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Sacred and profane: Archaeological museum in Seró, Spain, by Toni Gironès

Taking visitors on a ceremonial procession from daylight to chthonic depths, this museum in a Spanish hilltop village inculcates rough vernacular with a sense of the sacred

Seró, the site of this new museum housing fragments of megalithic sculptures found nearby in 2007, is a rural hamlet of scarcely 75 souls located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. In its isolation and its elementary urban condition, the settlement has provided Barcelona architect Toni Gironès with an ideal setting to re-examine the role of architecture in contemporary society: what sets a design apart from the merely functional agricultural buildings of the town, determined by brute necessity, and at the same time, what it can both take from and give back to those buildings, enriching our appreciation of their material qualities, structural strategies and relation to the cultivated landscape. By the same means, he explores how architecture might disentangle itself from popular notions of icon building and static representation, without losing its capacity to confer and extend the largesse of deep poetic resonance.

Underlying this dialogue with a contemporary rural vernacular, Gironès brings together the sacred and the profane: his work is both a small archaeological museum and the settlement’s only social centre, with a multi-purpose room and a would-be bar featuring local wines and other products. It thus combines flexible indoor and outdoor spaces with a highly choreographed architectural promenade and mise-en-scène, intended to wrap the megalithic fragments in an air of mystery.

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Location plan of Seró’s archeological museum by Toni Gironès

The project was financed by the Generalitat (the regional government of Catalonia) and the European Union. When excavations for an irrigation pipe revealed two burial mounds under three metres of sediment, dating back to 2800BC, authorities saw an opportunity to promote the region with a small museum. It houses the bones, jewellery and other artefacts from inside the tombs, and the stones that covered them, carved in abstract geometric motifs, which turned out to be broken pieces of two steles, one of which is seven metres high. Gironès was brought into the project following his competition-winning work on another archaeological site, a Roman palace in Montmeló, outside Barcelona. He completed the 500 square-metre project in 2013 for a construction cost of €350,000.

Though far from the routes of tourism and commerce, Seró is endowed with a potent, primal presence. Like other towns in the region, it is defensively sited atop a steep mount presiding over a valley, and crowned by a small church and semi-fortified feudal manor. Gironès came to Seró with the eye of the architect, trained to include in this impressive landscape, little changed since the Middle Ages, its contemporary accretions, such as the water towers and grain elevators that rival the church and castle in scale. In this spirit, he based the exposed concrete frame of his building on the region’s open shelters for storing hay, built of prefabricated concrete, which he calls local Parthenons. And while a municipal ordinance required new public buildings to be faced in stone, like the church and manor, he persuaded local authorities to approve more modest, baked clay finishes, closer in texture and tone to the mottled brick walls of the barns, pig farms and other utilitarian structures. This was his first basic step to recalibrate conventional notions of architectural representation.

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Project sketches

Following the same unprejudiced vision, he conceived the building not as an object, but rather as an element integrated into the terrain, like the town itself. Located between the weighing station at the base of the town and the countryside, the building negotiates the difference in level between the two. Its roof is level with the weighing station and is completely accessible, serving as a plaza ending in a series of switchback ramps that lead down to the entry, the first stage of the elaborate architectural promenade that Gironès lays out for visitors. The organisation of this promenade traces the layout of the building below it, with its division into two pavilions, dedicated to ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’ uses respectively, which face each other across a small court and are joined by a narrow passageway.

The roof is paved in crushed brick, with circulation and ramps in hollow bricks, their exposed pores filled again in broken brick. The upper plaza is scattered with large boulders, improvised benches salvaged from the dry stone walls of the vegetable garden formerly on the site (clumps of wild chard still pop up in the unplanted court). Intriguing discs and squares of glass at ground level are skylights that illuminate archaeological displays in a chamber below the plaza.

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Source: Aitor Estevez

Resembling a still extant building site with its rough rebar detailing and baked clay finishes, the new building squeezes between existing trees and is accessed from the village by crossing the roof and descending a ramp

This surface is delimited not by conventional balustrades, but rather by mats of unfinished rebar, the kind used in poured concrete slabs. Free vertical bars extend to form virtual walls, two metres high, around most of the roof, a screen that is transparent to cross views but materialises when seen in perspectival depth, framing and underlining the ceremony of circulation. At key points, Gironès cuts back this curtain of rebar to mark specific views.

‘There is something of the crypt, the pyramid and the labyrinth in this procession of sacred spaces. But you might draw back from such an over-produced management of experience’

The most dramatic use of this framing device occurs on the narrow passage that diverts visitors from the roof of the main pavilion to that of the second, freestanding volume. This is square in plan, with a cluster of seven raised rectangular skylights at its centre, which both illuminate and represent the seven fragments of the megalithic steles exhibited below. From a balcony, guides point out the location, some three kilometres across the valley, where they were discovered.

Returning to the main volume, the final stretch of ramps descends over the garden court in the form of an open latticework of rebar, ‘the structure of concrete without the concrete’, Gironès observes, spanning a stone wall and skirting a pair of hackberry trees.

The red clay finishes continue inside the building. Walls are of low-fired brick with a rough, raked texture designed to receive stucco, but which Gironès leaves exposed. Likewise, floors and ceilings are finished in large ceramic units designed for lightening concrete slabs. The walls of the wine-tasting room are lined with perforated ceramic units, whose large holes are intended for storing wine, and which are indeed filled with bottles. On the two outside walls, the bottles are empty, and stopped with corks in the winter to collect solar heat; a few can be removed for cross-ventilation in summer. To Gironès’ regret, this space is not used as a bar. The head of cultural affairs for the grouping of municipalities governing the hamlet sees such uses as undignified for a museum, he says.

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Source: Giovanni Longobardi

Locally discovered steles are housed in a tranquil, light-filled chamber

Next to the bar is a multipurpose room overlooking the garden court, followed by the first exhibit area, with a wall of explanatory panels illuminated by natural light from the square glass skylights in the plaza above, and 10 circular cases displaying artefacts from the tombs. These are illuminated by the circular skylights, whose cylindrical metal housings drop below the ceiling over each one.

From here visitors step through a door into the unconditioned spaces of the passageway and the second pavilion, where the walls are infilled with the large ceramic units of the wine bar, though here they are empty. Gironès winds visitors clockwise through passageways around the four sides of the pavilion, with a floor surface of increasingly finer-grained ground brick. This procession empties us into the half light of the central space, with its ‘Roland Garros’ clay floors, as Gironès points out, where the sculptural fragments stand, each bathed in the bright white light of its own personal skylight. The atmosphere is tinted in a reddish hue, and the exterior is faintly sensed through the layers of screens, creating a space that is radically removed from the everyday. To exit, another opening takes you along a second, counterclockwise spiral that spills you out into a field planted with wheat. From the visual experience of the lookout on the roof, Gironès immerses you in the visceral, multi-sensorial experience of the raw countryside, from where you make your way back to the building entrance.

Is Gironès’ idea here that, having been inducted into the sacred space of the steles, you emerge transformed, as in a ritual baptism, seeing the world with new eyes? There is something of the crypt, the pyramid and the labyrinth in this procession, powerful spatial configurations of the sacred. But this observer, for one, instinctively draws back from such an over-produced management of experience. I couldn’t help feeling as if I was being worked through a plumbing system devised by a controlling conceptual artist. I prefer a looser fit for my epiphanies.

Gironès also goes a little too far in the monotony of his material palette, especially in the interiors. Even the raw rebar is too much like clay, iron-rich and oxidised. But his work is full of interesting insights, and his idea that the building should be both a living social space and a point of cultural attraction, despite local resistance, is vital. His design is in fact a bit schizophrenic in this regard, veering between nurturing social interaction, as in the work of Aldo van Eyck, and a highly formal use of space. Could this dichotomy be a stage in Gironès’ evolution, out of formalism and towards a social concept of space?

Archaeological museum in Seró, Spain

Architects: Toni Gironès

Photographers: Aitor Estevez, Giovanni Longobardi, Toni Gironès

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