The Recessionary Interviews: Spain's Manuel Ocaña

Manuel Ocaña. Photo © Manuel Ocaña.

The Recession has provoked a variety of responses – disillusionment, frustration, woe. For those not inclined to wallow, however, it has also provided ample time to reflect on (and, if you’re Manuel Ocaña, rip apart) pre-Recession society.

In our Recessionary Interviews, we talk to architects living and working where the Crisis has hit hardest. Last week, we spoke with architect Luis Pedra Silva, who offered us a realistic, and yet optimistic, take on the state of architecture in Portugal.

This week, on the other hand, we bring you an outlook more incendiary than optimistic. Manuel Ocaña, the controversial Spanish architect behind the Manuel Ocaña Architecture and Thought Production Office, is far from impressed with how his home country has handled its economic boom and bust. “Spain,” he says, “used to be a sexy, fit and energetic country. Envy, inferiority complexes, greed, arrogance and pride soaked it in fat. It is currently suffering from moral obesity.”

More on Manuel Ocaña’s take on Spain, including why Spanish architects are no better off than Vampires (or, worse still, MacDonalds employees), after the break…

What was the effect of the boom-time (1990s-2008) on Spanish architecture? 

Regarding “Spanish Architecture” as the one published by the media and referred to in international academic syllabi, and bearing in mind that it represents less than 1% of the built bulk during the boom, I think the effect has been, and still is, the bursting of five bubbles:

On the one hand, the Social Indulgence Bubble. According to a sort of digital neo-catholicism which is taking place among the wealthy cities of the First World, the image of Paradise is portrayed by a group of children playing in empty plots furnished with trash style swings, or participating in macrame workshops that have been financed by Public Institutions, without fostering any real, productive, profitable or reliable social advance in turn.

The second bubble could be referred to as the YBSA (Young&Brilliant Spanish Architect). Youth has been overrated, just as the elder councils in past cultures were. We are overwhelmed by an orgy of originality, which attempts to democratize excellence by mesmerizing the architecture trade with blissful paraphernalia of colors and soft shapes.

The Parametric Bubble is also bursting, for the new digital tools are being regarded as an end, instead of the means to achieve an end.

We cannot forget the Media Bubble, which has burst due to an excess of information and a culture of homogenization. Since everything is publishable, the impact of the publication may only last for some hours before absolutely vanishing. Magazines and blogs have generated hordes of “friends&followers” through their attention-grabbing methods and through a big feast of images and messages meant for instant consumption. And so, the Fast Food concept arrived to the architectural realm.

The last one, which is on the brink of exploding –at least in Spain- is the Academic Bubble. There are thousands of architects holding a PhD who intend to become lecturers or professors. The dramatic outcome of this situation is that they will probably not be able to refund the investment in their education.

How has architecture changed in Spain since 2008? How have priorities changed? Has focus shifted from creation to renovation?

In social-economics, Transformation has overcome the paradygm of Innovation. We have superseded our attempts to create things out of the blue for an aim to create from the existent.

Architecture –again, not only in the Spanish case- is not alien to this thread of thought. Rem Koolhaas has appointed ‘Preservation’ as one of the main targets of his investigation programme at Strelka Institute. The Great Mosque of Cordoba, which to my mind is the greatest masterpiece in the History of Architecture, is the outcome of a transformation that lasted for seven centuries, which comprised recycling, modular extending and even the embedding of another building inside it. Many contemporary outstanding works are indeed transformations, such as Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilarmonie or Carlos Arroyo’s Oostcampus.

Nowadays, however, Spain is economically and culturally unable to catch this train of renovation and transformation. Its Political Class is undergoing a severe intelligence and determination crisis. Thus, I must answer that Spanish Architecture has not changend. It has come to a standstill.

What firms are keeping afloat and how? Are they embracing more interdisciplinary work? 

Very few firms who thrived during the boom will survive. Only the major engineering companies and the craftsmen will. The rest, halfway in between, are to vanish within a radical Neo-liberal background. In a small scale, freelance contracts will prevail. Permanent contracts are currently relics from the past. Working life will not be insured. Certainly not for the more than 35,000 unemployed people.

The worst part will fall upon the generation of those who are in their thirties, who can decide either to emigrate or to keep on protesting and bitterly attacking the entrepreneurial architects. Hundreds of ‘unionist’ blogs are complaining vainly, demanding rights which, unfortunately, are irreversibly lost. I cannot stop thinking about Ann Rice’s vampires, who would only become mortal if they willing to accept the present times.

Concerning interdisciplinary work, it is just another bait. Despite the many positive features they ooze, the vast majority of these cases are economically unprofitable. Besides, Society still does not demand them. It is the architects trying to get them through. There are true network gurus interacting with their fellow ones in a sort of narcissistic organism disguised as interdisciplinary heroism. It is a form of procrastination which will lead you to see yourself, at almost 40 years old , as a potentially brilliant architect, earning the same amount of money as a McDonald’s employee.

Has the boom/bust left any positive legacy at all? 

Any positive legacy? Not yet, but it is bound to arrive.

What I don’t know is whether or not we in our forties and older will manage to see it happen. Nobody knows, despite the many predictions coming from forums all around. But let’s be honest. We are undergoing a critical situation, and that architecture which we all tried to produce is stigmatized.

But again, something positive is bound to happen, that is for sure. The day our children acknowledge this professional collapse as something belonging to the past, we will have a clear sign of its arrival.

Nevertheless, I would not dismiss a long term reaction. We must not foget how the ‘decadent’ Romans yielded to the Christians, far coarser and rather uncultured, but who sold peace and good vibes. Occidental Europe would then face 1000 years of darkness.

Do you think the current crisis represents a cyclical moment (an era of austerity that will give way once again to prosperity) or the beginning of a systemic change that will change architecture for ever? 

I don’t believe this is a stage in a cyclical process. The ordinary architectural practice has changed forever.

Material speculation and skills/technique will be the sole survivors of what are today considered the Universal Virtues. The good old architecture -based upon sophisticated craftsmanship or artistic practice- will exist, but it will only be affordable for a few. It will be luxurious.

The realm of Music has undergone many changes so far. The almighty industry and the stupidly mainstream pop were responsible for one of the last changes. But there are still music lovers – their being few in number and with no social or cultural representation is another matter.

On the other hand, austerity is a term which troubles me. Firstly, because it can be taken as a populism or a mainstream Judeo-Christianity, and can be interpreted as unconscious evidence of resentment.

However, if austerity implies producing architectural thought with very few economic means, pushing the imagination to unprecedent summits, I find it really enticing. Unfortunately, at least in Spain, auserity is understood as purposeful abstinence and intellectual castration.

What has been the effect on Spain of the “brain drain” of talented young, architects leaving Spain? This is affecting them and their families rather than the country.

I somewhat envy them: they have been forced into a shortcut to that catharsis that Tolstoi preached: If you don’t undergo an intelectual catharsis before you turn 35, you shall remain intellectually sterile forever.

Our barely-licensed architects can draw properly, and they bear a personal library made up of the wide range of images which they have avidly consumed during the last few years. But they still haven’t proven to have production or management skills. They haven’t had the chance. They don’t have reliable working experience. The vast majority match a creative profile, while very few match an executive one.

A bad consequence of this is that many of them will emigrate to get a job  “High Profile Drafter” or will develop an architectural practice, parallel to the way many talented musicians make a substantial living covering Paul Anka on cruises or in five-star hotels.

Therefore, I very much doubt that the professional ambition that many of them have can be satisfied in a mid-term period. The System has spoiled us so much that it is now, in our lack of care and attention, that we must acknowledge that the emerging countries are so because they work much more for much less.

Spain was once a beacons for revitalizing, innovative architecture – do you think the torch has been passed? 

The issue you are putting forward could be almost considered an urban legend. The truth is that Spain has released some of the most renowed architectural magazines and fosters a notorious narcissism from its universities. The ultimate aspiration of a vast percentage of Spanish students is to be published in El Croquis.

But you have been deceived. Spanish architecture is published all around the globe, but you have not quite seen it. Many of those pictures that are instantly consumed through the screen of a Smartphone bear more Photoshop than a Vanity Fair issue. 98% of all of recently built architecture in Spain is crap, and half of the remaining 2% (the architecture we know by means of the Media) is manipulated in order to be appealing to the media.

As a traveller, I can assure you that the average achitectural quality in any European, American or Asian country which can be socioeconomically compared to Spain, is much higher than that of Spain’s most recent architecture.

Spain used to be a sexy, fit and energetic country. Envy, inferiority complexes, greed, arrogance and pride soaked it in fat. It is currently suffering from moral obesity, very characteristic of those bankrupt “nouveau riches.”

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "The Recessionary Interviews: Spain's Manuel Ocaña" 10 Sep 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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