Post world’s end architecture: Spain

Gonzalo Herrero Delicado, cofounder with Maria Jose Marcos of the consultancy dot agency for architectural affairs, examines the recession’s effect on architecture in Spain, where small-scale interventions, community action and ‘disobedience’ are giving the discipline a political edge

In 2011 the Occupy movement catalysed unrest and the will for change in locations from Seattle to South East Asia while across the sea from Spain, northern African countries experienced the upheaval and resulting political and social changes commonly labelled the Arab Spring. Despite their intricate and contested narratives, the Arab Spring and Occupy can be crudely categorised as collective movements of large-scale social protest. The primary goal of Occupy seems to have been one of flattening hierarchies, and building towards a more evenly distributed social culture. Its first expression on any real scale in Europe was in Spain, when the so-called Indignados took over some of the most iconic public spaces in the country and created loci in which to vocalize collective dissent.

But that was two years ago and Occupy has subsided. If large parts of society still ache for change, Spain's current situation is a long way from resolution. At the time of writing, unemployment stands at around 27 per cent nationwide, with 55 per cent of young people out of work. This is due not only to the global financial crises but also to a Spanish economic model which has been overdependent on building and tourism for at least the past two decades. Spain's construction boom flourished and was reinforced by massive immigration and the financial 'support' of banks until the bubble burst in 2007, with the result that one in every two recent graduates feels the need to emigrate.

This emigration is highly marked in the case of architecture, with unemployment among newly qualified architects at 13.9 per cent, mainly due to a 90 per cent decrease in building commissions. Spain now ranks as the country with the third highest number of out-of-work architects in Europe. In Spain, as in the other three countries (and Ireland) architecture, engineering and construction is probably the most crisis damaged sector of the economy and most in need of a major renewal of its principles. Traditional culture and practices in the building industry no longer ensure either profit or survival. The Spanish situation in particular is a worthwhile case study, encompassing as it does a huge legacy of short-sighted developments such as a vast cultural centre for a minute village or state-subsidised suburban dwellings of questionable value.

The necessary renewal that many of the architects featured in this report hope to deliver takes as its basis the aim of finding common ground between the role and function of the architect and the 'will' of the community. The practices described here no longer comprise isolated professionals. These are architects who are still fighting to survive within the troubled Spanish political and economical arenas. They are people who could have taken an easy Ryanair connection to a more prosperous temporary contract in a northern European city, but instead they are trying to look for new roles as architects and are seeking out opportunities and gaps created by the current conditions. These niches of opportunity, and the sharp focus necessary to identify them, are accompanied by the thud of architects tumbling from their pedestals, and a return to basics: the needs of society and civilisation.

Over the past decade, the practices featured here have been fighting an obsolete and uncaring system, using experimental and, at times, heroic projects. They are emblematic not only of others but also of a new attitude towards architectural practice per se.

They can be divided roughly into five categories based on the gaps they fill and the new roles that they define within public spaces and the city: the new-traditional architects, the urban-space catalysts, the community consultants, the digital producers and the creative activists.



The Jane Fonda Kit House; photo: MiguelGuzman

While many 'traditionally' trained architects are taught to experiment with formal contingencies, a contemporary breed dubbed newtraditional is focusing on environmental solutions and 'post-producing' built heritage previously made obsolete by continuous technological, economic and social changes.

In the case of Madrid-based firm Elii, the task of producing architecture is in part shared by the eventual users, who are encouraged to take an active part in its creation, particularly with a view to environmental values. The Jane Fonda Kit House, a housing prototype created for CIVA in Brussels, renders a possible future where citizens produce part of their domestic energy requirements through their own daily physical activities.


the Red Bull Music Academy by Langarita-Navarro+Arquitectos

The firm of Langarita-Navarro - recently recognised with a special mention as Emerging Architect in the Mies van der Rohe Awards 2013 - is working on postproduction strategies to revive outdated industrial buildings. Its most remarkable work in this arena would include the Red Bull Music Academy (above) and the Medialab Prado in Madrid.


Spanish public spaces have neglected civic traditions for decades by acting as transitory routes or magnifying lenses for public or cultural institutions. Spanish architects now aim to catalyse the recovery of urban space with interventions that generate spontaneous activity.


A floating stucture designed by MAIO; photo: Maria Charneco

The floating structure designed by Barcelona's MAIO is intended to create an instant platform for any communal activity.


Escaravox by Andrés Jaque Architects

Escaravox, designed by Andrés Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation, equips the open spaces of the Matadero Madrid cultural centre with mobile structures containing sound amplifying systems, stage lighting and audiovisual projection systems that, in combination with sliding stands, serve as auxiliary structures for public performances.


Urban Trees designed by Elii

The Urban Trees designed by Elii are both meeting points and exercise areas that generate power and collective responsibility: energy generated by the use of public exercise bikes is used to water the plants and supply electricity for the site's illumination.


What are the new ways of producing contemporary architecture? Architectural expression in Spain has arguably been stultià ed over the past few years by a colonising wave of international 'starchitecture'. Simultaneously design procedures have also followed an international style by digitally connecting design with construction (using BIM systems) with a view to long-term proà tability. Yet the digital production era has helped democratise architecture.

Although the early adoption of digital production was limited to educational centres, due to the high cost digital fabrication equipment, nowadays open source technologies enable small-scale - even domestic - digital fabrication.


FabLab Sevilla

Agencies such as Margen Lab, which is linked to the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona) and the FabLab Sevilla related to the University of Seville (a spin-off franchise of the mythic Fabrication Lab model created at MIT), have opened the door to a wide range of possibilities for self-design production.


Why has community consultation not been adopted in a far more proactive way in Spanish urban policy decisions? During the bubble, in a developer-driven market, consultation was largely seen as an inconvenience and an added risk;the building industry placed too much emphasis on celebrating the aesthetic aspects of a project. The resulting buildings, often perceived as a waste of public resources, stand as reminders of how we went wrong; it's no wonder that large sections of the public have been turned off by architecture, which they see as an elitist pursuit, reinforcing a deeply ingrained mistrust in the profession.


The Campo de la Cebada

A number of emerging practices in Spain show an enthusiasm for rolling up their sleeves and engaging people on a more meaningful level, working hand in hand with neighbourhoods and communities to develop proposals that government no longer regards as affordable or desirable. Todo por la praxis is currently working with other collectives in the Campo de la Cebada, a huge empty plot in the centre of Madrid, that operates as an agricultural garden, meeting point, summer open cinema and sports ground. By contrast, PKMN develops social strategies as Cities create Cities, Analogical Smart Cities and the Madrilenian of the Year, connecting citizens and highlighting their identity in relation with cities through strategies of participation, mediation, social
innovation and urban action.


In this category fall those architects whose practice involves a provocative stance that is more akin to political statement than practical orientation. For example, Andres Jacque Arquitectos, whose IKEA Disobedients performance debuted at MoMA's 9+1 Ways To Be Political exhibition in New York.Residents of Queens borough were invited to reenact their domestic realities in a setting made of 'hacked' pieces of IKEA furniture.


Ikea Disobedients by Andres Jaque Architects

According to Jaque, the performance suggests an acknowledgement of and resistance to the lifestyle brands such as IKEA, proposing 'an urban counternotion of the domestic', which discloses how politically active citizens can and do act outside of the privacy of their homes. The approach of Madrid-based Luis Urcolo (who teaches with Jaime Hayon) also offers alternative potential for the architect. Claiming they 'no longer knowwhat architecture is and what an architect should do', Urcolo's sideline of animations, illustrations and installations investigates spatial and commercial questions. The work of the Civic Disobedients is distinct from that of activist or placemaker, in that they critique the discipline rather than offering adoptable solutions.



A light installation by Luzinterrupts

This last category is crucial to understanding the initiatives revitalizing the urban scene in Spain and elsewhere with a protest message of political critique. These projects are more commonly developed by artists than by architects, yet they retain a closely shared language with the field of architecture and contemporary urban placemaking. Luzinterruptus is an artists' collective that creates short-lived city-based installations with light, usually loaded with a subliminal and ironic message. These invite the passing pedestrian audience to regard streets, pavements, parks, street furniture and tourist sights as protagonists in the political staging of the city. In the case of the multidisciplinary Madrilenian team Boa Mistura, self-defined as 'graffiti rockers', urban art is a powerful tool to change and to inspire, creating optimistic environments. Its projects have acquired an international scope: Boa Mistura has developed urban art strategies in overseas locations such as Brazil and Panama.

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