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The Oteiza Foundation, the design of a void container to preserve his legacy.

Research about the museum in preparation for a study trip to the north of Spain. London, 12th October, 2020.

 “Given a right triangle, the area of the figure of a cow built on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the areas of the homothetic cows built on the other sides.” This was the way that Sáenz de Oíza liked to explain the Pythagoras Theorem to the people around him, while he insisted on how poor it was the way the theorem was explained at school.

Oíza, or Paco as he was known by his friends, is described by those who were around him as a very intelligent man, to the extent that he was afraid of being left aside by his fellow classmates and friends during his youth years.

After obtaining the Architecture diploma in Madrid he was granted a scholarship that allowed him to go and broaden his knowledge in the United States. He chose to travel around the country instead of obtaining a degree in an American university. There he became fascinated with the glass architecture of Mies van der Rohe in Chicago and learnt of the importance of technology and construction in architecture, a discipline that up until that point he had considered to be closer to Fine Arts.


A life long collaboration between two friends


Soon in his career, Oiza met Jorge Oteiza. It was during the development and construction of the project for the Aranzazu Basilica. A project that he had won in a competition presented together with Luis Laorga upon his return from the United States in 1950.  The Franciscan priests, who were the clients of the project,  held a parallel competition to select artists and collaborate in the design. As a result they incorporated Oteiza to the design team. The Vasc artist was then commissioned to sculpt the figures of the apostols at the front of the Basilica. This was the start of a life long friendship that would make for a number of architectural projects such as the Chapel along the Camino de Santiago in 1954- for which they were awarded the National Prize of Architecture - or the polemic project for The Alhondiga in Bilbao in 1988.

The last project

Oteiza and his wife had acquired in 1975 a country house in Alzuza, in the Egüés valley, on the outskirts of Pamplona where they lived and worked for the rest of their lives. During 1996 and after a period of negotiations with diverse institiutions and investors, the artist, who had had no children decided to establish a foundation in conjunction with the Government of Navarra, in order to keep and showcase his work to the public after his death. Oteiza’s only condition was that the design of the new building had to be done by his friend Oiza. The architect and the artist would undertake their last project together. They were both very old and conscious that they were living the last years of their lives.  Unfortunately neither of them lived long enough to see the buildling finished. 

The building with no door

The new building was designed as an abstract container that heightened the works of art on display. It was placed adjacent to the old country house enclosing a garden that remained in between the old and the new parts articulating the whole complex. It was decided that the access to the foundation were through the old house leaving the new building deprived of its own dedicated entrance, a strategy that Daniel Libeskind would use later on for his design of the Holocaust Museum in Berlin.


In the words of Oiza, the design of the “experimental container” started by creating an empty concrete box with a room that replicated the conditions of the cave-like space of the workshop where Oteiza produced his sculptures at the beginning of his career. This double height room at the centre of the building would be surrounded by a number of subsidient exhibition rooms that overlooked the main space.

A box in the Landscape

From the outside the building resembles a safe box, hermetically containing the art inside in a perfectly controlled environment. The concrete walls that define the envelope are composed of a double layer of concrete with insulation inside it, and so is the construction of the slabs in the interior. All air conditioning and heating systems are integrated within the floor build up. Three sculptorical skylights that resemble black shards dominate the crown of the museum with its angled profiles and signal the building sitting on the green slope, forewarning the visitors about the content inside the box. A terrace clad in black stone encloses smaller temporary exhibition rooms and an auditorium while at the same time offers an outdoor exhibition space with the city of Pamplona as a backdrop, permitting the visitors to look over the valley from above.

Citing Le Corbusier with an Architectural Promenade through a modern cavern

This last collaboration between Oiza and Oteiza was their opportunity to put on display their ideas about the relationships between architecture, art and audience in a single operation. Architecture as an static box that allowed a dynamic and changing spatial experience by means of a circulation system combining corridors, ramps and bridges that linked the different ambiences inside. The visitors would be taken along the ramps through a sequence of spaces that expand and contract as they linked the different rooms at different levels. Several bridges would cross the main exhibition space making it present at different times during their visit.

The interior spaces would be activated by indirect sources of light, sometimes at low level some others at hight level creating a gloomy space, where the visitor could focus on experiencing the different works of art by Oteiza.

Floors covered by very dark stone, big slate tiles or synthetic materials that together with the reddish iron oxide coloured concrete walls would give the space a grotto like atmosphere, comparable to that of the caverns in Altamira.

In this mystical and empty box, Oiza would invite the visitors to admire the dimension as an artist of his friend Oteiza, who spent his life exploring ways to represent the beauty of the void through sculptures and words.



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