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Survival Tactics for Spain's Harsh New Reality: Making Sense of the Numbers Game

As the economic crisis brings once-thriving construction programmes in the Spanish public and private sectors to a standstill, the country’s younger generation of architects must summon all their reserves of skill and resourcefulness to confront this bleak outlook

As a teacher of architecture for as long as I can remember, I feel a responsibility towards the young, which in the end boils down to looking people straight in the eye and telling the truth. We all wonder what the future might hold for the younger generation, and the question has prompted much soul-searching.

Needless to say, I am familiar with the five emerging Spanish architects featured in this issue and have followed their careers closely. Looking at the four Madrid-based architects shown here (José María Sánchez García, Zigzag Arquitectura, ICA Arquitectura and Enrique Krahe), one worked at Arquitectura Viva, another
was an assistant in my design unit, and the other two are junior colleagues at the Madrid School of Architecture, with whom I have taken long trips and spoken at length. What can I say about them? They are so talented, hardworking and focused that they will get along whatever the circumstances.

If you scan the professional landscape, this is also the case of many designers who have emerged in the last decade, those that came after the generation of Mansilla+Tuñón, RCR, Francisco Mangado or Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos. This includes offices with significant international exposure such as Cloud 9, Ensamble Studio, Selgas Cano, Amid (Cero 9) and Ecosistema Urbano and others still in the process of establishing their profile, such as Estudio Barozzi Veiga, Entresitio, CH+QS Arquitectos, Arquitecturia, Carles Muro, López & Rivera Arquitectes and Suárez Santas Arquitectos.

It also encompasses architects with voices as fresh as Santiago Cirugeda, Andrés Jaque or Izaskun Chinchilla. Not so clear is the future of many of the collective offices, such as Zuloark, Basurama, León 11 or PKMN, who are creating a new context for architectural work, often extended to areas outside the usual scope of conventional offices, but who are also extremely unstable in their economic foundations. However, most of those who have achieved a certain level of recognition can survive the current downturn with a teaching job and a spare office.

The situation is very different for the bulk of the Spanish profession, those well-trained and competent architects who work below the radar, and who are now faced with the simultaneous collapse of private commissions (mostly residential) and competitions for public works. The housing sector bubble left behind more than a million units, which the market will need almost a decade to absorb, so no significant developments are likely to be initiated over the coming years. Spain’s public finances are now in such deep trouble after the downturn of the economy and the debt crisis that neither the state nor the regions or cities are going to resume spending on building for a long time.

However, this somber panorama is less daunting for the very young, who can move abroad with relative ease, than for those who are anchored with a mortgage, children and an office in the red. In fact, while newly graduated architects are already emigrating in substantial numbers, those who find moving more difficult are experiencing a slow and probably irreversible downslide in income and social standing.

‘The ethos of the profession is still solidly fixed on the lure of limitless growth; to turn a maker into a repairer demands a cultural mutation’

Many would like to think this is simply another swing of the pendulum, one of those cyclical crises that follow a spending spree and clear the air like a perfect storm, purging extravagance and excess. But this one certainly looks like a systemic crisis, which is going to radically transform both our lives and the practice of architecture, and that is bound to affect the professional elites as much as the rank and file. In Spain there are about 50,000 architects, and 3,000 more graduate each year, with new schools proliferating for a seemingly inexhaustible demand, while the workload of the profession implodes.

After all, the country has already built most of the houses, schools, health centres, cultural facilities or urban infrastructure that it might reasonably need for its population of 45 million; and many more museums, congress centres, auditoriums, airports, motorways and high-speed railway lines than it can actually use.

How are we going to rethink our role as architects? Buildings are never really finished; they have to be repaired, renewed and eventually replaced, so even under stable conditions there is a demand for architectural services. But the ethos of the profession is still solidly fixed on the lure of limitless growth, and to turn a maker into a repairer demands a cultural mutation.

Listening recently to a lecture by the talented young Japanese architect Junya Ishigami, who was also a juror for this year’s Emerging Architecture Awards, I could not help but look around at the young men and women who crowded the aisles, their fresh faces fascinated or bewitched by the magic of architecture. I observed traces of the same feeling of awe and wonder that my generation experienced 40 years ago, when there were only 3,000 architects in a country with a booming economy.

What are the hopes and expectations of these young students; what does the future have in store for them? A year ago, while lecturing at the two elite universities of China − Tsinghua University in Beijing and Tongji University in Shanghai - I found that the budding architects in the audience would make the same remark, when asked about their prospects: We are the students of the second world power, and in 15 years we shall be the leaders of the first power. What can we offer our own students, besides emigrating?

Do we have answers? As architects, we have a vested interest in a booming economy, whether sustainable or not. As teachers or editors, we benefit from the unlimited growth of both architects and students. As citizens, however, we cannot feel happy about this relentless increase in numbers. But I do not have an answer.

Does anyone?

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