Centro Botín, by internationally acclaimed Renzo Piano Building Workshop, is a visual arts centre perched over the Bay of Santander on Spain’s northern coast.
Af Jason Dibbs
Against the rugged backdrop of the Cantabrian Mountains the intricately tiled, bifurcated forms of Centro Botín hover half over land and half over the water, converging the fabric of the old city with the sea.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Centro Botín, in the historic port city of Santander, is just an hour away from northern Spain’s other architectural icon — Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim. Yet, whilst Piano’s and Gehry’s buildings share in an attitude of aesthetic juxtaposition with the material qualities of their respective contexts, they differ significantly in regard to both scale and density. On the point of scale, the size and presence of Centro Botín is skillfully calibrated to resonate with the scale of the small city within which it is situated. With regard to density, the two cantilevered halves of the building are so light they want to ascend into the sky, only barely tethered to the ground by slender structural columns and supports.
Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s design deftly reimagines artistic and cultural programmatic requirements as extensions of the parkland in which they are situated. Centro Botín boasts 2,500 square meters of gallery space, a 300-seat auditorium, 300 square meters of ground-floor multipurpose areas, and an outdoor auditorium that can accommodate up to 2,000 people. In addition to providing a permanent home for the art collection of the philanthropic institution Fundacíon Botín, the center provides amenity for a range of diverse educational and cultural programs, as well as temporary exhibits. Since opening in 2017, these have included shows by installation artist Carsten Höller and painter Julie Mehretu, as well as an exhibition of drawings by Francisco de Goya.
Centro Botín’s bifurcated forms are like two halves of a sea urchin, with an interstitial space that centrally frames views out over the Bay of Santander and back towards the foliage of Jardines de Pereda. Light steel and glass walkways intersect and interlink the two lobes of the building, creating new public spaces, whilst central stairways and elevators provide easy circulation between the educational and cultural programs of the east volume and the artistic programs of the right. The shape and contours of the design are the result of reiterative modeling, maximizing natural light to the undercroft and enhancing views from the parkland to the sea. The resulting gentle curves of the facades are clad with 280,000 pearl-colored ceramic tiles that shimmer in the oceanic climate and northern Spanish light.
Overlooking the sea and next to the old city, Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s Centro Botín is situated on the axis of the historic local market, amidst 42,000 square meters of recently restored parklands, including the 20,000-square-meter Jardines de Pereda. Centro Botín is but one element of a synergistic urban intervention, reclaiming a vast portion of dockland area that had, up until recently, been used as a carpark. Integral to the urban ambitions of the design was the decision to reroute the Paseo del Muelle, a road that once intersected the site, through a 200-meter-long underground tunnel. This has restored pedestrian access from the old city to the seafront, redefining the significance of the Jardines de Pereda in the daily lives of santanderinos.
Centro Botín is yet another masterful project in the enviable oeuvre of Renzo Piano Building Workshop, arguably one of the most celebrated architecture practices in the world today. Piano received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1998 and has evolved an architectural language that is imbued with the same characteristic structural experimentation found in early collaborations with Richard Rogers and Peter Rice. Piano has said of Centro Botín, that “from the very beginning, I wanted the building to fly”; it is clear from the completed project that he has achieved this end and much more. Centro Botín is an exemplar of the metaphoric function of architecture, converging art with culture, the city with the sea, and the earth with the sky.