An architectural gem for a Spanish port
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