Niemeyer puts Spanish port at heart of cultural Europe

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The Independent Online

Billed as the "Cultural G8", this space-age building in an unfashionable small Spanish city will unite the great and the good of the global arts village.

The Niemeyer Cultural Centre, designed by the veteran Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, is part of a 30.5m (22m) project to link London's Barbican Centre, the Paris Pompidou, New York's Lincoln Centre, the Sydney Opera House, the Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Tokyo International Forum and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

The Spanish arts establishment will foot the bill to create the biggest arts forum in Europe.

In the unlikely surroundings of the city of Avils, in north-western Spain, the art world's finest will be able to use the space for shared art exhibitions, film festivals, musicals or cultural conferences. Its organisers also plan to involve young people, perhaps with graffiti competitions, hip-hop conferences and rap concerts.

The design, which is due to be unveiled next week in Avils, the day before Niemeyer's 100th birthday, is not due to be finished until 2010. Among those who are expected to attend the ceremony will be Graham Sheffield, the artistic director of the Barbican Centre, along with directors of all the other leading arts establishments involved.

The film director Woody Allen, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho and the British physicist Stephen Hawking are among the well-known names being bandied about as possible members of the artistic management committee.

Niemeyer is possibly the longest-lived architect of the Modern Movement. He designed the Brazilian capital Brasilia as well as a sensuous summer pavilion for London's Serpentine Gallery more than half a century later. He took on this ambitious project as his last great challenge.

The Spanish art establishment hopes that the prospect of a landmark project by an architect of Niemeyer's standing will do for Avils, on the Atlantic coast in Asturias, what Frank Gehry's expressionistic Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao.

The so-called "Guggenheim effect" has been said to have turned round the fortunes of what was an unfashionable Basque city.

The sheer dimensions of the Niemeyer Centre itself, built in the port area of the old town, are daunting. The conference hall will seat 1,000 and there will be an observatory tower with a restaurant, multiplex cinema, other galleries and smaller conference centres. But the biggest show area will be a 4,000 square metre gallery with a roof 20 metres high.

The building, whose design appears at first sight like a snake in the port of Avils, will be built on what was the centre of the city's steel industry in the Fifties, but which has since fallen into decline.

The idea was developed out of a meeting held in 2005 on the 25th anniversary of the Prince of Asturias Prize the Spanish-speaking world's equivalent of the Nobel prizes, which are held in Avils. Natalio Grueso, director of the Niemeyer Cultural Centre, said: "We asked Oscar if he would take part in a conference and he answered with this design for this new centre."

He admits that getting teenagers interested in high art may be one of the hardest things for the artistas to pull off. "We are aware that capturing the teenage audience will be one of the biggest challenges and it will be a complicated job," he said.

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