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The Death of the Icon

Spain - With Oscar Niemeyer’s cultural centre in Avilés closing after only six months, the mother country of the ‘Bilbao effect’ might ultimately be its resting ground

Has the continuing economic crisis brought Spain’s architectural renaissance to an end? A growing outcry over the excesses committed in public building over the past decade, together with the near-bankruptcy of local and regional governments sponsoring the binge, have been joined by sessions of serious soul-searching within the profession itself.

During the past 30 years of democratic rule, Spain invested heavily in infrastructures and public facilities, aided by massive injections of European Union cash. Major works of public architecture first took centre stage with the Seville Expo and Barcelona Olympics in 1992, heroic, visionary ventures already marred by hasty decision-making and mismanagement. In the following decade, the mania for building conspicuous public monuments only increased, spreading to other regions − notably to Bilbao − and the central government.

The generally high quality of Spain’s public architecture can be attributed to the competition system, juried by respected members of local professional associations. But it takes a good client to make good architecture, as the old adage goes. And in this regard Spain’s public authorities were, and largely remain, woefully inadequate − naïve opportunists with only the vaguest ideas about programming, cost control, project management or long-term needs and means.

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Alarming stories abound. One has Richard Meier being driven around Barcelona by the mayor to pick a site for a building in the late 1980s. Their conversation supposedly went something like this: ‘And what would you like to build, Mr Meier?’ ‘Well, a museum would be nice.’

In recent years, such abuses have only multiplied, as seen (to cite only the most flagrant examples) in the runaway costs and doubtful utility of Peter Eisenman’s City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela (AR October 2010), or Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, as compellingly documented in Llàtzer Moix’s recent book, Arquitectura Milagrosa (Miraculous Architecture).

The most arresting image of the year found Santiago Calatrava before a judge, answering for the €1.2 million (£1.04 million) in fees he collected for an opera hall in Palma de Mallorca, a project that was allegedly nothing more than a model. Prosecutors charge that the scheme was a costly publicity stunt for the re-election campaign of the regional president, who was under indictment.

Another political controversy has hit the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre designed by the 103-year old Brazilian as a gift to the northern city of Avilés. A nasty fight for the centre’s control has broken out between its administrators and the newly elected regional government, with the upshot that the popular centre has, after only six months in operation, closed for at least two months and may well never reopen.

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A citizen backlash against the mania for architectural icons had already begun before the crisis. In 2006, neighbourhood residents of Seville sued to halt the construction of a university library designed by Zaha Hadid, charging that it illegally occupied a public park. Spain’s highest court recently ruled that the half-completed building be demolished. Also in Seville, the construction of a 178m-high tower near the historic centre, designed by Cesar Pelli for Cajasol, a local savings bank, has caused UNESCO to reconsider the city’s World Heritage Site status amid widespread public protest.

Other signs of reaction are coming from within the profession. Most notable among these was the congress organised last year in Pamplona by architect Francisco Mangado’s Fundación Arquitectura y Sociedad (Architecture and Society Foundation) on the theme ‘More for Less’. One debate, led by Mark Wigley, Mohsen Mostafavi and the philosopher Slavoj Zižek, was called ‘Architecture and Pleasure: From the Aesthetic of the Icon to Common Beauty’.

Many of Spain’s younger architects are rejecting the carefree formal experimentation of recent years to reaffirm a vital continuity with the modern tradition, returning to the ‘disciplinary practice’ that has been a hallmark of Spanish architecture over the decades − a case in point is José María Sánchez García, featured in the AR’s October 2011 issue.

In this sense, the profession is clearly preparing itself for a period of contained, functionalist remorse, although it remains to be seen if politicians and voters will be capable of capturing the change in sensibility. The media has always been quick to blame architects for the errors of public clients (many have been their accomplices, after all), and you fear that the whole enterprise of quality architecture in the public service will become another casualty of the crisis mentality.

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