Strolling along the coast of San Sebastian we can find several emblematic buildings such as the Town Hall, the Royal Nautical Club and the Miramar Palace in the Bay of La Concha, but also, on the beach of La Zurriola, the Kursaal Conference Centre and Auditorium next to the river Urumea. This building by Rafael Moneo was inaugurated in 1999 on the same site as the Gran Casino Kursaal, hence its name.
History of Kursaal: a great casino
The current Kursaal replaces, in a way, that casino inaugurated in 1921 and which had been demolished in 1973 after several decades of inappropriate use that had left it in a rather deplorable state. And while the demolition of the old building was controversial, the construction of the new one was even more so. Not only because the new one has nothing to do with the architecture that surrounds it, but also because many locals still remembered the old one and the new one was too modern, too big and too different from what we were used to in San Sebastian.
Kursaal: cultural epicenter
But controversy aside, the Kursaal is a fine building that serves its purpose perfectly as a conference centre and auditorium. It hosts the San Sebastian International Film Festival or Zinemaldi, the International Jazz Festival or Jazzaldi and the Gastronomika, one of the most important gastronomy congresses in the world, as well as concerts, congresses, conventions and dance shows, among others. Not a week goes by without something going on at the Kursaal or on its terraces overlooking Zurriola beach. In fact, we stop many times at these terraces towards the end of our Classic Electric Bike Tour.
The Kursaal or Moneo Cubes, as the building is called, are two glass cubes that resemble two rocks stranded on Zurriola beach. Their inspiration is to be found right next to the Kursaal, because next to the Kursaal is the breakwater that protects the beach from the big waves that sometimes hit the coast of San Sebastian. The breakwater is made up of huge stone cubes, some of which have fallen onto the sand, making the building even more like the real thing.
And although many people in San Sebastian still don’t like the Kursaal after all this time, especially those who knew the old one, when it is lit up at night some change their minds. There is also more acceptance when the façade overlooking the Urumea River is used as a screen. On occasions such as Zinemaldi, San Sebastian Day or Christmas, this façade is illuminated with the festival logo, the city flag or moving colours, making it more acceptable to some citizens.
As for the name, we have already mentioned that the Kursaal is named after the previous building. Kursaal literally means “cure room” and in the nineteenth-century spas of Central Europe, the kursaal was a multi-purpose building containing dance halls, gambling halls, restaurants… in other words, it was the centre of social life. Thus, soon buildings with similar uses in the rest of Europe adopted this name, and this is how it arrived in San Sebastian in 1921 and has remained ever since. In fact, the small casino on Calle Mayor in the Old Town is still called that way today.
All in all, we can say that the Kursaal Conference Centre and Auditorium, despite not being favoured by many locals and tourists, fulfils its function, and its programme is very interesting. If you are in Donosti for a few days, it might be a good idea to take a look at its agenda, you will almost certainly find something that catches your attention!