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Contemporary Art Centre, Spain, by Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos

Drawing on the richness of Islamic forms and geometries, Nieto Sobejano’s new art centre in Córdoba reinterprets ancient motifs through contemporary materials and spatial relationships

Working in Córdoba, Spain, the Madrid-based architects Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano adapt principles from Islamic geometric patterns in both the organisation of their Contemporary Art Centre Córdoba, and in the design of its facades.

Inside, a chain of irregular, hexagonal exhibition spaces string through the otherwise diaphanous interiors. Outside, the nearly opaque facades are relieved by honeycombed screens that follow the same irregular but logical patterns.

The seed of the design lies in the subdivision of a regular hexagon into three irregular hexagons, leaving three smaller, four-sided leftover spaces between them. Each cluster of three hexagons, measuring 150, 90 and 60 square metres respectively, forms the basic unit of the exhibition galleries and is repeated along the building’s length, with changes in orientation, three times.

Contemporary Art Centre Exterior

Programmable LEDs hidden in the wall surface turn the facade into a glowing geometric screen

A smaller, fourth cluster off the entry forms the cafeteria, and a larger cluster is dedicated to the ‘black box’, a multi-purpose space for performances and other events. The underlying regular geometry of the cells allows them to couple seamlessly, forming a sequence through the centre of the building, including four open-air patios in intermediate spaces, and creating surprising cross-views between them.

Areas of orthogonal space frame the galleries on both sides. On the side of the building overlooking the Guadalquivir River, a long gallery provides independent access to each cell, and ends in a media library. At the back, the cells open directly into the area of artists’ studios, with offices and laboratories on the level above them.

This repetitive cellular design, non-hierarchic and ‘isotropic’ in the terminology of the architects, belongs to one of the more interesting developments in contemporary Spanish architecture, the return to Organicism. Inspired by Bruno Zevi’s 1945 book, Towards an Organic Architecture, and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, Spanish Organicists in the 1950s and ’60s used many of the same ideas, as seen in José A Corrales and Ramón V Molezún’s honeycomb-like Spanish Pavilion at the 1958 Universal Exhibition in Brussels, or the hypostyle hall of José María García de Paredes’s 1964 Almendrales Church in Madrid.

In the past decade, a number of Spanish architects have stepped away from Functionalist or Minimalist formulas to return to such ideas, most notably Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón in their 2005 MUSAC Museum in León. Like Mansilla and Tuñón, and indeed like their Organicist predecessors, Nieto and Sobejano bring to this formal play the same discipline of means, materials and detailing that characterised their earlier, more restrained works.

The Córdoba Contemporary Art Centre is located on a peninsula opposite the old city and its historic mosque. It is sited on the far side of the peninsula, where a congress centre was originally to have been built. In 2002, Rem Koolhaas’s competition-winning scheme for the latter left the site open − Koolhaas moved his project closer to the old city, proposing a dynamic, linear structure that pointed diagonally towards the mosque. 

Contemporary Art Centre Interior

The cells can be divided by massive steel partitions that descend from above

The Junta, or regional government of Andalucía, organised a new competition in 2005 for a facility on the site that would include artists’ workshops and exhibition spaces, ‘a centre for new modes of expression, digital art, video art, all that is intangible’, explains Enrique Sobejano.

With heavy cutbacks in public spending, both projects are now in limbo. The congress centre was cancelled by Córdoba’s new Mayor last year. Plans to put the arts centre into operation ‘have come to a halt’, according to Sobejano, due to lack of funds and higher priorities.

The architects have proposed to turn the building over to ‘groups of young artists, collectives, people who need space more than money, like the Tabacalera’, says Sobejano, referring to an 18th-century tobacco factory in Madrid that the Ministry of Culture has ceded to neighbourhood collectives for social and artistic activities. Thus, a brand-new, 22 million euro public building has the same throwaway value in crisis-ridden Spain as a ruined factory.

Curiously, this convergence is anticipated by the Nieto Sobejano design, with its reduced palette of exquisitely-handled, ‘tough’ finishes that purposely emulate industrial structures. Inside the building, the marks of formwork boarding on the thick, exposed load-bearing concrete walls and ceilings are as regular and measured as laid brick. Floors are of magnesite, a seamless, high-strength industrial paving of aggregates and resin.

For the steel doors, balustrades and framing, special techniques were used to increase the scale of the multi-hued, crystalline surface patterns that are characteristic of galvanisation. ‘We didn’t want a neutral space’, explains Sobejano, ‘but spaces with a high architectonic charge that artists
could respond to.’

Contemporary Art Centre Interior

Light plays across the crisply shuttered concrete

In its solidity, its defined geometric forms, and its inventive use of Córdoba’s Islamic heritage, the design assumes a physical presence that plays directly against the immaterial, virtual and placeless nature of the art it was built to promote.

Sobejano compares the inverted pyramidal ceiling of each gallery cell to the Islamic muqaras, the intricate patterns of miniature corbels, squinches and domes found in many of the vaulted ceilings of the Alhambra. Rising to different heights, each ceiling slopes down to a hexagonal skylight, covered by a stretched translucent membrane, that is identical in shape to the room itself.

The thick, hollow walls between cells are accessible for both mechanical services and mounting exhibitions, with circular ‘pores’ that bore through the walls on a 900mm grid for use in installations. Each cell can be closed off as an independent exhibition area using motorised steel pocket doors that descend from the upper part of the wall. The studio area is equally flexible, with spaces separated by sliding steel doors, allowing artists to occupy one or more studios as needed.

Nieto Sobejano Contemporary Art Centre

Ground Floor Plan

The exterior facades are clad in prefab panels of GRC (glass-reinforced concrete). Their screens use the same hexagonal patterns as the galleries, which again are manipulated at different scales and orientations. The long screen facing the river is actually a bas-relief, and each indentation is furnished with indirect LED lighting, converting the facade into a media screen with 1,500 ‘pixels’ for projecting moving images, a concept that the architects developed with the Berlin studio realities:united.

The windows of the offices on the opposite side of the building have a conventional pierced screen. The concept of the embossed facade is a regular theme in the work of the architects.

Bas-relief maps of Mérida cover the facades of their congress centre there, and the randomly-pierced aluminium panels of their addition to the San Telmo Museum in San Sebastián (AR July 2011) are designed to host lichen and other vegetation. Here the perfect surface of the GRC is pockmarked, like Swiss cheese, by the organic irritation of the irregular hexagons.

Contemporary Art Centre Interior

These lights appear as inverted or prolapsed versions of the cones at La Tourette; they also refer to the vaults of the Alhambra

Nieto Sobejano expertly sculpt the massing, using the high profile of the black box to frame the long opening on the studio side of the building, for example. This strategy recalls the massing of IM Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, another design developed from non-orthogonal geometry.

The connection reveals the great distance between the two works, from the regular triangular grid of the East Wing to the open-ended, bubble-like chain of spaces of the Córdoba work. Nieto Sobejano break open geometry to organic accident.

Sobejano relates that they first became interested in Islamic pattern when working on the visitors centre at the site of the Madinat al-Zahra Palace north of Córdoba (AR April 2009). The project won the Aga Khan Award in 2010 and has led to new commissions in India and Morocco, where the architects continue to explore these themes.

Sobejano describes their search ‘to interpret contemporary architecture and space using Islamic geometric rules, which are actually quite contemporary − they are not centred, they expand in all directions, and they are combinational. You define three or four parameters, and everything comes out of that. It’s a profoundly modern way of thinking.’

Nieto Sobejano Contemporary Art Centre

Building Section

Fact File

Architect: Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos

Structural engineer: N.B. 35

Lighting facade: Nieto Sobejano and realities:united

Photographs: All photos are by Roland Halbe except for 4

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