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Cavern of life: Casa del Hombre, Corunna, Spain, by Arata Isozaki & Associates

Scan lili.zarzycki 2019 03 06 11 56 47 3

For his latest museum project, intended to demystify the inner workings of the human body, Arata Isozaki has created a calm, numinous cavern on the sea’s edge

Originally published in AR September 1995, this piece was republished online in March 2019 after Arata Isozaki won the 2019 Pritzker prize. 

Corunna, in the north-west corner of Spain, has a seafront largely occupied by the kind of scale-less concrete junk that surrounds most of the Mediterranean and the coast of Portugal. But at Corunna, there is one place where something much more sophisticated happens. This is the Domus, the Casa del Hombre (House of Mankind) which was finished earlier this year by Arata Isozaki. Its imperforate upper volume gently curves in two dimensions at the top of a rough granite cliff that dominates the beach, the Orzán inlet and the new boulevard to the Torre del Hércules. 

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The building’s curved skin is covered in a regular pattern of quite small, mostly grey slates. It is rather more like the elegant skin of a huge and amiable reptile rather than the wave or sail to which it has been compared. Between the bottom of the grey curve and the top of the rock, there is a band of windows in front of the restaurant over a cyclopean granite wall. 

The back (east side) of the building is quite different. It follows a jagged perimeter in plan that relates a little to the natural forms of the rising rocky site. This side is realised in more or less imperforate walls of pale grey Mondariz granite over the site-cast concrete structure, so the only obvious relationship of the interior and exterior is from the short (north and south) ends, where you get a glimpse of the inside of the curved wall. 

The main entrance is at the south end, where there is a great sequence of stairs and terraces of pink Porriño granite. The route penetrates the whole building, starting in a little grove at the top (east) side of the site, falling under the structure (the lecture theatre) and emerging in a series of generous terraces that overlook the sea. It has a rather unsatisfactory termination in the south-west corner of the site where it ends up in a little flight that runs down diagonally to the level of the boulevard. A side flight of the great stair leads up to the open porch, formed by making two large rectangular holes in one of the angular projections of the back wall. A diagonal path across the upper part of the site conveniently brings most visitors to the porch from the town. 

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As soon as you go through the double glass doors, the nature of the building becomes clear. A series of overlapping trays of exhibition area hover over each other within the big curving space. Perhaps I should have said before, but the building is devoted to exploring the nature of humanity, physically and psychologically, and as individuals as well as members of society. It is one of those science centres which, by and large, do not show real exhibits, but reveal knowledge in interactive electronic displays. The last shown here was Heurika near Helsinki (AR March 1990), but Spain has quite a large number of them, with Corunna’s 1985 Casa de las Ciencias being the first publicly owned one. Although on a different site, Domus is in some ways an extension of the earlier enterprise. 

The platforms are divided into areas for explaining parts of the body such as the brain and the foot, and more abstract notions such as sight, hearing and reproduction. The jagged back wall of the building makes much more sense from the inside, for the zigs and zags form bays that can be adapted to focus individual subjects. Platforms are linked by long gentle ramps (as well as by stairs and a lift). The ramps run parallel to the tangent of the curve of the western wall towards the north end of the plan, and they provide a gentle progression through the excitements of the displays, culminating in a walk-through two-level model of the human heart. 

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But the ramps also reveal the finest thing about the building, which I have left to last. The interior of that great curved west wall is ribbed and painted white, and the whole wall is illuminated by light falling along its length from a generous skylight. Depending on time and weather, shadows cast by the structure and glazing bars of the roof-light amplify or contrast with the curves of the wall, which themselves are emphasised by the shadows of the ribs. 

There is something calm and grand about this great sweep of light and space which contrasts satisfactorily with the ephemeral electronic displays. It is to be hoped that future curators will realise how important its message is, and do not succumb to what must already be a pressing temptation: to obscure with yet more exhibits the nobility of the gesture.

Casa del Hombre

Architect: Arata Isozaki & Associates

Photographer: Carlos Dominguez