Between Spain and Kuwait. The influence of Modernity
The idea of a museum of modern art in 20th-century Spain, and the possibility of an equally modern architecture to house it, was a project that was advanced and frustrated, time after time, until the arrival of the current democratic period.
The institution of the Museum of Modern Art in Spain dates back to 1894. It was born to provide space for nineteenth-century painting, leaving previous historical periods in the custody of the Museo del Prado. Its director, Ricardo Gutiérrez Abascal, understood that the new museum had to offer a narrative that paralleled Spanish art with that of other countries, and promoted a reform of the existing museum headquarters. He reorganized the exhibition of the works, in order to reinforce an idea of the historical progress of Art. The Museum was located in what is now the Archaeological Museum and the National Library.
In 1933, probably on the initiative of the director Gutiérrez Abascal, a National Architecture Competition was held for a new building for the Museum. Fernando García Mercadal was awarded the competition. The architect was then 37 years old and was one of the main driving forces behind the introduction of Central European architectural rationalism in Spain. He had already been invited in 1928 to the first International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), held in Switzerland, and became the leading promoter of the foundation of GATEPAC (Grupo de Artistas y Técnicos Españoles para el Progreso de la Arquitectura Contemporánea), CIAM’s Spanish subsidiary. Also in 1928, Mercadal built what is considered his main work, the Rincón de Goya in Zaragoza, the country’s first rationalist work.
Mercadal’s project for the Museum of Modern Art in Madrid reflected the same rationalist ideas he had put forward in the Zaragoza building and which were debated among modern architects at the time. Located on the Paseo de la Castellana, still to be built, the proposal sought a functionalist and clean architecture. In the memoir published in the magazine ‘Arquitectura’, its author stated that: “we repel the storage-museum of paintings as well as the palace-museum and we accept only those museums arranged in such a way as to allow us to enjoy the emotion of the work of art itself, independent of what surrounds it, in such a way that in the building’s approach and disposition only the public and the works count». The museum was not finally built.
The Museum of Modern Art therefore remained in the same headquarters, divided into two parts: the National Museum of 19th Century Art, located on the top floor of the building, and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, on the ground floor. In 1968 both collections were reunited again, constituting together the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo – MEAC). The following year, another National Architecture Competition was held, looking for a new facility. The winners of this new competition were architects Jaime López de Asiaín and Ángel Díaz Domínguez. Díaz Domínguez had only graduated a year earlier, López de Asiaín in 1960.
The project by López de Asiaín and Díaz Domínguez followed the recommendations of the Congress of Architecture of Museums, which had been held in Mexico in 1968, promoting modular and flexible spaces that could be adapted to different exhibition programmes. It was based on a concept closer to that of a centre for the diffusion of contemporary arts than to that of a traditional art museum. The architects directly cited Le Corbusier’s words as inspiration for the project, as we can read in the article published in the magazine ‘Arquitectura’ after the competition’s ruling: “Finding a means to build a museum in conditions that are not arbitrary, but, on the contrary, that follow the natural laws of growth, which are the order in which organic life manifests itself: an element is susceptible of being added in harmony, since the idea of the whole has preceded that of the part”.
This idea fostered a project based on a constructive module perfectly resolved and linkable to other modules, whose space was «neutral, standardized», and to which any program could be applied. The result was an architecture formed by a U-shaped basement, surrounding a courtyard and elevated on pillars, on which a tower stood. The building was materially reminiscent of the architecture of another fundamental personality of the time, Mies van der Rohe. The space was built between 1971 and 1973. The Museum remained in that building until 1986, when the Reina Sofía Art Centre was created.
This one was finally a new museum of modern art, to be named Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. It took as its headquarters the old General Hospital of Madrid, a large neoclassical building from the 17th and 18th centuries. The hospital had been in service for almost three hundred years, until 1965. It had been designed by the military architect José de Hermosilla and its construction was directed by Francisco Sabatini and Juan de Villanueva.
After the closure of the Hospital in 1965, the building had begun to degrade, in a process accelerated by the close presence of a complex urban area. A study carried out in 1969 by the municipal architect Fernando Moreno Barberá, recommended its demolition for the value of its land.
Faced with this threat, the historian and also architect Fernando Chueca Goitia presented a report requesting that the building be classified as an Artistic-Historical Monument that would prevent the building from being demolished.
The building would become property of the Ministry of Education, and in the 1980s, Antonio Fernández Alba was commissioned to refurbish it. At the end of 1988, modern architects José Luis Íñiguez de Onzoño and Antonio Vázquez de Castro designed the three towers of lifts, made of glass and steel, in collaboration with the British architect Ian Ritchie. The building first opened as an Art Centre, and in 1992, became a museum, under the direction of Tomás Llorens, with a collection of art from the MEAC. The first acquisitions included, for example, works from Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Julio González, Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura, Carmen Calvo and Richard Serra. In December 2001, the construction of a large extension designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel began.
This is the story of the museum of modern art in Spain, until now. The different phases of the museum reveal the evolution of architectural perspectives. In this way, in the report of the Museum of Modern Art by Mercadal, published in the magazine Arquitectura, the architect spoke of the lack of architectural bibliography on the museum project. At that time, the MoMA, the example of a modern art museum par excellence, had only been open for five years, since 1928. However, Mercadal’s clear, simple and rationalist architecture already connected with the ideas about the spatial autonomy of Art by Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA director at the time.
More than 30 years later, Jaime López de Asiaín and Ángel Díaz Domínguez raised the question of flexibility and modularity in architecture, in coherence with the theories deployed in Europe at the moment. Spatial organization began to be understood as something more fluid, interconnected and varied, in contrast to the functionalist and rationalist perspective of the International Style.
Already in the 80’s, another type of political as well as historiographic and artistic interests recovered a heritage building such as the Hospital de San Carlos, betting not so much on contemporary architecture as on heritage preservation. This question was indisputable from certain points of view, in spite of the threat that still posed real estate in the face of historical memory. The resulting exhibition space in the actual museum is a given space, fixed and solid, labyrinthine and of scale, capable however, or perhaps because of this, of housing the chronological and contextual reading of 20th century art that currently unfolds within its walls.
Finally, the year 2001 brought with it the ampliation of the MNCARS, by Jean Nouvel, revealing also the spirit of the moment. The choice was that of image versus functionalism, that of monument versus programme or heritage, a path that is perhaps the one that today we can consider less successful.
* This article is part of a series of posts on AGi architects‘ blog under the concept “Between Kuwait and Spain. The influence of modernity”. This is the second part devoted to the role of art and heritage centres in the 20th century. Read about the previous article here.