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Sun 5 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Frankly garish

As we travel across Spain's rolling northern landscape, the craggy natural terrain gives way to centuries-old villages and wineries that pepper the midnight skyline like twinkling stars.

Frankly garish
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As we travel across Spain's rolling northern landscape, the craggy natural terrain gives way to centuries-old villages and wineries that pepper the midnight skyline like twinkling stars.

The reddened eyes of those still awake stare unaffected at the darkened rows of olive trees that paint the Basque countryside like brushstrokes from a master artist.

The architecture reflects a language that is equal parts tradition and transformation, as far-off wind farms and the occasional toll booth or mini-highway pay homage to the inevitability of modernisation. For the most part, it is unhindered and untamed in its simplicity and expression.

As we dip down into one valley and come over the crest of another natural undulation, Marques de Riscal, the region's oldest and most successful vineyard and wine producer comes into view. Colleagues nudge one another awake to steal a glance of the remarkable rippling building as it shimmers in the moonlight.

Situated a mere stone's throw from the ancient village of El Ciego, the hotel building of the Marques de Riscal was designed by Frank Gehry in 1995 and built as a celebration of his organic-some might say chaotic-vernacular.

Designed to mimic the vibrance of the wine itself and built of local sandstone and locally-manufactured stainless steel, coloured titanium, wooden window frames and glass, the building is a testament to the region's wealth of natural resources.

In the daylight, the hotel takes on another form. While state-of-the-art wineworks occupy subterranean levels beneath the lobby, the main building casts a shadow over the ancient village below and one cannot help but feel a tinge of disappointment.

Looking over El Ciego and the natural splendour of its cathedral and countryside, it's difficult to imagine how Gehry went from that to this.

To be sure, the Marques de Riscal hotel is a lovely combination of richly coloured exteriors and bespoke interiors that just seems a bit...misplaced...in the Spanish countryside.

Built among the urban context of Madrid or the architectural playground of Bilbao, Gehry's project would fit like a glove. But given the context in which it sits, it simply doesn't work.

Gehry is no stranger to criticism and his CV certainly precludes him from having to justify his projects, but it's almost as though context was an afterthought; almost as though the integrity of his vision outranked that of fundamental architectural precepts like form following function.

Suffice it to say, Gehry's vision is not my vision. I don't understand his architecture and I can admit it.

But, I dare say his next major project-Guggenheim Abu Dhabi-can't possibly suffer the same contextual mismatch as the winery in El Ciego because, much like the man himself, it sits on its own little island.

Jeff Roberts is the editor of Middle East Architect.

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