Criticism as Reality Check

As my article titled “Reality Check: Spain” in the current (at time of post) 50th issue of Mark Magazine hopefully makes clear, architecture critics should visit and evaluate buildings when they are in use, i.e. when they are in their “post-occupancy stage”. Those press tours that take place while the paint is still drying and the hoarding is still up, i.e. well before a building opens its doors to the public, may be a nice opportunity to interview the architect and gossip with fellow critics, but the only empirical facts that can be confirmed firsthand at these kinds of events is the quality of the craftsmanship and the charisma of the architect. A building’s reality only emerges when it is occupied and used, and if criticism is not a “reality check” of some sort, then what is it, other than architectural advertisement or political propaganda?

Let me provide you with an example: The other day I took a train from Barcelona to Zaragoza. The trip itself was very pleasant: reading the Sunday paper while gliding silently through the Monegros desert at 300 km/h sure beats driving, much as I like roadtrips. But arriving in Zaragoza’s zeppelin hangar of a train station was a shock. And I don’t mean culture shock, the shock of the new, or the kind of architectural shock that provides a sometimes necessary jolt out of complacency. I mean shockingly bad.

I had seen this building a couple of times before, originally when it was still under construction in 2003. Back then it seemed very impressive, perhaps because mega-project construction sites are always an architectural-erotic turn-on. This time, however, as a user, I grew incredibly irritated by this building. Why? Because it turns out that this mega-impressive piece of architectural bravado is frustrating to use. Sorry, but just because I happen to be in Spain’s largest pillar-free interior space (even though Saragossa, as it’s called in English, is only the fifth-largest city in the country) is no reason to expect me to park my pedestrian and practical concerns. Who was it who said that architecture should be designed for ‘people’ rather than for ‘man’? Venturi? Whoever it was, here’s a building that proves them right.

Now, to be true, Zaragoza Delicias is an intermodal station, containing the city’s main bus station as well. But it is still way oversized, and correspondingly empty in large areas, even on a busy Sunday evening, which is when I embarked on the return leg of my journey along with hundreds of other weekend travelers. It was then that I realized that this behemoth actually has its priorities completely wrong: despite its huge size, the spaces where passengers have to line up –first for a security check and then again for an electronic check-in– are ridiculously small and cramped, forcing line-ups to bend around corners and double back on themselves. The main concourse, usually any train station’s busiest space or “people-place”, is fragmented, labyrinthine and fussy. Meanwhile the rest of the space is comparatively under-utilized, with huge empty areas doing nothing.

Seems the architectural intention might have been to cleverly reverse the hierarchy of the traditional train station building typology: if the 19th century type, as epitomized by Saint Pancras station in London, consists of a work of architecture acting as a monumental ‘front’ to an industrial iron-and-glass train shed, with the monument containing space for human activity (like waiting) while the shed provides covered access to trains, in this case it is the trains that get the architectural monumentality, not the humanoids.

In addition to this questionable –if not inhumane– proportioning of space: why are the exterior bow trusses that hold up the roof rotated 45º in plan, making their spans significantly longer than need be? Was another objective behind this building to waste as much steel and concrete –i.e. as much public money– as possible? I’m sure that wasn’t an intention, but it sure looks that way. Then there’s the sadly sagging cantilevered walkway, as well as the damaged ends of zig-zagging bulky concrete canopies over the roadway, presumably broken off by vehicles that didn’t quite fit under them. Let’s hope these pieces of concrete didn’t break off while fire engines or ambulance vans were responding to an emergency.

The first time I visited this building, assisting a photographer-friend hired to document its construction, I never suspected that it would function so poorly upon occupation. I was too overwhelmed by the architectural prowess and the sheer audacity of the structure to even begin to question minutiae such as where passengers could line up with a modicum of dignity. But to a user –especially, I would imagine, to a regular user upon whom the architectural “wow” factor wore off long ago– those sorts of details can be important. Why is it that “user-friendliness”, a concept that matters in the design of most things today, is somehow absent as a concept in contemporary architecture?

I suspect the answer lies in what sort of use. Practical use is, after all, very distinct from the political use that is often made of architecture by the powers that be. And I suspect that this latter type of use was the one that weighed more heavily here, as it all too often does in Spain. Interesting how the architecture that lends itself to the greatest political use is precisely that which flies most directly in the face of practical use. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

As we only know too well in Spain, politics is basically the art of screwing citizens over (and over, and over…), and unfortunately, mega-architectural projects are among the vehicles of choice for this sort of agenda. One of the most urgent tasks of criticism must surely be to denounce this, precisely by means of occasional “reality checks”, as pedestrian and unsophisticated as this may make us seem.

Zaragoza Delicias Intermodal Station

Zaragoza Delicias Intermodal Station

Train station when it was still under construction

The station in 2003, when it was still under construction

A monumentally empty space

A monumentally empty space. Elsewhere meanwhile, passengers must queue up in cramped holding pens.

Cantilever ends presumably broken by vehicles

Canopy protrusions damaged by vehicles that didn’t quite fit beneath them.

The sagging cantilevered walkway has its ups and downs

The sagging cantilevered walkway has its ups and downs.

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.

5 comments

  1. Robin Willis

    Of all of the creative fields architecture is the one that fundamentally is about improving the human experience. Sometimes that mandate fails miserably like with Corbusier but the intent is always supposed to be there. Architecture is not sculpture. It’s a service must only be judged by how much it contributes the culture, society, community and individual. Part of this can be esthetics because as in nature beauty is truly valuable.

    I remember having a coffee and watching a stream of old ladies sequentially plow into the pool at Meier’s Getty Center. You could almost set your watch by it. Exit door, walk 3 steps… 1,2,3… plunk in they would go. In subsequent visits they solved the problem by using very practical traffic cones. I suspect they are still there. Was “Dick” brought back into fix the problem? I suspect not… that would be way below the great man’s status. And I don’t need to tell you have well Macba has held up… at least the skateboarders have fun with it that once white big honkin’ box of ugly. The forum building has held even worse once looking like a giant wedge of deep blue cheese it now looks like giant wedge of really filthy wedge of deep blue cheese. The overall Forum site must have been a pile of politicos and their brother in law concrete contractors wet dream. Like the forum building it’s ugliness has only ripened with age. Dyno… mite baby!

    Another Spanish trait is complete disregard for maintenance. Those whacked off (ahem) buttresses will remain whacked off until they pull that barn down. Why? Because the politicians who lined their pockets on the construction have no financial interest in something as pedestrian as fixing scraped off concrete.

    No architecture somehow became a “fine art” as opposed to an applied art. Like the law it is a noble calling that just seems to attract the wrong people. It is not anything like great industrial design and it really should be.

  2. Robin Willis

    Lots of typos and apologize profusely…

  3. Robin Willis

    And I apologize profusely.

  4. Mostafa

    Dear Rafael;
    I have not visited this building, but from your description and photos, I would imagine that I could agree with you in the case of this specific building. However, I have a couple of general comments regarding your article:
    1- You have criticized the building for containing ‘comparatively under-utilized huge empty areas doing nothing’ and suggested the proportioning of its space is “inhumane”. Are you saying that what architecture critics often describe as ‘human scale’ in architecture should always be ‘small scale’?
    I don’t think that human scale in architecture should always be small. I think architecture is a realm which should contribute to the ‘quality of experience’ of individuals and masses. And I think that it is still ok to spent lots of money (in a reasonable way) on public buildings in order to create a certain experience of space; even if that certain experience isn’t part of a practical necessity. I have to say that I have often enjoyed large, devoid, and under-utilized spaces in airports and train stations because I think they are the physical manifestation of that little grief which invades a person when he travels alone. And thus I think, despite being very large, the scales of those spaces are still very humane.
    2- You have mentioned that through critical reality check, “architecture critics should visit and evaluate buildings when they are in use”. This indicates that ancient buildings which are no longer “in use” should be excluded from architectural critique. Shouldn’t critics talk about Stonehenge, Colosseum, Pantheon, and Persepolis? After all, they are not in use anymore, and no one is completely sure how they really performed during their original functioning. I would personally welcome them being excluded from the realm of architectural critique. We have all read numerous articles in which critics have fiercely praised the form, functionality, meaning, and even sustainability (!) of these buildings. But I think these articles belong to the domain of architecture history, and not architectural critique. As a critic, I would very much enjoy analyzing the role of Colosseum within the existing urban context of Rome, but I don’t trust those who describe and praise –with great confidence- how it really functioned in the Roman era.

  5. Rafael Gomez-Moriana

    Mostafa, thanks for your eloquent comment, as always. 1. I’m arguing against structures, such as this one, that are unnecessarily overblown in size and scale. Does the 5th largest city in Spain need a train station that’s the largest column-free space in Spain? Santa Justa station in Seville, by Cruz & Ortíz, handles more passengers with less space, and its architecture is fantastic, not to mention more user-friendly. Of course, an Airbus A380 maintenance hangar needs to be huge–I understand that. What I’m criticizing here is over-monumentalized architecture, because the motives behind it are usually only the aggrandizement of a politician and their architect-crony. 2. I’m referring to criticism of contemporary architecture, of course. Buildings from previous eras were built by different societies in different social, political, and economic contexts. Apples and oranges

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