Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

This site uses cookies. By using our services, you agree to our cookie use.
Learn more here.

Álava Archaeological Museum by Francisco Mangado, Vitoria, País Vasco, Spain

The stark geometry of Francisco Mangado’s museum squares up to the desiccated historic fabric of Vitoria’s medieval core. Photography by Roland Halbe

‘It’s a box of treasure,’ says Francisco Mangado of his new archaeology museum in Vitoria, ‘that history has entrusted to us piece by piece.’ In the cramped streets of the city’s medieval core, Mangado’s treasure box seems intent on making its own history. Soberly accoutred in a corrugated bronze carapace, it determinedly blanks out its surroundings. Windows set in deep reveals are like sightless eyes, reflecting peeling walls, tottering balconies and scudding skies. Aloof, impervious and very consciously of its time, its stark geometry squares up to the desiccated historic fabric.

From a distance it appears as a dense, dark, almost geological presence that has erupted out of the ground to safeguard its ancient treasures.

These range from tiny Palaeolithic arrowheads to imposing Roman sculptures, fruits of archaeological excavations in the surrounding País Vasco (Basque Country). To illuminate professional and public understanding of ancient history, for some years now the Spanish government has supported archaeological research and museum building. ‘I think of archaeology as history that never ends, because it lives on in each small or large finding and in the eye of the observer,’ says Mangado.

Vitoria’s first archaeological museum was housed in a 16th-century palacio at the northern tip of the old town, but it eventually proved too cramped for modern needs. In 2000 a competition was launched to find a successor on a new and bigger site, and Mangado’s building finally opened in March of this year.

A native of the neighbouring province of Navarre, Mangado is based in Pamplona, about an hour’s drive south-west of Vitoria. Although he designed the Spanish Pavilion at last year’s Expo in Zaragoza and has built all over the country, most of his work is still concentrated in the green hills of the north. The site for the new museum lies on the east side of Vitoria’s medieval core, an almond-shaped warren of streets on and around a steep hill crowned by the 14th-century Cathedral of Santa Maria.

The site drops a storey across its width, which accounts for the museum’s more dominating presence on the east and north facades. On the west side, on Calle Cuchillería, it is less magisterial, retreating back from the street line to create a welcoming entrance courtyard. A bridge across a moat connects this with the museum’s entrance hall. The moat brings light into the lower ground level, which contains research facilities and a library. Below this is a further subterranean archive and store. The library lies underneath the courtyard and its translucent skylights register as glassy rivulets in the timber deck.

In a slightly surreal museological ménage, Mangado’s building shares the site with Fournier Playing Card Museum in the neighbouring Palacio de Bendaña, founded in memory of tarot and playing-card manufacturer Heraclio Fournier, who set up shop in Vitoria in 1868. Mangado was not involved with its design (a perfectly serviceable renovation job), but the two buildings are now part of a single complex, the new bronze box forming a piquant juxtaposition with the museum’s palacio.

Mangado chose bronze because of its ‘strong archaeological resonance’, being one of the first materials to be exploited by humans. Up close, the ribbed walls appear less like a carapace and more like a woven metal textile. In most places the bronze weave is impermeable, but around the courtyard it’s much looser, with glazing exposed behind.

The facade has an impressive sense of weight and sobriety, but there’s a sleight of hand at work. As it would have been impractical to cast the larger pieces as solid elements, a wafer-thin veneer of bronze is simply wrapped around timber forms. ‘You have to reconcile ideological aspirations with the practical qualities of the material,’ says Mangado. ‘The ancient Egyptians did the same kind of thing with stone to create an illusion of mass. So architecture is all about fooling people, but in a wonderful way.’

The idea of the building as an enigmatic box continues inside. Floors and walls in the entrance hall and exhibition spaces are lined with wenge, a tough, almost black tropical hardwood. A promenading staircase extends up the long, west facade, linking three floors of displays. These track an archaeological chronology from the Palaeolithic era, through Roman colonisation, to the founding of Vitoria.

Each floor is essentially a long, dark room dramatically lit by a series of angular prisms lined with delicate Japanese paper that pierce the building like giant light sabres.

Mangado worked closely with the museum curators to develop a display system that would be an integral part of the architecture. Display cases are contained in narrow perimeter zones around 2m wide, and their depth creates the reveals in the external skin. These backstage areas accommodate services paraphernalia and can be accessed by museum staff through ‘secret’ doors. It is an apt and elegant solution. All visitors can see are the glass vitrines set seamlessly in the dark walls, like enticing cabinets of curiosities. Larger freestanding objects, such as stone sculptures or an ancient grave pit, are beautifully and theatrically spot-lit.

Archaeological relics are not only a testament to the scale of human evolution, but also a poignant reminder of the lives of our ancestors. Sometimes the simplest artefacts are the most moving - for instance, a pair of scallop shells worn by medieval travellers on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Mangado is aware that his building, however impressive, is not the real star of the show.

Of the relationship between contents and container he says: ‘It can be neither a mere organising element, nor a beautiful but distant architecture,’ he says. ‘It must have the ability to evoke places and people from a tiny fragment of ceramic which has managed to survive and which speaks of the fragility of time.’

Architect Francisco Mangado, Pamplona, Spain
Project team Francisco Mangado, José María Gastaldo, Richard Královic
Structural engineer NB35
Services engineers Iturralde y Sagües, César Martin Gómez

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.