May 1, 2006

Spain at MoMA

Book Review
ON-SITE: New Architecture in Spain
Terence Riley
The Museum of Modern Art
280 pages; 514 illustrations (313 in color)

The final show launched by Terence Riley at The Museum of Modern Art before he departs for his new duties as Director of the Miami Art Museum is an exciting, large-scale exhibition of new Spanish architecture. This exhibition presents architectural projects recently built or planned for the Iberian Peninsula (not a full multi-century architectural history) which is appropriate since so many notable projects are now underway.
What will immediately strike any viewer of On-Site: New Architecture in Spain is that contemporary architecture can incorporate all sorts of innovation, color, form and materials. The 21st century is clearly full of a wide range of possibilities for what we can call today "modern." If you can't make it all the way to New York before the exhibition closes on May 1, the catalogue makes the case for the show's thesis almost as forcefully as the exhibition itself, albeit without the formidable models found at the museum.

Spain is now host to some of the most interesting contemporary architecture found worldwide. Why so much of this architectural exploration is happening in this particular corner of Europe plays a significant role in the thorough essay by Riley that introduces the book. (There is also an insightful foreword by MoMA's Director, Glenn D. Lowry and a preface by Luis Fernández-Galiano.) The catalogue responds to the question of, "Why Spain?" The answer comprises issues of economics and politics as much as the specific design history of Spain. Riley also examines the influence of Spain's different regions, the impact of modernism in Europe and the international nature of architecture today, on the current crop of new buildings emerging in Spain.

Through its history, Spain has been a place of heterogeneity, which should continue to influence its architecture today. In his essay, Riley speaks about the tension between merging a distinct nation, such as Spain, into the wider notion of "Europeanness": "Spain's definition of European is one that includes a particular blend of Mediterranean, Roman, Moorish and Atlantic cultures, with evident though largely untapped implications for its contemporary architecture. At the same time, Spain's evolving sense of modernity is, as we have seen, less defined by historical circumstance and elsewhere, creating if not a blank slate then a more open-ended framework for the exploration of the critical issues that define modern culture and remain essential to contemporary life, no less architecture."

According to Riley, Spain's belated entry into the European Union in 1986 is especially significant. The nation, "began to benefit immediately from one of the EU’s objectives: to equalize the standard of living among its constituents." Riley explains, "Under programs meant to encourage infrastructure projects, Spain has received nearly $110 billion in funding over the last 20 years toward the construction of new highways, bridges, railroads, train stations, airports, and more, making it the largest net receiver of any EU member."

This immense budget for building, designed in part to make up for Spain's lack of economic advancement and investment in infrastructure during the Franco years, has triggered an extraordinary building program that has resulted in athletic facilities, housing, hotels, industrial buildings, airports, schools, museums and bridges. This wealth of new structures is therefore not the result of an independently strong economy, but rather the largesse of the EU, making Spain's new construction very different from that found in, let's say, Miami or almost any other American location. Free from the market constraints usually applied to US projects in the commercial realm, Spanish architects (or those practicing in Spain) face a different set of conditions that have often had stunning results.

There appears to be a special flavor to these projects: while greatly diverse, all seem optimistically oriented towards the future. From the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona by Enric Miralles and BenedettaTagliaue/EMBT Miralles Arquitectes Associats to the Barajas Airport Terminals in Madrid by Richard Rogers Partnership and Estudio Lamela, large projects in the civic realm are being produced by architects from both inside and outside Spain. Also for Barcelona, Jean Nouvel of Ateliers Jean Nouvel and b720 Arquitectura have produced the Norman Foster-like Torre Agbar. Seville anticipates the Metropol Parasol from Jurgen Mayer H, a massive set of cultural forms that will rise 90 feet above Roman ruins. The list goes on and on. When built, these projects will have the power to transform the cities that host them and bring these locations directly into the 21st century, or at least give the appearance of doing so.

This article first appeared in HOME Miami and HOME Fort Lauderdale.

Copyright 2006 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

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