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Water Museum by Juan Domingo Santos, Lanjarón, Spain

A new water museum for an Andalusian spa town captures the physical qualities of water in a part of Spain where the historical relationship between architecture and water began with the Moors. Photography by Hisao Suzuki

The town of Lanjarón on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada, Andalusia’s great mountain range, is famous for its local crafts, honey and mineral water. Produced by five natural springs, Lanjarón water is sold throughout Spain and one of the country’s most famous spas was established here centuries ago. Visitors are still drawn by the medicinal qualities of the waters and the town’s equable climate. When the balneario is open, from March to December, Lanjarón’s population is swollen by spa tourists who come from all over Spain to take the waters.

Designed by Granada-based architect Juan Domingo Santos, this project for a water museum recognises the part that water has played (and still plays) in the town’s history. But beyond the concept of water as an industrial, curative or technological resource, it also has a powerful phenomenological dimension.

Throughout Andalusia, under the influence of the Moors, water was appropriated not only for irrigation, but also for display and effect.

Most famously at the Alhambra palace, fascination with water reached its height with a labyrinth of cooling fountains and pools to reflect light and bring inanimate surfaces to life. For the Moors, architecture was not merely a static object, but something to be sensed and experienced by the whole body. In its more modest way, the new museum also celebrates these elusive experiential qualities.

The project began with a search for a site with water flowing through it, eventually alighting on an area to the north-east of town at the entrance to the Sierra Nevada National Park. The site lies in a steeply sloping gulley next to the Lanjarón river and an irrigation ditch that used to serve the now disused local abattoir. A specially devised pedestrian itinerary connects the new museum with historic examples of water-related building types, such as old watermills and a public laundry.

Water Museum by Juan Domingo Santos

This reciprocity between old and new underscores the entire project. The plain stone sheds of the former abattoir are refurbished and adapted for museum use. New corrugated metal roofs and white rendered walls enhance the dignity and simplicity of the original vernacular architecture. During the course of remodelling, it was discovered that the buildings were originally used as watermills, giving the project an added archaeological dimension.

Water is both the physical and metaphorical theme of the museum, and its cooling, shimmering presence suffuses the array of buildings and courtyards. From the river and irrigation ditch, water is channelled into a series of interconnecting pools that thread through the museum.

A new courtyard made from stacked prefabricated concrete blocks and studded with a grid of orange trees contains a shallow reservoir which is flooded by water at different times of the day. The pool is lined with horizontally sliced trunks of eucalyptus.

‘The shade and scent of the orange blossom, the sound of the water and the reflections when the courtyard is flooded all create a refreshing atmosphere,’ says architect Juan Domingo Santos.

A tall, narrow pavilion hovering over another pool marks the museum’s entrance. Domingo Santos describes it as ‘a space for the senses’. Two openings draw in the visitor and invite them to experience the effects of light and shade. The shallow film of water intensifies the experience - ‘a sensation similar to Islamic bath-houses,’ says Domingo Santos. The slatted Finnish fir panels recall the simple wooden structure that first enclosed Lanjarón’s Capuchina Spring in the 18th century, marking the beginning of the town’s development as a spa.

The two main pavilions are used as audiovisual rooms and a third building hosts thematic exhibitions of the museum’s contents. In one pavilion, a glass panel is employed for visual projections. The panel is anchored in a pool, and light bounces off the iridescent surfaces of glass and water, sending scintillating reflections around the stone walls. The exhibition literally brings the building to life, but the project itself also has a memorable lyricism in the way that it revives long dormant structures and sensitively reconnects them with the town’s history.

Architect Juan Domingo Santos, Granada, Spain
Project team Juan Domingo Santos, Julien Fajardo, Isabel Díaz Rodríguez, Carmen Moreno Álvarez, Margarita Martínez Barbero

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