Power, Corruption and Architecture

Photo courtesy ElMundo.com

Transparency International released its annual report some weeks ago, and this year’s corruption perception index, which ranks 177 countries from least to most corrupt, lists Spain as having dropped from position 30 to 40. In just one year.

Yes, you might well ask, but what does architecture have to do with all this?

Well, the biggest corruption scandal of them all, the Bárcenas affair (after Luís Bárcenas, the imprisoned former treasurer of the right-of-centre Partido Popular / PP, which governs Spain nationally as well as regionally in 11 of its 17 Autonomous Regions and locally in the majority of its municipalities), is about supposed illegal party funding during nearly two decades, mostly by construction companies and real-estate developers, who, in exchange for “donations” to the PP party, received favorable consideration by PP-led local or regional governments in the allocation of large public works contracts, or were granted favorable changes to land-use zoning bylaws when building private developments.

The whole racket began in 1990, but it went into high gear in 1998, when land law reforms passed by the Aznar-led PP majority government to facilitate zoning changes stimulated a huge boom in private real estate development that would last over a decade and that, upon bursting, would cause a disastrous economic crisis that is still on-going and seemingly never-ending. The construction boom’s huge urban expansions required new infrastructure and public buildings, which in turn meant, of course, lots more opportunities to raise cash for the PP coffers. During the boom, the PP’s slush fund was so large that Luís Bárcenas regularly handed out “bonuses” –envelopes containing large sums of cash– to the party brass, including allegedly Mariano Rajoy, the current prime minister of Spain. Catalonia’s ruling right-of-centre CiU party is embroiled in a similar scandal, the Palau case, in which contractors were allegedly systematically charged a 3% fee in the allocation of public works contracts.

Judges and journalists who have tried to investigate corruption networks, such as Judge Baltasar Garzón’s probe into the “Gürtel” scandal or the Catalan digital newspaper Cafè amb Llet‘s uncovering of sleaze in Catalonia’s public health system, have been either removed from office or sued for defamation, while a great many politicians accused of corruption are still in office. Corrupt politicians and royalty are defended, ironically, by none other than Spain’s special “anti-corruption” prosecutor’s office. Talk about impunity.

But what does architecture as distinct from construction have to do with all this?

The fact is that the real estate and public works boom of the 2000s coincides exactly with the period in which Spanish architecture was heralded around the world as exemplary. “Good architecture” thus became an unwitting byproduct of –if not a cynical smokescreen for– large-scale political corruption. As long as critics, curators, and archi-tourists were gushing over all the fabulous new buildings in Spain, then maybe the hundreds of millions of euros of tax money that was being diverted into the pockets of politicians wouldn’t be noticed. Or worse yet–this being the land of the picaresque por excelencia— maybe such wrongdoing would even be tolerated if it meant Spain was being celebrated in the global spotlight, which it certainly was. The architecture boom was such a good party while it lasted, that nobody wanted to entertain the possibility that architecture, known to march hand-in-hand with power, might also be marching hand-in-hand with XL-size political corruption.

Many ordinary Spaniards are now sickened, not only by negative effects of the construction boom (urban sprawl, thousands of empty buildings, unemployment, forced evictions, polarization of wealth, disappearance of the middle class, etc.), but also by the perception that architecture was somehow either directly or indirectly complicit with the boom. This feeling of betrayal is especially significant because Spanish architects generally enjoyed a high level of citizen respect until recently. Before the death of Franco in 1975, architecture students were an important contingent in the pro-democracy student movement, and a number of architects played leading roles in neighborhood-association struggles to improve living conditions in Spanish cities.

Spanish architecture was thus identified with an incipient democracy movement at one time. Corruption, on the other hand, directly undermines democracy, and it is interesting to note a change that occurred in Spanish architecture from the end of the Transition period to the boom-years of the late 90s and 2000s. Whereas up to the 1992 Olympics most public works projects concentrated on renovating public spaces and building new public institutions (schools, sport facilities, city halls, etc.), usually at the neighborhood scale; after 1997, the year that the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum opened, a new typology emerges that we might call an “architecture of tourism”: cultural facilities that are so large, they could only have been designed with hordes of tourists in mind as the principal user-group. Alongside these publicly financed tourism mega-projects, private real-estate development built primarily for purposes of speculation began to spring up. Generalizing grossly, we could say that the pre-Guggenheim period’s architecture had the improvement of the lives of citizens as its priority, while most of the building undertaken during the post-Guggenheim boom years now ultimately had tourists and foreign investors in mind, along with citizens’ electoral votes of course.

The more the construction industry profited (and the more they donated to political parties such as the PP or Catalonia’s CiU party), the more Spanish architecture excelled in recognition and won international competitions. Coincidence? Or is it merely a case of having to take, as it were, the good with the bad (and the ugly)? The boom is also the period during which a significant number of prestigious Spanish architecture magazines went toward wider global distribution, and when many celebrated architects from abroad started building in Spain and vice versa. Numerous architectural master’s programs aimed at foreign architecture students appeared at the same time that many Spanish architecture students and academics went abroad to study or become leading figures at some of the most prestigious international architecture schools. Thus, even architectural theory and criticism “boomed” alongside the building boom, gaining increasing global recognition.

Spanish architecture thus shifted from mainly local concerns to chiefly global concerns. Accordingly, attention shifted from the concerns of citizens to those of tourists, consumers of global media, international financial speculators, and architectural academia. But all this changed from one day to the next when Spain’s feverish construction bubble suddenly burst in 2008.  Architects themselves were not only suddenly out of work, but were also suddenly shunned by a society that until then had regarded them as heroes. Unfair scapegoats? Perhaps. In any case, a profession that was societally respected and internally bonded was now coming apart, both literally and metaphorically. Since the great crash, there has been almost no work, no income, and no optimism. A very high number of architects have been forced to move abroad, some as far as the Americas or Australasia. Interestingly, at this very moment, more US architecture schools are headed by Spanish architects than ever before (a group colloquially referred to as “The Spanish Armada”).

Back in Spain, meanwhile, a law has been tabled to “liberalize” the profession and make it more “competitive” (we all know what that word really means). Enrollment in architecture schools is way down, while paper architecture, collectives, collaborating (once again) with activist groups and neighborhood associations, and un-solicited architecture are up, as are “alternative” spatial practices that approach public art. Such alternatives to traditional practice, even if these put yet less bread on the table, show the inventiveness and persistence of Spanish architects, who are some of the best-educated in the world.

We are now being told that the crisis is over, and that it’s all going to get better from now on; that our sacrifices are finally bearing fruit. While we are being told this, the majority PP government is passing an anti-protest and hence anti-democratic “Citizen Safety Law” the likes of which have not been seen since the Franco era. Another law designed to protect coastal construction is being reformed to facilitate construction on those few remaining stretches of natural coastline that have not been destroyed already, while another law is being entertained that would provide an instant Spanish (and hence EU) passport to anyone “investing” half a million euros in Spain; a law obviously aimed at reducing the current surplus of approximately 800 000 dwelling units. Perhaps the PP ultimately wants to kick-start another con-struction boom; a re-ron. Only this time, the spectacular hotel casinos for both tourist consumption and real-estate speculation in one (giving a whole new meaning to the term “multi-use building”) will be built by global developers and their brand of global architects. The Spanish government has already shown that it is willing to bend over backwards (which in Spanish translates as “bajar los pantalones”, or lower the trousers) in order to meet the demands of developers, such as easing laws concerning money-laundering, smoking in public buildings, foreign work visas, and of course land-use zoning. What the failed negotiations over EuroVegas reveal is just how low the Spanish government is willing to go in lowering its trousers. The only one of Sheldon Adelson’s demands that it couldn’t meet was a guarantee that future governments would not recede on any final agreement. A democratically elected government cannot, of course, ever agree to such a condition–only a dictator is in a position to do so.

Although EuroVegas thankfully fell through in the end, the eagerness with which this project was embraced by ruling politicians (along with a handful of Spanish celebrities) paints a dismaying picture of Spanish architecture in the coming decade or two. It will likely become two-tiered and highly polarized, just like Spain itself, with a handful of local architecture collectives designing food banks, emergency shelters for the homeless, and Single-Room Occupancy dwellings for NGOs, while a handful of superstar “developer-architects” (with names like BIGGUS DICKUS, Co-opted Himmelb(l)au, OMG, and Frankly Garish) will probably be brought in to design private hotels, casinos, tourist apartments, gated communities and luxury marinas. There will be very little in the way of museums, since so many have been built in the last decade that there is little to no money left for their collections. In fact, public work will all but disappear, since there is little public money anyway, a steadily growing public opposition to these kinds of projects, and since it is no longer as profitable a method for filling the coffers of ruling political parties. But the PP party has already found another way to profit from the public sector: privatizing it by selling off public institutions such as Spain’s highly respected health-care system to their cronies.

This time around, “architecture” will have little to gain.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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