Color as an Element of Collective Memory: Museum of Contemporary Art in Leon ― 

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Leon (MUSAC), in central Spain, features a bold strategy for integrating a contemporary building in its historical and cultural context, by creatively using striking colors on its glass façade. The building begun in in 2005 and was complete in 2007; the same year, it was awarded the European Union Prize for Architecure, Mies van der Rohe Award, as an exemplary contemporary intervention in a European city.

The Museum architects, the late Luis Moreno Mansilla and his associate, Emilio Tuñon, who now carries on their joint research, designed the building as “a secret geography of memory”, through an open system of repetitive geometric elements composing squares and rhombuses. This geometrical pattern is encountered very often in the history of architecture, as ornament, in friezes or in floors; in MUSAC employs the same motif in three dimensions, producing undulating surfaces on the exterior and unpredictable trajectories in the interior. The building, in contrast to other museums, that are designed for housing a fixed, “frozen” exhibition, only features works from the latest generation of artists (between 1992 and 2012) and its architecture gives center stage to live action and free exploration, as if it were already part of the historical core. Standardized structural units, with their peculiar three-dimensional shape, produce parallel or oblique viewpoints in the interior and their arrangement takes the shape of an embrace, enclosing a new, urban square that becomes the platform of informal events.

The building façade, making part of the public space, functions symbolically: It reinforces the monumental character of the new building by emulating historical forms in Leon, without imitating them. The structural elements of the Museum are dressed in opaque white glass, except for those surfaces enclosing the new square, where the impression changes dramatically through an explosion of color. Out of the 3000 glass panels generating the building’s skin, those providing the new square with character feature etched glass in 27 different colors, transcribed from the impressive leaded glass artwork in the rosace over the town Cathedral entrance. The medieval rosace, illustrating the famous image “El Falconer”, underwent digital documentation, the color tonalities were recorded in current color codification and the custom-made color glass panels dressed the museum façade like low-resolution pixels. This way, the new museum, without concealing its radically contemporary character, borrowed the colors of the Cathedral’s most striking architectural component to be inscribed, centuries later, in the same collective memory.

In its commentary, the Mies van der Rohe Award jury, states: “The success of the MUSAC lies in its generous arrangement of multiple scenarios in which human actions may take place and where the traces of these actions may be understood by others […] The MUSAC must be understood as an experiment whose only aim is the establishment of a circulatory system of the collective, through the construction of an open space devised to foster links between people and nature, artefacts and events.”