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Santiago's second shrine: the first phase of Peter Eisenman's ambitious Galician City of Culture is nearing completion.

'Build it and they will come' was a mantra that worked well for Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages when a chapel, and then a cathedral, were erected round the purported relics of St James, Spain's patron saint. Millions of pilgrims trudged over mountains in search of redemption, and exercise fanatics still stream in along the well-marked Camino de Santiago. The secular counterpart of that shrine, the Galician City of Culture (GCC), is under construction on a neighbouring hilltop. Peter Eisenman won the 1999 competition with a complex of six buildings that resemble a giant earthwork cut into Mont Gaias. It was scheduled for completion in 2004 at a cost of $175 million. The Hemeroteca--a periodicals archive will open later this year; the library, history museum, and administrative offices have been framed; the music theatre and new technologies building have yet to break ground, and the final cost is anyone's guess. When will it be done, and will St Peter draw the crowds as effectively as the Blessed Frank Gehry in Bilbao, or that other Santiago in Valencia?

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It's an interesting question, for the explosion of inventive architecture in Spain--well chronicled in an exhibition now at MoMA in New York--owes much to the example of the Bilbao Guggenheim (AR December 1997). There, the goals were well defined: an icon that would regenerate a derelict waterfront, forging a new identity for a decayed industrial city and drawing tourists. It succeeded beyond all expectations and the $100 million price tag has been covered many times over. Maybe this strategy only works once; cultural icons, from the Sydney Opera House to the Pompidou, do not generally lend themselves to replication. Calatrava has exhausted his inspiration in the bloated opera house in Santa Cruz de Tenerife and its double in Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences. Barcelona's new Diagonal complex is inhumanly scaled and dispersed, in contrast to EMBT's Santa Caterina Market, which is knitted into the urban fabric (AR November 2005). Jean Nouvel's vertiginous, glossy red addition to Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum (AR February 2006) seems too overwrought for its place and its purpose. The wineries of La Rioja may have better luck with their commissions to Gehry, Hadid, Rogers, Foster and other star architects.

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In contrast, Eisenman's complex is an anti-monument, designed not to thrill but to be absorbed into the landscape, and so be a good neighbour to the medieval World Heritage Site. Happily, that should reduce its appeal to bus tours, and leave it for Galicians, and solitary visitors, who may acquire virtue by walking here. (A plenary indulgence could be offered as an incentive to Post Modernists.) The architect's promise of 'a magic mountain' traversed by treelined paths is at least five years away, even if the new provincial government moves briskly to realise the vision of its former president, Manuel Fraga Iribarne. The first stage is encouraging. Twin towers, one of granite the other of steel and glass, rise from the edge of the escarpment. They were designed by the late John Hejduk for a botanical garden and will now serve as a reception centre. The Hemeroteca is faced in quartz, and the attempt to disguise steel columns as masonry using clip-on panels is as unconvincing as Richard Meier's similarly misguided effort at the LA Getty Center. However, it gets much better within. Covered walkways lead to an uplifting architectural promenade. A long gallery overlooks the spacious reading room and researchers' carrels. Sculptured parapets, stairs, and a bowed soffit contribute to an organic flow of space and a dynamic sense of movement.

The arcane geometry of the complex (a transposition of the medieval town plan overlaid with a grid that is deformed by topography and lines of force) is traced in the paving, walls, and in ceiling cuts that house strip lighting. Eisenman's intellectualised programme is enriched by its sensuous, tactile qualities, in a way his earlier work was not. The City of Culture has affinities to earlier plans--including the unrealised Emory Center for the Arts--to deploy buildings like the fingers of a hand, separate, yet linked. You can imagine the final iteration of buildings that swoop and turn within a lushly planted park in this green and pleasant land. It's a prospect to tempt every architectural pilgrim.
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Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:721
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