Piano forte

An ar­chi­tec­tural gem for a Span­ish port

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - CARO­LINE ROUX

Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Renzo Piano’s strik­ing new de­sign, cre­ated on the San­tander seafront on Spain’s north coast to house the Fun­da­cion Botin, is help­ing ce­ment the port’s im­age as a cut­ting-edge art des­ti­na­tion.

It’s an el­e­gant spot. There’s the con­crete 1970s ferry ter­mi­nal with its furl­ing roof and a bright white 1920s yacht club built right out in the sea. The long prom­e­nade boasts no balustrade, but shiny black bol­lards for moor­ing boats. And now there is Cen­tro Botin, a build­ing in two parts by Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Renzo Piano that just hov­ers over the wa­ter on its south side, its un­der­side dap­pled with danc­ing light, and which looks to the city like a pair of binoc­u­lars on its north.

“The lo­cal people don’t like it,” says the woman work­ing in the San­tander tourist of­fice. “They say it stops them see­ing the sea.”

It’s safe to say she is quite wrong. While San­tander is not the sort of city that nec­es­sar­ily wel­comes change — it’s a favourite spot for the haute bour­geoisie of Madrid to sum­mer, for one; they love its cooler cli­mate — it still has a spark. The cui­sine is on a par with neigh­bour­ing Bil­bao and San Se­bas­tian; cafes spe­cialise in a va­ri­ety of be­spoke ver­mouths; and the paseo, or evening prom­e­nade, fills with life ev­ery time the rain stops.

Now the hoard­ings are down and the de­tri­tus of con­struc­tion has been cleared away, Cen­tro Botin — lev­i­tated 5m above the ground on slen­der white pil­lars — is gar­ner­ing ad­mir­ing glances. Lo­cals stop to gaze through its in­ter­play of open spa­ces to the la­goon be­yond and peer into its fully glazed ground-floor restau­rant, which is about to be­come the hottest spot in town. “From the very first time I came here, I said this build­ing has to fly,” says Renzo Piano with po­etic zeal. His lat­est mas­ter­work is the new home for Fun­da­cion Botin, which sup­ports and ex­hibits vis­ual arts and runs a broad cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram. The build­ing is its lit­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tion, with two separate parts, like a tube cut in half. One side is for ex­hi­bi­tions and in the other are stu­dios for work­shops and an au­di­to­rium for lec­tures and per­for­mances.

“We be­lieve in cul­ti­vat­ing emo­tional in­tel­li­gence and creativ­ity,” says its gen­eral di­rec­tor, so­ci­ol­o­gist Inigo Saenz de Miera. “Art helps you ex­per­i­ment with emo­tions in a safe con­text.”

The Fun­da­cion makes its way into schools across Spain and runs a se­ries of pro­grams for artists. There is a grant scheme that gives eight artists €23,000 ($34,000) each a year. It also hosts an an­nual work­shop scheme, which takes place over 10 days and sees cel­e­brated names — in­clud­ing the English vis­ual artist Tacita Dean, who works pri­mar­ily in film, Pales­tinian video and in­stal­la­tion artist Mona Ha­toum and Amer­i­can video and per­for­mance art pi­o­neer Joan Jonas — help­ing to de­velop the prac­tice of 10 young artists at a time.

From all these strands, Fun­da­cion Botin has ac­quired an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art from an in­creas­ingly in­ter­na­tional ros­ter of artists and staged some sig­nif­i­cant ex­hi­bi­tions, in­clud­ing a stand­out show of Sol LeWitt’s wall draw­ings a cou­ple of years ago. But it has done all of this qui­etly, un­til now.

With its dy­namic new build­ing and pro­gram, the Fun­da­cion is fi­nally look­ing to put San­tander on the big­ger artis­tic map, while pro­vid­ing the city with a beat­ing cul­tural heart. The Cen­tro has opened with a suite of ex­hi­bi­tions in­clud­ing a smart show of Goya draw­ings (the Fun­da­cion is co-pro­duc­ing the cat­a­logue raisonne of all Goya’s draw­ings with the Prado in Madrid) and a heady crowd-pleaser of ex­pe­ri­en­tial art­works by Ger­man sci­en­tist-turned-artist Carsten Holler.

There will be none of his fa­mous Slides, as there were in Tate Modern’s Tur­bine Hall in Lon­don in 2007. But there will be a new work of undis­closed con­tent called Plat­form, which is in­tended, ac­cord­ing to the artist, to pro­voke the same kind of giddy ap­pre­hen­sion, plus an up­dated ver­sion of his Psy­cho Tank, where visi­tors will be in­vited to lie in its salt-sat­u­rated wa­ter, heated to 27C.

There is also a shower room in the ex­hi­bi­tion, for dous­ing down after the tank, and the chance to spend the night in the gallery in one of his Roam­ing Beds, an­other art­work (book­ings for that will be ar­ranged through a lo­cal ho­tel); this is art at its most im­mer­sive.

The Fun­da­cion Botin was es­tab­lished in 1964 by Marcelino Botin, whose aris­to­cratic fam­ily founded the San­tander Bank in 1857, and his wife Car­men. Un­der his nephew Emilio, who took over from his un­cle in 1986, it has grown from a pro­vin­cial project to some­thing with a broader im­pact. Emilio com­mis­sioned the foun­da­tion’s new build­ing, ap­proach­ing Piano eight years ago.

Piano is an ac­knowl­edged ge­nius with art and light but most of all he is pas­sion­ate about wa­ter. He grew up in the Ital­ian coastal city of Genoa, where the Renzo Piano Build­ing Work­shop is still based, with a se­cond stu­dio in Paris. He sails on yachts built to his own ex­quis­ite de­sign. The site in San­tander, he says, made him think of Venice.

“It’s on a nat­u­ral la­goon, and it’s south fac­ing, so the sun touches the wa­ter, then it comes to you. Like Venice, it can be grey, but a beau­ti­ful grey.”

The ar­chi­tect and the banker would go out in the lat­ter’s fish­ing boat, keep­ing up a steady con­ver­sa­tion in Ital­ian and Span­ish re­spec­tively.

“Emilio was very keen on de­tails,” says Piano. He loved the 360,000 mother-of-pearl ce­ramic discs that cover the build­ing’s sur­face like thou­sands of phys­i­cal pix­els. “He un­der­stood how they would re­flect the light of the la­goon. He was a vi­sion­ary.”

One night at din­ner, the fi­nancier — who died just un­der three years be­fore the build­ing’s com­ple­tion — said he had de­cided to act on the ar­chi­tect’s orig­i­nal idea con­cern­ing the road that ran along the seafront and would ef­fec­tively separate the new build­ing from the city. He would pay for it to go un­der­ground at this cru­cial point, emerg­ing from its tun­nel 372m fur­ther on.

“Sud­denly we had a park that was three times as big,” says Piano. “He was in love with San­tander, it was his pas­sion.” The gar­dens, Jar­dines de Pereda, now cover 20,000sq m. Piano has criss­crossed them with blue con­crete paths that seem to dis­solve into the seascape be­yond and unite the Cen­tro with the city.When I speak to Piano, it’s mid-May, and he is still keen to see the com­pleted ground floor of the west­ern build­ing, where the restau­rant will be. It is, I tell him, as trans­par­ent as he could wish, and the or­ange floor­ing as ex­u­ber­ant. “Ah yes, the or­ange is a lit­tle ges­ture of joy,” he says. It is, in fact, the only dash of colour in the build­ing, which is com­posed en­tirely of steel, alu­minium and glass. Even the wooden floors in­side are of the palest oak. The drama comes in­stead from the ever-chang­ing re­flec­tions of wa­ter and sky and the del­i­cate sil­very stair­cases that zigzag up its open-air cen­tral vol­ume (so criss­crossed they’ve been named the Pachinko, after the Ja­panese pin­ball game) to ar­rive at the open-air, first-floor Plaza de Ar­riba (Ar­rivals Square), and down the sides of each build­ing, like me­chan­i­cal arms.

The restau­rant that will oc­cupy the new space, El Muelle (or The Dock), is an off­shoot of Ce­nador de Amos, the es­tab­lish­ment of cel­e­brated lo­cal chef Je­sus Sanchez in the nearby vil­lage of Villaverde.

Sanchez re­ceived his first Miche­lin star a year after open­ing in 1993 and his se­cond in 2016. El Muelle, he says, will be more ca­sual and cafe-like, with bread brought in from the bak­ery he is build­ing at Villaverde, though Ce­nador reg­u­lars will be pleased to see his fa­mous cheese ice cream on the menu.

Like Sanchez, Cen­tro Botin’s artis­tic di­rec­tor Benjamin Weil — a French­man who has held ma­jor cu­ra­to­rial posts in Bri­tain, the US and Spain — is think­ing ahead. After Carsten Holler, he has in­vited the New York artist Julie Mehretu to show her huge ges­tu­ral works on can­vas, in­clud­ing a piece that re­sponded to events in Aleppo and is a stag­ger­ing 11m long.

“I have a big chal­lenge here,” Weil says. “Look at the restau­rant and the ar­chi­tec­ture. My work is cut out. I have to make sure that the shows can com­pete.”

TELE­GRAPH ME­DIA GROUP • cen­trobotin.org

Cen­tro Botin in San­tander, main; in­side the art mu­seum, above; San­tander wa­ter­front, below

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