Josean Alija. In Santander, the Michelin-starred chef Jesus Sanchez behind the museum’s café and restaurant was just awarded his second Michelin star a few weeks ago so the standard should be excellent. His restaurant is called Cenador de Amos and it’s in Villaverde de Pontones which is a 20-minute drive outside the city so it’ll be great to have a place of his in the city. The space isn’t huge in the Botín Centre so it’ll be a challenge for him to create on site. He also has a catering company so he is well-rehearsed on prepping on one site and plating up at another, if needs dictate that happens. Of course, I can’t not mention the very cute petrol station café in Pereda Gardens. I love the fact that the station was preserved and while it’s not gourmet-fare, it’s a great place to have a cold beer as the kids run around on the playground.
6 Does Age Matter in this Debate?
Although the Guggenheim in Bilbao is celebrating its 20th anniversary and the Botín Centre has yet to open, the Botín Foundation, which is the parent body, is technically longer in the tooth as it dates back to 1964. That’s when Marcelino Botín Sanz de Sautuola and his wife, Carmen Yllera established their privately-run organisation with an arts and culture remit, as well as education, science and rural development. In fact, the Botín Centre was due to open in 2014 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the foundation but a few hiccups along the way meant the completion date was pushed out. I’ve been to many exhibitions and events run by the foundation and loved taking part in a brilliant series of workshops on “Art, Emotions & Creativity” in the Villa Iris space with my family last year. We were guinea-pigs in a trial programme being developed for the Botín Centre, so if you can go, I highly recommend it.
The Guggenheim is also a stalwart when it comes to activities and events. I’ve yet to make it to the Art After Dark live music events but it would be cool to see something like that happen in the Botín Centre. It’s ok to borrow ideas, isn’t it? It always seems a pity to close museums when night falls. I think many cities and buildings look their best after dark and the success of Culture Night in Ireland goes to show how I’m not the only one who thinks that.
7 And What About the, erm, Budgets?
It’s 20 years since the Guggenheim opened its doors to the public back on 19 October 1997. The four-year construction project is said to have cost the Basque authorities 84 million euro to build. Two decades on, and, yes, the costs here are a bit higher. The build began in Santander on 21 June 2012 and the figures from the Botín Foundation’s annual reports show expenditure of 87.5 million euro up until to the end of 2015. (I’ll add in the final figure below in the comments when it is available). I won’t go into discussing inflation and what the Guggenheim would have cost in real terms today. It’s not that kind of article. But it would be interesting to work out. If you do, please let me know what the figure is.
8 Water Features, In A Big Way
You’re never far from water in Northern Spain and yes, both the Guggenheim and the Botín Centre are beside water. The Guggenheim overlooks the River Nervión which was once considered a major black spot when it came to pollution. Not any more. You’re more likely to see somebody doing paddle-surf or canoeing than find anything remotely industrial going on. I rowed along here a couple of years ago and it was extremely pleasant. Of course, the authorities in Bilbao have really pulled it out of the bag when it comes to improving the walkway. It really is a pleasure to walk or take the tram along the Ría and enjoy the Zubizuri white bridge by Calatrava as you walk over to the Old Quarter.
Santander’s waterfront is actually a bay rather than a river so there’s quite an expanse to appreciate. I have of course, rowed here and while I’ve found it hard to squash in a session of late, it’s an experience that everybody should try at least once in a lifetime. I can’t wait to step out on the new walkways that connect the two buildings and soak up the views. This Pachinko or bridge that connects the two structures juts out over the bay so it’ll be a jittery but exhilarating experience. How many mobile phones are going to land in the water as people take selfies? I’ll make sure mine isn’t the first!
9 The Cities’ Highlights
Nobody travels to a city just for a museum (or very few at least) so if you like what you’ve read about the two museums, but have to decide on one, here’s a sense of what else you can see and do. I’ll start with Bilbao, which is a much larger city and in many ways, more international, while still having time to be proud of its own traditions and culture. Bilbao definitely has the upper hand when it comes to more ‘starchitect’ boxes to tick. I’m a big fan of the Fosterito metro entrances and the Philippe Stark designed cultural centre. Check out my blog on the city’s restored food market and more here. And if I haven’t mentioned the bridges enough, you could do a tour of Bilbao’s bridges alone. It’s a great city for foodies – try to get around to as many neighbourhoods as possible to see and taste the best of each.
Santander, while also proud of its own regional traditions, is a low-key city that is best known as destination for Summer holidays. It gets really busy in July and August when you’ll find visitors (mainly Spanish) enjoying the joys of the ‘aperitivo hour’, followed by long lazy lunches, a nap (on the beach or at home) and the afternoon stroll followed by some wines and something to nibble on. Foodies will want to check out the food market and everybody should take in a beach or two. (Do have a browse over the rest of my blogposts to get a sense of what the rest of the city looks like.)
Which city would I single out? It would have to be Santander with a day trip to Bilbao – although, you could of course, do the opposite too and go to Bilbao and take in a day trip to Santander. Both are so different – they are perfectly complimentary.
10 Can It Happen Again? Can the Combination of Art & Architecture Transform Yet Another City?
As countless PhD students have duly noted, the city of Bilbao took a risk and it really paid off. But it’s not always the case. We only have to look at the City of Culture by Calatrava in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia) and the stunning Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Aviles (Asturias) to know how challenging it is to run a museum. We all want to replicate the Guggenheim, it seems, according to this article by the Guardian from 2015, but it’s not as easy as it seems and may not even be the right approach to take.
I also enjoyed a New York Times piece from 1997 called A Gleaming New Guggenheim for Grimy Bilbao which starts “Just months from its inauguration, with one work of art in place, several interior walls unfinished and the entrance plaza slippery with mud, the spectacular new Guggenheim Bilbao Museum designed by Frank O. Gehry is still something of a work-in-progress. Yet already, it seems, the $100 million building has won the hearts of many inhabitants of this industrial port city in Spain’s northern Basque region.. ” Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Of course, the Botín Foundation is very careful to play down all the ‘Guggenheim talk’, suggesting that this is simply a space for the city and its residents. Whilst I’m sure the new Mayor in Santander wants to enrich the cultural lives of her residents; she is also hoping the Centre will act as a catalyst in the same way that the Royal Palace did over one hundred years ago. That’s why the Town Hall donated the land on the Magdalena Peninsula then and that’s why it has handed over the highly-coveted site you see see here today.
A belated Happy New Year and thanks so much for bearing with me and reading this post. Have you been to Santander or Bilbao? Did you like what you found? Do you think the Botín Centre or the city of Santander should emulate Bilbao or the Guggenheim in any way? What should we do while we wait for the Centre to open? I’d love to hear your thoughts in English or Spanish…