The ‘illusion of plans’: Eisenman’s landmark vision is a conjuring trick
Santiago de Compostela is one of those cities that feels as if it has all been carved out of a single material, in this case granite. The streets and squares, the monasteries and churches, whatever their historical period, contribute to an ensemble that is embedded in an ancient landscape. The terraces and stone walls of the countryside invade the town, while the plazas offer framed views over the surrounding hills. Santiago is of course the final destination on the pilgrimage route across France and northern Spain, and the cathedral marks the spot where the apostle Saint James is supposed to be buried. Over the centuries it has imported architectural models from elsewhere and blended them with its own distinctive vernacular and topography. The underlying geology seems to transcend time.
In the 1980s and 1990s Santiago de Compostela underwent a rapid but intelligently planned modernisation under the leadership of the Socialist mayor of the time, Xerardo Estévez. Inspired by his former architectural mentor Oriol Bohigas, who transformed Barcelona in the pre-Olympic Games period, Estévez sought a balance between the preservation of historic buildings and spaces, and the creation of a new cultural infrastructure. Several architectural competitions were organised to plan institutional buildings. The high point of this period was the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea (1989-94) by Álvaro Siza, which managed to stitch back the broken urban fabric to one side of the city. This immensely subtle work abstracted the historical context and the tilting terrain in its overall form, threading an architectural promenade through a floating superstructure of top-lit gallery spaces. The fractured convent garden to the rear was transformed into a public park of platforms and ramps providing views over the city.
At the end of the 1990s it was the conservatives of the local government under the presidency of Manuel Fraga (a remnant of Franco’s regime) who projected their vision of the future for Santiago in the form of a loosely defined City of Culture to stand on the top of Monte Gaias, roughly 3km from the hill crowned by the old city and its cathedral. This vast programme originally included a museum, a library, a centre of new technologies and (among other things) a concert hall. The reserved parcel of land extended over 700,000m2. Clearly under the influence of the so-called Bilbao Effect, the supporters of this megalomaniac project organised an international competition and invited several members of the ‘star system’ to participate, including Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel and Peter Eisenman. In addition there were local architects of outstanding quality such as Manuel Gallego Jorreto, whose solution was in fact the best adapted to the site, the use, the symbolic function and the need to construct in several stages.
But the client and some members of the jury felt that an ‘iconic’ building by an international star was what was needed, so they insisted on the sensationalist project by Peter Eisenman which, it was claimed by some, responded to the topography of the place. The competition project is preserved in a small cardboard model set into a cardboard landscape with a cardboard version of the old city to one side, and it is true that at this scale and in a unified material, the image of a folded artificial landscape sliced by crossing streets is fairly seductive. Eisenman’s presentation was accompanied by computer drawings which gave the impression that the project had been ‘generated’ by scanning the structure of the old city then distorting it in a fractured geometry. The plan shape of the vast new ‘city’ was also traced to the shape of a shell, the emblem of Saint James and of the pilgrimage route. There was in turn an overlaid grid (a customary Eisenman device). The complex thus combined several geometrical systems and emerged as a sort of palimpsest, supposedly filtering the natural surroundings into the artificial world of the architecture.
Eisenman’s project for Galicia summed up several years of research into fragmentation, striation, and interstitial space. Folds, of course, were very much in fashion at the time and Eisenman was forever sexing up his dossiers with a little French theory, for example quotations from Deleuze on Le Pli (The Fold). Some of his followers in turn introduced a pseudo-scientific badinage concerning strings and algorithmic transformations. Behind the smokescreen of pretentious theorising, Eisenman is in fact a formalist who raids sourcesand manipulates forms for their own sake, leaving aside the problem of content. For all the promotional chatter, the City of Culture in Galicia seems to have been inspired fairly directly by an example in the realm of land art: Grande Cretto in Gibellina, Sicily (1985-9) designed by Alberto Burri as a memorial to the earthquake of 1968. This takes the form of a solidified ‘map’ of the destroyed city made from concrete and rubble, with folding shapes, incised streets, and the striations of a distorted grid laid out across the landscape.
Eleven years later Eisenman’s project for the City of Culture is less than half constructed and the original budget of a little over 100 million euros has more than quadrupled; the programme has also continued to change, with talk now of a major centre of contemporary art. There is enough already built to get some idea of how things may look, and one section is even open to the public. The project promoted for its topographical sensitivity in fact required the complete decapitation of Monte Gaias and the removal of millions of cubic metres of soil. The ‘delicate folds’ of the competition model have translated into vast looping curves and surging roof surfaces that suggest the vulgarity of a railway in a funfair rather than abstractions of landscape. They are encrusted with a thin veneer of granite panels (imported from Brazil) of varying colour and are cut by huge grooves that erode their shape. Eisenman is no sculptor and has apparently failed to translate his own intentions into cogent three-dimensional spaces and forms.
There is nothing new in this: even Eisenman’s supporters have had to admit his difficulties in constructing and materialising concepts. The glass curtain walls are a case in point: some of these are over 40 metres high and require a structure of their own which muddles the composition. The surfaces are sliced this way and that, with decorative mullions that correspond to some Eisenmanian geometry but fail to cohere as a pattern and give the impression of a skin-deep commercial architecture. The few completed interiors reveal a palette of plasterboard panels painted white, departing at angles and tracing serpentine curves. The effects of light are quite appealing and Eisenman has followed his research into transparency but all of this complexity ends up being monotonous and leads to an impression of sameness. There is too much architectural self consciousness and insufficient attention to human occupation and use. Here and there you stumble across a reddish diagonal line, then gradually figure out that this is supposed to register the presence of a skewed grid. Some of the geometries turn out to be merely cosmetic. It is a case of what Le Corbusier called ‘the illusion of plans’. Then there are those two unfortunate towers designed by John Hejduk, which Eisenman included as a favour to a friend; like giant bottles they take on the character of a folly and contribute further to the erosion of the seriousness of the scheme.
In the lobby of the archive building, with its contorted and empty shelves, there is a curious video that presents Eisenman as a sort of magus or showman, repeating the same spells and incantations time and time again in an uninterrupted loop, with a translation text running underneath as in a news announcement. The City of Culture will help the people of Galicia understand their place in the world; it will be an ‘icon’ for Compostela (as if it needed another); it will recall the routes of the pilgrims and the shell of Saint James; it will be an obligatory visit for archi-tourists; it will distil the granite of the landscape and the glass facades of traditional architecture… You look for the evidence of all this in these vast, twisting halls of skin-deep materials and colliding details which, for one recent North American visitor, conjured up the milieu and tackiness of a shopping mall.
Did Fraga really entertain pharaohic dreams of a monument and a public memorial? With this gigantic project the taxpayers of Galicia may be getting a shipwreck of the star system summing up its empty gestures and peddled political delusions. The City of Culture is still years away from completion and will eventually cost a fortune to run and maintain. It is just possible that the magical Bilbao Effect may not work on this occasion.