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Madinat Al-Zahra Museum by Nieto Sobejano, Córdoba, Spain

Nieto Sobejano create a contemporary ruin to house a museum and interpretation center at the citadel of Madinat al-Zahra. Photography by Roland Halbe

Unearthed by archaeologists over 90 years ago, the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra, just outside Córdoba, represent a powerful flowering of Islamic art, architecture and urban design. Built in the 10th century by Abd al-Rahman III, this vast citadel at the foot of the Sierra Morena mountains was ostensibly named after the caliph’s favourite concubine.

But this was no mere weekend pleasure palace- it was effectively the capital of al-Andalus, the powerful Muslim-occupied territory in the Iberian peninsula. Today, only around a tenth of the city has been excavated, and though work continues under the Spanish government, the site is at risk of being compromised by illegal housing schemes.

A more encouraging development is the opening of a new museum, interpretation and research centre designed by the Madrid-based partnership of Nieto Sobejano. The practice originally won a competition in 1999 and the building was opened last year.

A visit to the site arouses contradictory emotions, as practice director Enrique Sobejano explains: ‘On the one hand, nostalgia for a remote, undiscovered past impregnates the landscape, while on the other, a disorderly sprawl of modern buildings creeps disturbingly around the area that was once a palace city.’

Their initial reaction was: ‘We should not build on this landscape,’ as so much of the city still awaited discovery. But they began to work ‘like archaeologists’, conceiving the building as a kind of contemporary ruin that connects both physically and symbolically with fragments of the past. ‘We tried not to construct a wholly new building, but instead “discovered” it below the surface, as if the passage of time had kept it hidden right up to the present day,’ says director Fuensanta Nieto.

Careful excavation of the site revealed patios, walls and pavements - the remnants of the original Moorish structures - and these act like a palimpsest or template to configure and organise the new building. Found wall structures have been strengthened by white boardmarked concrete and now support thin flat roofs of Cor-ten steel.

Set at some distance from the existing excavated remains, the museum is an introverted, not to say enigmatic, presence. ‘It appears silently in the landscape, like the remains of the ancient city itself,’ say the architects.

Enclosed by low, imperforate walls, the building gives little clue as to its function. From above, it appears as a carpet composed of white concrete and rusted steel woven discreetly into the flat, dusty plain. Both floors are set below ground, creating a hermetic internalised realm, animated by a series of paved patios in the Andalucian/North African tradition.

A ramp entices visitors down and into the entrance hall adjoining the main patio. The patios are intended to assist with navigation and each has a different character. The largest holds a pool, which infuses the surrounding cloister-like space with limpid reflections. An auditorium, exhibition hall, bookshop and café are arranged around the hub of the patio and cloister.

Administration, conservation and research workshops are grouped around a narrow secondary patio and a third provides an external exhibition area for the display of atauriques (Moorish ornamental carvings). The lower basement level contains more exhibition spaces along with the usual storage and plant. The gridded plan allows for future growth, like an ongoing excavation, with new subterranean pavilions to be added when need requires and funds allow.

Architect Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, Madrid
Structural engineer NB 35
Exhibition design Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, Frade Arquitectos

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