The bursting of the architectural bubble has revealed other ways of creating buildings in which the context becomes more important, materials move towards centre stage and constructing the city takes priority over the inauguration of new isolated buildings. Within such a situation, architecture returns to the inhabitant. We had forgotten that, above and beyond any kind of style, architecture must be human.
It might not be so paradoxical that this generation of Spanish architects, trained to be the most galactic, worldly and international, have regained their genius loci, the wisdom of tradition and the fondness – and logic – of working with local materials. At the end of the day, killing the father is a sine qua non to being able to create and mature. There are many architects who, having studied at the end of the last century when the collective work of architecture used to be identified, as never before, with the name of a single author, have chosen to explore other paths. Not that they don’t want the rock star fame promised by their teachers but they have realised that, like Gaudí, there was only one Frank Gehry. And that the time of Norman Foster has passed. Now the profession must be reinvented and, to do so, many have opted for the originality of going back to the roots.
This is not merely a reaction to the crisis as many new architects were already starting to investigate new openings and reclaim those traditions and insights from the time before the bubble burst. The path chosen by those who devote more time to each piece of work and don’t differentiate between projects carried out “to make ends meet” and those “for publication” entails attempting to understand instead of planning how to impose. The outcome of such a backward step is a body of work that’s more austere, in general more serene, very often more ingenious and almost always more satisfactory.
The Chinese Pritzker winner, Wang Shu, has built projects such as the Ningbo History Museum using rubble from the copious demolition sites in his country. In the United Kingdom, Caruso & St. John have started to recapture a Povera aesthetic that experiments with combining the new and the old to enhance a building’s expression and memory. In Paris, Lacaton and Vassal remodelled the art deco building of the Palais de Tokyo without resorting to pickaxes. In fact, quite the opposite; by using its restoration to highlight the fact that any intervention is essentially temporary.
In the south of Spain they’re used to working with budgets that often halve the figures handled by their colleagues in the north for similar projects. Now we can appreciate the skill of companies such as Sol 89 in Seville, in their Professional Cooking School of Medina Sidonia, and I+G from Murcia in their restoration of the town wall of Aledo, making the most of the humblest of materials and surprising us into the bargain.
The successive projects carried out by Arturo Franco, and Churtichaga and Quadra, in the Madrid slaughterhouse have gained in strength by scraping away at the old abattoir’s walls and spaces. For years now, in Mallorca, Francisco Cifuentes and SMS Arquitectos have been working with bare ceramics, with unadorned shutters and materials revealing the beauty enshrined within such bareness.
On the other hand, it’s true there are masters such as Rafael Moneo who warn of the difficulty of addition compared with the always highly effective subtraction: “it’s easier to design a cheap building than an expensive one” the Spanish Pritzker winner has said. It’s not only a question of making architecture cheaper but of truly sensing it again. With hands and with spaces, not only through the eyes.
The new slow architecture that almost seems to be bubbling up in Spain (such is the new tempo of the profession) is not new but is rather renewing itself in its departure from the visual approach. It’s striving to engender other sensations. Being listened to and being touched. This semi-artisan way of working not only alters the urban landscape but also changes the economy and even consumer habits. But, as is the case with the buildings we admire, it has come to stay, without imposing itself but setting down roots.