Industrial Spanish town opts for the arts

MADRID, Spain — The magnetic singularity of one man’s world-renowned architecture is being put to the test in the Spanish coastal town of Aviles.

Rising out of tidal terrain reclaimed from generations of pollutant industries, the outer structure of the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Center promises a brighter future for those living in this secluded land of Spain’s north.

“It is an icon for the 21st century,” said Mercedes Alvarez, Cultural Councilor of the Asturias Principality. And expectations are that it will deliver a revitalization comparable to that accomplished by the Guggenheim Museum built in the northern industrial port of Bilbao a few hours drive to the east.

“We live and breathe Niemeyer,” observed Roberto Alonso, the local architect tapped to oversee the master’s plan brought to fruition by September 2010. “It is a privilege and enormous responsibility because town folks already feel an attachment to the structure and all it represents.”

Like the figurehead at the front of a ship, local leaders say the art center will spearhead the renewal of more than 6 million square feet (572,000 square meters) along the tidal inlet of Aviles, dubbed the "Island of Innovation."

The cleaning up or clearing out of traditional industries like mechanics, heavy metals and chemicals, cost the area jobs in the 1980s and 90s. Leaders say the art center sets the groundwork to attract promising industries like culture and technology that aim to capitalize on the internet to stay connected and foster local employment.

“The social sensibility of this project pleases me,” said Oscar Niemeyer from his Brazil studio in a video presentation of the art center design he has donated. (Note: Video is in Portuguese with Spanish subtitles.) “It is open to the public, to visit, to stroll through the plaza, take in the scenery, the museum, the works of art and the shows.”

The art center grounds look out onto the town’s tidal inlet and nearby Bay of Biscay. A dome built from reinforced concrete houses the museum with 43,000 square feet (4,000 square meters) of room for exhibits. It is ranked among the largest such spaces in Europe. A pale indoor color scheme and functional but unobtrusive doors will add to the effect.

“Compressing space at the entryways that is later unleashed into the museum is a tremendous change of scale,” explained Alonso.

Not to be outdone, on one end of the center’s grounds, the auditorium stage opens out onto a seating area for 920 people. The backdrop to the same stage can also be opened, offering the center’s plaza as a unique backdrop as well as the structure necessary to put on shows for an outdoor audience four times larger. Niemeyer envisions these open spaces next to the sea, drawing people together in this focal point for culture, education and peace.

Mercedes Alvarez said the principality’s regional government is investing some 30 million euros to complete Niemeyer’s design. “Plazas are where cities are made. The life-energy itself built upon the coming together of people generates many initiatives.”

The white exteriors common to Niemeyer structures — from Brasilia to the General Assembly of the United Nations — fill the grounds of the art center that bears his name. Each structure built with reinforced concrete will be dressed in a white resin to protect it.

The center is completed by a sinuous boardwalk connecting the museum and auditorium while also separating an administrative building from a panoramic restaurant closest to the river.

“There is a sculptural component to his work,” mused Alonso. The beauty is in the apparent simplicity. Neimeyer has long credited the curvatures of the Brazilian coastline he calls home, and the women on its beaches, as primary sources of inspiration.

But the motivation to build what he has called his “dearest” work in the distant land of Asturias is another. Spain’s crown Prince Felipe granted his annual award for the arts to Oscar Niemeyer two decades ago. Stephen Hawking, Vinton Cerf and Woody Allen are among other recipients of the Prince of Asturias awards recognizing exemplary achievements at an international level. All three now sit on the advisory board for the Niemeyer Center.

“The Niemeyer Center channels the spirit of the awards into a tangible initiative that has caught on with citizens,” said Ramon Antonio Alvarez, city councilor for culture in Aviles. “It is a doorway that receives award winners as much as a doorway out of which will come new innovators.”

The Prince of Asturias awards, which promote “science, culture and humanistic values forming part of mankind’s universal heritage” will celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2010, just as the Niemeyer Center expects to open its doors to the public.