Creating New Lessons from the Past

architects Enrique Sobejano, Fuensanta Nieto
project Córdoba Contemporary Art Centre, Córdoba, Spain
written by Fredy Massad, Alicia Guerrero Yeste

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The inception of the Espacio Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Córdoba traces back to March 2005. Artists such as Marie-Jo Le Fontaine and Marcel·lí Antúnez, along with contemporary art theorists and experts in the field of artistic centre management as prestigious as Peter Weibel, Anne Nigten, Heiner Holtappels and the late José Luis Brea gathered for the conference Un espacio para el nuevo arte (A space for the new art), where participants discussed and introduced experiences that could serve as references for a future art centre in this city. Further reflection on the conclusions reached paved up the guidelines to call a competition for the future centre’s building.


The proposals of Dominique Perrault, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Zaha Hadid and the Spanish office Cruz y Ortiz were also included in the final shortlist of the competition that was eventually won by the project by Fuensanta Nieto and Eduardo Sobejano, who were at the time already immersed in the process of building the Madinat Al Zahra Museum (located only 8 kilometres east of Córdoba) – a project that had strongly considered and reflected on the historical weight of the Islamic cultural imprint in the region and its translation into a contemporary expression. A conceptual ground that also became a distinctive feature in their proposal for the new art centre suggested a continuity in Nieto y Sobejano’s inquiry on metaphor, memory and the construction of a narration linking the contemporary layer with all the dimensions that conform the identity/existence of a specific place. Architecture is constantly nurtured by images hidden in our mind, ideas that at some point become precise and clear and which, unexpectedly, indicate the starting point for a project. Therefore, the echo of the Hispanic-Islamic culture that still pervades Córdoba has unconsciously represented to us more than a marginal note in our proposal.


It is probably necessary to note that the presentation of Nieto y Sobejano’s project runs almost chronologically parallel not only to the outburst of the iconic architecture bubble in Spain, but more specifically to the impending erection of the Palacio del Sur by Rem Koolhaas, which eventually failed but at the time was expected to become Córdoba’s ultimate architectural sensation. The introduction of this contemporary art centre project was remarkable then because already at the time it represented a subtle turn from the prevailing tendencies, a confident overcoming of the Guggenheim-effect trauma and a rejection of the compulsory homogeneity imposed by globalization. The consistency of the conceptual approach upon which this building was fundamentally conceived must indeed be one of the reasons that has led to its realization, enduring the wrath of the economic recession (that has brought the erection of many buildings to a stop in the country) and appearing – in the present circumstances − as a sensible valuable civic project for a society that has to rebuild its social and cultural foundations to ensure a better future.


The building is designed as a sequence of rooms linked to the public walkway, where the different functions of the building come together. A communal area, conceived as a sort of crossroads and meeting place, a space for exhibitions and installations, discussions, a visit to the café or mediatheque, or as a spot from which one can enjoy the views of the Guadalquivir river.


Their acknowledgment of the strong identity of Córdoba’s history has not been simplistically accomplished and justified by means of an adaption or imitation of iconographic motifs of Islamic or mozárabe folklore. On the contrary, their approach reveals a sensible and intelligent rejection of any banal or simplified interpretation: they chose to go deeper into the understanding of the hidden geometrical laws used by the artists, artisans and master builders of the old Córdoba, who were capable of creating a multiple and isotropic space within the Mosque, a building facetted with vaults and mugarna windows, permutations of ornamental motifs with lattice windows, paving and ataurique decorations; as well as into the narrative rhythms that sustain certain Islamic literary structures – which include a story within another story, within yet another…a story without an end − as they understood that those laws and rhythms are the tools required to materialise the works which convey a specific understanding of the construction and imagination of reality.


As Nieto y Sobejano propose it, the search for this complexity aims fundamentally at finding a building that roots to the place and a far memory and arises as an architectural element whose substance is completely different to that of the hegemonic neutral and universal container, whose supposed efficacy and flexibility is distrusted by these architects. An exercise of revising the grounds of contemporary typologies by means of exploring the past through contemporary (or perhaps timeless?) mental structures to find alternative possibilities of shaping and expanding the potentialities of space.


The project started from that concept of the Islamic literary structure of the tale as a container for an infinite number of stories, which defines the nature of the interior space. The system that sustained the building was a law generated by a repeating geometric pattern which generated a hexagonal shape continuing three different types of rooms (measuring 150 m2, 90 m2 and 60 m2 respectively). The permutations of these three areas, as in a combination game, generate sequences of different spaces, which – if necessary – can unify as a single exhibition zone. Thus, the building doesn’t operate as a statically centralised organism, as its centre can easily move from one point to another. The artists’ workshops on the ground floor and the laboratories on the upper floor are located adjacent to the exhibition halls, to the point where there is no strict difference between them: artistic works can be exhibited in the workshops while the exhibition halls can also be used as areas for artistic production. The assembly room – the black box – is designed as a stage area suitable for theatrical productions, conferences, film screenings, or even for audio-visual exhibitions. In this Centre, artists, visitors, experts, researchers and the public will meet as in a contemporary souk, without an obvious spatial hierarchy. It will be a centre for creative artistic processes which will link closely the architectural space with the public: an open laboratory where architecture attempts to provoke new modes of expression.


The outside expression of the building is conferred by one single material: grc prefabricated panels that, at the same time, clad opaque and perforated façades or make the flat and sloping roofs of the hall. The material has been chosen for its lightness and efficient performance but also because it allows the combinatory concept which governs the whole project. The close presence of the river has been turned by the architects into a component that confers a unique aesthetic quality on the building while, simultaneously, generating a connection with the city’s identity/landscape: the façade overlooking the Guadalquivir becomes the main exterior façade of the Contemporary Art Centre, conceived as a screen perforated by several polygonal opening with led-type monochromatic maps behind them. During the day, natural light filters through the perforations and penetrates the interior coveted walkway. At night, by means of a computer program, video signals generate images and texts that will reflect on the river’s surface (enabling the possibility of site-specific installations).


The introduction of this capability in the building must be also understood as a statement by Nieto y Sobejano about the alternative potentialities of contemporary time, a disagreement which they reply not with speculation but with the feasibility of another possibility. In their own words: Some of the most recent artistic proposals linked to the most recent technologies appear to move away from materiality and submerge themselves in a virtuality disconnected from a concrete place, but perhaps through it, disagreeing with this interpretation – which has become a commonplace – we are convinced that the building itself, the Guadalquivir river, the present and the past of Córdoba, will not simply be a casual circumstance but – as it has been for us as well – will be the start of a dialogue, agreement, or perhaps rejection. For are these not also emotions underlying in the search of all artistic expression? Nieto y Sobejano have delivered a building which entirely commits to the keyword that defines its name, essence and function: creation. The stimulation for significant and transformative creation.