For almost twenty years the phrase “Spanish architecture” was spoken in hushed and reverent tones. It evoked not just Gaudí and his perpetually unfinished spires, but a new breed of visionaries who were reinventing the profession and doing wonders for the Spanish economy while they did it. Now, the days of international recognition seem far away. With home evictions soaring, joblessness endemic, and both the Socialists and the center-right People’s Party (PP) willing to implement austerity measures in the face of suffering, Spain has gone from architectural bon enfant to real estate bubble bête noire.
Many commentators in the United States have failed to link the era of lauded architects to the shocking collapse of the real estate market. Some in the world of architecture punditry have even indicated that starchitect projects in lesser-known Spanish cities are the silver lining to an increasingly ugly crisis, because no matter how hard austerity measures squeeze Spaniards they will still have great buildings for future generations. But the connection has not been lost in the Spanish press, where mega-projects such as Santiago Calatrava’s Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (completed in 2005) never had time to become icons. The Ciudad almost immediately earned opprobrium as a symbol of excesses that were “bleeding Valencia dry,” as the Guardian reported. Signs of painful mistakes are also evident in the private property market, which flourished as a key sector of the Spanish economy starting in the 1990s. Vast tracts of the coastline were developed, and American-style suburbs and office parks sprang up outside of major cities such as Barcelona and Madrid, where there was no demand for them. Spaniards are quick to lambaste the decision makers of the boom period, but who deserves the blame? Politicians? Banks? Developers? Mortgage holders? Architects?
Santiago Calatrava, Rafael Moneo, and Alejandro Zaera-Polo and other architects became celebrities in the past two decades not just because of their professional aptitude but also because of the unique economic environment in Spain. After the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the industrial sector of the Spanish economy was allowed to languish while tourism, construction, and the service sector were embraced. In the 1980s, massive hotels, timeshares, and resorts were built cheaply and quickly, leading to eyesores in towns from Lloret de Mar in Catalonia to Marbella in Málaga. These coastal resorts attracted North European tourists looking for hotter climates and northern capital looking for investments in a favorable regulatory environment—which, with the industrial sector ailing, the post-Franco government was happy to provide. The tourist-friendly trend symbolically culminated in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Olympics and the Seville World Expo. These events cemented Spain’s reputation not just as a sun- and sangria-soaked vacati