In 14 days I get to explore inside Centro Botín for the first time so I thought I’d give one last look at the site beforehand and explain why this patch of land in Santander means so much me.
Back in 2007, when I moved to this coastal city in Northern Spain, I described it to friends abroad as the place where Banco Santander started out. I spoke of the elegant squares and long sandy beaches, the former Royal palace and the pretty port looking onto the bay. But I might as well have been reading from a brochure. Back then I didn’t really feel any real affinity towards any of its buildings until five years ago when I stumbled upon this building site. That’s when my eyes were finally opened to the world of architecture. I took my first photo of the building site on a Sunday morning in January 2013 and soon after, I started this blog and posted The New Botín Centre in Santander – What’s it all about?
Seven posts later and my affection for the space continues to grow but I rarely ask myself why. So, in addition to presenting my latest photos here, I’m going to reflect on why I like this place. Those of you who know my family in Ireland can probably see that the heady cocktail of art, architecture and design was always going to win me over. But it wasn’t at all obvious to me back then.
I’m not sure how but somewhere, in the midst of the cranes, diggers and skips, I found a place that gave me a real sense of hope and possibility. And as it was taking root in the city, I was able to do the same. I found myself attending architecture lectures in the city and becoming interested in other buildings. I wrote about the Isla de la Torre, the food market, the fish auction house, the Tabacalera building… As I researched and wrote, I also craved information on the Centre. I signed up as a Friend when the option became available in 2014 and enjoyed dissecting its newsletters and taking part in live online chats with members of the technical team. I also stood in line to be one of the first people to walk into the re-designed Pereda Gardens in 2014. I took part in site visits to gain more information about the design. I went to the outdoor film screenings to see how effective the amphitheatre would be. I attended workshops on creativity with my family in 2016 inside the Villa Iris – one of the perks for being a Friend. And in between all these events, I walked the site. And now – very sadly in one respect, this phase is coming to an end. As I await the official opening in a city that feels so much more mine than ever before, I feel very grateful – to whom or what – I’m not sure – but grateful.
Over the past five years, I’ve became very fond of certain elements. It started with the petrol station. One day, I was walking around the site when I realised how pretty the curved roof was. At the time, it was due to be demolished but thankfully sense prevailed and today the petrol station is serving liquids of a different variety.
I also loved the ceramic tiles from the start. Maybe because they remind me of a polka-dot dress I wore as a child. I love how they manage to look both retro and futuristic at the same time. And they are so effective at reflecting the light. Renzo Piano must be both relieved and thrilled with them. When I see them in a photo, I have to pinch myself – they look so good.
When Pereda Gardens re-opened, I learned to appreciate how inventive landscape gardening can be thanks to Fernando Caruncho’s clever design. My camera adored the new lines he created that seemed to interplay so well with the two volumes of the Centre. And his use of trees – which was fulfilling Renzo Piano’s desire to hide the building – it’s practically impossible to get a photo without a branch or part of a tree in view.
The two structures have also impressed me. It’s rather bold to produce not one but two spaces. I love how it looks like the buildings have been sliced apart and enjoy the contrast of the rounded edges with the sharp incision. The Pachinko provides access from one side to the other and also offers great views of the bay.
I also enjoyed finding an Irish connection. I had to dig a little but I did find it in the Irish structural engineer Peter Rice who worked with Renzo Piano on his early projects. Suddenly I was visiting exhibitions about structural design, understood what a gerberette was and was reading reports by ARUP and following them and other contractors on Twitter.
I thought that perhaps I might stop liking the building as it progressed. But this was not the case. At each stage, I seemed to like it more. I had no problem talking myself into nearby buildings to appreciate it from different vantage points. I found my favourite angles – places I like to stand and observe the place and take some snaps. I picked up a camera – a decent one – and although I’m still muddling through, I am always amazed at the results.
As I flick through some of the photos now, I’m amazed at the mind and might of an architect. And Emilio Botín’s choice of architect in Renzo Piano speaks so much to me. Piano’s optimism and seemingly gentle manner in interviews (although I imagine this is not always the case) is very encouraging to anybody who wants to learn about architecture. I liked learning about the importance of light through him and the way he chose materials that would integrate with the site. I liked the way he united the city with the bay – although I’d probably have preferred more traffic to be re-routed around the city (as he initially had suggested) but the underground tunnel does engage some of the city directly with the waterfront now.
And the more I read about the centre, the more hopeful I become about Fundación Botín’s ongoing work especially its educational programmes. I’ve personally benefitted from taking part in six workshops run by the Foundation and saw the value of creativity, not for art’s sake but for my own sake. I appreciated how, no matter what I am working on, I can be more effective by setting down tools occasionally and doing something different. That doesn’t mean taking a week off to go on a photography course or learning to make stained glass although I quite fancy doing both at some point. All you need is 5 or 10 minutes away from your desk to tell a story – even a silly one, draw a cartoon, make a collage or do a dance or movement of some sort. It can be on your own or with others. Art and creativity, it seems, have transformative powers and we should learn not to resist them. I’ve stopped trying anyway and embrace creativity in whatever guise and frequency I can.
Just as it can transform people, art can transform cities. I’ve already written on the Guggenheim effect and whether Centro Botín will have a similar fate in my previous post. I was in awe when I read the recent piece by the Telegraph: Centro Botín: How Renzo Piano’s new building will make Santander a global destination that spoke of this type of Guggenheim effect without once referring to the Guggenheim at all. A real achievement!
As I count down the next fortnight, I wonder now how my relationship with the building will change when it opens. I hope that when I step inside, it will be just as special as it has been from beyond the fencing. Will the views of the bay be as good as I hope? Will it still feel like a place where I can go to mull things over? Will it become THE meeting place from now on? Will Renzo Piano be there and will he actually like it? Will the food be as good as I hope at Jesus Sanchez’ restaurant? What will the launch be like? What will the King Felipe and Queen Letizia say on the day? Will I like the Carsten Holler exhibits? And the Goya drawings? Will it be a success? How will that be measured by Fundación Botín and the 172,656 people that live in the city?
Not long now I tell myself. Not long now. I’ll leave you with my parting image and hope that those of you who are near enough to enjoy the opening – will do exactly that.