There is a new pilgrimage point in Santiago de Compostela, the near perfect city in the far northwest corner of Spain that has drawn supplicants and scholars for centuries to its great cathedral and extraordinary architecture. Although a modern intervention seems almost unthinkable in a city of such intimate scale and splendid historical style, the recently completed Museum of Contemporary Art of Galicia by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza slips gracefully into its sacrosanct surroundings. It took a brave architect to accept the challenge, and a very good one to pull it off. The building is at once radical, beautiful, and timeless.
The Santiago museum does much to define the state of architecture today. It clearly puts the theme-park world of postmodernism behind us. Nor is there any pretense to a false historical humility. The building’s sharply angled forms and almost unbroken horizontal planes make a strong case for the enduring validity of modernism. And yet the building is as respectful and “contextual,” if one may use that overworked and misused term, as it is modern, another word that has come to beg all meaning and definition, although it can still be understood in its historical sense as something distinctly of its own time. Siza’s modernism contains bold departures and subtle complexities that highlight a shift in concept and style—a new way of seeing and building that signals a significant change in the philosophy and practice of architecture. This is the work of a master who has left almost everyone else behind.
The Santiago project is referred to in Siza’s office as a work of “preservation/transformation”—an interesting dualism that collapses past and future together. Intended as the catalyst for the restoration of a neighborhood on the edge of the city’s historic center, the museum occupies a roughly triangular site that narrows to a twenty-one-degree angle at its tightest corner for a striking, wedge-shaped plan: two L-shaped sections converge and interpenetrate at their closest point. But the new building does not so much occupy the site as it is skillfully inserted into it; from a distance one does not see it at all. What is most remarkable as one approaches is its quality of extreme horizontality, the easy way it seems to fit into the urban landscape. Yet the long, low, granite façade is neither passive nor recessive; it possesses a dynamism that prefigures the surprises awaiting within the bold exterior forms.
Nothing is conventional about this building—not even the way one enters up a short flight of steps that leads to an angled portico at the structure’s small, sharp end. Nor is this entrance as understated or inconspicuous as its size and location might indicate; there is an almost reverse high drama in the subtle precision with which the stair meets and stops the long portico that sweeps along the building’s main façade. Inside, the reception area with its sleek, serpentine counter is an oasis of cool white marble. Where …