Media Science building at the university of Santiago de Compostela
Combining grand gestures with moments of intimacy, Alvaro Siza's new Media Science building at the university of Santiago de Compostela reinterprets Mediterranean archetypes in an abstract synthesis of space and light.
One of Alvaro Siza's most notable projects of the mid 1990s, was the Galician Museum of Art in the heart of Santiago de Compostela (AR October 1994). It marked an evolution in scale and programme and demonstrated a growing sensitivity in Siza's handling of space and light. This most recent building sees him return to Santiago de Compostela, but instead of being locked into the medieval core, it forms part of the city's university campus, joining a series of buildings in a park-like landscape. Dating from 1501, Santiago de Compostela's university is one of the oldest in Spain, and this new building, for the Faculty of Media Science, represents the latest modest phase in the institution's centuries-old evolution.
The university's masterplan for the campus was initially based on the notion of a single interconnected megastructure, similar to the Free University of Berlin. But incremental additions, such as new student residences, gradually diluted this concept. When Siza came to the project he respected the existing overall geometry, but designed a detached building that completes and extends the original plan. The main component of the new faculty is a long, linear bar placed on an east-west axis that follows the alignment of the neighbouring Philology Faculty to the west. The bar acts as the fat spine of the building, with various clusters of spaces locked on to it, forming semienclosed patios that connect with the landscape and bring light into the interior. Transforming and reinterpreting an ancient archetype, Siza's use of patios is by now a familiar device (for instance, the rectorate at Alicante University, AR March 2000). But it also draws on other more recent sources, such as Aalto and Scandinavian Modernism. Siza is fascinated by the way Aalto's informal courtyards rework a Mediterranean form, so reinvigorating and reinventing it. Set midway along the main bar, the library forms the building's conceptual and physical centre, thrusting out at right angles like the truncated prow of a ship. Hovering on squat pilotis, its mass is partly eroded so that you can walk underneath it to reach the main entrance on the south side. Like all of Siza's buildings, the treatment of the exterior is characterized by restraint and impassiveness. Rising from a rusticated base of finely jointed honey-coloured granite, walls are solid and rendered with white stucco, in the Mediterranean tradition. The impervious white skin is ruptured by a handful of horizontal openings some shaded by thin overhangs, giving the elevations a curious beetle-browed effect.
As some critics have observed, Siza's architecture resembles an ever-growing body of research, in which discoveries are gradually unearthed and elements crystallized. This research takes place across several scales, from the city down to the level of small details. Certain themes recur, such as the idea of a building as a sequence of topographical incidents, linked by ramps and levels. At Santiago de Compostela, this forms a key organizational device. Along the south side, the ground falls away in a shallow slope, with trees at its base. A ceremonial flight of steps and long ramp rise up from the street to converge on the main entrance. In summer, the green slope and steps are colonized by students, as informal extensions of the building.
Inside, the metaphor of building-astopography is restated by a spinal gallery that connects the various volumes. Airy and dignified, the gallery is bathed in a cool north light. A long ramp winds past a row of lecture halls to classrooms and studios at upper level. Circulation becomes a social event, as students throng through the tall gallery space. The row of lecture halls is terminated by a larger auditorium that projects out of the north side, similar in scale and form to the library on the south face. At the east end of the spine, a U-shaped conglomeration of spaces houses film, TV and radio studios served by stores, workshops and classrooms.
The building is essentially nougat of different sized volumes, sensitively reconciled to explore the potential for both grand gesture and human intimacy. The library, for instance, is a heroic double-height space, toplit by angular openings punched into the gently curved roof. Yet the upper level forms an almost domestically-scaled mezzanine for quiet study, poised above the main floor below.
Sequences of compression and expansion, controlled views and varying intensities of light are all subtly modulated and orchestrated to generate a compelling promenade architecturale. Light is reflected off predominantly hard or lustrous surfaces, giving the interior a cool luminosity. Materials such as white stucco, granite, and polished timber are chosen for their simplicity, climatic comfort and general robustness (crucial in a building that will endure heavy daily use). With its stone floor and plain walls, the spinal gallery is like an extension of the exterior, a blurred inside-outside realm. Careful attention is also paid to smaller scale elements, such as furnishings, railings, handles, and plinths, which have a spare, effortless elegance.
In their exploration of light, texture, movement and space, Siza's buildings touch the senses in many ways. Diverse sources of inspiration are brought together in an abstract, imaginative unity with its own hierarchy and language. Yet Siza's approach is not simply based on set of recurrent forms or characteristics, but a way of seeing, thinking and feeling about many things: building, climate, history, institutional ideals and patterns of use. Santiago de Compostela continues a fascinating evolution.