A Beacon for Culture: Kursaal in San Sebastián by Rafael Moneo (2000)
Somehow they go well together, namely the name Kursaal and the once elegant seaside resort of San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay. Yet the German term borne by Rafael Moneo’s cultural facility since its inauguration in 1999 needs explaining: the Gran Kursaal, an imposing neo-Baroque piece of entertainment architecture complete with culinary establishments and event halls, existed at the site between 1921 and 1973 but was then torn down. An attempt was then made to build a residential building at the same place but proved unsuccessful, whereupon the city council held a competition in 1990 for a congress centre and auditorium that Rafael Moneo won.
The architect’s two-part solitary building rises at the edge of the La Zurriola city beach, separated by the coastal road from the adjacent residential districts and from the old quarter by the mouth of the Urumea river. It was this absence of urban points of reference that gave the architect, who was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1996 while the building was still undergoing construction, the greatest possible design flexibility. With its two diaphanous polyhedrons – the larger 65 x 46 x 22 metres, the smaller 43 x 32 x 20 metres in size – Moneo created a guiding vision for a whole wave of new buildings in the two-thousands concerned with the idea of translucency. The architect states he had never before worked with glass on any large scale – and the buildings he says inspired him give little indication of this choice of material, being the Sydney Opera House with its concrete shells and Jorge Oteiza’s monolithic steel sculptures.
Beacon of culture
No matter what Mondeo adopted from both, the result is remarkable. During the day the two volumes shimmer a milky white; at night they shine in various colours, like a beacon for culture at the sea’s edge. The façades have a double-skinned structure, whereby immense steel skeleton elements bearing the slightly inclined roofs are contained within the interstitial space. Concave sheets of multilayer safety glass laminated to thin profiled glass and sand-blasted float glass make up the outer skin; the inner one is built of flat, likewise sand-blasted laminated safety glass and is bordered by the foyers and circulation areas. All panes, both inside and out, are 2500 x 600 mm in size and solely held in place by metal profiles at the top and bottom to underscore the facades’ horizontal stripe modulation.
Mechanical services engineering: Juan Gallostra y Asociados
Acoustics: Higini Arau
Contractor: Dragados - Amenabar - Altuna y Uría