Why Spain’s Crisis Is the End of An Era

Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao inspired cities across to get their own “Guggenheim,” many of which now stand empty/unfinished in the light of the country’s economic crisis. Photo via Flickr User CC Txanoduna

’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…

YouTube Preview Image

The Hangover

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.

This Center For The Arts in La Coruña Spain, was designed by aceboXalonso studio 11 years ago, but, due to financial complications, was only able to open as a Science & Technology Museum (MUNCYT) this May. Photo © Hector Santos-Diez.

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?”

Image via Wall Street Journal

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.”

AECOM’s master plan for Rio de Janeiro’s 2016 Olympic Park, one of the many development projects happening throughout Brazil. Image © AECOM.

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.”

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "Why Spain’s Crisis Is the End of An Era" 29 Aug 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 17 Apr 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=268058>

11 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +6

    I’m a Spanish architecture student who will finish in a year; it does seem that the solution is abroad. Sure that the situation in Spain will not go back to the great years of spending, but there is still some hope or at least that’s the impression in the architecture schools, “less is more” and if we get the chance to change any of this with our help, we will stand up.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    The graphic shows 125000 buildings approved in 2006 but at the begining of the article, you point out that the country boasted 920000 projects in this year..I would like to know what’s the difference between the first and the second data

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      see the area for the year 2006 – 125 000 is for a one month probably, beacause the graph a couple of bars for yach year

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    “Zaera, whose award-winning practice is based in London, has walked away from his half-built Institute of Legal Medicine building – a hollowed-out, doughnut-like sphere that is due to have works by Foster, Rogers and Hadid as its neighbours. He blamed his exit on local politicians’ refusal to increase the budget by up to 53%.”

    An extract from the Guardian article you link to. At first sight, this would seem to reflect badly on the architect and well on the local politicans. So isn’t all this perhaps an outbreak of common sense?

  4. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    On the quote “1 architect for every 919 Spaniards.” you link to the Apple Start-page, not to the source.

    I would be very interested how these numbers are in the different countries around the globe. I once read that the region of Baden-Württemberg in Germany has more Architects then France in total.

Share your thoughts