LOGROÑO, SPAIN, 1973-1981

A self-effacing, almost non-existent city hall, its severely restrained and anonymous forms given over to the creation of a major public plaza, deliberately devoid of "civic" rhetoric.

  • Vibrant city plaza
  • Accommodate a variety of public and private events indoors

Logroño is at the western end of the Pyrenees mountain range in northern Spain. It was established on the south bank of the river Ebro as a commercial port by the indefatigable Romans, after navigating its tortuous meanders for 300 miles or more up the Ebro Valley from the Mediterranean. Its present population is 155,000.

After the Third Carlist War of 1872-76, military barracks were erected on the eastern and western outskirts of Logroño -- the large rectangles seen in this late nineteenth century map of the town -- which then grew out around them. The eastern barracks, seen here with the city bull ring in the background, became home to Spain’s 12th Light Artillery Regiment, which gave its name to the adjacent east-west avenida. The demolition of the barracks in 1970 presented the opportunity for a new town hall, which was to be Logroño’s most important civic building, sharing its identity with a major new city square.

In 1973 Rafael Moneo, then aged 36, was commissioned to design the project. Close to forty years later he recalled:

‘Naturally the architectural character of a public building such as this one is largely shaped by its political context. The significance of this project was very clear to me at the time: the end of the old regime was in sight, and I could foresee that the new City Hall would house the first Democratic legislature.’.......

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, fascist dictator
of Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975, seen here
taking the salute during the Nationalist victory
parade in Madrid at the end of the Civil War on
May 20, 1939

…….’I had been delighted to receive a letter from Mayor Narciso de San Baldonero in 1973, entrusting me with the design. A passage from the project description conveys what the building represented and the role it played in what would become the city’s new political life: “In addition to fulfilling the necessary administrative functions, the city hall must also be a key element in the city’s structure, since it is, in a sense, a reflection of the city itself: the building acquires its meaning through the meaning of the city that it serves. This notion of a civic public building capable of addressing the questions about collective life – understood as a public body – that the inhabitants of cities ask themselves, calls for the new city hall to be approached not as a mere administrative building but rather as an attempt to achieve the degree of dignity sought by an institution of this nature without resorting to empty rhetoric and false monumentality”. According to these criteria this “sense of dignity should emerge from its relationship to the city itself: the more meaning the building draws from the city the more it will cease to exist as an object, and become a key piece, a true monument. Its architecture also has to be clear, easy to assimilate, accessible to the people who, even through its formal elements, should understand the meaning of a city hall as a public building at their service.” ‘
-- Rafael Moneo, Remarks on 21 Works, The Monacelli Press, New York, 2010, p.83

The project was developed between 1973 and 1974. Construction of the underground parking began in 1976 and the building was completed in 1981.

Quite early in his thinking Moneo took up the notion of a city hall square, seeing it as a continuation of the long Spanish tradition of the ‘Plaza Mayor’ represented by such city squares as:

the mid-thirteenth century Plaza Mayor in Valladolid;

the Plaza Mayor of Madrid, recorded at the center of Pedro Teixeira's huge Topographia de la Villa de Madrid of 1656;

the Plaza de la Corredera in Córdoba,1683;

the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca, 1729-55;

and just 55 miles northwest of Logroño, in the Basque capital of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the dual public spaces seen in this aerial view: on the west, the ancient Plaza de la Virgen Blanca (White Virgin), for centuries the market place and center of the city and now, with its walls of beautiful, white painted oriel windows framing its memorial to the 1813 Battle of Vitoria of the Napoleonic wars, acting as the astonishingly capacious antechamber to

the Plaza Nueva, or España, of 1781. Entered from three sides on central axes, and closed by the city hall dug into the rising grade on the north, this, too, is a place in daily use which accommodates many special events

Moneo remarks that these ‘.....are only a few of the cities whose main squares include the city hall as a gathering place for their citizens. In these cities the square and the city hall are considered as a whole. But in Logroño, the public-space-turned-into-a-building that the city hall claimed to be could not knowledge the orthogonal grid of the existing urban fabric; instead it presented itself as incomplete and oblique in relation to the tree-lined street that enters the city. By renouncing the continuity of the city grid, the new Plaza Mayor would be actively inscribed in the urban fabric, turning what could be seen as an “institutional background perspective” into a building that could be referred to as a “monument……..” Ibid, p.75.

The aerial view of Logroño, however, informs us that Moneo’s 45 degree rotation of the facades onto the plaza should not be entirely regarded the dramatic renunciation of the urban grid that he claims it to be.
Rather, it should be recognized as a close approximation of the rotated grid to be found in the adjacent superblock, which he has cleverly extended to serve additional useful purposes simultaneously. Certainly, in combination with the long allee of trees on the Avenida de la Paz, the rotated facades frame a very generous urban space, the triangular Plaza del Ayuntamiento, or Town Hall Square. But it also gives visible structure to his three-part program of cultural facilities in the smaller west triangle, municipal offices, in the larger east triangle, and the council chamber elevated a level above grade in the slot of space north of the triangles. And these allees of trees, it might further be noted, screen and effectively efface the presence of the building except for the two facades to the plaza and the elevated Council Chamber, set out plain for all to see and terminating the southern end of the subsequently constructed pedestrian boulevard, bending southward through another 45 degrees from the shallows in the Ebro to the Plaza Ayuntamiento. And while we are speaking of pedestrian movement, the rotational scheme also affords any number of convenient diagonal paths across the site -- what the peddlers of ‘landscape architecture’ refer to with embarrassingly unwitting prurience as ‘desire lines’.

Now that it’s mature, the screen of trees is highly effective. This first view in a clockwise circuit of the site is from the north-east corner on the Avenida de Doce Ligero de Artilleria (Avenue of the 12th Light Artillery), looking toward the elevated Council Chamber. The entry ramp to underground parking for the city’s service vehicles is seen on the far right. The shadow on the sidewalk is cast by the school across the street behind the camera. Its boys play impromptu soccer here and on the main Plaza at the end of the school day.

A closer view of the Council Chamber and a view from beneath it looking back to the Avenida de Doce Ligero de Artilleria. In the second photo, a glimpse of the entry to City Hall is seen on the right, and though it’s rather faint in this view, the ‘focal point’ of the scheme may be discerned in the circular stone paving pattern.

The similarities between the spatial constructs at play here and in this view through the portico of Gunnar Asplund’s Woodland Crematorium in Stockholm (1935-40), are inescapable.

The pedestrian boulevard leading from the Council Chamber to the Ebro is seen through the columns to the left.

A view directly toward the reclusive entry to City Hall with the Plaza seen out beyond the piers to the right.

Returning to our circuit of the site on the Avenida de Doce Ligero de Artilleria, the municipal offices achieve the neutral presence they seek behind the allee of trees.

In sudden transformation, a view into the Plaza through the monumental portico in the southeast corner of the site.

Views of the portico and its granite drinking fountain set into the loadbearing Salamanca sandstone wall. The bronze sculprure, Dama de la fuente, or Lady of the Source, is by the Madrid sulptor, Francisco López, and is now a well recognized icon for Logroño.

The portico seen from the plaza. The corner pier closing the colonnade also does duty as a diminutive clock tower, which is as reticent to assert an institutional identity independent from the space of the plaza, as any other element in the composition of these restrained facades,

which are clearly indebted for much of their inspiration to Asplund’s Stockholm Exhibition of 1930

A view down the length of the giant colonnade from the southeast portico. At close proximity the materials and detailing take on a tactile presence, the granite base and rough heavy sandstone wall and pier in sharp contrast with the steel canopy supports, so slender as to be almost in tension.

Across from the portico on the Avenida de la Paz

The greatest dimension of the space seen from mid-block. One of the points of access to the underground parking is seen on the far left.

Two views from the southwest corner of the plaza

Another view from the southwest corner of the plaza looking up the Paseo Dax toward one of the entry ramps to the underground parking. In the final planting scheme, Moneo was happy to have the plaza open up, unscreened, to the only perimeter building of interest, the boldly striped School of Arts and Crafts seen here on the left, built on the western boundary of the site by an early twentieth century Spanish Butterfield -- but itself already pretty well screened and muted by its own double row trees.

The western corner of the cultural facilities wing of the building. Note the deep recess of the south-facing windows exposing the thickness of the sandstone walls, the detailing of which shows a little indebtedness to the Casa del Fascio in Como.

A view along the western colonnade with the parking exit ramp rising up in front of the windows to the public exhibition space.

The view back to the Paseo Dax, quietly revealing that the piers and lintels in this section of load bearing masonry construction are actually a reinforced concrete frame clad in thick and thin veneers of sandstone, the granite column bases being, likewise, mere baseboards. Making a candid and coherent architecture has never been easy. In these days of advanced building systems and environmental technologies it presents problems quite as ticklish as any encountered in brain surgery.

The view at the end of the Paseo Dax and ending our circuit of the site. This shows the mayor’s office tucked beneath the stepped seating of the Council Chamber. in the foreground is the parking exit ramp for the city’s service vehicles.

There are few views of the interior but few as they are, they succeed in reminding us of Moneo’s initial ambition to build a ‘gorgeous’ city hall. Here is the view from the entrance to the information desk and the public reception hall beyond.

The reception hall with its little grove of tall cylindrical columns and its wonderful reflected clerestory light, made more ample and cheerfully invasive by the white surfaces and the glossy floor.

It is quite strongly reminiscent of the anteroom to the assembly chamber in the Parliament Building at Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, despite Le Corbusier’s cool-seeking gloom, but Logroño’s luminosity is inspired by Asplund’s extension to the Gothenburg Law Courts of 1914-37, which Moneo greatly admires:

‘The project depended upon a body of knowledge that is the heart of the architecture discipline, knowledge that makes it possible to employ the minimum of resources capable of giving form to an element and, in the end, to an entire building. At the time, the political atmosphere in Spain was conducive to working with quasi-generic elements, forcing me to design without rhetoric and to use a language devoid of any stylistic connotation. In that respect, it seems appropriate to mention the extent of my admiration for Erik Gunnar Asplund’s extension to the Goteborg Town Hall [sic], which is for me the paradigm of Nordic architecture and a model that is undoubtedly implicit in the Logroño project. The lucidity with which Asplund solves the architectural problems – and particularly his precision in developing the details – was always an example for me, as can be seen in the special attention paid to the interior design and its defining elements.’ Ibid., pp. 80-81.

Gunnar Asplund, extension to the Gothenburg Law Courts

The main stair in the west wing of the building, and the large window into the Council Chamber on the left, receiving light from the skylight above. Note the contrast between the robust horizontal pipe railing along the corridors and the much lighter railing on the stairs, about which Moneo has this to say:

‘....the main stair has always been one of the canonical elements in Spanish city halls. In Logroño, the main stair should be looked at from two different points of view that may appear to be opposed. On the one hand, it is an independent element that may remind us of some medieval staircases in the way that the different flights of stairs are successively set back from one another; while on the other hand, it gives meaning to an interior void around which the most prominent public spaces are grouped.’ (Ibid. p. 85)

Among the many public events held on the plaza are commemorations of dates and people important to the city;

Rallies on various scales;

Demonstrations and protests;

Traveling exhibitions;

Over the past few years at Christmas-time, there is the life-size reconstruction of the nativity scene -- actually a miniature reproduction of the front of Logroño’s oldest church, the twelfth century San Bartolomé -- placed in an increasingly elaborate make- believe Bethlehem, in which there appears to be strong public participation.

City Transportation department and Sanitation Department shows;

Rain or shine, kids’ basketball and ‘Three-on-Three’ events;

And concerts such as this one to a packed audience on the Feast of san Mateo.

And when there are no events the plaza returns to the quiet enjoyments of the local residents.

Thus the building accomplishes Moneo’s purpose of making a generous urban space and becoming, in the process, so much a part of the city fabric with such modest totality -- no pomp, no axes, no readily discernible entry, no ceremonial balcony overlooking the plaza and scarcely a hint as to its varied internal functions on the exterior surfaces, which exhibit rather the characteristics of an overscaled and slightly extravagant housing project -- so modest, in fact, as to make its identity as the City Hall problematic. And yet there seems to be nothing enigmatic about its character to the citizens of Logroño, and its reputation beyond Logroño continues to draw little streams of people to see it from all around the globe.