Inside and Out – Renzo Piano’s Centro Botín in Santander

What can I say about Centro Botín? That it is every bit as good as I had hoped and even better? That I was rendered almost speechless after my visit? That I didn’t want to leave? That I am more enraptured by the beauty of great design than ever before?

renzo piano centro botin

Inside and up high! My first visit to Centro Botín on June 21 2017

A Golden Ticket
As you can see it was a grey cloudy day when I breezed by the security barrier to explore the centre a day before the official inauguration – feeling like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory with a winning golden ticket. Slipping past the smartly dressed and efficient Centro Botín staff with clipboards, I couldn’t believe I was finally inside. I grabbed my press badge and went to wander.

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Enjoying the new angles of Centro Botín. I’m on a walkway here and feel like I’m flying over the bay

Renzo Piano at Centro Botín
In the following six hours, I was to experience one of the most enthralling mornings of my life. Although the art and the building were at times overwhelming, the calm presence of Renzo Piano was really what made the morning extra special. Just like the Centre eclipses the art (for now at least), Renzo Piano managed to eclipse his own design which was quite an achievement. His outlook and his anecdotes not to mention his time and his nature were unforgettable. And when I chose to take the architecture tour, I never expected that Renzo himself would be taking us round. He did so with good humour and gusto – exploring inside and out – up and down. Hard to imagine this man will be 80 in September – they don’t make them like the used to!

renzo piano centro botin

L-R: Udo Kittelmann, Director of the Nationalgalerie Berlin; Carsten Holler, artist; Ana Botín, Chairman of Santander Group; Renzo Piano, architect; Javier Botín, President of Fundación Botín; and Cristina Iglesias, sculptor.

The Weather
Renzo Piano did keep us all waiting – I’m not sure Ana Botín is used to standing around but she did so with style and good humour. After a photo call, we moved into the auditorium and Renzo cheered us all up saying he had designed the building for a grey day like today. “Today is a classic Santander day – and where this building is coming from. Salty water is my natural habitat – so I’m just happy. I’m happy because this is a place for people. I love making places for people. And the light is part of it. Light is one of the most important materials.” I could have done with a little more for some of these images but if it’s good enough for Renzo, it’s good enough for me.

renzo piano centro botin

Renzo tells us he designed Centro Botín for days like these…

The Concept
Describing how he came up with the design, he explained: “I came here and I found the light and the spirit of the city.” Again, the weather played its part. He spoke of how people rushed to get out for a stroll in between showers. “After it rains, everybody goes out for the paseo – but the paseo stopped here,” he said physically pointing to where we were sitting, which used to be a carpark for the ferry terminal.

He spoke frequently about his partnership with Emilio Botín with whom he hatched the plan of suspending the building in the air. “If you put the building in the ground, then you close the view of the bay. So, we immediately decided that the building should fly. You only understand that when you come to a place, when you walk around, when you talk to people. I listened. For the first six months, it was raining every time we came – but you know, rain here – I love it. It’s almost metaphysical.”

The Ceramic Tiles
When speaking about the mother-of-pearl tiles Renzo says they used ceramics firstly because they are a part of Spain’s history and secondly because they wanted to play with light. You can see just how elegant they are on a grey day – and they take on a different personality in the sunshine which you’ve seen in previous posts.

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The mother-of-pearl ceramic tiles on the roof terrace with Santander in the distance

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I’ve waited years to walk underneath these curved volumes. The polka-dot ceramics are every bit as classy up close as they are in the distance

On Beauty
Responding to a question about people and movement, Renzo looked back to his early days in Paris. “Movement is the fourth dimension. This idea is not new. We started this a long time ago in Centre Pompidou with the movement of people and escalators as part of the idea.” That’s why Renzo says he made the Pachinko – to create movement between the art, music and education. The real function of buildings such as this, he says, is to become places for people to meet, and to be together. “It’s fundamentally a place to change people. Because beauty and art and understanding and knowledge – beauty changes people. Beauty makes people better people.”

renzo piano centro botin

It’s fundamentally a place to change people says Renzo Piano about Centro Botín. Here are some of us engaging with Carsten Holler’s pieces while on the walkabout with Renzo…

Herding the Elephants
Forty years ago, the challenge was to preserve the historical centres according to Renzo. “And it did work because city centres are preserved – a bit too much – because they are becoming shopping streets now. This building is not on the periphery – it’s in the centre and it’s fantastic – but it was for shipping traffic and now it’s part of the city. We’ve opened it up. It’s transforming a part of the city that was doing something else. Rather than making cities bigger by making another periphery, we should pay more attention and intensify and give quality to the city –by implosion not by explosion.”

Renzo also spoke about the restoration of old port towns and highlighted the Ferry Terminal by Ricardo Lorenzo which he said has its charm and would be easy to make it into a public building, but he added that cities are like elephants – they have a slow metabolism and can take decades to change. This contrasted with the efficacy of his partner in crime, Emilio Botín. “You might not remember now,” he said to the assembled media, “but there was a big road here dividing the sea and the city. That road went down because Emilio Botín wanted it to go underground.” He also spoke about his team. “I don’t say ‘my’ idea because in architecture it’s always team-work. Architecture is never about one person.”

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We were reminded of the road that used to separate the park from the bay – which went underground thanks to Emilio Botin, according to Renzo Piano.

Emilio Botín – the Fisherman 
Everybody who spoke, referred to the former chairman of Santander Group, and Renzo was no exception. “I have to make an homage to Emilio Botín because Emilio was a client who understood. You may be a good architect but you certainly need a good client to make a good building, for sure. If you don’t have a good client, that trusts you, to give you strength and love, you get in trouble. If this building was on the ground, everybody coming from the city would say ‘thank you but you took away my view of the sea’. This building doesn’t take away – it gives back.” Renzo went on to explain how by being on stilts, the buildings would provide shelter from the sun, wind and rain and said Emilio was on board straight away without hesitation. “Emilio was a man that loved water. He was a fisherman. I’m a sailor  – and he was a fisherman – nobody’s perfect – and he loved the water. He was a banker too – I know – but he loved the water and the light. He got it.”

Renzo referred to him on many occasions throughout the morning including on the walkabout when he said “we don’t see him but maybe he is here”, adding that when he asked Emilio why he wouldn’t get a sailing boat, Emilio answered that you can’t fish with a sail. Later on, Renzo described how they went fishing together and called him “an extraordinary man”. Adding that he was also a very busy man, Emilio somehow made the time for about 30 visits to Renzo’s studio. Renzo said Emilio enjoyed talking over the design and he praised his ability to make quick decisions when they needed to be made.

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Renzo and some of his buddies including Fernando Caruncho in Pereda Gardens. There was a lot of camaraderie but it was easy to tell that Emilio Botín was sorely missed by Renzo and the Botín family. Javier Botín said to Renzo and Luis Vidal, “we never thought it would respond so precisely to what Emilio Botin had commissioned. Congratulations and thanks.”

Changing Designs
When asked at one point whether much had changed since the early plans, Renzo said that the centre was always going to be a meeting place, that it had to fly so as not to take away the light, and that it would be two volumes rather than one. He said the exact nature of the ceramic tiles wasn’t defined at the beginning. And he said that the exact shade of blue/green used by Fernando Caruncho in Pereda Gardens wasn’t fixed at the outset either, adding it would have been so easy to go for a grey but they decided not to. What did change in the building’s design came as a result of listening. “It’s very important to listen, even when what is being said doesn’t make sense,” and Renzo described a meeting attended by himself and Luis Vidal where a person (who might be here today, he added) suggested that they needed to revise the exact location. Renzo described himself and Luis going to the Mercado del Este and deciding that the market entrance would guide the axis or pathway to lead people towards the centre.

renzo piano Centro botin

I wasn’t the only one who was pinching myself to find that Renzo was giving the tour of the centre and the gardens. We were all enraptured!

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Some of Santander’s residents were curious to see who was being filmed. Little do they know that Renzo will be watching them as eagerly as they were watching him…

That Nameless Building in Bilbao
It was inevitable that questions would be asked about the Guggenheim and whether this space would resemble its Basque neighbour. A question in the main press briefing was deflected to Benjamin Weil who spoke from a curatorial point of view but Renzo had to answer it head on a few more times though, admitting he didn’t like to talk about it. He said buildings are the product of a loyalty between the architect and the client and that he wouldn’t have accepted a commission that was trying to replicate or mirror anything else. He clarified by saying that he has his work to do, just like we had ours. “Do you wake up in the morning saying you are going to write the book of the century?”. Although it was a clever line – you could tell he was actually a bit irked by the line of questioning.  He continued, “I do what I do. We don’t accept every job we are offered. We’re like a restaurant with a small number of tables. We’re professionals – we design and we love.”

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Inside on the first floor of the right-hand side structure where you’ll find ‘Art at the Turn of the Century’ on show. It was quiet when I saw this section at 8am. it’ll be busier now, for sure…

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Inside the auditorium on the left-hand side structure. A rehearsal was taking place – how inspirational is this backdrop?

Struggles Along the Way
Towards the end of the morning, Renzo was asked whether it had been a difficult childbirth – which sounds unusual in English but in Spanish is quite a normal way to ask whether it had been a struggle. Renzo said he wanted to reassure us that it wasn’t like that at all. “Emilio Botín asked me whether I could do the building in 18 months and I said we’d try. Maybe he had a premonition or a desire for it to be done quickly. But you can’t make a building like this in that time – just like you can’t make a person in less than nine months. We didn’t have structural problems. A 300-metre-long tunnel is no joke. And the gardens. You can make an office block in 18 months but not something like this. I know it’s been a long wait for you here but it wasn’t a ‘difficult birth’.”

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You can build an office-block in 18 months but not something like this, says Renzo Piano. This is the second floor of the art space where Carsten’s work is on show

Smiling on Hold Until Saturday
I had a few questions lined up before the briefing but because they either seemed to have already been covered or were no longer relevant, I asked Renzo Piano what made him smile about the building. A simple question, I thought, but I had to repeat it, in both English and in Spanish to the confusion of the translators no doubt. Eventually with some help from Fatima Sanchez, the director of Centro Botín, Renzo said very eloquently:

“I’m looking forward to Saturday morning [when the building opens to the public]. This is the moment when you get a reaction – when you understand whether they love the building. It’s made for people – so we will see.” Referring to the building’s sense of openness and accessibility, Renzo took us back to Paris and the Centre Pompidou, “When I was young and a bad boy, together with Richard Rogers we made the Centre Pompidou, which was the first case when a building was outrageous – the building was about art and about people.”

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The interaction between the centre and the gardens is a joy to experience

renzo piano centro botin

The sea-blue colour of the pathways works wonderfully with the ceramic tiles, steel and glass Pachinko walkway and of course the city and the park

“Culture should not be intimidating – it should be part of the city. I think it will work. The other thing that will work – today is grey – but if you look around the building, you can see the reflection of the water. Water makes things beautiful – it’s well known. And this building – it’s flirting with the water.” So, he was officially and humbly holding back his smiles until Saturday. He did speaking of the bittersweet moment that happens when he hands over a building. “It’s joy but it’s also a sad moment. This building was ours but will be given to the community of Santander. Like a child, it goes away.”

I know what he means. I feel a bit sad too. My days of peering in at a building site are over. My friends and family might not see it this way of course as they get to actually visit something rather than stand around scaffolding.

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Fernando Caruncho is the landscape gardener who’s worked with Renzo Piano since the project was conceived. I spoke to him about those blue pathways which have faded in tone, allotments in Portugal and being happy about a job well done.

The Contents…

When Goya’s drawings and a night at the museum come so far down in the list, you know the bar is set very high. All three exhibitions on show are beautifully curated and work together wonderfully.  If you’ve been to the Foundation’s previous exhibition space, quite a few of the names will be familiar. And I think I saw quite a few of the artists present as well. The talking point for many first-time visitors though is going to be Carsten Holler – and his bed, his tunnel, his sliding doors, the shower and all the other exhibits on the second floor. I’m actually very partial to the lift that takes you from ground level to the top too – which is designed to hold 6,500kg or 86 people if they fit – that is. It sort of sets you up for the fun.

renzo piano centro botin

Agility and Audacity is the name of the Goya exhibition of drawings inside but it just as easily applies to the building

Carsten was at the briefing and agreed with the commentary that his art is like a funfair. “I always like the idea of an amusement park as a place in the city where you can find a display of different forms of behaviour – a place where you can be different and experience a certain amount of madness. But the amusement park is just for your body – it’s just machines that twist you around – so here what we have is an amusement park that is more for the mind – you expose yourself to the amusement of the mind – so yes, this is an amusement park but a new one in this new building. And I’m very happy to have the chance to present it here.” I won’t spoil the surprise but his work is actually great fun. It’s all about experiences, which could feel a little superficial, but somehow Carsten adds an elegance and quirkiness and, I don’t need to say anymore. You will be won over. But you know that already – you wouldn’t have read this far if you hadn’t already been hooked. There’s nothing left to say other than make sure you plan a visit to this wonderful space. I can’t imagine anybody not being completely enchanted.

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The first of the selfies overlooking the bay of Santander

And after you visit, I recommend popping into the cafe to give you the time and energy to digest what you’ve seen in equally great surroundings. I sorely needed a dose of caffeine after such an intense morning and El Muelle delivered. I’ll be back to check out the rest of the menu in due course…

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The orange coloured flooring and the ceramic tiled ceiling is just part of the reason to check out the cafe and shop in El Muelle at Centro Botín


  1. Fantastic photos, Pamela. Thank you for sharing this exciting project. I love the pale blue pavements. Such a beautiful setting for a very special building. Your excitement is contagious!

    1. Thanks so much Barbara. It’s been really enjoyable to follow its progress and I’m looking forward to enjoying the many events and exhibitions in addition to lots of strolls on those very pavements. All my best, Pamela

  2. ladywriterSDR · · Reply

    Reblogged this on ladywriterSDR and commented:
    Totally agree, Pam. I initially thought the building would block the views -and it still does, but in a very subtle way- it is so light and beautiful that you don’t get the feeling it shouldn’t be there-. Plus the inside is absolutely amazing! I was thrilled by the glass, the views, the music and the different activities. It is a great space that will be enjoyed by everybody!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it too Laura – it really is so impressive inside and out. Must meet up there some day over the Summer 🙂

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