Page D6.2 . 13 February 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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    Contemporary Art Museum of Castilla and León


    The floor plan echoes an element of the past. Its theoretical point of departure is a Roman floor mosaic. In this case, the original pattern of the mosaic has been displaced and contorted as if to signify the ravages of time. Squares have rotated, become elongated, and ultimately reshaped into rhombi. As the mosaic pattern was "crumbled," a new order of interrelated forms was created. The resulting floor plan looks like a skewed honeycomb, suggesting an organic community.

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    The architects actually want the museum to be experienced as a small-scale, bustling city. Luis Mansilla describes the exhibition halls as "covered, sheltered market streets." Mansilla and Tuñón drew inspiration for MUSAC from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, where a labyrinth of covered passageways has all the vibrancy of an open-air market.

    The driving philosophy behind the MUSAC building is that creativity can only develop within the framework of constraint. Mansilla and Tuñón believe that infinite possibilities detract from the creative process, and by limiting the elements of design, those elements can be thoroughly explored. The glass curtain walls that define the exterior architecture are hardly innovative, but the irregularity of the perimeter's outline, the variations in height of the volumes, and the polychromatic framing of the public plaza make the building unique.

    Inside, the predominant construction material is reinforced concrete and no effort is made to conceal that. The ceiling beams are stark, smooth, and prefabricated. That stands in contrast to the walls, which were formed in situ and bear the imprint of the wood forms that cast them. The materials do not distinguish the design, but the concrete elements are juxtaposed to create dynamic zigzag patterns and unconventional sight lines within museum space.

    MUSAC challenges the traditional notion of a museum. None of the exhibitions are permanent. It's all a moveable feast.

    The exterior and interior design reflect this philosophy. The frosted glass facade can serve as a screen for the projection of images. Those images can change from one moment to the next, reflecting the fast-paced nature of modern life. The interior courtyards, also framed by walls of frosted glass, provide a more intimate setting for the projection of film or graphics. Instead of resisting change, the museum's design actively embraces it.

    The floor plan, and more importantly the way the visitor experiences it, favors freedom rather than constraint. The exhibition halls unfold on the northwest side of the building, where the spatial relationship between the interior elements allows for maximum autonomy in wayfinding. The entire museum offers 3,400 square meters (36,600 square feet) of exhibition space, divided into five halls.

    Each hall is composed of interlocking rhomboid shapes that create a zigzagging pattern. There are no corridors between the modular elements. At any given moment the visitor can see what is beyond the immediate space in different directions and determine his or her path through the exhibitions accordingly.

    The curators have the flexibility to stage different exhibitions at once, choose spaces that best suit the art on display, and move partitions to best accommodate each exhibit. There is a balance in MUSAC between the author (artists and curators) and the audience (visitors). The arrangement of the interior encourages an interactive relationship and inversion of roles.

    The museum culture created in MUSAC stands in contrast to that of blockbuster exhibitions found in conventional institutions. Individuals are not herded like cattle from point A to point B, with headsets programming their every thought. Instead the visitor can become the protagonist in the interior space and determine the narrative of exhibits.

    Light is an indispensable design element for Mansilla and Tuñón. The skylights in the entrance vestibule and the clerestory lighting throughout the exhibition halls reflect this. In the entryway, two skylights intersect at a single point. In the morning, one skylight brings in soft, blue light from the north, while the other brings in intense, yellow light from the south. In the afternoon, the character of the light flooding in from opposing directions changes, creating dramatic shifts in mood. The clerestory lighting in the exhibition halls produces a continuous play of shadows as the day progresses.

    One feature of MUSAC is the "Wall Project," a hall with large glass display cases that are simultaneously reminiscent of archaeological displays and shop windows. The first association decontextualizes the objects on display: putting objects behind glass distances them from the viewer and encourages an interpretation of them as foreign or beyond reach. At the same time, the sense of a retail display turns the objects into commodities, and reflects the desire of the architects to make access to culture more democratic.

    Mansilla emphasizes the importance of history and society in his vision for museum design. For him the fundamental challenge of the twentieth century was to create equality within our culture. Now, he says, "we face the challenge of preserving cultural diversity within the context of equality." Mansilla and Tuñón have certainly designed a museum with the flexibility to respond to changes in culture while preserving a sense of community.   >>>

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    Rachel Grossman writes about travel, fine arts, architecture, and interior design from San Fransisco. She holds a graduate degree in modern art history from the Courtauld Institute.



    ArchWeek Image

    The pattern of color glass panels on the Contemporary Art Museum of Castilla and León in León, Spain, is based on a stained-glass panel in the city's 13th-century cathedral.
    Photo: © Ángel Marcos

    ArchWeek Image

    Except for the colorful courtyard, the MUSAC building envelope consists of uniform, frosted glass panels.
    Photo: Courtesy Olga Cuesta

    ArchWeek Image

    The simple glass curtain wall of the Contemporary Art Museum of Castilla and León helped to earn the building the 2007 Mies van der Rohe Award, the European Union Prize for Contemporary Architecture.
    Photo: Courtesy Olga Cuesta

    ArchWeek Image

    Site plan drawing of MUSAC.
    Image: Mansilla + Tuñón Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Overview rendering of MUSAC.
    Image: Mansilla + Tuñón Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Axonometric drawing of MUSAC.
    Image: Mansilla + Tuñón Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Floor plan drawing of MUSAC.
    Image: Mansilla + Tuñón Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Multiple building heights introduce a sense of variety to an otherwise uniform facade at the Contemporary Art Museum of Castilla and León.
    Photo: Courtesy Mansilla + Tuñón


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