Time is the guiding thread of this article which explains the concept of the new Royal Collections Museum. Originally published in Arquitectura Viva 183, April 2016.
Sixteen years after Patrimonio Nacional, the agency in charge of administering Spain’s state-owned historical royal sites, launched an ambitious project to build a Royal Collections Museum, it can be said that the building is ready, although opening day is still a year away. During the period that we have been working on the design and construction of the museum, many things have happened, but surely the most important was the passing away, four years ago now, of the architect Luis Mansilla, our dear friend and colleague.
Unfortunately, these long years of working together have also seen an uncontrolled acceleration of construction processes, catalyzed by a mercantilist interpretation of architecture. Some architects, constructors, and politicians have a disdain for the passage of time that is always at odds with our firm desire to look at time – in life and therefore also in architecture – as a beautiful building material in itself.
But architectural time is long, and construction processes always begin many years before, with the construction of the places… This makes it necessary to speak, too, of the time when the area where the museum is located took shape, when Philip V, after the old palace of Madrid had burned down on Christmas Eve of 1734, had the Italian architect Filippo Juvarra called in to plan and erect a new palace for Spain’s newly instituted royal dynasty, the Bourbons.
But Juvarra died two years after being summoned by the king, so it was his student Giovanni Battista Sacchetti who carried out the actual construction of the Royal Palace of Madrid, on the charred remains of the palace of the Habsburgs and the Alcácar of Hispanic-Muslim rulers. Sacchetti, more pragmatic than his mentor, followed the instructions of his ‘client’ and built a beautiful palace of granite and limestone over an intricate system of ramps that tries to connect the palace to the Campo del Moro gardens down at the level of the Manzanares River.
It is important to observe that Sacchetti was also the first architect to propose extending the Royal Palace towards the south, through two wings that would give shape to the royal parade ground. But it was Francesco Sabatini who started to execute the southward expansion, which progressed in the course of the 19th century with the successive interventions of the architects Pascual Colomer, Segundo de Lema, and lastly Repullés Segarra, who wrapped up the monumental ensemble with the construction of the huge retaining wall upon which Madrid’s new cathedral would rise.
In this very difficult context carved by numerous architects and monarchs in the course of over two centuries and a half, the Royal Collections Museum is the latest architectural structure of what is known as Madrid’s ‘cornice,’ taking on the formal and constructional character of an inhabited retaining wall, built into something that already existed, and as an enlargement of the plinth of the Royal Palace.
The fact is that in this part of the city, archaeological vestiges and different constructions have gradually, over time, built an intricate palimpsest, and from the very start of the formulation of the competition brief this palimpsest determined the position of the museum on the west side of the Royal Palace ensemble, concentrating the entire program in a single linear construction whose volume would be defined by the alignment of the retaining walls and the archaeological remains of the Moorish fortification.
On this multiple palimpsest the museum writes a new text, one which deliberately takes stock of the memory of the place, ceding all the protagonism of its discourse to the Royal Palace and the intricate system of ramps designed by Sacchetti, and materializing the scheme that time has reserved for it, establishing, as it does, a dialogue of continuity with the palace’s natural southward expansion, as proposed by the various architects who got to build in this environment in the course of the city’s history.
So the museum is a text newly written on something prewritten, with a material quality which is heavy and light at the same time, and that speaks of what the Royal Palace’s aged stonework in itself says about the passage of time, all through the construction of a simple and compact building where maximum functional flexibility goes hand in hand with a rigorous order imposed by its strong structural character.
Nevertheless, while the purpose of this composition and construction is to strike a balanced dialogue with the context, the scheme adopted by the Royal Collections Museum clearly refers to the contemporary typology of the linear building with a descending itinerary, a model typical of modern urban museums. It is a museum typology that allows the easy coexistence of a main route through all the collections with alternative, more concentrated visits for the viewing of specific pieces of collections, taken autonomously and personally selected by each visitor.
In accordance with this museum typology, the journey through the building is done from above and downward, through three levels of exhibition galleries displaying the different collections in a correlative descending order, while the existing archaeological remains are integrated into the complex as a distinct hall, tied to the complex like a huge visitable urn containing and preserving a piece of Madrid’s memory, displaying remains of what others saw in times long past.
Using time as a building material, the architecture of the Royal Collections Museum is a sedate, restrained, austere architecture, executed in full awareness of its responsibility toward the context in which it is inserted, but also of the moment in which it is being built; an architecture whose spatial quality is linked to the clear-cut construction of spaces of immense structural dimensions that give dignity to the edifice through its solidity, function, and scale.
On the other hand, the huge heights required for exhibiting the collections – combined with the overall vast dimensions of the different areas – impose on the museum a strategy of structural compositions that comes close to that of large contemporary infrastructures, which gives the construction a pragmatic realism of the kind that avoids formal exaggerations where not necessary. This is why the loadbearing structure is so important in the spatial organization of the museum, configured by the serial repetition of an ensemble of white porticos. The repeated sequence of stripes defines the space, in such a way that structure, illumination, views, and space blur into each other and share attributes – because they want to be one same thing, conceived in unison.
Reflecting this internal structure, the construction of the museum’s facade is based on the repeated use of enormous chunks of stone, which form horizontal bands of granite columns of huge dimensions. From the exterior, the construction looks like a large, almost solid retaining wall, a plinth for the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral, an inhabited wall in time which marks continuities and discontinuities with the context, but which in the interior, in its oblique views, builds a timeframe for contemplating the pieces of the collections as well as the Campo del Moro gardens and the Casa de Campo park beyond.
To close this short text, and to illustrate the aforesaid, I would like us to remember the last words enunciated by Luis Mansilla in a public act, hours before he died. This was in February 2012 and we were in Barcelona, talking about Enric Miralles. His words somehow express the concerns shared during these sixteen years of working on the Royal Collections Museum. In that instance, speaking for architects in general, in the first person, Luis said: “I suspect that space isn’t among our real concerns.What truly interests us is time, time which spills and escapes through our fingers when we try to grasp it…”
And indeed in Madrid’s ‘cornice,’ time has been spilling for many centuries, and man’s constructions have been carved by the slow flow of time in this very intense place, an urban edge, origin of the city where so many people have lived and simultaneously enjoyed city life and the artificial nature of territories beside the Manzanares River. Which is why it has to be said that in this urban palimpsest, in this superposition of multiple texts, what is really important already existed a long time ago, and our job during this long process has only been to make it visible.
Arquitectura Viva 183