Art & Architecture + Visitor Center

Alhambra Square - Southwest Cypress Pathway | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

"Álvaro Siza has been known to avoid competitions throughout his career, not only due to their time constraints, but because they are often just looking for bold visual statements while he believes that architecture should feel like it had always been there, seemingly effortless and profoundly necessary. However, that sense of belonging and self-effacing tranquility were instrumental in winning the Alhambra’s International Competition in 2011,as the proposal generates a discrete discourse between the monument and its surroundings while simultaneously affirming its presence as an exceptional public space.
Juan Domingo Santos, with whom he had also collaborated on the Zaida Building, would fly to Porto almost every week and, during those exhausting months of stimulating work, Siza would go to bed with a notebook so he could sketch the Alhambra’s New Gate in his dreams. Pertinently transforming reality requires patience and it can’t be rushed solely out of the rational understanding of the program but constantly nurtured and provoked by hand, drawing all possible realities and finding complementary answers over time.

Ivy Courtyard - Northwest Landscape | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

«From bright sun to shadows, from warmth to coolness, from wide to intimate focus, I like to dream about my project before I set it down in any detail... How do I enter the building? How does it touch the ground?» Siza, A. 2009
From this Sizian distillation of subconscious memory arose an embryonic structure that blends nature, past and present, in equal parts shade, water and trees, which are the key elements of a primordial garden. Within Islamic context, the Babylonian garden archetype came to powerfully convey physical and spiritual benefits that were in stark contrast with the arid desert climate, a poetic image of paradise that got condensed into andalucian patios and exponentiated in the midst of Granada’s lush vegetation.

Viewing Platform Access - Southeast Parking | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

The current intervention highlights this condition by allowing the building to become one with the landscape itself, articulatingpalimpsests from the old farmlands with the Generalife’s lower garden elevation (+792) and freeing the horizon as the site spontaneously gives rise to a panoramic platform, integral to the contemplative aspect of Muslim culture and to the distribution of 8000 daily visitors.

Alhambra Territory - Site Plan | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

Avoiding common waiting lines through complex spatial sequencing and a topographical systematization of people’s movements, induces the user to comfortably experience the design narrative like one would a miniature prototype of a full-scale Alhambra. That familiarity is self-evident as soon as any sightseer sets foot on the main platform and gazes at the solid fortress walls from the restaurant or the randomly placed bench compartments, defining intimacy layers like ruins that never were but might have been.

Volumetric Articulation - Alhambra Walls | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

Plan-wise the restaurant works very much like a diaphragm, dividing the podium and the foyer into four connected spaces, a tensioned architectural gesture that accelerates perspective by means of a bent façade and an obliquely cantilevered slab, which compresses you in the mutual direction of the entrance or the exit. Comparable to a host with outstretching arms, this courtyard welcomes people and then redirects them either to the Alhambra Square or down to a double-heighted atrium, excavated out the earth. The skewed horizontal volume also dialogues with smaller constructions on the opposite side of the street and forms a sunken patio that brings light and privacy to the underground workspaces, housing primarily a hallway, a daycare, a gift shop and the vertical access system: elevators, stairs and ramps.

Parking, Atrium & Cultural Area - Floor Plans | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

Approximated to a corbusian promenade, the ramped descent responds to a programmatic necessity with Álvaro Siza’s intricately anthropocentric perception of space, which requires a conscious manipulation of the corporeal journey through temporal and visual partitioning, alternating the impulse of the fenêtre en longueur with an intermediate plateau that glimpses the buried “metropolis” one will ultimately attain. Unlike Calvino’s invisible city of Argia, the massive weight does not crush its inhabitants but rather prepares them for the wideness and the profoundly lyric experience to come, emphasizing the Alhambra’s massive proportion by hiding a large part of the project’s 5700m² in the terrain. This syllogistic duality of topographical intrusion and extrusion makes the new building appear smaller than it physically is, treading a line between tradition and modernity that is rich in associations and dense in its imagery. For example, theoutstanding pictorial quality of the vestibule comes from both that contraction and expansion of space, instigating a sort of Hitchcockian morphologic voyeurism that is fueled by a myriad of intercrossed views and strategically placed lightwells.

Atrium's Interior Space - 1:50 Scale | © Model by António Choupina, Arch.

Light is in fact the central character in this architectural underworld because light is the chief material of the Alhambra, the only material that truly stands the test of time and fully embraces the Vitruvian principles of firmitas, utilitas and venustas. With nearly the same dramatic intensity of an oculus, the platonic cube that punctures the foyer enables light to become solid as it rips through the shadows and personifies the twisting motion of the main axis. The hinged composition is subsequently accentuated by its volumetric backbone - the restaurant/bar - and by the aesthetic clarity of the open-space, articulating all other functions in an enclosed perimeter: bathrooms, visitor’s study center and offices for management and communication.

Impluvium Courtyard - Transition Space | © Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos, Arch.s

Walking from the information counter to the ticket machines, the visitors are at last reunited with the sky as an impluvium courtyard cuts out their way to the outside and directs them to the auditorium, the exhibition space and finally to the Alhambra square. It is at this time that the whole earthwork reveals itself as an altar to the typological nuances of the patio structure, a normative yet idiosyncratic series where the architect pays his deepest respect to the bonding of nature with the art of building.

Topographic Integration - 1:500 Scale | © Model by Álvaro Negrello

That attachment to the land will result in the preservation of some of its most significant features: reusing existing walls, complimenting the cypresses with fruit trees instead of a visible parking lot and, above all, engaging with the water lines that irrigate the sloped territory. The representation of the locus in Nasrid practice goes through the notion of water as a continuous cycle of infinite repetition, a kind of lossless change that Siza adopted at Santo Domingo de Bonaval (Santiago de Compostela_1990) and that reached its climax in the constantly flowing water of his baptistery, reminiscing the ingenious hydraulics of the Court of the Lions.

Architectural Elements: Water | © Álvaro Siza Vieira, Arch.

In the New Gate, this almost sacred concept is channeled throughout successive water ponds that enhance the sensation of flowing between spaces, working simultaneously as thermal insulation and a catalyst for symbolic relations with the Court of the Myrtles, whose walls also seem to float above an infinity mirror. Such earnest simplicity is not easy to come by, it is earned in apparently insignificant details like a pigmented concrete from La Sabika, an act of continuity and deviation that creates unity out of diversity and distinction out of equality." as described by Arch. António Choupina, Aedes curator of "Visions of the Alhambra", which will be displayed in Berlin from March 21st through May 8th and in the Vitra Design Museum from June 13th through August 31st, 2014.
Exhibition: Visions of the Alhambra - Álvaro Siza from Reframe on Vimeo .
Location: Camino Viejo del Cementerio, 18009 Granada. Spain
Architects: Álvaro Siza Vieira + Juan Domingo Santos
Project Team: Avelino Silva, Carmen Moreno, Carlos Gómez, Claire de Nutte, Daniel Peinado, Hans Boman, Ina Valkanova, Isabel Rodríguez, José Silva, Julien Fajardo
Engineering: GOP Engenharia
Jorge Silva, Raquel Fernández, Alexandre Martins, Álvaro Raimundo, Raúl Bessa
Industrial Engineering: ÁBACO Ingenieros. Patrício Carrascosa
Agronomy & Foresting: Rafael Serrillo, Enrique Colomer
Technical Architect: José Navarro
Renderings: LT Studios
Client: Patronato de la Alhambra y el Generalife (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
International Competition: 1st Place
Project Year: 2010 - 2014
Area: 5700 m2