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Bienal Internacional de Arquitectura

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MUGAK analyses the hidden treasures of the Old Town and the port of San Sebastian with a new exhibition

  • San Sebastian is the last of all three Basque capitals to grant protection to its historic centre, inhabited by around 4,000 citizens.
  • This art show, organised by Áncora, is one of the last exhibitions to open out of the dozens that have taken place during the Basque Country International Architecture Biennial MUGAK.


“San Sebastian Old Town and Harbour: Monument Site” has opened today, 26th of November, at the Basque Country Architecture Institute within the framework of the second edition of the Basque Country International Architecture Biennial MUGAK. This exhibition, created by Áncora, seeks to celebrate the declaration by the Basque Government of the historic centre of San Sebastian as monument site and to bring the citizen closer to its unique features.

This journey split between the port and dozens of streets takes us to the most unique buildings through photographs, drawings and a fragment of a documentary film on life at the Old Town of San Sebastian. Áncora highlights the fact that the Old Town and the port were declared Monument Site last April, 32 years after initiating the process to protect these areas.

This area of the town bears some “unique features” due to the fact that the city had to be rebuilt after its destruction in 1813. The Old Town was created under the development plan of Pedro Manuel Ugartemendia, who exercised “strict control on the design of the façades and some other aspects resulting in the perception of the Old Town as a very harmonious unit”, as explained by Áncora. This exhibition also includes a 3D reconstruction of a “utopian and failed” project proposed in 1814, with an Old Town spreading radially outward from an octagonal town square, which “met with the opposition of the individuals”.

The show, which will remain open until the 12th of January, is the result of a thorough archive research and brings forward new data about the process of construction of the city’s Old Town and port.

The curators of the exhibition, José María Unsain, Eneko Oronoz and Alberto Fernández-D’Arlas, seek to show the “cultural values” of this part of town to the general public, as well as to provide with new information about its makers: “architects, master builders and also individual merchants that promoted important buildings”. Some of them were as important as Silvestre Pérez, municipal architect of Madrid, a reference for the architecture of the nineteenth century and author of many buildings in San Sebastian.

The decree includes six levels of protection, from the basic one, encompassing the majority of the dwellings (basic preservation), through an average level of protection in the housing estates at the Constitución and Trinidad squares, the Principal Theatre, the port chapel, the Aquarium and the Naval Museum, to a final special level of protection granted to the Basilica of Santa María del Coro, the Church of San Vicente, the San Telmo Museum, the Santa Teresa Convent (the building right next to the Basque Country Architecture Institute, seat of the Biennial, which will host this exhibition), as well as the library and the old City Hall.

Áncora underscores that this exhibition “has the purpose of promoting general appreciation towards architectural creation and, specifically, towards historic buildings as an essential part of contemporary cities”.

Cycle of lectures

As parallel activities to the exhibition, Áncora has organized a series of lectures (all of them to be held at 19:00h. at the Basque Country Architecture Institute) dealing with the Monument Site from different perspectives: “Vicisitudes en la construcción de la Plaza Nueva de Hércules Torrelli, 1715-1723” [Vicissitudes in the construction of the Plaza Nueva of Hércules Torrelli] (27th of November with José Javier Pi Chevrot), “Un futuro para nuestro pasado: el caso del casco histórico de San Sebastián” [A future to our past: the case of the historical district of San Sebastian] (29th of November, with Mariano Ruiz de Ael), “Gentrificación y turistificación, el derecho a vivir en la Parte Vieja [Gentrification and touristification, the right to live in the Old Town] (3rd of December, with Xabier Arberas) and “Academicismo en la reconstrucción de San Sebastián” [Academicism in the reconstruction of San Sebastian] (4th of December, with José Laborda Yneva). Furthermore, the exhibition curators will organize guided tours.


The International Architecture Biennial MUGAK (Boundaries, in Basque language) celebrates its second edition this year with a hundred activities aimed at bringing architecture closer to society and to other related disciplines. Organised by the Department of Environment, Regional Planning and Housing of the Basque Government, it intends to be a crossroads, a meeting point with a plural, transversal and multicultural character aimed at promoting and reactivating dialogue, discussion and reflection in order to undertake new strategies and solutions that help to jointly redefine new boundaries and shape a more ethical, fair and balanced society.

The Programme is being prepared