words Douglas Murphy
images Iñigo Bujedo Aguirre
Centro Niemeyer is a new cultural centre for the port city of Avilés in northern Spain, designed by the 103-year-old Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Occupying a prominent site on an island at the point where the river Avilés opens up into a port, the project consists of four buildings set in an open plaza: a 2,000-seat auditorium, a domed exhibition space, an observation tower and a building containing cinemas, conference facilities and a cafe.
All of the hallmarks of a Niemeyer design are here – it is finished in a palette of white-painted concrete, black-mullioned glazing and areas of primary colours, and the entire complex is replete with his trademark curves, from the spiralling staircase leading to the observation tower to the sinuous canopy that leads across the site. At a time when landscape design has become rather fussy, Niemeyer has set his buildings in a large empty plaza, a refreshingly heroic modernist gesture.
However, in what is by now a depressingly familiar story, the regeneration hopes of the surrounding area have been pinned on what has been referred to as the “Niemeyer effect”, following the “Bilbao effect”, the long-term economic boost that supposedly accompanied the construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, now pretty much discredited as an urban panacea. Centro Niemeyer was commissioned in 2006, a number of years before the world’s soufflé economy deflated, and one can’t help but be concerned about the prospects of a flashy new cultural centre opening now in a post-industrial city of just 85,000 citizens.
But there are a number of aspects to the project that provide reasons to be hopeful. It is worth noting that the building is rather small compared to other “cultural centres” that have opened across the world – Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture of Galicia (Icon 095), for example, is ten times the size – so worries about its scale are perhaps unfounded. The centre has also brought in a very large amount of outside help: its advisory board consists of Woody Allen, Stephen Hawking, Paulo Coelho and Vint Cerf, an indication of how broadly the centre takes its cultural mandate. It has also been active in setting up exchange agreements with larger institutions across the world.
Niemeyer has said that this is his “most important project in Europe”, and perhaps he is not anticipating many more to come. But like its architect, the last surviving legend from a period of architectural culture that is now all but gone, the Centro Niemeyer feels a little out of time, whether in its inauguration at a time of such economic woe, or its vintage high modernism in this time of flashy digitalism, or even in the unabashedly utopian tone of this old communist’s description of the work as “an open plaza around the world, a place for education, culture and peace”.