Great modern buildings can be divided into two categories. There are those architectural masterpieces built in places that already have many great buildings. For example, the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1958, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano and completed in 1977, are unique in their design, but not unprecedented in their significance – they both have plenty of distinguished neighbors.
Then there are those great buildings that by themselves put places on the architectural map. The Sydney Opera House, designed by Jørn Utzon and opened in 1973, is the outstanding example of a building rescuing a city from architectural anonymity. Its transformational power wasn’t equaled until 1997, when the Canadian-born Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – the spectacular progeny of a marriage between contemporary material and computer technologies – propelled a moribund Basque city into the international design limelight. The ‘Opera House effect’ became the ‘Guggenheim effect’: by having a stunning building, it seemed, a city could not only gain cultural respect but also achieve economic salvation.
International politicians and civic boosters flocked to northern Spain to gaze covetously at Gehry’s wondrous building. Because they all wanted "one like that," the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao soon had siblings – a familial likeness is evident in Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle (2000) and his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003). And soon the Bilbao Guggenheim also had a little Spanish brother, located 93 miles (150 kilometers) to the south: the Hotel Marqués de Riscal on the site of a historic Rioja winery, Vinos Herederos del Marqués de Riscal.
Rising above vineyards and buildings dating from the mid-19th century, the luxury hotel, which opened in 2006, is dramatic evidence of the modernizing tendency in one of the world’s most traditional wine-growing regions. Rioja was long resistant to new-fangled winemaking techniques and marketing strategies, as set in its ways as an old-world Spanish caballero. But lately, it has roused itself to respond to vinicultural competition from the New World and even other Spanish regions, and has brought in some outside help to do it. At Vinos Herederos del Marqués de Riscal, Gehry, working with the multinational practice IDOM, has once more contrived to work some very hard materials – titanium and stainless steel – into some very sensuous forms.
These forms, and the functions they house, announce that Vinos Herederos del Marqués de Riscal is not just a winery, but a destination. The hotel, covering 3000 square meters (32,300 square feet), has 43 guest rooms, a 170-seat restaurant and conference facilities. The building is propped up on columns to provide views from the upper levels and allow for an entry plaza at ground level. Sandstone cladding on the hotel’s more conventional rectilinear elements connects the building to the Rioja landscape and to the brick and terracotta materials that have been used to construct local buildings for centuries.