Construction Grinds to a Halt

Burdened by a meltdown in its overheated real estate market, Spain has been severely affected by the world financial crisis, and its architects are feeling the pinch. The boom in housing construction, fueled over the past decade by low European Union interest rates, was dealt a fatal blow by the crisis this past fall. According to the Madrid College of Architects, a professional association, permits for new construction virtually came to a halt in 2008. Paloma Sabrini, head of the organization, estimates that at a national level, the market will require three years to absorb the existing overstock of one million units. In Barcelona, Carlos Ferrater, an architect who works in both the private and public sectors, reports that “Most developers have come to a full stop. We’ve gone from euphoria to ruin in three months.”

Smart City complex in Bucharest, by La-Hoz Arquitectos.
Image courtesy La-Hoz Arquitectos

Spain’s investments in infrastructure over the past 30 years have turned the public sector into a major source of commissions and catapulted the country’s architecture into the international limelight. But overspending has stretched local governments to the limit. Ferrater notes, “Municipalities like Madrid and Valencia are heavily indebted, and can’t even handle projects already under way.”

Rafael de La-Hoz, head of one of Madrid's largest studios, finds many public works in undeclared paralysis. "If you ask the clients, they'll tell you that everything is going forward, but the fact is that work has halted." Among the projects affected are his two courthouses for Madrid's Campus of Justice [Record News webpage, January 5, 2009].

In response, President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero announced a $10.6 billion program to finance municipal works in 2009. The funds will permit Madrid to revive Álvaro Siza’s modernization of the spaces around the Prado Museum and the reconstruction of the banks of the Manzares River over a buried highway, designed by a team led by local architect Gines Garrido. The city has dusted off plans for 269 projects, including 20 new child-care centers. Barcelona will spend $375 million on public spaces and social services.

Architects report slowdowns in roughly 20 percent of their current work. Francisco Mangado in Pamplona says, "Though the municipalities aren't paying right now, you know they'll eventually come through." Younger firms are especially vulnerable, but César Jiménez de Tejada of Estudio Entresitio in Madrid, [featured in Record's Design Vanguard in 2007], reports that the open competitions for public housing and other local services on which they depend continue to be announced.

De La-Hoz has found some relief in international commissions. His newest clients are in Eastern Europe (including one in Bucharest); they look to Spain as a model for integration in the European Union. But he foresees that, "In the long term, the situation is unsustainable."

Like many architects, Ferrater balances design work with teaching, which allows him to take a long view on the crisis. “"I want to focus more on the fundamental mission of the architect, in social, cultural, academic and professional terms. You’ve got to take a positive attitude, looking ahead, instead of behind you.”