New wave: Grimshaw’s first art gallery surges into Spain

Every architect wants to design an art gallery. You are not regarded as a serious contender on the international circuit until you do. Other building types may be more challenging, more lucrative, more directly useful, but the fact remains. So an architect’s first art gallery is a crucial rite of passage. And Sir Nicholas Grimshaw’s is more interesting than most.

You know Nick Grimshaw in Britain for his ever-evolving Eden Project in Cornwall, for his Eurostar terminal at London’s Waterloo station, for the weirdly protracted saga of his much-delayed Bath Spa project – imminently due to be finished at last – and for being the president of the Royal Academy. In the USA, he is building up a portfolio of work including the forthcoming Fulton Street transit center in Manhattan, the performing arts center at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York, and so forth. What you don’t know him for yet is a new art gallery in La Coruna, north-west Spain. It’s worth taking a look, next time you’re taking your surfboard down that way.

Spain is enjoying an architectural renaissance. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently hosting a big exhibition of this rich crop of new work. Apart from the home teams, big international names have been signed up. From America’s Frank Gehry to France’s Jean Nouvel via Switzerland’s Herzog and de Meuron, they are all at work in Spain. Of the Brits, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster are building rival wineries in Rioja, while David Chipperfield is busy on a “city of justice” legal quarter in Barcelona. Meanwhile in La Coruna, Grimshaw has finally completed the Caixa Galicia gallery, the result of a competition he won nearly ten years ago.

This is nothing like anyone’s conventional notion of what an art gallery should be. Grimshaw, mindful of the big Atlantic breakers crashing onto the beach a few streets away, likens it to a rolling wave. It’s also a bit scaly, a bit reptilian, like some hooded serpent poised to strike. Whatever image you wish to conjure up, the point is that it leans forward, and most buildings do not do that because they do not want to fall over. Nobody could call it beautiful but when you see it, it has charm and poise. It’s a jolie-laide of a thing, rather like the city it sits in.

La Coruna is a densely-packed place, a busy port where building plots were originally measured out in oar-lengths. That made them narrow, and as the city expanded, it mostly expanded upwards. At the same time, the inhabitants protected themselves from the Atlantic storms and stifling summer heat alike with glazed “gallerias” – buffer zones between inside and outside. Grimshaw’s client, a regional savings bank with a large public art collection, found itself a tight site in the city’s commercial district in a row of such tall glazed buildings. Not the ideal place to shoehorn a lot of gallery space into, but Grimshaw decided to make things trickier still by running a public alleyway right through it from front to back.

Nice move, urbanistically, but this did split what would have been a tall narrow building into two very narrow tall buildings linked by a full-height atrium. The bank then decided it also wanted a 300-seat auditorium, and the only place big enough for that was underground, beneath an already-planned basement gallery. The hole they dug to fit all this in eventually got to be more than 80 feet deep. So the end result is a leaning tower rising from the depths of the earth, hanging there by the grace of engineers Arup.

The reason it leans is that it is pulling its feet in, so as to get daylight right down to the lower levels. Meanwhile, to re-instate the street frontage line and defer to the galleria context, a very large holographic glass screen is suspended vertically on a steel frame over the pavement. It’s a back-projection screen, with an array of 25 projectors stationed behind the façade behind. And it works: coupled with the rotating translucent marble-and-glass louvres of the frontage, this is getting some way towards the high-tech dream of a building that can adapt its skin like a chameleon.

The idea is that you make your way to the upper levels first, and then filter down. To help you in this quest, Grimshaw has slung two panoramic lifts off the front. This is funtime: the moment when your lift shoots up from behind the glass screen and feels as if it is about to launch itself into space is pure Willie Wonka. It’s just a shame that such lifts need ugly slots like giant Scalextric tracks running right up the front.

Most of the main galleries are at one side, and you descend from one to the other via a staircase slung out over the atrium floor far below. These are good, fairly intimate spaces, fairly conventional, nothing to write home about or get curators annoyed. I can’t comment on the art since it wasn’t hung when I was there. But it’s in the circulation areas that Grimshaw has let rip, making the gallery a bit like a tasteful adventure playground. It’s a good place to wander around, and on the granite-paved ground floor, where you can stroll through from front to back, there is a café complete with giant TV for watching those vital Deportivo La Coruna matches. The auditorium down below, meanwhile, all warm timber and white leather seats, is set up for chamber music and looks – and sounds – promising.

So it is more than a little unconventional, Grimshaw’s first art gallery. The President of the Royal Academy adopts no Establishment solution here, takes no soft option. It was not easy to build. But Spain likes challenging new architecture. There are not many provincial cities that would see such a thing through.

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, March 19 2006, as “A different slant on art”.

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