A message to all pilgrims approaching Santiago de Compostela: as you make your way through the modern suburbs, take time to look left, over the modern buildings to the hill beyond and the odd structure perched on its crest. It was Gail who first noticed it and pointed it out to me. And it was me, afflicted with an incurable architectural disease that allows me to identify the work of famous architects five kilometres away, that recognized this as the work of contemporary architect, Peter Eisenman.
We filed our discovery for future reference. There was the cathedral and five more days walking to Finisterre and Muxia still beckoned. But we have returned to Santiago for one last day. A day reserved for Eisenman.
It’s called the Cidade da Cultura de Galicia – City of Culture – and its began life as a grand scheme cooked up by the region’s president in the 1990’s. Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum was a runaway success and all of Spain was looking for other star-architect projects to draw tourist dollars. City of Culture was one of those and, in 1999, a star-studded architectural competition was held. Eisenman won. And so began the monumental project on the top of Monte Gaiás.
Gail and I had just walked 900 kilometres so it did not seem unreasonable to walk to City of Culture. The city (Santiago or Culture) did not make this easy. There are no brochure, no signs, no obvious route. Instead we consulted Google Maps, made up our own way and headed out of the comfortable confines of the medieval city and into the wilds of suburban Santiago.
We chose unwisely, winding our way through progressively newer developments, finally making a pit stop at a shiny new El Corte Inglés department store. A series of small roads and treks across vacant fields eventually led us to the back door of the City of Culture – a chain link gate and a no-trespassing sign.
There was no turning back now. Over the fence we went, scrambling over more rubble until we finally came face-to-face with the back wall of the glass and stone complex. We passed two crisp modern momoliths – the Hedjuk Towers – and connected with the main entrance to this other city.
I know Eisenman as an architect who likes to play with grids, overlapping them at different angles, allowing them to collide and then seeing what came out of that collision as architectural form. The game was apparent everywhere. The floors of each building used materials that emphasized the mashing of grids with walls that rose out of the gridded pattern at odd angles. That was the floor plan of his grand vision. But it is what rises above that ultimately won him the competition.And added a further, much deeper level of complexity to the project.
Walking into the City of Culture along that deep narrow canyon between buildings was strangely similar to our earlier walk, as pilgrims, into the City of Santiago. That is not an accident. Eisenman planned his buildings to resemble the plan view of the historic city, the narrow slivers between his buildings roughly corresponding to the major arteries of Santiago. It is worth visiting the small display area devoted to the architect and his creation. The space will likely be packed with adoring architectural students so muscle yourself alongside them to view the exquisite wood model of the site as it relates to Santiago’s city centre.
This aerial view is arguably the only way to fully appreciate how Eisenman’s plan mimics Santiago’s plan. Look more closely and you will notice the ripples that cross the arching roofs of his buildings evoking the ripples in a scallop shell, the traditional symbol of St. James’ pilgrimage to Santiago. These two references to Santiago – as civic and religious icon – appear to have won the competition for the architect.
Entering the finished buildings is a bit bewildering. The layers of grand ideas – grids, undulating roofs, more grids – all crashing into each other, creates a chaotic sense of space. Architectural elements swirl all around, grounded only by the more prosaicly rectilinear nature of museum displays and books. I am a fan of chaos (the twisty confusing streets of Santiago come to mind or anything about Varanasi in India) but this is a constructed chaos. It is empty of life. It lacks an evolving history.
We leave the City of Culture, this time along the correct path. The route is evident once you are up there looking back down to town. But it is a long, uninteresting sort of road through undeveloped urban land that awkwardly crosses the town’s main rail artery. It is certainly not pedestrian-friendly. This is a destination meant to be driven to. Looking back across the fields, the huge complex at the top of the hill has all but disappeared. It is such a grand architectural gesture yet, from here, its disconnect from the actual city is so apparent, so sad.
Eisenman has created a richly-dense architectural space. As a visiting pilgrim, the City of Culture is a modern counterpoint to the traditional end-point of the Camino, worth visiting for an afternoon. Just like the Cathedral, there are layers of meaning up here, waiting to be deciphered by those who take the time to explore its complex intersections of forms and ideas. And, by all means, do it the pilgrim way. Walk there. Suffer as you climb that unfriendly slope to the top of Monte Gaiás!
If you are interested in purchasing prints for any of the photographs in this series of Camino de Santiago blog posts, they can be ordered directly from my website at http://www.firmangallery.com/camino-frances