The new extension of the Fine Arts Museum of Asturias is integrated into an urban complex which through successive expansions has made room for one of Spain’s finest art collections. After the enlargement, this urban complex will take up much of its block in the historical center of Oviedo, close to the cathedral and surrounded by streets with high value in the memory of natives of the city as well as visitors, and bordering also with the city’s most representative square.

Before the extension, the museum’s most important architectural piece was the Velarde Palace, which is a splendid renaissance building but was hidden on one side by a hapless construction of the 1970s, one we hope will be brought down when the time comes to execute phase two of the new extension. Beside it, a mansion called Casa Oviedo-Portal completed the Fine Arts Museum.

To carry out the enlargement, the museum for a time went about buying adjacent buildings facing Calle de la Rua. These were buildings erected in another period, with floor plans that were narrow and deep, spaces that were small and badly ventilated, of little architectural value inside. Internally they were impossible to turn into exhibition spaces for the museum, but their exteriors, though not extraordinary, were in dimensions and scale an integral part of the collective imagery of the historical city of Oviedo.

The program mainly comprises new exhibition galleries as well as all the museum’s archives. The archives were previously situated in basement levels.

The new enlargement project logically began with an analysis of the museum as a whole, taking into account the existing buildings and the two phases of the project. The first object of study was how existing and new buildings would relate with one another, along with the relocation of a good number of functions (offices, restoration workshops, etc.) within the existing complex.

The first decision was to preserve the urban canvas formed by the existing facades, while freeing up the interior through complete demolition. To us it seemed important to maintain the sequence of facades. It seemed a necessary concession to the urban context, a contextual condition worth exploring. We accepted the challenge of making the new construction reconcile a project of architectural contemporaneity with the maintenance of the urban ‘curtain’, ‘archaeological’ ‘curtain’, irrefutable and beloved by the population that shaped a street which is so important in the history of the city. Whatever took place in the new project was bound to be one of the key ideas, if not the leading idea, in the spatial and formal resolution of the proposal. Awareness of this led us to place the staircase parallel to the street, thereby creating a facade-space comprising three canvases: the historical exterior, the glass enclosure of the new volume, and an inner wall open to the museum stair. A space where history and novelty are superposed, where views between inside and outside are never immediate, but take place through awareness of the passage of time, represented in the superposition of the three limits. As visitors go up the stairs, they can see the street, but never directly. Instead, they are aware of the “thickness” and density of history. The interaction between the facade’s three layers is made even more special by the play suggested in the way they relate to one another geometrically: the way they approach each other, almost touching, to move apart again, in the process creating the museum’s entrance spaces, for example.

The new building will be discernible from outside through the naked openings of the historical facades. Openings deprived of frames, as in an old ruin, in search of a near-surrealist character in the interaction between old materiality and the mineral materiality of the new volume. The new volume is glazed, luminous, seeking to catch reflections of the historical facade and allow them to complete the formal effect desired. The light of Oviedo, ever changing in an extraordinary way, can thus act with closely studied and sought intensities and results. With all of this, the project manages to express not only a rapport between preexisting and new, but also an image which is powerful visually and formally as well as loaded with subtleties—an image befitting a cultural institution of this importance.

The building’s internal layout acknowledges the inner block courtyard’s presence in the city as a mechanism for adapting to the context, but also as an element able to structure and give spatial quality and luminosity to a sequence of exhibition spaces. The floor plan makes it possible to highlight these voids as elements which, along with the staircase and the sequence of superposed facades explained above, are fundamental to an understanding of the project’s structure. The exhibition halls are arranged around a very special void, lit from above and laterally, that rises the entire height of the building from the basement levels. Here the courtyard becomes a light ‘well’. This spatially ambitious element organizes accesses and routes, and more importantly, creates a crossing of views, making it possible for one to contemplate the galleries and displays from different angles and distances, near and far. A simple structuring mechanism, a huge referential space within a construction, resulting in something rich and complex. On the other hand, this void makes the new construction coherent with the floor plan of the renaissance Velarde Palace, which is also structured around a central court. This space will accommodate temporary exhibitions.

The decisions so far explained are complemented by a systematic use of natural light, surely the best material in architecture. Here the higher floors receive zenithal light through skylight volumes on the roof, built with zinc, which are able to engage in dialogue with the roofs of the surrounding buildings, in particular the cathedral. The presence of voids taking up the building’s entire section, the stairs, and the large central court make it possible for the zenithal light to reach the lowest floors, so much that artificial light is needed only at certain points, for specific art pieces. The white color on flat surfaces in the halls or on the striated walls of the staircase, and aluminum as a material which can reproduce light effects, together shape a special interior, one which varies hour by hour and day by day, like the light of the place.

source: Franciso Mangado