Gains in Spain: Once-Staid Architecture Soars Ahead of the Curve

The Barajas Airport Terminals in Madrid, designed by Richard Rogers Partnership and Estudio Lamela, opened in February. (Richard Rogers Partnership and Estudio Lamela)
The Barajas Airport Terminals in Madrid, designed by Richard Rogers Partnership and Estudio Lamela, opened in February. (Richard Rogers Partnership and Estudio Lamela)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

NEW YORK -- A quarter-century ago, the idea that Spain might be considered a vivid center of architectural creativity would have been considered definitely silly, and possibly cruel.

The great nation was still awakening from the long cultural slumber enforced by dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. Franco's idea of great architecture was a deadening, nationalistic sort of classical kitsch. Modern architecture, for the most part, was just something for the tourists -- mile after banal mile of hotels that were degrading to local culture and the fine beaches they were built on.

And, yet, here we are. Spain today is "an international stage for architectural innovation and experimentation," says Terence Riley of the Museum of Modern Art. Riley backs up his words in "On-Site: New Architecture in Spain," a riveting exhibition of models, photographs and words that opens this morning in Manhattan.

Contemporary is the word. Of the 53 projects in the MoMA show, 35 are under construction or in design. The oldest of the 18 completed projects was built all of eight years ago, and the others were completed since 2000.

This up-to-the-moment focus has its drawbacks. Each unfinished project is represented by a splendid scale model and informative photographic panels showing site plans, floor plans, cross sections, various kinds of renderings and other important data. Even so, a visitor often finds himself mumbling: "Hmmm. Maybe, maybe not."

Of course, that's the nature of architecture exhibitions -- they always are made up of representations. The only way to experience the real thing is to go to it, walk around it, get inside. Even artful photographs of completed buildings can deceive.

I'm convinced, for instance, that the Barajas Airport terminals in Madrid, designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership in collaboration with Estudio Lamela, are as smart and as beautiful as photographs make them seem. But I will not really know until I go there.

Nonetheless, this exhibition is completely convincing as to its main point, and thoroughly fascinating in particulars. An amazing amount of exciting, imaginative, provocative architecture is being built in Spain -- designed by Spaniards and foreigners alike -- and much of it is world-class.

This is due in part, as Riley emphasizes in his catalogue essay, to the intelligent way Spain has spent the $110 billion in financial assistance the country has received since it joined the European Union in 1986. Not only has Spain's antiquated infrastructure been overhauled, but the job has generally been done in ways that extend the benefits beyond this particular road or that particular bridge.

In Barcelona, for example, planning for a creative outbreak from Franco's rule started in the universities even before the dictator was dead, and this emphasis on excellence has continued to this day.

Other Spanish cities and regions followed suit -- the spread of the "Bilbao effect," for instance, is due not simply to the choice of American architect Frank Gehry as designer of an extraordinary riverside museum, but also to the fact that Gehry's building was part of an intense overall strategy to improve that run-down northern city.

Quite a few of the projects in the exhibition illustrate the close relationship among planning, infrastructure and architecture. In particular, the question comes down to such issues as: If you are going to build an outdoor escalator, of all things, why not make it beautiful?

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