Architecture in Spain: Looking Back 25 Years
Bold new architecture symbolized the country’s emergence as a democracy with a growing economy.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville Expo of 1992, two events that symbolized the debut into global society of the young Spanish democracy, established in 1978 after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.
Through these events, contemporary architecture became the medium that most vividly expressed this reemergence, linking significant design with development. The Olympics and Expo established a pattern that was repeated many times afterward, most notably with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which opened in 1997. But with the economic crisis of recent years, the role of public architecture as a catalyst for growth has lost credibility, underscoring weaknesses present in the model from the start.
Spain used the Games and the Expo to carry out badly needed infrastructure improvements; the international spotlight and fixed deadlines helped mobilize resources. They gave rise to public involvement in planning and development on a scale new to modern Spain, in which architecture played a key role. Serious planning for the events began in the mid-1980s and sparked a burst of transformative development, designed to help push the country out of its economic doldrums.
One of the most important parts of the strategy was the construction of the first highspeed rail line between Madrid and Seville, which broke the geographic isolation of Andalucía in the south. Monumental stations were built, designed by Rafael Moneo for Madrid and by Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz in Seville. Both had an international impact, marking a way out of Postmodernism toward a more contextual and tectonically sophisticated modernism.
In Barcelona, under the leadership of the visionary architect and planner Oriol Bohigas, the strategy was more thoroughly employed. The obsolete industrial waterfront on the Mediterranean was transformed for the Olympic Village, along with restored beaches and new parks that reoriented the city’s direction of growth for decades. The Village remains a solidly middle-class district, though some buildings have aged poorly due to the haste with which they were built. The transformation was, if anything, too successful, giving rise to crowded beachfront bars and clubs that are a major tourist draw, to the despair of residents.
Under Bohigas, quality commercial and public architecture and project-based planning became the essential tools for revitalizing both historic and newer districts. Bohigas’s motto for urban design was, “Substitute the project for the plan,” replacing the technical guidelines of zoning, building envelopes, and other abstract measures with architectural projects designed for specific urban problems. Beginning in the early 1980s, he implemented the award-winning “parks and plazas” program, making use of scant funds to bring innovative urban design and public sculpture to neglected neighborhoods. Most of these public spaces remain in remarkably good condition today, including interventions with art by Richard Serra and Eduardo Chillida, the “hard plaza” at Sants by Albert Viaplana and Helio Piñón, or smaller plazas with little more than elegant paving, street furniture, and trees, by architects such as Jaume Bach and Gabriel de la Mora.
Barcelona hired respected local architects to design the Olympic Village and many of the sports facilities. Looking back, we can admire the understated elegance of Esteve Bonell and Francesc Rius’s Badalona Basketball Stadium, and lament the partial demolition of Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós’s Olympic Archery Range, an early and remarkable work. But the projects that attracted the most attention were by international figures. These included two communications towers by Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava (then starting his career), an elegant covered stadium by Arata Isozaki (still very much in use), and a “fish” pavilion by Frank Gehry for the shopping concourse of a commercial tower, designed by Bruce Graham of SOM. Non-Olympics projects commissioned in those years also drew on the appeal of well-known architects, notably the Museum of Contemporary Art by Richard Meier, which opened in 1995 in the Medieval quarter of the Raval.
Bilbao perfected this model: regional authorities used a spectacular work by a noted international architect as the centerpiece for urban renewal. The Guggenheim was accompanied by a subway designed by Norman Foster, a Calatrava pedestrian bridge, a major river cleanup, a new commercial port, and the redevelopment of the once-industrial riverfront. But the Bohigas-style planning method began to be undermined: the architecture became an attraction in its own right more than the solution to an urban problem.
While the Guggenheim Bilbao helped open public and private clients to more experimental architecture, it also encouraged a new generation of Spanish architects to look beyond the narrow, “laconic” modernism (as Kenneth Frampton once called it) of their teachers. A rich variety of practice flourished, from the expressive cast concrete works of AMP in the Canary Islands to the colorful plastic structures of SelgasCano, the material-based minimalism of recent Pritzker winners RCR Arquitectes, or the cellular, Neo-Organicist plans of Luis Mansilla and Emilio Tuñón, to name just a few.
But after Bilbao, Olympic-style strategies ceased to be effective, as Barcelona found when it organized a 2004 “Forum.” The site for this hyperpromoted international conference included a congress center by Herzog & de Meuron (now a science museum); a peculiar waterfront plaza over a sewage-treatment plant by Elias Torres and J.A. Martínez Lapeña (inspired by designs by Miralles before his premature death); and commercial developments by Jean Nouvel, Dominique Perrault, and others. The event passed without notice, and the Forum site remains desolate, though the commercial development surrounding it is a success.
In other Spanish cities, local politicians also commissioned spectacular architectural projects, often unconnected to larger planning initiatives, or to real needs. Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia (1989–2005) is an oft-cited example, as is Peter Eisenman’s incomplete City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela (1999–2013). In Madrid, the city even hired star architects such as MVRDV or Thom Mayne to design public housing in otherwise nondescript new districts. By the time the market began to overheat in the mid-2000s, speculative developments all over Spain routinely featured anchor designs by Nouvel or Foster or the like.
In retrospect, the events of 1992 gave too much emphasis to design and construction as a motor of economic growth. While Spain in the 1980s had limited public facilities, the country is now burdened by thousands of vacant commercial housing units and a glut of underused congress centers, concert halls, and museums located in every provincial capital. Politicians from the start initiated projects without market studies, serious supervision, or cost controls. Álvaro Siza has recalled designing his contemporary art museum in Santiago de Compostela, which opened in 1994, for an institution that had yet to be constituted—there was no client representative, no director, no budget, no collection, and no program.
Another problematic factor has been the competition system, which is now legally required in public work, in an effort to assure fairness and quality. While open competitions have given countless opportunities to Spain’s younger architects, the system also tends to favor visual spectacle over thoughtful design development.
But the most damaging result of overbuilding has been the proliferation of corruption scandals. While few, if any, architects have been convicted in the hundreds of under-thetable deals uncovered among politicians, builders, and other public contractors, the exposure of profligate spending and fees linked to officials accused of corruption has seriously damaged the public’s perception of the profession. For many Spaniards, iconic architecture has become a symbol of waste, graft, and the egocentric ambitions of politicians and architects alike.
As Spain emerges from the economic crisis, Madrid’s politicians still look to big deals for a quick fix, from American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s proposal to build a $7 billion “Eurovegas,” shelved in 2013, to the current “Castellano North” district, launched with hopes of attracting bits of London’s juicy financial industry, post-Brexit. In the meantime, young architects are recasting themselves as sustainability experts or grassroots community planners in an effort to recover the profession’s public credibility. Looking back, 1992 was a time of innocence, a moment of collective idealism that combined a sense of accomplishment and future promise. Though only 25 years have passed, it feels more like a century or two.