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San Telmo Museum by Nieto Sobejano, San Sebastián, Spain

Clad in a skin of delicately perforated aluminium panels, the new extension flares out from the convent complex. Photography by Paul Raftery

Inaugurated in 1902, the San Telmo Museum in San Sebastián is the oldest museum in Spain’s Basque country. Housed in a former Dominican convent, it holds the city’s collections of paintings and sculpture, together with archaeological, cultural and industrial artefacts intended to illuminate aspects of Basque life from prehistory to the present day. This admirablycomprehensive but at times incongruous sweep encompasses everything from ancient grave steles to audiovisual displays on the Basque separatist movement.

Though the convent buildings form a fine historic ensemble, by the mid-noughties, the familiar dilemmas of a lack of space, deteriorating fabric and outmoded exhibition facilities conspired to catalyse an ambitious programme of restoration and expansion. In 2005 the Madrid-based partnership of Nieto Sobejano won a competition for the museum extension. The partnership thrives on exploring a tactful yet sensual reciprocity between history and modernity; their repertoire includes an extension to the Moritzburg Museum in Germany, and the Museo Nacional Colegio de San Gregorio in Valladolid, Spain (AR February 2010).

The latter, in particular, with its calm spaces for devotional art implanted within the armature of a 15th-century Dominican school, has an obvious programmatic kinship with the San Telmo project, but in architectural terms, the outcomes could not be more different. Yet they are united by Nieto Sobejano’s relish for decoding the multivalent histories of old buildings and skill in determining how such structures can be re-energised to address contemporary functions.

Here, the site of the new extension was an almost unbuildable sliver of land, jammed between the edge of the convent and the slope of Monte Urgull, a tumescent, pine-clad outcrop that stands sentinel over the bay of San Sebastián. Below, the convent is buttressed by both the hill and a dense labyrinth of streets that make up the oldest part of the city. Fuensanta Nieto describes it as a ‘point of friction’, a highly charged edge condition and encounter between landscape, sea and city. ‘The project becomes the material expression of this edge as two large walls that trace the border between the mountain and the city at that meeting point,’ says Nieto.

As you emerge into the bleached void of Plaza Zuloaga from the warren of surrounding streets, the dynamic between new and old is immediately clear. Emerging from the existing building like some kind of alien prosthesis, the new extension flares out to embrace the square in the manner of a protective bastion, its walls encased in a perforated carapace of cast aluminium panels, opaquely grey and heavy like the overcast Basque skies. With a set of external stairs at the bastion end defining a new route up the hill, the building becomes part of the urban and geological topography; literally so, because in places delicate mosses and sea pinks sprout with abandon from the perforations, softening and animating the pierced wall planes.

The notion of greening the facade was the result of a collaboration with Basque artists Leopoldo Ferrán and Agustina Otero. ‘We walked with them many times around Monte Urgull and we saw these holes, these rocks that are pierced by erosion,’ says Enrique Sobejano. ‘That image later became the building facade.’ The aluminium layer acts as a rainscreen, and where the panels are not planted, the perforated wall becomes a modern mashrabiya screen, tempering the sun’s intensity and casting dazzling piebald shadows around the interior.

The new building contains a gallery for the permanent collection and a temporary exhibition space, together with a library, lecture theatre, offices and café. Both the library and café overlook Plaza Zuloaga, and in a civically generous gesture, the café can be patronised directly from the square, without actually visiting the museum. The perforated walls act like a billboard,signposting the building in the streetscape and drawing visitors into the plaza, which is transformed into a convivial urban foyer.

The building’s thin, jagged plan resembles a long twist of paper tightly wedged into a crack. Exhibition spaces are contained in a narrow volume like an elongated bunker, set in the cleft between Monte Urgull and the convent complex. Light must penetrate either from above, in a series of rooftop patios punched into the offices at top floor level, or from canyon-like courtyards carved in the spaces between old and new parts.

Yet in overcoming the site’s inherent physical limitations, the architects also conjure a powerful sense of spatial drama. Behind the outer layer of aluminium lies a hermetic box of exquisitely board-marked concrete, its soft honey colour almost resembling stone. Within this concrete casket, the topmost exhibition gallery is conceived as a storey-high glass vitrine, pulled back from the edge of the concrete box to admit light from above and expose the deep beams supporting the glass case. Walking around the gallery, it feels as though you are hanging, weightless anddisembodied, in space.

For Nieto Sobejano, San Telmo is another finely tuned exercise in the architecture of abstraction, of subtle layering and shifting. But as ever, the project is underscored by the resonance of the dialogue between different eras. Though interest inevitably focuses on the new extension, the existing 16th-century cloisters, tower, chapels and church (with frescoes by Josep Maria Sert) have also been treated with scrupulous care, consolidating and re-animating one of the city’s most important historic buildings. Each era speaks eloquently of its time, cohabiting and combining in a richly animated urban palimpsest.

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