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.