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

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?

That is exactly what the medieval mountain city of Toledo did to solve problems of tourist access. To get visitors comfortably from an underground parking garage up to the historic city's core, architects Jose Antonio Martinez Lapeña and Elias Torres Tur carved escalator slots into the city's old walls. The result is an original piece of infrastructure-architecture that is supremely convincing -- the right, if surprising, thing to do, done in the right way.

The variety and ambition of civic projects throughout Spain, in city and suburb alike, is genuinely impressive: athletic stadiums, contemporary art museums, city halls, convention centers, low-income housing, theaters, health clinics, public markets, parks. But what really stands out, especially when measured by American standards, is the degree of originality.

In Spain, as throughout the European Union, architects for civic projects are chosen by competition, but that cannot be the sole reason for the daring inventiveness of so many of the projects on view. Maybe it's just something in the air, a continuing post-Franco ebullience bolstered by civic vision and confidence.

How else to explain medieval Seville's selection of a series of wildly biomorphic forms, made of laminated timber, to cover a new downtown park like a field of giant mushrooms? Designed by Berlin architect Jurgen Mayer H., these definitely avoid my maybe, maybe-not list. They're due to be completed next year, and I'm betting they'll be useful, elegant and perfectly playful.

Similarly attractive, and almost as surprising, is the wavy, colorfully tiled roof invented by architects Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue to cover the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona.

Sometimes the inventiveness of the program for civic buildings is as important as formal originality. The Ciudad del Flamenco in southwest Andalucia, said to be the cradle of flamenco music and dance, is a hybrid that includes an auditorium, dance school, research center and museum. The building, designed by the star Swiss team of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron and due for completion in 2008, is astutely complex. But its sheathing, in a stucco pattern loosely based on traditional Arab and Gypsy ornament, is one of those maybe, maybe-not propositions.

Biomorphic shapes and picturesque profiles are plentiful, of course.

Gehry is present not with his famed 1997 Bilbao Guggenheim but with a winery and hotel (designed with Edwin Chan) in the Basque countryside that are scheduled to open in September.

The project is, as might be expected, at once curvy, complex and comely.

And the Museum of Cantabria, by Emilio Tuñon and Luis M. Mansilla, to be completed by 2009, consists of a series of jagged peaks -- surrogate mountains, in effect. The floor plans, however, look to be adaptable to traditional and unorthodox installations.

By contrast, the sharp concrete folds of the Valleaceron Chapel play against the gentle curves of distant mountains. The building, completed in 2000 and designed by Sol Madridejos and J.C. Sancho Osinaga, proves there still can be fresh takes on the late buildings of the 20th-century Swiss master Le Corbusier.

Even more plentiful than unpredictable shapes, however, is the rationalist box. That is hardly surprising -- rectangular buildings, after all, remain the most efficient containers for many everyday functions, and in recent years there has been a pronounced rebellion against quirky, computer-driven shapes.

But the boxes here are subjected to all sorts of twists and turns, and many are sheathed in brightly colored materials or even translucent panels that allow a viewer to half-see colorful shapes inside. Occasionally, however, it appears the boxmakers are reverting to unpleasant modernist habits.

The panel accompanying the model and photographs of four "Bioclimatic Towers," designed as part of a larger housing development by Iñaki Abalos, Juan Herreros and Renata Sentkiewicz, refer to the sophisticated, sustainable elements underlying the design. But, isolated in a field, the towers definitely recall the bad old days of modernist planning. Of all the maybe-nots in the show, these head the list.

Riley said he took some flak from Spanish architects for including many buildings by non-Spanish architects, but it was the right choice. For one thing, many of the Spanish architects measure up, and then some. For another, the inclusion of such compelling talents as Zaha Hadid, Toyo Ito, Thom Mayne, Jean Nouvel and Alvaro Siza, in addition to those already mentioned, drives home the show's main point.

Something's happening in Spain. The country has a history, and it is exciting and important. Maybe-nots and all, the exhibition affirms the creative fecundity of today's architecture, and it celebrates the role of civic leadership in the creation of bold plans, bold buildings.

On-Site: New Architecture in Spain will be on view through May 1 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St., New York. For ticketing and other information, call 212-708-9400 or visit http://www.moma.org/ .

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