The evocative title of the exhibition Cities of Artificial Excavation: The Work of Peter Eisenman, 1978–1988 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal in 1994 turns out to be an oracular description of the architect’s City of Culture of Galicia in northwest Spain. Eisenman’s project of a lifetime, now 12 years in design and construction, has involved serious digging and earthmoving to create topographical man-made structures that blur figure and ground. With two buildings just open, the complex’s raw state presents an artificial landscape of thrashing, gnashing stone creatures restlessly rising up from the earth before subsiding into calm ripples.
Eisenman won the competition for the City of Culture in 1999 at the right time economically, and in the right country architecturally. Since the end of Franco’s reign in 1975, Spanish architects have been turning out high-quality Modernist design in a country also receptive to the tours de force of internationally known architects. After Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened in 1997, Manuel Fraga Iribarne, the president of the Xunta of Galicia, initiated the 1 million-square-foot research, study, and arts center for his own region. The brief for the City of Culture ambitiously called for a periodicals archive, library, museum, music theater, central services and administration building, and international arts center with a budget of around $145 million.