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William JR Curtis: Learning from Spanish modern masters

William JR Curtis

Examining the significance of modern Spanish architects

This is an important year for the history of Spanish modern architecture for it is the centenary of three masters: Josep Antoni Coderch (1913-1984), Miguectel Fisac (1913-2006) and Alejandro de la Sota (1913-1996). The centenary is being marked in several ways including an exhibition at the Museo ICO in Madrid on the work of de la Sota and Fisac (‘miradas en paralelo’) and the VIII Congreso DoCoMoMo Ibérico at Malaga University in late November devoted to the Modern Movement and education.

In key works such as the Maravillas Gym in Madrid or the Gobierno Civil in Tarragona (1957), de la Sota established an architecture of understatement and refined abstraction. The former building contains a void for the ball court which is spanned by curved steel beams containing classrooms. On the roof is a school playground while the main space beneath is bathed with indirect light on which the structure seems to hover. De la Sota’s spidery sketches reveal his generating ideas for each project. With the Gobierno Civil, he avoided the ponderous traditionalism of the regime, and made a subtle, modern inversion of the idea of a public palace. The result is full of ambiguities: solid/ void, materiality/immateriality, and recalls his interest in the sculptures of Eduardo Chillida.

Spanish architects of this generation absorbed the universalising tendencies of modern masters such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto but transformed these to deal with the social realities, technologies and topography of Spain. At the same time they were nourished by internal traditions and underlying types, so de la Sota returned time and again to the theme of the mirador bay window, which he reinvented in modern terms using industrial materials and plate glass. Coderch was profoundly influenced by the vernacular seaside architecture of Catalonia but he did not copy it. Rather he metamorphosed it into a modern, organic language of form inspired by modern painters such as Miró and Picasso, and by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. His masterpiece is surely the Casa Ugalde (1953) on the coast north of Barcelona which is perfectly wedded to its site and reminds us of Gaudí’s topographical curves.

So what is the relevance of these past figures of Spanish modern architecture to today? The answer is simple: they achieved work of great substance which transmits across time and provides numerous lessons for the future. They influenced subsequent generations and still provide sources of inspiration in the search for a rigorous contemporary architecture attuned to the social problems and economic difficulties of the present. In the current economic crisis they seem like antidotes to the excesses of the international architectural star system, which have littered the Spanish landscape with catastrophic and economically disastrous shipwrecks from the period of overspending and bogus credit. You think of the pharaonic and pretentious City of Culture in Galicia by Peter Eisenman (thankfully cancelled but still costly to maintain); or the anti-urban Metropol Parasol in Seville by Jürgen Mayer H, which some citizens wish to demolish.

Those ‘icons’ so beloved of marketing-obsessed politicians in the pre-crisis years brought little of architectural value to Spain, whereas the works of masters live on. Sometimes it is valuable to look back to look forward, not to copy, but to transform principles. I got to know the enigmatic and profound figure of de la Sota in his last years when he was physically feeble but mentally alert. I first saw the Maravillas Gym in 1987 and admired the rigour, economy of means and humble industrial materials, an ‘architecture almost without architecture’ as de la Sota liked to say. When I first met him, I promised that I would include the Gym and the Gobierno Civil in future editions of Modern Architecture Since 1900. De la Sota died in 1996 and I received the sad news when I was correcting the proofs of that book. I immediately wrote an obituary for El País. The book came out a few months later. This is how the relevant chapter ended: ‘A tradition is made not just from sequences of forms, but also from the linkage of underlying architectural ideas.

De la Sota returned to Mies van der Rohe, not to mimic his style, but to transform his principles in the service of new intentions and another “myth”. Similarly, de la Sota became a link in a chain for later generations of Spanish architects seeking their own balance of modernity and continuity’.


Another Viewpoint from William JR Curtis where he argues that we should take architectural education back to the buildings



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