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Spain's economic crash brings architecture dreams back to earth

Years of grand building projects inspired droves of Spaniards to join the architectural field. But the recession has forced a rethinking of how and why buildings are built.

By Staff writer / October 19, 2013

Tourists walk around the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Aug. 10, 2004.

Jose Simal/EFE/AP/File

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Bilbao, Spain

Spanish parents used to dream about their child becoming an architect.

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With the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona that turned the world's attention to Spain, famed buildings throughout the country gave an architectural degree cachet and allure. Norman Foster’s Torre de Collserola and I.M. Pei's World Trade Center, both in Barcelona, and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao gave aspiring architects hope for lucrative salaries and the potential for rock-star status.

 But alongside dreams came a glut of architects, and a country that went on a building spending spree – both on iconic public works and private apartment complexes. 

As the country remains mired in economic crisis, in no small part because of a popped housing bubble, Spain faces an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. It’s not a bright job market for any Spaniard, but perhaps no one has been more impacted than the nation's architects, who have scrambled for Plan B or left the country all together.

It's not all bad news, though, says Clara Eslava, a Madrid architect:  “There can be a positive impact, reducing the pace in which we were living... not building empty containers with little function."

No building is arguably more symbolic of the rise of Spanish architecture than Bilbao’s Guggenheim. The whimsical, titanium-clad building on the edges of the Nervion River has stood as a reminder of the possibilities that architecture can hold for a city. Gehry’s museum is one of the most talked-about pieces of architecture in Spain – perhaps the globe.

When it opened its doors in 1997, the world watched a grim city of abandoned shipbuilding yards along a polluted river turn into a world-class destination welcoming international tourists. The transformation of this former industrial city in northern city was so remarkable that it inspired its own nomenclature: "the Guggenheim effect."

That effect spurred many Spanish municipalities to seek their own impressive architecture works as a “quick fix” to turn cities around. It came amid rapid economic growth fueled by a housing bubble of easy credit, speculation, and corruption. At its peak in 2008, construction and housing comprised 18 percent of GDP.

Jesus Cañada Merino, the president of the professional association of Basque and Navarran architects, called the explosion of building projects an “architecture of consumption, of superfluous works.”

The effect on the architecture profession was notable: the number of Spanish architecture schools increased from three to three dozen today. There is one licensed architect per 800 Spaniards, compared with one per 1,500 in the rest of Europe, according to Architectural Record.

As the housing bubble inflated, the rush for public works was underway with EU development funds, says Rafael de La-Hoz, an award-winning architect in Madrid who builds nationally and internationally.

Mr. de La-Hoz likens Spain’s public officials to the “nouveau riche,” on a spending spree just for the sake of buying, and at any cost. They treated the acquisition of public works as if it were the sports car industry: the flashiest and most expensive must be best.

Since the crash, housing prices have plummeted by over 30 percent. Empty buildings scar the landscape, particularly on the coast. And the symbols that were intended to awe, like the Ciudad Real Airport near Madrid or the City of Arts and Sciences complex in Valencia, are now stigmatized as symbols of irresponsibility. Today several buildings stand either half finished, delayed indefinitely, or with little purpose. There are airports with no passengers, concert halls without concerts.

“Our drama is ... to have three brand new airports with terminal buildings … with no passengers and no planes at all,” says Manuel Ocaña, another architect in Madrid. He calls it “expensive uselessness” that costs taxpayers thousands of millions of euros a year, he says.

The decline in the allure of the architecture profession is dramatic. Of the record unemployed in Spain, thousands are architects with no more homes or buildings to bid for: the number of housing units annually has been slashed from 800,000 pre-crisis to 80,000 today, according to Luis Fernandez-Galiano, an architect and writer for Architectural Review. Austerity demanded by the European Union means investment is frozen for public works.

Mr. Fernandez-Galiano says half of architecture firms in Madrid and Barcelona have closed down in the past year. According to government statistics, 42 percent of Spaniards who trained in architecture and construction are unemployed or have given up looking for work in the sector. Others, especially the young, are moving abroad. Those who are mid-career and not as mobile have used the foundation of an education that includes art, technique, humanities, and science, to move onto other professions.

The crash has led to an entire rethinking of what Spanish architecture is, and how excesses can be curbed in the future. It has also led to a flurry of exhibitions and conferences. This year’s Venice Biennale featured an exhibition on Spanish architecture called “Spain Mon Amour,” which was “a celebration of a period, its architects, and its buildings, but also an elegy for a time that has come to an end,” wrote Mr. Fernández-Galiano in a piece titled “From Austerity to Solidarity.”

In the wake of the crash, architects have been forced to slow down and ask themselves how each work has an impact on the environment and on the citizens who live around the buildings being designed, Eslava says. She and her partner, Miguel Tejada, are best known for their redesign of the main commercial thoroughfare in Madrid, in Calle Serano.

“Cities wanted a collection of buildings but were not thinking ‘maybe it's better a library, or a community center.’ Some don't even need ‘things,’ they just need to be better urbanized or more green spaces,” Eslava says. “If we can reduce this aggression against nature, especially on the coast, building buildings with no purpose, in that sense the crisis is positive.”

De La-Hoz has reduced staff at his firm in Madrid by 40 percent, but in many ways he is returning to a size that he is more comfortable with, and that he hopes won't be so vulnerable to the economic cycle in the future.

 “It's been very sad that so many people have (rushed for) a 'Guggenheim' of their village. A building cannot change a city,” says de La-Hoz, who says Bilbao was just as much about good urban planning as a celebrated structure.

“Good architecture means working together with a city, to create a better city, not just one amazing building,” he says.

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