[Originally published in Bauwelt 8.2021]
The adaptive reuse of L’Escorxador del Cabanyal, a former slaughterhouse in Valencia, Spain, as a people’s archive and cultural institute culminates a 17-year battle waged successfully by residents of the maritime barrio of El Cabanyal against a mayor’s plan to drive a monumental avenue through the heart of their community. Had it prospered, the almost one kilometer-long percée urbaine, the brainchild of former mayor Rita Barberà (Partido Popular), would have resulted in the demolition of 1651 homes and the splitting in two of a heritage-protected urban ensemble. For architecture and urbanism, L’Escorxador provides yet another example of collective design born of citizen initiative triumphing over officially imposed design.
Originally a 13th century fishers’ shantytown built outside the Medieval ramparts of Valencia, El Cabanyal is today a maritime neighborhood famous for its colorfully tiled vernacular houses. An independent municipality until 1897, when it was amalgamated with the city of Valencia, El Cabanyal has always been closely associated with the nearby seaport and the immense Malvarrosa beach at its doorstep. This beach grew in importance as Valencia’s bourgeoisie prospered in the 19th century, when modernista vacation homes began to appear alongside El Cabanyal’s fishers’, port workers’ and farmers’ houses. Plans to connect city and beach with monumental boulevards were first proposed around that time, but it took the election of Mayor Barberà in 1991 to get the demolition ball rolling. Not coincidentally, in 1993 El Cabanyal was declared “cultural heritage” by the government of the Valencian Community (one of Spain’s 17 regions).
Regional heritage protection, however, proved no obstacle for Barberà’s plan to prolong Blasco Ibañez Avenue through El Cabanyal. Approved by Valencia city council in 1998, the plan prompted the immediate formation of the civic platform Salvem el Cabanyal and a donation of space by a cultural association housed in the former slaughterhouse building, which dates from 1910. Salvem’s participatory assemblies, art exhibitions, live music, and parties transformed L’Excorxador into a happening part of Valencia’s alternative cultural scene.
Blasco Ibañez Avenue, named after the Valencian author of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is the wide central axis of a Garden City of slabs and towers; an example of CIAM urbanism that is diametrically opposed to El Cabanyal’s densely packed patio houses. Befittingly, the two barrios are situated on opposite sides of train tracks. Although “urban renewal” through “slum clearance” had been debunked as a doctrine a half century earlier, Barberà nevertheless sought to destroy El Cabanyal with a Robert Moses-like determination, sending in her demolition crews at the crack of dawn so that Salvem activists would be caught off guard. Activists, in turn, removed street numbers from El Cabanyal’s houses to confuse the demolition crews.
The conflict went on until 2015, when Barberà, embroiled in corruption scandals, was finally defeated in an election nearly a quarter-century later. Her urbicidal plan was halted by the courts and El Cabanyal, partially destroyed, now had to turn its attention toward regeneration and reconstruction. The renewal of the Escorxador slaughterhouse became a pilot project in this context. An initial design by a Salvem member, architect and professor Tato Herrero, together with architect David Estal was in the end budget-adjusted and brought to fruition by architect Boris Strzelczyk, an adaptive reuse specialist.
This kind of grassroots collectivity is nothing new. It has become the modus operandi for a whole generation of Spaniards disillusioned by architecture’s cult of personality and its sell-out to global spectacle. L’Escorxador’s frugal DIY architecture of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” stands in sharp contrast to the boom period of conspicuous construction that many Spanish architects nostalgically refer to now as “la fiesta.”
Traversing the middle of a city block punctured with empty lots and crumbling abandoned houses, a typical sight in El Cabanyal, the reformed Escorxador is made up of two parallel bands, one old and one new, that stretch from street to street. The older band, consisting of two street-fronting volumes with their own entrances and a courtyard in-between, contains the representative spaces: an interpretive center and an exhibition space. The new part, built on a narrow empty lot next-door that was annexed, contains the more technological program: an archive, a modern conference room, a lift, and a couple of bathrooms accessed from the courtyard, as befits vernacular tradition. When the doors of L’Escorxador are opened at teach end, the building becomes a see-through urban passageway of the kind that fascinated Baudelaire, Benjamin and Debord.
The building’s multiple doors, permitting different activities to take place simultaneously, express an anti-hierarchical egalitarianism that suits its collective spirit. In keeping with its previous program, when it housed Salvem events, the courtyard has been upgraded with a stage for musical performances and hook-ups for an outdoor bar as well as for cooking large paellas. There is also a bench improvised from a leftover wood beam below the shade of a grapevine pergola.
“The old building had so many layers that we approached it archaeologically, carefully removing materials for possible reuse elsewhere.” explains architect Strzelczyk. “We discovered graffiti, murals, hand-painted wall tiles, and hydraulic floor tiles that we either highlighted in situ or incorporated elsewhere.” The result is a palimpsest; an exquisite corpse. As a collaborative collage construction layered and re-layered over time, the outcome eschews notions of individual authorship and genius.
In the new annex, a delightfully provocative bit of irreverence is expressed architecturally: a single window matching those made for the arched openings of the old building is here positioned upside-down, on a windowsill that smiles. The window is clearly a reference to a historical portrait of Felipe V that famously hangs upside-down in a museum in nearby Xàtiva, a town that was completely burned by the first Bourbon king in 1707, during the War of Succession. Depicting a Spanish monarch upside-down has today become a common anarcho-punk, anti-monarchical, and pro-independence protest-symbol throughout Spain.
Ideologically, architecture and punk are miles apart: the former is rarefied and aristocratic in origin, while the latter emerged out of modern class struggles. Spain, with its growing inequality, injustice, and authoritarianism is especially fertile ground for punk today, even “punk architecture.” Except this time, instead of avant-garde manifestoes and the kind of “radical” architecture that has become the hallmark of neoliberals and despots worldwide, the punk architecture of Spain empathizes with a vernacular sensibility, combining tradition and contemporaneity with subtle irreverence.