A vaunted, white box for a museum can seem neutral, austere, and aloof. But add design gestures that toe the line between calculated and random, and the result can be emphatically engaging. The Contemporary Art Center by Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos, located at a crook in the Guadalquivir River in Córdoba, Spain, showcases the complexity of the city’s Hispano-Arabic history with spontaneous, but deft, geometric insertions that permeate its entire form.
In 2006, Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano’s office in Madrid won the commission for the 12,000-square-meter (129,167-square-foot) museum for virtual objects, audiovisual installations, and digital technologies. They envisioned the building as a container made from three materials: concrete for the structural walls and slab; white, prefabricated, glass-fiber-reinforced concrete panels for the roof and exterior skin; and galvanized steel for interior elements, such as doors.
The limited material palette suits the center’s sculptural aesthetic. To give each building component and space a unique form and scale, the designers looked to the work of Islamic craftsmen: carved mashrabiya screens for the building’s elevations, faceted systems of projecting niches called muqarnas, vaulted ceilings, lattice windows, and the sublimely abstracted ornament of traditional Arabic architecture. “Just like those literary structures that included a story within another story, we took a system as a starting point for the project—a law generated by a self-similar geometric pattern that originated in a hexagonal form,” Nieto says.
Articulated further in AutoCAD and Microstation, the hex-based system generates an intricate building plan comprising 14 interior partitions and four courtyards along the circulation spine. With areas of 150, 90, and 60 square meters (1,615, 969, and 645 square feet, respectively), the partitions can be clustered to accommodate a dynamic program of workspace, public space, and exhibitions.
Nieto and Sobejano have long lamented the flatness of contemporary roofs. To counter this modern orthodoxy, the museum’s roof is a simultaneously exuberant and rational expression that follows the hex-based patterning, but with an added dimension. “These rooms generate the geometry of the roof, which is a direct translation of the hexagonal floor plan,” Sobejano says. The resulting 18 faceted, cast-concrete light shafts form a series of skylights that spring above or cleave through the roof plane. “The skylights are sometimes very compressed, low, or very high, thus producing a changing spatial sequence inside,” Sobejano says. “It is all part of a combinatorial thought, in which everything in this project seems to be similar and different at the same time.”
The carved light silos were cast in place using wooden forms. During the three-year construction period, up to 100 workers were on site daily, due in large part to the complexity of the center’s roof and ceiling. The roof’s voids and berms, which the designers called “bowls” or “pixels,” range in span from approximately 5 feet to 16 feet, and in depth from roughly 5 feet to 26 feet. Rainwater running down the skylight shafts collects in perimeter gutters at their base, and drains into leaders inside building chases.
From the center’s roof, the hex-based openings transition into an assortment of polygonal perforations that cascade across the exterior walls like lace, allowing daylight to dapple the interior. Taken holistically, the Contemporary Art Center’s hex-derived patterns appear almost viral—and virile, no less, suggestive of their own reproduction. It’s evident why the designers describe the museum façade as “a true mask that protagonizes [sic] the exterior.”
Made from industrial but visually light GFRC panels and illuminated with monochromatic LEDs, the exterior thus doubles as a canvas. Artists transform it, broadcasting their work in light and color to the facing city and onto the surface of the adjacent river below. “The relationship with the river is self-conscious, and creates an ancillary canvas as big as the building itself,” Nieto says. This may lead visitors to wonder: Which one is the work of art?