Printer Friendly



Clad in a delicate glass membrane that changes like a chameleon's skin, Rafael Moneo's Kursaal auditorium forms a new icon for San Sebastian.

Where the river Urumea meets the ocean in San Sebastian, two sharp limpid boxes mark the presence of the new Kursaal concert hall and conference centre designed by Madrid-based Rafael Moneo. Embedded in a low, almost geological podium of slate shards, glass and grey aluminium, the canted parallelepipeds are constructed almost entirely of contiguous glass elements held in place by a skeletal steel frame.

The building operates at various scales. Its primary move is topographical: it can be interpreted as two pristine boulders shaped like those found alongside the river outside. Both foggy white boxes contain one sealed inner box, flowing interstitial foyer space and, as finale, a single punctured window aligned with one or other of the adjacent hills that cradle San Sebastian.

Inland towards the city, the Kursaal's podium contains shops, a cafe and a mezzanine-level restaurant as well as the necessary entrances for pedestrians, motorists and service vehicles. Towards the beach and rivermouth, it ramps up and about the two primary forms as a new civic terrace. The building's theme of in-betweenness is also expressed in the skin construction of both principal masses. This comprises two double layers of glass -- the outermost layer made of curved panels to produce a scalloped effect -- with dramatic maintenance walkways in the interstitial voids. This new Kursaal is the product of a competition held in 1990, one year before that for the spectacularly successful Guggenheim Museum along the coast in Bilbao (AR December 1997). The name Kursaal is the legacy of a previous San Sebastian institution, an entertainment and casino pavilion dating from the end of the nineteenth century. This new Kursaal revives that Belle Epoque tradition of large seaside buildings and although a fraction of t he cost of the Guggenheim, similarly aims to become an icon for its host city. When visiting, it is particularly important to spend time in and about the building as the maritime atmosphere of the Bay of Biscay is susceptible to rapid changes in weather conditions. Especially at night, the glazed forms of the Kursaal function as beacons at a grand scale. They slip into view as you stroll about the city, electrified, elegant and mysterious. From the sea or air, they must be even more beautiful.

The larger of the two translucent forms shelters a l828-seat concert hall. It is equipped with the necessarily flexible stage floor, sides and overhead elements so that the full spectrum of events, from poetry recitals to grand opera, can be easily accommodated. The smaller form encloses a 624-seat auditorium, more intimate and less intensely serviced, intended primarily for conferences. Where the larger auditorium sits asymmetrically within its enclosure and reaches up to touch that soffit, the smaller is positioned symmetrically on plan but floats free of the roof above. The larger chamber is luxuriously furnished with finely panelled sides canted for acoustic performance: the smaller is lined in a paler pine and has double banks of interpreter booths. Both volumes rely on seat upholstery for sound absorption. Ceiling panels drop downwards to allow light fittings, for example, to illuminate the stage while being tactfully screened from the view of the audience.

The base on which these two volumes sit is remarkably low. More like another stratum of the earth's crust than any typical institutional facade, the entrance side faces south alongside the Avenida de Ia Zurriola with luxury shops and office foyers beneath a shared datum. The building line recedes behind this linear parapet at the Kursaal's centre to create a deep sheltered space likened by the architects to the traditional Spanish zaguan (entrance) porch. This is where entry to both principal spaces, ticket booths and pedestrian connection to the 500-car underground parking structure are found. It feels like a natural place to meet, a widening of the pavement promenade. (It is intended to position a giant letter 'K', designed by New York-based Massimo Vignelli, here in the near future.) In fact, the Kursaal is arranged with partition walls and multiple entryways so that its various constituent spaces can be used simultaneously or individually. From beneath the low streetside datum, the visitor proceeds naturally to the expansive volumes held within the two glazed forms. Especially about the concert hall, a free-form family of open stairways and viewing platforms invite the users of the Kursaal to ascend with some real spatial excitement to the various levels, to explore the plastic entirety of the project, and then savour a single focused view back to the hillside and seascape outside.

At the lower levels, there are typically viewing windows to the public realm so that even deep inside the building there are kinetic glimpses of the outside world as skateboarders and strollers pass by. The main concert hall floor is sunk to basement level, allowing performance artists and maintenance personnel unlimited access about its periphery. Within the plinth, there are also smaller meeting rooms with complementary batteries of interpreter facilities. It is disappointing, however, that the vast function room/restaurant has no visual link back towards the ocean.

One of Rafael Moneo's first solo projects from the 1960s is also in San Sebastian a seven-storey apartment building just one block from the Kursaal. It exhibits the typological and perhaps even the formal influences Moneo was exposed to during a sojourn in Rome between 1963 and 1965. If architecture is interpreted in strictly biographical terms, the Kursaal -- as a special fragment in the city -- is clearly indebted to Moneos pre-Roman experience, to the two years he spent working for the Danish master J[phi]rn Utzon. The tectonics of the Kursaal are orthogonal, the materiality and colours varied (some blue highlights hint at a sub-aquatic theme), but there is nevertheless here on the Bay of Biscay a sophisticated echo of the Opera House in Sydney. It's an exercise in realizing monumentality in the early twenty-first century, using materials and textures effectively, and integrating fluidly the comings and goings of conference attendees, theatre folk and the normal urban life of the contemporary city.


1 The two translucent volumes of the Kursaal form a new icon for the city on the edge of the sea.

2 At night the building appears radiant and mysterious, a beacon on the bay.

3 Mass is dissolved by an Inscrutable glass skin that changes with the light.

4 South-west end of the complex shelters an open-air cafe terrace.

5 Platform between the two volumes overlooks the bay; an abstract composition of glass skin, sea and sky.

6 Curved cladding panels generate a scalloped effect that gently subverts the building's linearity.

7 Foyer spaces weave around the volume of the concert hall.

8, 9 Free-form staircases hurtle vertiginously through the tall spaces, creating a dramatic promenade to upper levels.

10 Translucent skin diffuses light into the foyer.

11 Openings cut into the wall reveal glimpses of the human animation inside.

12 Foyer space around the smaller congress hail.

13 Main concert hall, equipped with canted sides to assist acoustic performance.

1 concert hall

2 dressing room

3 storage

4 rehearsal room

5 truck entrance

6 loading dock

7 meeting room

8 foyer

9 kitchen

10 banqueting hall

11 car park entrance

12 car park exit

13 congress hall

14 entrance

IS exhibition space

16 cafe

17 shops

18 offices

19 cloakroom

20 platform

21 seafront


Project team

Rafael Moneo, Madrid

Structural engineer

Rafael Moeno, Luis Rojo, Jeff Inaba, Andrew Borges. Barry Price, Ezra Gould, Collecte Creppell, Nancy Chen, Albert Ho, Ignaclo Quemada, Eduardo Belzunce, Fernando lznaola, Jan Kleihues, Luis Diaz Maurino. Adolfo Zanetti, Robert Robinowitz, Juan Beldarrain, Pedro Elcuaz, Jmanol Icurria

Mechanical engineer

Javier Manterola, Hugo Corres & Associates, Jesus Jimenez Canas

Acoustic consultant

J. G. Asociados


Higini Arau

Duccio Malagamba
COPYRIGHT 2000 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:new Kursaal concert hall and conference center
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:May 1, 2000

Related Articles
Lakeside spectacular.
Regional Roundup.
New regulations for a new digital era.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters