Don't let the facade fool you—this beaux arts bank in Galicia now houses an experimental arts and cultural foundation by Mansilla + Tuñón
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 5/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
The province of Galicia, in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, is one of four Spanish regions that have famously been granted semiautonomy. Like the feisty, independence-minded Basques and Catalonians, Galicians adamantly preserve their language and culture—the latter of which happens to be more Celtic than Castillian. Galicia's forested hills, rainy climate, whitewashed stone villages, and even bagpipers seem plucked straight from Shannon or County Cork.
In 1966, Pedro Barrié de la Maza, Count of Fenosa and scion of a Galician banking family, established a foundation to promote his native region, one of Spain's least prosperous. The Fundación Pedro Barrié de la Maza now operates from bases in two cities, A Coruña and Vigo, not far from the border of Portugal. The foundation administers social programs for the elderly, funds study grants and scholarships, and—more visibly—hosts concerts, lectures, and exhibitions on Galician art and history.
For the newer outpost, in Vigo, Mansilla + Tuñón Arquitectos started with the shell of the original Banco Pastor headquarters, designed by local architect Manuel Gómez Román in 1919. Behind the elegant beaux arts granite facade, Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón inserted their functional, versatile interior.
"There is rarely any invention in architecture. We believe that invention of form does not exist," Mansilla says. Strange words from the designers of Madrid's Museo del Automóvil, where the walls are built from scrapped cars compacted into large blocks. The firm's spare, luminous design for a museum planned for the northern city of Santander—and recently on view in New York in the Museum of Modern Art's "On-Site: New Architecture in Spain"—reveals the principals' training in the office of Pritzker Prize winner Rafael Moneo.
"People are extremely frightened about using the word beauty, but we defend its content and its importance," Tuñón says. "Beauty is something that architecture has forgotten for many years, and it should recover it." The beauty of their new foundation lies in the subtle interplay between spaces that respect the historic architecture and those that break free from it.
Mansilla + Tuñón divided the 30,000-square-foot building in two parallel zones. Immediately behind the facade, the architects maintained the floor heights of the existing five levels. The front of the ground level holds the lobby and the bookstore; stacked above are four small vestibules where exhibits, lectures, or cocktail parties can be held. A bank of glass-enclosed elevators separates these vestibules from larger exhibition and performance spaces that give new meaning to the word multipurpose.
The rear section of the top floor borrows a page from the stagehand's notebook. This space is usually configured as a lecture hall. With the flick of a switch, however, rows of high-strength nylon harnesses, hung on theatrical rigs, descend from between the overhead lights. The harnesses slip like lassos around the backs of the room's red Series 7 chairs by Arne Jacobsen, and the entire red army is hoisted up to the ceiling, clearing the lecture hall to become an additional gallery. (Never mind that Jacobsen designed these particular chairs to be stacked.)
Behind the lobby, the black-box space that Mansilla and Tuñón call the "box of miracles" is even more dramatic in its adaptability. What's miraculous—or at least ingenious—is the use of hydraulic lifts to raise and lower sections of the floor. Sometimes, the wengé sections are stepped to create bleacher seats for concerts and lectures. (Removable steps negotiate the steep rake between levels; chocolate-brown leather-covered cushions make the hardwood a bit more comfortable.) At other times, all the sections, including the stage, are raised to create a flat-floored, double-height exhibition space. To partition it, screens lower from the ceiling; so do different fixtures for highlighting art. The walls of the "miraculous" box are the same wengé as the hydraulic floor.
While the mechanisms are astonishing, the materials palette is simple and serene, with a few quiet flourishes. White-painted walls appear to float above black granite flooring. Lacquered ceilings, highly polished glass, and the glass-and-steel lockers for visitors all reflect light to varying degrees. This is hardly a Guggenheim Bilbao, but Mansilla + Tuñón's building is certainly a sophisticated step in Galicia's path to cultural maturity.