The most beautiful building I’ve ever been in is the Marqués de Riscal Hotel and Winery, Elciego, Northern Spain. Go on, Google it now. But before you either ‘golly!’ guffaw or groan, let me explain why it’s so special (beyond being partly pink, my favourite). First of all, it’s just fun! Sure, as a tourist you might appreciate a classic, rustic, pure-country type of location to stay in for your wine-tasting tour (the hotel is right on the border of Spain’s infamous La Rioja region) or you might be expecting a soulless, industrial complex given the high production value of the area.
Instead, the Frank Gehry-designed MDR Hotel delivers a wonderful surprise, a seamless collaboration of the old and the new. Striking exterior titanium canopy ‘branches’ (the pink part) contrast brilliantly with calm ochre stone. And none of it feels tacky; it’s energising, and intriguing. The new building honours brilliantly both the original 1919 design (the height including the metalwork does not surpass that of the clock and bell tower) all the while introducing a flair of avant-garde fearlessness. Even the inside is engaging and unexpected. All the interior spaces are unique and irregular, not a box room to be seen, and the building becomes narrower towards the top like a pyramid. It’s all a bit of an adventure. I love it!
I do find though that whenever something new is created in architecture, there’s the applause but also a very audible groan. ‘Oh what’s this nonsense, now?’ ‘What was wrong with whatever was there before?’ (No idea) ‘What perfectly good plot of land has been ruined by some architect’s ‘convoluted fantasies?’ This was a quote by a critic of the late Zaha Hadid’s projects, visionary architect of such buildings as The Sackler Gallery in Hyde Park and the 2012 Olympics Aquatic Centre in Stratford. On a recent trip to Dubai, I remembered that nearby in the Sharjah desert is one of her firm’s recent award-winning projects, the BEEAH Headquarters, designed perfectly to emanate the surrounding dunes. ‘We don’t make nice little buildings’ said the Pritzker prize-winning architect in 2013.
Her designs would start off as paintings - literally - huge sprawling artworks that the ‘buttoned-up’ architecture world at the time had never seen. Despite the excitement however, Hadid was no stranger to cynicism and resistance to her vision, and 15 of her large projects remain unbuilt. It seems to be quite some time before a bold and daring new structure is permitted to fully come to fruition, or to later claim the value it brings to the site, the community and the industry of architecture as a whole. I’m watching the construction of one of hers in an “interesting” part of Malta with equal parts admiration and resistance myself.