Power, Corruption and Architecture

Photo courtesy El Mundo

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 governments in the allocation of large public works contracts, or were granted changes to land-use zoning bylaws that would benefit private development projects they were planning.

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 provoked a private development boom that would last over a decade and grow into a bubble 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 award construction contracts in return for cash for 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 charged a 3% fee, systematically, 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. 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 S, M, L, and XL-scale political corruption.

Many ordinary Spaniards are now increasingly sickened by all of this sleaze, not only because of the negative effects of the construction boom (urban sprawl, thousands of empty buildings, unemployment, forced evictions, widening wealth inequality, 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 enjoyed a high level of public confidence and respect until recently. Architects were associated with progressive causes and struggles. For example, even before the death of Franco in 1975, architecture students were a leading 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 once identified with an incipient democracy movement, whereas corruption, of course, undermines democracy. Sure enough, a change can be perceived to have occurred in Spanish architecture from the end of the Transition period to the boom-period of the late 90s to late 2000s. Whereas before 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 “touristic architecture”: 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 archi-tourism mega-projects, private real-estate development sprawl built primarily for purposes of speculation began to sprout like mushrooms just about everywhere. 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.

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. Is this merely a coincidence? Or is it just 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 expanded to global distribution, and when many celebrated architects from abroad were invited to build in Spain and vice versa. Numerous architectural master’s programs aimed at foreign students were launched, while at the same time many Spanish architecture students and academics went abroad to study, or to become leading academic figures at some of the most internationally prestigious architecture schools. Thus, even architectural theory and criticism “boomed” alongside the building boom, becoming increasingly globally recognized.

Spanish architecture shifted from mainly local to global concerns and ideas. Accordingly, attention shifted from the concerns of citizens and neighbourhoods to those of tourists, global media types, international financiers, and globe-trotting academics. 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 local heroes. Unfair scapegoats? Perhaps. In any case, a profession that was societally respected and relatively united was now falling apart. 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, as I write this, 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). Enrolment in architecture schools is way down, while paper architecture, unsolicited architecture, working collectively, and collaborating (once again) with activist groups and neighborhood associations are on the increase, as are “alternative” spatial practices that are more akin to visual 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 a highly anti-democratic so-called “Citizen Safety Law” (what a perfect example of double-speak!) designed to curb public protests, 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 already been destroyed, 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 nearly a million dwelling units resulting from the boom. Perhaps the PP ultimately wants to kick-start another con-struction boom (“a re-ron, the late late show, ain’t we seen that film before?”). 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 developer scum like Sheldon Adelson and their brand of “global architects”. The Spanish government has already shown that it is willing to bend over backwards (which in Spanish curiously 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 was impossible to agree with was a guarantee that no future government would ever recede on any terms of an agreement.

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 cash strapped clients such as 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 apartment buildings, 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 to build collections. In fact, public work will all but disappear, since there is little public money anyway, and there is a steadily growing citizen opposition to public projects. Also, public works are no longer as profitable a method for filling the coffers of ruling political parties ever since the PP party found a better way to profit from the public sector and screw the working and middle classes even more: the privatization of public institutions such as Spain’s highly respected health-care system to their cronies. “Architecture”, this time around, will have little to gain.


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