Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Baroque Space

The corridor as a Baroque paseo. Photos: DC

The architect Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra invited me last year to contribute an essay for a book on his Seville Congress Center, which has just been issued by the Madrid-based publishers La Fábrica. The assignment gave me an opportunity to explore some ideas about Baroque space in contemporary Spanish architecture that I have been mulling over for years - ever since one of my early essays on Madrid.

Since this is a book one may not find everywhere, I am permitting myself a more extensive quote from the first pages:

"Turning over in my mind the apparently amorphous, intuitively-shaped, and thoroughly contemporary spaces of the Seville Congress Center, walking through them again and again in my memory, I have come to the conclusion, although only in the form of a hypothesis, that the quality or principle that governs their organization is essentially Baroque. Not that I can be precisely certain what Baroque space might be. But what I mean is this: an architectural space conceived in terms of the processional, from the point of view of both the people moving through it and those in a position to observe them (positions that, in contemporary democratic space, are fluid and interchangeable), an architecture of movement and changing viewpoints, related also to Le Corbusier's "promenade architecturale", but interpreted with a particular austerity and elegance, and a particular conception of urban space, that I find elsewhere in Spain, and that I associate with the Baroque spaces of the Spanish Counter Reformation, and with certain painters of that period such as Velázquez and Zurbarán (an idea that Juan Daniel Fullanondo, for one, might not have found entirely preposterous)."
"This theory first occurred to me in one of the secondary spaces of Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra's design, on the first-floor of the ramped entry wing, in the corridor that gives access to a series of meeting rooms. In any other country, this corridor would most likely be utterly inconsequential, a space conceived solely in terms of its functional efficiency, without aesthetic pretensions, an anonymous space of transition designed as if the people who used it were senseless integers, considered only in terms of their quantity in movement, in order to determine the required capacity of the corridor and hence its width."

"In the Congress Palace, this corridor is very high in proportion, and bathed in indirect natural light from above. Instead of being characterized by the noisy incidents of purely functional space, it is notable precisely for its absence of event. The architect has stripped the space to its essential condition as a recorrido or paseo: a stretch of space that extends in a straight line for the purpose of allowing and directing the movement of people along it. That movement is given shape and measure by the regular rhythm of the structural beams that pass over the corridor, and the regular spacing of the doors to the meeting spaces on one side, with their projecting signage, just like an avenue lined with regularly-spaced trees. This rhythm is underlined by the uncluttered planes of the remaining surfaces, and the marked inflection of the space as a single-loaded corridor, with a long blank wall opposite the line of doorways. This wall is like the garden wall of a large estate along which such an avenue might extend (what comes to my mind is the brick rear wall of Madrid's Botanical Garden along the Avenue of Alfonso XII), a surface that receives and diffuses natural light, giving material presence to the very air the space contains, while modeling the beams in subtle shading as they regularly cross the space over our heads, as well as the people moving along the corridor ahead of us, or talking in a group around a doorway."

"This is certainly not an entirely Baroque concept – we can find it in the streets lined with columns of Roman cities in North Africa, in the neoclassical city, and even in the tree-lined country lanes and roads that, in the era before the automobile, could be found anywhere in the world. But the distillation of a common functional corridor to this elementary condition, that of a luminous space that is rhythmically marked for movement through it, does strike me as true to a long Spanish tradition dating to the Baroque. The very absence of event that characterizes its spatial materialization is paradoxically full of presence, as in the luminous but dark backgrounds of certain portraits by Velázquez or Zurbarán, in that peculiarly Spanish mixture of hard realism and other-worldliness."

"If this line of argument were to be supported solely by the example of a minor corridor it would be of little consequence. But as I studied the project I came to recognize many other processional spaces on a much grander scale...."

Intercambiando Miradas / Exchaning Glances 
Guillermo Vázquez Consuegra
Palacio de Congresos de Sevilla 
Seville Congress Center 
La Fábrica, Madrid 2014, unpaged
Spanish and English texts