Reality Check: Spain

Indignados demonstrating at Metropol Parasol, Sevilla, by Jürgen Mayer H. Photo: Mario Fernández.

[Text originally published in Mark Magazine #50]

Revisiting architecture is always a good thing to do, especially when the work is risqué and experimental, and especially when times are a-changin’, as they are in places like Spain. For nowhere has the cultural and political context of innovative architecture and city-building in the last decade changed as much as it has in this country, where a certain public backlash can be seen to be directed at many projects that were once considered progressive and exemplary.

The launch of Mark #1 in winter 2005-2006 coincided with Spanish architecture’s historical high point in terms of international acclaim and recognition. Marking the moment were events such as the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, ‘On-Site: New Architecture in Spain’, curated by Terence Riley, and the publication of the AV monograph, Spain Builds: Arquitectura en España 1975-2005, edited by Luis Fernández-Galiano, a collection of essays by an international roster of academics. These sorts of events celebrated Spanish architecture as a symbol of the seemingly irreversible progress of a country that was finally ‘shaking off the dust’ that had accumulated during decades of dictatorship and a difficult transition to democracy. So many ambitious museum projects were begun after Bilbao’s successful gamble launched a sort of ‘space race’ between provincial and not-so-provincial cities in Spain, that many of these museums were subsequently visited more for their architecture than for the exhibitions inside, if indeed there even were any of note.

Yet, as we can see in hindsight, what was once considered a symbol of progress and innovation is now being identified – rightly or wrongly – as one of the main causes of Spain’s serious economic problems. As soon as the financial crisis hit Spain, and corruption cases started clogging its justice system, architecture was viewed as a symbol of political vanity, careless public spending and irresponsible over-construction. The Bilbao effect resulted, in the end, in more than one white elephant being left almost abandoned to its own luck along a Spanish roadside.

Mark has covered Spanish architecture extensively in its 50 issues to date. Some of the buildings featured have gone on to become celebrated, others to be questioned and a few forgotten. Here, we briefly revisit five buildings from this period: Torre Agbar (Mark #1), by Ateliers Jean Nouvel with b720; Villa Nurbs (Mark #1) and Media-TIC (Mark #25), both by Cloud 9; the City of Culture of Galicia (Mark #27), by Peter Eisenman; and Metropol Parasol (Mark #33) by Jürgen Mayer H. Of these, it is ironically the smallest that is still under construction eight years later, while the largest has had its construction permanently halted. The tallest, most iconic and most photographed of the five is changing functions, probably as a consequence of its very success; the ‘greenest’ and most prizewinning still has some bugs to fix; and the only project situated within a historical urban context prevented a political party from being re-elected.

Since completion in 2005, Torre Agbar has gone on to become Barcelona’s 21st-century icon, at least as long as that city’s 19th-century icon remains under construction. The corporate office tower is so successful that an investment corporation recently bought the building with plans to convert it into a luxury hotel. Of course, this will not affect the structure’s iconic status, icons being all about the exterior form of a building, with total disregard for its purpose or raison d’être (unless its very purpose is to be an icon). Agbar, the company after which the building is named, had intended to occupy only a portion of the building, leasing the rest to other tenants ‘on spec’. But the market for prestige office space crashed along with the rest of the Spanish economy, and Agbar was left occupying its icon – and paying for its upkeep – all by itself. Tourism, on the other hand, has been growing steadily throughout Spain’s crisis, thanks to violent political tumult elsewhere, so converting the building into a hotel probably makes perfect economic sense, especially if, as planned, admission is charged for riding an express lift straight to the building’s cupola on the 35th floor. Makes me wonder whether the building’s success as an icon isn’t the very reason it’s being converted into a hotel and sightseeing destination in the first place, confirming that Barcelona is above all an architectural theme park.

The Gaiás City of Culture (formerly known as the City of Culture of Galicia), on the other hand – which can be seen as a reaction to the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum’s iconic status – was intended by architect Peter Eisenman to be a kind of ‘anti-icon’, an objective that explains his design: a smoothly undulating landscape that takes its cue from the terrain. But before this city could be completed, in March 2013 the Xunta de Galicia called a halt to its construction. As it stands now, four buildings have been inaugurated: the Museum of Galicia, the Library and Archive, the Centre for Creative Enterprise and the Centre for Cultural Innovation. The two remaining designs – the Centre for Music and Scenic Arts and the International Arts Centre – will in all probability never be completed, as the parliamentary resolution calls for a permanent freeze of all construction activities. Costs had more than tripled, and the Gaiás City of Culture, difficult to reach via public transport, was not attracting the number of visitors it had hoped for. This decision leaves two gaping voids in a city-as-landscape master plan with which, ironically, Eisenman had intended to destroy the traditional hierarchy of figure-ground, solid-void urbanism. Lying deep beneath the summit of Monte Gaiás, the foundations of the incomplete part of the project await artificial excavation by future robot-archaeologists, for whom its architecture will surely present a difficult and complicated puzzle.

Barcelona’s Media-TIC building, by Enric Ruiz-Geli’s firm Cloud 9, an experimental pilot project aimed at preventing heat gain with different kinds of façade-mounted pillow systems, has generated a great deal of interest worldwide owing to its unusual technology. The big question, since completion, is whether or not this system is actually working. Considering the risky nature of the experiment, it seems a natural question to ask, especially in view of a newspaper article which reported that the technology had stopped working shortly after the building’s inauguration. Indeed, like any first-time trial, the system is not without bugs. A lengthy and generous interview with Ruiz-Geli confirms that the ‘nitrogen fog’ pillow system on the southwest-orientated glass curtain wall cannot be used because the amount of glare it causes prevents office workers from seeing what’s on their monitors. Traditional roll-down blinds have had to be installed in the offices, along with district cooling air-conditioning, to achieve comfort on that side of the building on sunny afternoons. This experiment would seem to substantiate the following: exterior louvres, such as traditional shutters, are still the most effective means of preventing heat gain through glass in a Mediterranean climate – a rocket-science confirmation of age-old vernacular knowledge if ever there was one.

Villa Nurbs, also by Cloud 9, has seen its snail-paced construction proceed in bumps and starts since the publication of Mark #1. The project has undergone some design modifications, such as the replacement of transparent, light-regulating, inflatable, ETFE roof bubbles with rigid, opaque-fibreglass roof ‘bubbles’ over the children’s bedrooms. It turns out that an ETFE roof makes a lot of noise when it is windy, and it’s very windy on the Costa Brava when the famous Tramuntana blows down from the Pyrenees. The use of an opaque material is probably wise for reasons of privacy, too, as the house is in a town known throughout Europe as a major sky-diving centre. Looking at a building that aims to be ‘sustainable’ (at least in theory), as are all Cloud 9 projects, I have to wonder why thin, compound-curved Corian façade panels had to be CNC-milled from huge blocks of this expensive material, creating a high percentage of waste. And just how ‘sustainable’ is a house that is still being built ten years on and is, therefore, not habitable? It’s possible that the vast La Sagrada Familia could beat this roughly 400-m2 house to the finish line. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.

Shortly after its inauguration, Metropol Parasol, located on a public square in Seville’s old city centre, became an important site of a nationwide protest in plazas in every Spanish city against austerity cutbacks to public services. Protestors belonged to the Indignado movement, which inspired the 2012 ‘Occupy’ movement in North America. Soon after, the Socialist Party which had promoted Metropol Parasol was was voted out of office in municipal elections – a situation emerging from the necessity to partially privatize the scheme, which is operated by the construction company that built it, in order to finance it. Plaza de la Encarnación’s ‘mushrooms’ have since become a favourite spot for wedding photographs, Holy Week processions and rooftop strolls. The area immediately around the structure has been rejuvenated somewhat with trendy new cafés and bars. Yet few citizens will admit to liking it, preferring instead to complain about its high cost, its overwhelming size and the privatization of public space.

As these five examples show, context is changing the perception of architecture. Public aversion to risk and experimentation, especially when paired with dwindling public funds, is the mainstay of this reversal of opinion. Citizen participation in planning and commissioning processes, for example, is currently the sort of lip service found on political agendas. Of course, building architecture that is innovative always involves an element of risk. The alternative – conservative, risk-free projects – is no guarantee of more livable and thriving cities either. But the latter choice is today’s Realpolitik.

I’m also wondering whether a building that fails in one way or another is necessarily all bad. Failed designs have occasionally provided invaluable lessons. Consider Antoni Gaudí, whose portfolio contains an important project – the Güell Colony Church near Barcelona – that had to be abandoned owing to escalations in cost and other complications. The crypt now standing on the site is the first structure ever built using Gaudí’s famous ‘hanging chain model’, a technique for structurally optimizing complex networks of arches. When Gaudí was hired to design a larger temple in Barcelona’s 19th-century extension, he wrote: ‘I first tried out the structure that will be used for the Sagrada Família Church at the Colònia Güell. Without this previous trial, I would not have dared to adopt it.’


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