What Makes Renzo Piano's First Spanish Building So Different?
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AD spoke with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect about the inspiration for his most recent design, a cultural center in Santander
After building major projects across the world, Renzo Piano is set to open his first building in Spain later this week. The project, Centro Botín, will serve as the new home for the art, cultural and educational programs of Fundación Botín. Ahead of its opening this Friday, June 23, AD spoke with Piano to ask him how he arrived at such a unique project.
On Spain’s northern coast, just 60 miles west of Bilbao, Santander takes its cues from the sea, and Piano, an avid sailor, followed that lead, designing the building in relationship with its maritime environment. “I love building on the water,” he says. “This project was a personal passion.” The new building sits directly on the waterfront of the city’s tranquil bay, tucked away from the open sea. As Piano observes, “the water of the bay is like a lagoon—very quiet.” Piano clad the building with 270,000 ceramic discs, creating a kind of pointillist façade designed to reflect Santander’s distinctive light. As Piano puts it, “light is the most important element, and in Santander, it’s a very special light. There is a lot of light, but it’s not completely sunny, a bit like Venice.” He designed the ceramic discs to become integrated into this unique light condition. As he explains, “the light comes from the south, it touches the water and strikes the building — so you have a reverberation of light. The material has a vibration.”
To improve access to the water—both visually and as a matter of pedestrian connectivity — Piano lifted the building on slender stilts and made the ground-level interior spaces entirely transparent. “The building doesn’t come to the ground,” he says. “We wanted to keep the public space open.” To that end, in collaboration with landscape designer Fernando Caruncho, the design also restored and expanded the historic Pereda Gardens, into which the building is now set. A waterfront roadway now buried underground, no longer obstructs access to the sea.
Centro Botín will open with three exhibitions: Carsten Höller, Goya, and works from the permanent collection of Fundación Botín. Once the opening celebrations are over, Piano plans to return. “I have not sailed from Sandander,” he regrets. “Well, not yet — I will.”