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Andalusia's Museum of Memory by Alberto Campo Baeza, Granada, Spain

The huge imposing slab of Andalusia’s Museum of Memory forms a monumental gateway to the museum and adds to the edge of town site’s growing sense of place

To publicise the recent opening of Andalusia’s Museum of Memory, the buses in Granada bear the legend Bienvenido Futuro (‘Welcoming the Future’), alongside a huge image of Alberto Campo Baeza’s new building. It shows a towering, planar block, its concrete facade utterly blank except for a long slot gouged along the top and a smaller opening cut into its base. It has an air of unreality, like an abstract and slightly menacing version of a triumphal arch. If this is the future, then it comes with an Orwellian twist. More two-dimensional than three, its reductivist, graphic quality has made it the obvious choice for the museum’s logo; building as symbol, literally emblematic of Granada’s newest cultural institution.

Yet though it’s easy to label Baeza’s well-rehearsed architecture of understatement as ‘minimalist’ (or worse), in truth it is shaped by more complex attitudes to space, light and materiality. Uncompromising geometry is tempered by sensuality - the way light moves, the colour or sheen of a particular stone, how built form relates to landscape. His approach is rooted in the immemorial Iberian qualities of plainness, whiteness and impermeability, all unsentimentally reinterpreted for the modern age. In Granada’s altiplano milieu of searing light and heat, this elegant distillation of the vernacular assumes a special resonance.

While the great city of al-Andalus still parades the floridity and languor of its Moorish past for the tourists, Baeza’s Granada is a tougher and altogether more contemporary proposition. His site is a generic non-place on the edge of town, where a miasma of nondescript housing and business parks seeps off into a dull plain below the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Spain’s main north-south motorway cuts straight past the site, the constant thrum of traffic suggesting that people are always on their way to somewhere else.

Yet this glum frontier has somehow become a new point of civic gravity, with a cluster of showpiece buildings. An early pioneer was the headquarters for Caja Granada, a local savings bank, also designed by Baeza (AR August 2002). The bank is the client for the new museum and the two buildings, which occupy adjacent sites, have a clear formal and material reciprocity. A new science museum by Carlos Ferrater also opened earlier this year and Kengo Kuma is developing proposals for an opera house. Clearly the aim is to infuse this disregarded edge with enough transformatory impetus to draw people and institutions out of the city centre, but at the moment it still has the stuttering feel of a work in progress.

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Baeza is acutely aware of the need to conjure up some sense of place among a disconnected assemblage of object buildings. So his monumental blank wall turns out not to be just some perverse, megalomaniac whim; rather, it is intended to be used as a giant public screen, showing films, sporting events and exhibition highlights. The original site plan also shows the podium at the slab’s base extending up towards the motorway to define a new public plaza and gathering place. Municipal timidity has rebuffed such enlightened urbanistic intentions for now, but once a sense of momentum is achieved, things may change.

Baeza’s relationship with Caja Granada dates back to the early 1990s when he won a competition to design the bank’s new headquarters, consolidating its various offices in a single building on the periphery. Turning an ordinary brief into an extraordinary meditation on stone and light, Baeza lined an atrium with alabaster, while corpulent columns (their girth the same as those in Granada’s 16th-century cathedral) held up a deep, gridded roof. More pharaohic mausoleum than bank offices, it clearly cemented a rapport between client and architect. Spanish financial institutions are obliged to pursue some form of cultural remit, so this latest project combines what is essentially a local history museum devoted to things Andalusian (from its earliest prehistoric settlement to flamenco and the poet Lorca), together a small theatre and galleries for Caja Granada’s considerable art collection. For Campo Baeza, it presented a tantalising opportunity to extend and extemporise on the dialogue begun by the bank building, ‘like the second line of a poem’, says project architect Alejandro Cervilla García.

The museum’s arrangement of slab and podium replicates that of the bank, emphasising the relationship between the two. You can see at once that they spring from the same hand, and though only 6m wide, the slab is also the same storey height and length as the bank. Together they read as a pair of powerful, duelling, vertical elements anchoring the unresolved, peripheral landscape. Visible from near and far - from the cars whizzing along the nearby motorway as well as the hills of the Alhambra - they decisively signpost the new urban order taking shape around them.

While the bank is a hollowed-out block, the slab is a set of stacked floorplates, and really does function as a triumphal arch, dominantly straddling a sunken entrance courtyard where the blare and dislocation of the surroundings are neutralised by high concrete walls. However, the real public meat of the programme - three levels of exhibition galleries and a theatre - is contained in the long, low podium structure, which is precisely and symmetrically perforated by an elliptical patio.

Within its curved embrace, a spiralling double ramp transports visitors around the three levels of galleries, so you can construct your own museum promenade.

As Baeza freely admits (to the point of putting penguins on the sections), it recalls the radical, carousel swirls of Tecton’s famous London zoo enclosure, but its proportions also have a more historic lineage, based on Charles V’s 16th-century palace at the nearby Alhambra, a robust Italianate palazzo with a circular colonnaded courtyard.

At street level, the walls of the podium are strategically punctuated by big square openings that cut through to the patio, giving glimpses of the building’s secret heart. Though the slab is more conspicuous it is, paradoxically, less publicly accessible, containing the museum’s offices and a library. However the top-floor restaurant (the enigmatic slot in the blank wall), is open to all, complete with a mood-enhancing backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. From here, as well as from the bank building, the roof of the podium reads as a carefully constructed fifth elevation, a Cartesian grid surgically penetrated by the elliptical courtyard, like a great white eye.

Whiteness is the building’s (and Baeza’s) recurring theme - but as you discover, there are many kinds of white.

The blinding, iceberg brilliance of the patio and ramp, the cool, veined, creaminess of the marble floors, the calm, neutral white of the galleries and the dirty greyish white of the external walls. The entirely black interior of the 300-capacity theatre was supposed to be a black yin to the yang of all this white, but the client rather spoiled the effect by installing red seats. Though Baeza would doubtless see it differently (achieving an exacting degree of detail is his raison d’être), it’s only a minor concession in an otherwise rigorously orchestrated tableau that makes a powerful statement about the changing character of a historic city and its still-evolving relationship with the forces of commerce and culture.

Architect Alberto Campo Baeza, Madrid, Spain
Project team Alberto Campo Baeza, Alejandro Cervilla García, Ignacio Aguirre López
Structural engineer Andrés Rubio Morán
Services engineer R Úrculo Ingenieros Consultores

Photography Fernando Alda

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