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Culture And Context

Bilbao-based architects Javier Cenicacelaya and Iñigo Saloña have crafted buildings around the world that bring traditional character and craftsmanship to urban and rural environments.

By Kim A. O'Connell

In recent years, tourists in Bilbao, Spain, have often stopped to gaze, awestruck, at a striking building that commands attention from all sides. In this case, it is not Frank Gehry's gleaming titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum that draws their attention, but the Provincial Palace, an outstanding example of eclectic late-19th-century architecture. A national monument in Spain, the 1900 building has an elaborate façade of rusticated stonework, numerous arches and columns and fantastical figures and friezes. The equally magnificent interior features grand staircases, ornamental columns and statues and coffered ceilings.

In the late 1990s, an architectural competition was held to restore the building, which had deteriorated over the decades and undergone several additions. The building had once been fortified with iron bars, which had expanded and contracted, introducing fissures into the walls and weakening the structure. The project, which required a comprehensive and exacting restoration, was ultimately awarded to two Bilbao-based architects – Javier Cenicacelaya and Iñigo Saloña. For the past 23 years, these partners have stood in the vanguard of Neoclassical building in their native Spain, while also spreading their influence throughout Europe as well as the United States.

In contrast to the Postmodernist conceit that produces stunning but hubristic works like the Guggenheim, Cenicacelaya and Saloña are dedicated to designing and rehabilitating buildings that contribute to the urban context, provide visual continuity and acknowledge history and beauty. The two were at the forefront of the traditional neighborhood development movement and remain prominent supporters of New Urbanism. "We think it's important to talk about beauty," Cenicacelaya says. "We hate this culture of 'uglyism' that has spread in painting, music and architecture. We have to talk about beauty, about harmony, about pleasing the eye and about balance with the neighborhood. These things are part of the Classical tradition of Western society. We think it's a must to do that kind of work for coming generations."

The architects have garnered numerous awards, including the prestigious European Award for Reconstruction of the City in 1992, as well as many design competitions, producing such notable works as the Church of Saint John Neumann in Miami, FL. "Cenicacelaya and Saloña combine first-rate design with first-rate scholarship," says Andrés Duany, co-founder of Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), which has collaborated with the firm. "The other thing about Javier and Iñigo is that they are terrific team players, and that is rare, and they are also very broad-minded about tradition. They can do traditional modern buildings."

The Value of Precedent
Cenicacelaya and Saloña earned their architecture degrees from the Universidad de Navarra in northern Spain, in 1975 and 1981 respectively, amid a fomenting backlash against Modernism and a growing movement to weave architecture back into the fabric of urban life. Cenicacelaya would augment his education with a master's degree in urban design from Oxford University in England in 1978. Since then, both men were appointed visiting scholars by the John Paul Getty Foundation and have taught and lectured at institutions and symposia throughout Europe and America. Together, the architects launched a now-defunct publication on traditional building, Composicion Arquitectonica: Art & Architecture, which was well received.

In addition, Cenicacelaya has served as a professor of architecture at the Universidad del País Vasco (Basque Country) since 1983 and was also dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Miami in 1991 and 1992. He remains the more outspoken "public face" of the two partners, often posting messages on the TRAD-ARCH list-serv hosted by the University of Miami and publishing columns and letters in newspapers.

Architects such as Aldo Rossi, Colin Rowe, Robert Venturi and Léon Krier were and are important influences on both men. "When we were starting our practice, there was a strong criticism against the idea of an architectural object that was produced without regard for the physical context in which it was to be placed," says Cenicacelaya. "We always kept those ideas in mind, regarding the relevance of architecture to the creation of the city. Other issues were also critical for us when we were leaving school. One was continuity with history, which seemed to us to be extremely logical. We could not understand why [architectural theory sought] to cut off all connections with previous historical moments. Why deprive us, as architects, from the contributions of so many brilliant architects in the last centuries? So history became relevant, and with it obviously the value of precedent, the value of memory."

At the same time, Cenicacelaya views the work of many Modern architects to be important and informative, praising the "sophistication and simplicity" of Erich Mendelsohn as one example. "We do not deny the Modern style, as long as it is good," Cenicacelaya says. "When observing the work of these architects, one can see their effort in favor of simplification. In fact, architecture in general has evolved toward simplification and in favor of comfort. We do have to accept this fact. And indeed we have to accept many other facts of our present reality. We have to evolve when accepting all those constraints of our daily reality; there is an evolution in architecture, as in the past. But it is one thing to acknowledge an evolution that gradually adapts to the milieu, and an entirely different thing is [to create a] rupture, a breaking with the milieu."

Building in Basque Country
When the two architects first established their practice in the heart of Basque country in 1983, Bilbao was a moribund city suffering from a polluted river and declining industrial infrastructure. Determined to change this state of affairs, public and private leaders established an initiative to foster tourism, technology and culture in the city and bring Bilbao back from the brink of extinction. In the last 25 years, Bilbao has become a hothouse of architectural interventions, which have undeniably helped to bring attention to and revitalize the city. Among other recent projects, Cesar Pelli master planned a massive mixed-use center along the waterfront; Santiago Calatrava designed a glass-bottomed footbridge; Norman Foster crafted a sleek subway system; and of course, Gehry topped them all with the world-renowned Guggenheim.

Although one could say that Cenicacelaya and Saloña chose the right place and the right time to start an architecture practice, they have become increasingly concerned about the rate of development in Bilbao in particular and Spain in general. Cenicacelaya has worried publicly that Bilbao will become "an architectural zoo" if more is not done to build fully integrated, smaller-scale new works that complement the historic context of Bilbao. At the same time, the firm wanted to ensure that Bilbao's rebirth incorporated rehabilitation of its existing traditional architecture, such as the Provincial Palace.

For that project, the architects produced a map of all the façades and made hundreds of drawings of all the stonework. The iron bars were carefully removed, cornices were replaced and stonework was carefully cleaned and repaired. "It was an interesting and very delicate project," says Cenicacelaya. "When you restore a building like this, you should leave it as if nobody has ever passed by." The details were as critical to the restoration as the underlying structure. "It is of great importance, the architectural composition of a given building," he adds. "The beauty, the elegance of the building, the way in which the most minute details are solved."

In the countryside surrounding Bilbao, Cenicacelaya and Saloña have designed small-scale neighborhood projects as well. For the village of La Rigada, the architects designed a finely ordered rural center, which offers space for community events, meetings and even jai alai games. Its minimal decoration and tiled roof are nods to the rural Spanish countryside, with traditional colonnades in the Tuscan Order, the simplest of the Roman orders. A large portico protects viewers from the elements, while offering a pleasant space from which to witness events. A similar project, for a multipurpose hall at the Sagrada Familia School in the community of Derio, is functional in the best sense of the word. The large, rectangular hall is nonetheless highly articulated, featuring coffered ceilings, divided-light clerestory windows and a low pitched roof and brick façade.

In projects large and small, the architects display a distinctly urban sensibility, always balancing the notion of both public and private space. A combination office and residential building in Burgos, Spain, for example, is centered on an open interior courtyard, which is further defined by a circle of lighting and seating that creates a slightly more intimate area for conversation or reflection. Even the open plans of the Basque community centers contain balconies, porticoes and other more private spaces.

The firm has brought something of a Postmodernist sensibility to its work as well. A new office building and cultural center in Durango, Spain, fills a narrow plot on the city's historic Ezkurdi Square. The building's height, divided windows, regional stone and roof-level pediment all complement its traditional surroundings. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the entry gate is punctuated by a single, mammoth, green marble Doric column. "It's an important façade, and the column was symbolic of this," Cenicacelaya says. "It catches the eye of anyone passing by and fulfills the concept of decorum in a wide sense."

Renewed Urbanism
Increasingly, the firm has been engaged in significant projects outside Spain, including a Neoclassical residential-over-retail apartment building in Brussels and a proposal for a large university library complex in Amiens, France, distinguished by its double colonnade. Recently, the firm joined other international architects, including DPZ, in a large urban project in Berlin, known as Johannisviertel, that includes housing, offices, shops and a hotel. Located in the heart of the city, the five-acre block was heavily damaged during World War II and remained largely undeveloped during the Communist period, populated mostly by artists and squatters. Berlin city planners were concerned that the site be designed in a traditional manner that would restore the area's historic character and tie together the urban fabric.

After the developer rejected several design proposals, DPZ developed a master plan that treated the block as an open network of streets and walkways. Apartment buildings on one side of the site are built around traditional Berlin courtyards connected by archways, and a formal linear square runs along the site's east-west axis. DPZ chose seven architects or firms, including Cenicacelaya and Saloña, to contribute to the project and create a dynamism that is typical of urban areas. Cenicacelaya and Saloña, for their part, are charged with designing a long, narrow office building on an odd-shaped lot. Their solution proposes tying together the first two stories of the building with an unbroken façade of traditional ground-level storefronts topped with a bank of windows. Instead of shoehorning a monolithic office building onto the asymmetrical site, however, from the third floor up the architects have broken the façade into various structures and heights, implying an urban, layered skyline.

In the 1990s, the firm won an architectural competition to design the Church of Saint John Neumann in Miami, which combines streamlined Classical details with a distinct South Florida sensibility. For a Catholic church, the design is surprisingly catholic in its influences, including mosque-like shapes, balconies normally seen in Protestant churches, and a modern pendentive dome that is suspended from the ceiling. "We went into that competition convinced that we wouldn't win," Cenicacelaya recalls. "We were going on two ideas that the committee loved – we wanted the light of Florida to enter thorough the center of the sanctuary, and we wanted a vault that is floating from above like a tent, which is a biblical analogy."

"His buildings are very much in our regional style," Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, cofounder of DPZ and current dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, once said of Cenicacelaya. "There is a curious connection between Basque architecture and South Florida's Mediterranean architecture. He designs buildings that are sympathetic to the way we do it in this part of the country."

The firm is an ardent supporter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, as well as its European counterpart, the Council for European Urbanism, founded in 2003. "New Urbanism is like fresh air," Cenicacelaya says. "I appreciate that America can be critical of its own problems and talk about its own problems, whether it's the physical milieu or the president. With New Urbanism, one believes in the Republic again, the America we all love, the America of Jefferson, the America of free thinking. There is an admiration here for the United States, and maybe some jealousy, so whatever is happening in the United States will come to Europe."

Although he acknowledges that critics have dismissed New Urbanism as "villages for millionaires," Cenicacelaya notes that traditionalists such as DPZ have been actively involved in discussions about rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an effort that he hopes will be a beacon for European revitalization. "Historic city centers throughout Europe have disappeared," he says. "The Mediterranean coast has been destroyed by tourism. This tourism is myopic, with buildings that are not sympathetic and widespread destruction of the landscape. Europe has lost more monuments and more heritage because of this attitude than the bombs of World War II."

Culture and context, craftsmanship and construction – all are equally important to Javier Cenicacelaya and Iñigo Saloña. "Buildings have to last," Cenicacelaya says. "Who would like to buy a house with a deadline date, like a can of tomatoes? It is silly the way consumerism is devastating all our resources. When the world is trying to go toward more sustainable development, good construction is even more relevant, because good construction is a great contributor to sustainability. One can just feel it when something is well built. One can feel it, and even more, one can enjoy it." TB

 

 

 
 

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