Battles in the Hills

Obradoiro 31, March 2005, pages 8 -13

Between the hilltop and the valley, between the mountain and the sea: in its origins, settlement is directly related to topography, to the calculus of sustenance and defense. But as settlements grow, they generate their own internal geography, a process which converts the topographic features encountered in their extension into obstacles that are either avoided or absorbed. And with our present capacity to overcome the barriers of topography and distance through earth-moving and civil engineering on the one hand, and the power of the internal combustion engine on other, contemporary settlement has become a limitless and continuous horizontal expansion that is almost completely indifferent to topography, and in which topography, like the rest of the natural world, becomes a managed and rationed resource, a kind of endangered species that must often be artificially protected and maintained.

Architecture has traditionally dealt with the relation between settlement and nature at the individual scale of the building and its immediate surroundings. But the contemporary extension of settlement, carried out almost entirely with the blunt bureaucratic tools of planning and public control, the blunt rational tools of the engineer and the blunt expediency of the private investor, has reduced the individual building to a given quantity of built space surrounded by a given quantity of open space and plugged into a given infrastructure of services and communications. The architect's task has similarly been reduced to the art of packaging. For this reason, any effort to renew the architectural values of the individual building must also confront these blind, automated forces. Indeed, the architect, together with the related disciplines of landscape and urban design, is one of the few specialists with the preparation necessary to help shape contemporary territories of settlement in more humanistic terms. This is the battle that today's architects must fight. To escape marginalization, they must learn to aggressively promote and implant the humanistic values of the profession at a territorial scale.

In the United States architects have long operated at a territorial scale, but even the architectural vanguard there has consistently placed itself at the service of the forces that dehumanize settlement rather than in a position of critical dialogue. The shock value of Robert Venturi's Learning From Las Vegas, for example, lies precisely in its taking sides against traditional architectural values and in favor of the highway strip. In this case the assumption of an "avant guard" stance is a form of capitulation, following Manfredo Tafuri's diagnosis in Architecture and Utopia.

Peter Eisenman's City of Culture outside Santiago de Compostela also manifests an acritical acceptance of the reigning rules of territorial development, despite its pretensions to the contrary. It is a work generated entirely by its own internal logic, in which the strategies supposedly employed to bring the work closer to its site --the superposition of the plan of Santiago and the vieira shell on Monte Gaiás and their subsequent deformations-- are in fact nothing more than strategies to generate an apparently reasoned but unfathomable internal complexity. And underneath this layer of busy nonsense, the plans reveal that the different program spaces have been laid out with an apparently capricious indifference and expediency, suggesting little more than amorphous, anonymous quantities of built space.

The architect thus plays his obtuse formal game, in terms completely abstracted from the reality of materials, site, context and use --these factors are rather translated into the abstract terms of the game and thereby neutralized as potential sources of true formal dialogue-- and leaves the logistics of programing and construction to the specialists who have reduced them to blunt instruments of technical determinism. The architect thus apes the indifference with which other forces impose their will on the built environment. Eisenman's project, however interesting it may turn out to be in formal terms, has no more relation to the site, the city or the surrounding territory than a typical commercial shopping center.

The campus center for the University of Vigo by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue (EMBT) is, on the other hand, an example of architecture deployed at a territorial scale in order to assume control of and humanize existing patterns of development. Previously the campus had been built with little planning or thought for its mountainside site, resulting in lamentable interventions such as the School of Fisheries, built on an enormous flattened platform excavated out of the mountainside. Architect Alfonso Penela was the first to bring architecture and topography together in his 1992 Business School, with its two wings arranged around a vaguada. Penela was also instrumental in convincing university authorities of the need for a campus plan and in bringing EMBT into the project.

EMBT's intervention creates an entry, focal center and distribution system organized along a string of related elevations. The central student services center brilliantly fuses buildings, public spaces and topography, with its protected plaza, the raised "classroom" building (actually dedicated to student associations), and the commercial facilities terraced into the hillside behind it. With the wide Smithsonian social space of its elevated corridor overlooking the views, the unusual window bays facing the plaza and its rich sectional development, the classroom building is one of EMBT's most memorable designs. Other elements of the project, including the elaborate pergola that leads from the vehicular drop-off to the center, the aggressive bridges and raised walkways, and some of the heavy earthmoving, seem congested and overly-complex, but they do manage to impose a defacto order on the existing buildings of the campus that a more modest intervention could not have achieved. Together with the glass bridges that connect the disparate elements of Penela's expanding business school, as well as his new classroom building and Rectorado, with their topographically-sensitive curves and angles, EMBT have created a vertiginous, energizing, Piranesian vision of crisscrossing bridges and terraced buildings. The violated natural condition of the site cannot be restored, but in its place we are given a joyful fusion of topography and dense development.

Manuel Gallego's Presidencia in Santiago and his winning competition project for the site of the Castro de Elviña in A Coruña are examples of the managed preservation of topography and the natural environment conceived according to a global vision of local territorial dynamics and needs. In both projects Gallego's objective is not to crown the hilltop with a highly visible work but rather to circle it with a ring of interventions. In the case of the Presidency, the buildings are set into the slope of the hill, merging with it and shaping it as seen from a distance, an approach that recalls that of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen. The offices and residence are placed at opposite ends of the site to establish a recorrido between them that fuses architecture and managed nature into a domesticated and habitable landscape, much as Gallego has done in previous projects such as the unbuilt Botanical Gardens in Santiago. The Presidency is obviously conceived in dialogue with the Obradoiro, clearly visible across the valley and only about 15 meters lower in elevation. Gallego's buildings are both miradores and echoes of the Santiago skyline, somewhat like the relation between the Albacín and the Alhambra in Granada.

In the case of the Castro, Gallego explains, the encircling ring is a permeable but defined border that protects and defines the park from encroaching development while at the same time allowing appropriate access from all sides, establishing the zone as a kind of natural lung for the emerging metropolis around it. Within the border, a landscape molded by centuries of cultivation will be recovered, with its fields, fragas or woods, paths, walls and rivulets, and with the mound of the ancient castro at its center. Like the Presidency's buildings, the visitors' pavilion is semi-buried into the hillside, and carefully sited so as to produce views of both the Castro and the distant city center from its upper platform. Its fractured form, bringing natural light into the structure, and the "virtual" windows that frame the viewing platform are original and subtly-handled innovations in Gallego's formal vocabulary that one looks forward to seeing built. In the competition, Gallego's knowledge of and sensitivity to the nature and needs of the local landscape seem to have been decisive in determining the outcome.

As one of the basic concepts of architecture, the recorrido is not simply an unfolding of architectural events along a route, but rather a process of reflection back and forth between views and viewing points, in which the two exchange roles. A view impels us towards a goal, which in itself promises us another view and another goal, generally creating a circuit which ends by reflecting us back to its beginning. The hillside site offers a singular opportunity to develop this kind of architectural dialogue, and to extend it to a territorial scale, as Gallego's projects demonstrate. The dialogue of viewpoints is also an essential component in our patterns of settlement in general --the city that looks out over a ría, which in turn offers a magnificent view of the city, the house on a mountaintop, the village nestled in a valley--. Other recent works of architecture that owe much of their impact to this kind of territorial dialogue include Richard Meier's Getty Center in Los Angeles, and, without hilltop settings, Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao and Moneo's Kursaal in San Sebastián.

The recorrido in this sense is not a stately promenade but rather the product of a dynamic tension between different points of the project. This tension is internalized in each viewer, becoming a psychic tension of curiosity and seduction that is resolved through our own displacement through the work. In this dynamic cycle, we first locate and frame a view in our gaze and then proceed to occupy it, finding in turn our point of origin converted into another view, in an exchange of seeing and being seen that resembles a courtship ritual. In fact, it is impossible to separate this exchange from our endless fascination, in any setting where people gather, for gazing and being seen. This exchange can be extended into the rituals of actual settlement, possession and dwelling --Vincent Scully's book The Earth, the Temple and the Gods is a fascinating speculation on such rituals in the siting of Greek temples and their relation to the surrounding mountain peaks-- or we can simply find a nice table at one of the high points of the recorrido and order a drink.