The Recession’s ripples have reached far. We, in the midst of a veritable architecture meltdown, can attest to that. But even our situation can’t compare to Spain’s, a country where “the mother of all housing bubbles” meant the Recession didn’t just land – it tsunami-ed onto her shores.
The metaphor may seem overblown, but it’s not so far off. Spain, a country that once stuffed its cities with show-stopping cultural centers, airports, and municipal buildings, has been shocked still.The new Spain is populated with empty high-rises, half-finished “starchitecture,” and plans gathering dust. A quarter of its architects are out of work and about one half of its studios have closed their doors.
Spain, once a beacon for architects across the globe, has hit a standstill. For the first time in decades, thousands of architects are fleeing its shores. So what does this mean for architecture in Spain – and the world? Has the Recession signified the end of an era? Has the torch of architectural innovation been passed?
In a word? Yes.
Exclusive insight from some of Spain and Portugal’s acclaimed architects, after the break…
They call it the “hangover” of an “epic fiesta” (see: the cheeky youtube video above). In their heyday, 2006, the country boasted 920,000 housing projects. As of last year, that number dwindled to 60,000. And the surplus isn’t limited to the architecture.
There are over 50,000+ licensed architects in Spain. In comparison to the U.S., where there is about 1 architect for every 3,000 residents, that figure translates to 1 architect for every 919 Spaniards. 25% of those architects are unemployed, leaving architects no choice but to live in professional limbo – or go abroad.
There isn’t much to keep them at home. During the boom time every city wanted – and got – its own “Guggenheim.” Since the bubble burst, however, Spaniards have developed a disdain for the spending that got them into this mess in the first place – especially the buildings that most viscerally symbolize Spain’s folly.
Manuel Ocaña, the Spanish architect behind the Architecture and Thought Production Office, believes that the new era of Spanish austerity, instead of leading to innovation or imagination, has resulted in “stigmatization.” As he explained to me via email: “in Spain, austerity is understood as purposeful abstinence and intellectual castration.”
The result is a generation of architects halted in their tracks.
Life in Slow-Motion
I emailed Luis Pedra Silva, the founder of Pedra Silva Architects, to find out how he sees the situation in Portugal, whose Crisis pre-dates Spain’s (and our own) by three years. He told me that, as in Spain, the Recession has created a generation of young architects frozen “at different stages in their careers:”
“It’s like we have been put into a film that moves in slow motion. It takes longer to achieve less, and I have no doubt that, were it not for this crisis, we would have a larger portfolio of built work and be further ahead than where we are today.”
In Spain, as in Portugal, austerity has not meant modesty or economic design, but a forced pause; a generation of architects chomping at the bit, trained to do what there is no call for. So who can blame these young architects for leaving Spain by the thousands? For foregoing a culture of cynicism and fear, for one of optimism?
As Luis Fernandez Guiliano, a Spanish architect and professor, eloquently lamented in Architectural Review, ours is a profession “still solidly fixed on the lure of limitless growth [...thus] What can we offer our own students, besides emigrating?”
Life in Fast-Forward
“The crisis back home is distant news. In Brazil, there’s growth and optimism, a joyful atmosphere totally at odds with what there is in Europe.”
So are the words of Andrés Velarde, a Spanish expat and architect, who spoke with the Wall Street Journal. Velarde is one of about a hundred thousand young, educated Spaniards (the exact figure is murky), and one of about 4,000 architects, who have left Spain since the Crisis began. While most opt to stray closer afield, to France or Germany, many have chosen to cash in on the boom occurring in emerging markets.
This “hemmoraghing of highly educated people” to the developing world has reversed the immigration pattern of the previous decades. In fact, last year Spain became a net exporter of people for the first time since 1990. Portugal is similarly experience a huge wave of emigration, as thousands of its residents move to its former colonies – such as Brazil, Angola, and Mozambique.
Spain/Portugal’s surplus is developing countries’ gain. As their rapid growth out-paces their engineering/architectural-know how, countries like Brazil are “devouring” white collar migrants (many with little practical experience) and putting them in the fast-lane. As one Spaniard living in Mexico, Arantza Hernandez, told El Pais, “I have achieved more in 5 years than I would have [...] in 15 years in Spain.”
A New World Order
To return to Fernandez Guiliano’s point, our profession is one that follows the “lure of limitless growth.” As architects, we are accustomed to the idea that the economy’s cyclical highs and lows are intrinsically tied to architectural opportunity. It would be easy to write off Spain’s current situation as a passing phase.
But this was no ordinary slow-down; it was a halt that changed both the architect and the architectural laymen’s perception of architecture itself. In some ways, the Recession hasn’t been all bad. In their correspondence with me, both Silva and Ocaña stressed that the Recession has burst a lot of unfounded bubbles. It’s brought the realization that a devotion to “fashion” architecture will never outlast an architecture devoted to thoughtful, human-oriented design.
And yet, if you ask those young Spaniards, either “frozen” at home or seeking growth abroad, the answer is less optimistic. When I asked Alvaro Alonso, a Spanish architect and a friend of mine living and working in Santiago, Chile, if he thinks Spain’s time as an architectural beacon has come to an end, his answer was unequivocal. “It’s other countries’ time.”