April 24, 2006

Spanish architecture enjoys new golden age

By Julia Hayley

MADRID, Spain (Reuters) - Spanish architecture is riding a
wave of international success, driven by generous public
spending on new buildings and a willingness to break with the
past and experiment with daring new forms and structures.

Eye-catching buildings are popping up all over the country,
from a multicolored phallic tower that has transformed the
Barcelona skyline to a spacecraft-like hotel in the northern
Rioja wine region.

"If you had to choose a nation that is moving fastest in
cultural terms it has to be Spain," veteran British architect
Richard Rogers told Reuters.

"After 40 years of the limitations of a fascist government,
you suddenly see a tremendous vitality. You feel it in the

Rogers and Spain's Lamela Studio are behind Madrid's airy
new Barajas airport terminal and its satellite, whose
undulating aluminum roofs echo the shape of the surrounding
hills and are supported by pillars painted every color of the

The creative surge of building has been fueled by years of
steady economic growth and heavy state and regional government
spending on public buildings, roads and railways, often with
help from European Union funds.

"Spain is best described as vibrant. It is one of the
leading centers of innovation not only in Europe but in the
world," said Terence Riley, who organized an exhibition of
Spanish architecture now showing at New York's Museum of Modern


The Spanish work on show illustrates how profound economic
and political changes have generated an "unprecedented
flowering" of architecture, the exhibition guide says.

"In the last 20 years, the country has undertaken the most
extensive building and rebuilding of its civil infrastructure
since the Romans," Riley, now director of the Miami Art Museum,
says in an essay on the MOMA exhibition.

Spain embraced creative freedom enthusiastically once it
had shaken off the effect of nearly four decades of military
dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.

Spanish architecture in particular was stimulated by access
to EU development funds from the late 1980s and the hosting of
a World Expo and the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 which
required landmark new structures to be built.

Spanish towns and cities are littered with centuries-old
buildings, some restored and others in varying degrees of
decay, but this does not limit the scope of modern architects,
says Simon Smithson, the Barajas airport terminal project

"Here there are absolutely no qualms about the
juxtaposition of a modern building with a historical one," he
says. "You can go to any small town in Spain and find a bold
piece of modern architecture right in the historical center."

Barcelona's biggest new work is the smooth blue and red
tower, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel as a new
headquarters for services company Agbar, and Spain's answer to
London's controversial "gherkin," now headquarters of the
insurance company Swiss Re.

The city is stuffed with bold designs.

"Barcelona has the best urban regeneration in Europe.
They've changed 6 kilometers (3.75 miles) of rusting port and
foul sand into the most beautiful beach where you can
practically dive in from your hotel bedroom," Rogers says.

In the southeastern region of Murcia, Spaniard Rafael Moneo
has designed a bold, pale cube as an extension to the regional
capital's city hall, contrasting with the 14th century
cathedral opposite.

Both the cube and the Agbar tower are included in the MOMA
exhibition, which runs until the end of April.


Antonio Lamela, whose studio worked in partnership with
Rogers on the airport terminal, designed his first building in
1954, during Franco's dictatorship.

Now 79, he describes the changes in Spain's social and
physical environment in his lifetime as being akin to moving
from the Middle Ages to the cosmic age.

"Urban design and architecture are always a reflection of
society ... Spain is a very active, dynamic and daring
society," Lamela told Reuters.

His buildings look less revolutionary today than those of
younger architects, but in their time many of them were

Lamela and his team were behind the imposing Real Madrid
soccer stadium and the Torres Colon, a 1990s office block whose
top is designed to look like a giant, luminous electric plug
and which was built by suspending the floors from the roof.

Better known outside Spain is Santiago Calatrava, who has
designed landmark bridges in his native Valencia and is now
building a spiky-roofed new transport hub for New York's World
Trade Center site.