A walk of barely a quarter of an hour separates the place where Johnny Depp received this Wednesday the Donostia Award from the Palacio Bellas Artes, the oldest cinematographer in Spain. In the midst of the San Sebastián Film Festival, the City Council has given the green light to a rehabilitation project for this building built in 1914. Prepared by the owner company, the Sociedad Anónima de Deportes y Espectáculos (SADE), the plan provides for the adequacy of the interior and also some adjustments to the facade. However, the Áncora association, dedicated to the conservation of cultural heritage, denounces that it is a demolition “disguised as rehabilitation” and that, once the works are undertaken, only “20%” of the historic building will remain.
Donostia and the fireworks that hypnotized Isabel II and Mussolini’s son-in-law
The building will later be used for tourist accommodation and, although the details of the plan are still unknown, Áncora refers to a previous proposal from SADE itself that was rejected by the Consistory. On that occasion, they point out, the intention was to “enable in this central site three underground parking floors (54 spaces), another three for tertiary uses (not defined) and six for tourist accommodation (100 rooms)”. Its president, Alberto Fernández-D’Arlas, regrets the “patrimonial waste” and resigns himself to the fact that the final result resembles “more or less” the current situation. And it is that he emphasizes that the project, as it had been conceived, will entail “very important alterations in the original design of its facades”. “Having in San Sebastián, the city of cinema, the oldest cinema in Spain should be a source of pride and commitment of all institutions to maintain it as a public facility, instead of allowing this disaster. The people of San Sebastian have shown enormous affection for it. Fine Arts, always defending it as a symbol of the city, “says the association in a note.
The building dates from 1914. The cinematograph machine had been patented by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière just a couple of decades earlier, in 1895, but it did not become widespread until 1907. The land was conducive to erecting a building of the same characteristics of the Fine Arts in Donostia, as reflected by the San Sebastian journalist Alfredo Laffitte in an article published in ‘El Pueblo Vasco’ just a year before the inauguration. “We are at the height of the movie. […] Many families whose constant rule was to retire to their home in the evening and not leave until the next day now cannot do without a movie session before entering the house. It has become a staple item “, the letter read, in which,” due to the effect of its overgrown neighborhood and the aftertaste left by the summer season “, Laffitte saw” a very considerable nucleus of people willing to have fun at all times. ”
The history that identifies Donostia as a film city and an intellectual city cannot be ended. Society does not have the obligation to be enlightened, but the Administration does, it has to know the values of the heritage
Fernando Espinosa de los Monteros
– President of ICOMOS
The construction was carried out by a duo, the one made up of the architect Ramón Cortázar Urruzola and the builder Vicente Mendizábal Urretavizcaya. In the curriculum of the first one – of which it is said that he was the first son of the San Sebastian Ensanche that later would help to expand with its constructions and that bore his surname as it was devised by his father, Antonio – already included other emblematic buildings from San Sebastian such as the Library that today houses among its pillars the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Center. In addition, he was in charge of refounding the city’s spa complex, with the design of the Royal Bathhouse and La Perla del Océano, which were inaugurated in 1910 and 1911. For this construction, that of the Palacio Bellas Artes, Cortázar bet , in a pioneering way, by the reinforced concrete, with which it tried to avoid the tragic fate to which other buildings destined for similar uses had been doomed. “The fires with tragic consequences had been multiplying, given the flammability of celluloid and the rudimentary nature of the first projection devices: only in San Sebastián was it necessary to regret the burning of the Cine Novedades in 1907 and the destruction by fire of the Teatro Circo in Aldamar street and the Palacio Bellas Artes on Euskalerría street, both in 1913 “, recalls in a 2019 report the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a non-governmental association linked to the United Nations through UNESCO. In fact, the palace takes its name from this latest construction, which was burned just a year before its inauguration.
The building, however, did not stand out for its reinforced concrete, but rather for being one of the first cinematographers. “Due to its early chronology, this is – in all probability – the oldest cinematograph that is preserved in Spain, and one of the few examples prior to the First World War that still exist in Europe”, ICOMOS emphasizes. Hand in hand with this full dedication to the show goes the “barely concealed functional purpose”, explains ICOMOS, who appreciates an “evident decorative restraint” and notes how “practicality and the dignified sobriety of its design reign.” Everything in the building was put at the service of the entertainment of the masses.
The screen of the Bellas Artes was turned off forever on April 11, 1982. “He left with a certain class, with a movie Easter at a hundred pesetas in continuous session, as in the old days, as in the glorious years. Afternoons, Disney tapes At night, some classics of the seventh art, such as ‘The Queen of Africa’, before saying goodbye with the film by Imanol Uribe [‘La fuga de Segovia’]”he prays an article from ‘El Diario Vasco’ published on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the occasion. The Orfeón San Sebastian had also had its headquarters in the palace from practically its construction until 1977. And, once the screen was turned off, the building also hosted recitals by the Euskadi Symphony Orchestra.
This City Council has made history in the worst sense by crossing a red line that no one had dared to cross. Citizens will be shocked by a huge loss of assets, only comparable to the worst examples of developmentalism.
Anchor San Sebastian
– association for the study, conservation and promotion of cultural heritage
Now empty, various scuffles, legal comings and goings took place around him. For ICOMOS, however, that of the Palacio Bellas Artes has been “the chronicle of a death foretold.” “Economic interests have prevailed,” laments its president, the architect Fernando Espinosa de los Monteros, who for years has dedicated his efforts to trying to preserve the building. “The history that identifies Donostia as a city of cinema and an intellectual city cannot be ended. Society does not have the obligation to be enlightened, but the Administration does, it has to know the values of heritage,” he protests.
The association launched an international patrimonial alert in March 2019 to try to safeguard the building. The level of protection has gone through several ups and downs in recent years. In May 2014, the Basque Government declared it a cultural asset, which prevented the building from being demolished to turn it into a hotel, as had been approved in a plan of February of that same year. “It seemed that the building had been definitively saved, but, unfortunately, the owner of the building, SADE, asked the San Sebastián City Council for permission to demolish the dome arguing security reasons, permission that was granted. […] The dome is not only one of the most important features that define the character of the building, but it is feared that this is the beginning of the total demolition of the building “, precisely foreshadowed ICOMOS in its 2019 alert.” Let’s cry and remember which was something characteristic of Donostia “, now Espinosa de los Monteros resigns.
Áncora has fought for years against the demolition of the building. In 2013, up to 10,000 donostiarras contributed their signature to try to stop him. The association stresses, even so, that the outcome was “carefully prepared.” “This City Council has made history in the worst sense, by crossing a red line that no corporation until now had dared to cross. Soon the citizens will attend in shock to a patrimonial loss of enormous magnitude, only comparable to the worst examples of the era of developmentalism, “he denounces. It also points out that the new uses to which the building is going to be dedicated do not conform to “the formal, typological or structural characteristics of the monument, destroying its value as a movie theater” and points out that it collides with two judicial decisions and with the reports prepared by the municipal architect.