We wouldn’t be revealing a secret if we said that architecture- or at least lasting architecture -had always been linked to either political or religious power. This is the way things have always been and still continue to be, in spite of the apparent changes that societies have undergone all over the planet.
In the 19th century, significant pre-democratic social movements also led to changes in the way architecture was able to distance itself from the powers that be, to timidly begin serving communities with an incipient new social order that, in many ways, was more egalitarian.
Society was beginning to wake up to the idea that architecture should not only respond to the so-called traditional demands that essentially made architecture a built representation of power, but also to social demands in equal if not greater measure.
However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that some governments and city councils in countries where a democratic tradition had taken root began building architecture for “the people” in a planned and systematic way: architecture designed and built in response to the real needs of beneficiary populations.
Thus in Holland, Austria, Germany, and so on, neighbourhoods developed that not only provided housing but also amenities and infrastructure, becoming the pioneers of what would later develop in other countries in Spain’s social and cultural environment.
This dynamic, which turned out to be a truly democratic conquest of architecture, in which architecture passed from the hands of the powerful to the hands of the user, or at least to their democratic representatives, has however begun to fade, especially since the so-called liberal revolution which began at the end of the 1970s.
Housing, developed by public authorities to create urban settlements for people with below-average incomes, and the local infrastructure built to serve these new settlements, are now tending to disappear, while at the same time the architecture of power is returning with a vengeance. That power might be economic or political, but representative architecture and squandering, with public need as an excuse, are on the rise, and the result is often merely a status symbol.
Use is no longer as important as what a building represents, or tries to represent, and so over the last few years we have seen a profusion of museums, concert halls, large corporate office and banking complexes, towers and other buildings flourish, with astronomical costs as a common denominator, which, in one way or another, we all end up paying with our taxes.
When, we might ask ourselves, will architects, as members of a truly democratic society, stop bowing down to the powers that be that use architecture to be trendy or as a tool for their not-always transparent objectives? When will we see a truly democratic and participatory architecture, in which public works, at least, are subject to participatory and truly democratic criteria? Is this society that calls itself democratic able to put up with such nonsense for much longer?
It is totally unacceptable that, at this point in time, architectural competitions – especially major competitions – are judged by people who not only do not represent the citizen, but who often only represent themselves as holders of political office, or who enjoy some sort of dubious prestige. (We have already discussed this in another article on the subject of the competition for the extension of the Museo del Prado).
But we must aspire to more, until all public works are the result of the equal participation of all professionals under equal conditions; until juries are made up mainly of associations representing the citizens concerned or are at least approved by them; until budgets are subject to stringent controls by neutral bodies to prevent public money being wasted, which we have been demanding for such a long time; until clear objectives and criteria are established that weigh strictly financial criteria against the added value – however small- a beautiful work of architecture brings to the cultural heritage of a community.
It is not difficult to realise that only legitimate and necessary, democratic and responsible citizen participation will return to architecture the value and prestige it has lost, ensuring it goes down in history with the same seal of approval that is given to the achievements of genuinely advanced societies.
We all, not least our political representatives, have an obligation to address this issue, which has yet to be tackled. But above all, all architects, especially the larger architectural practices, must stop acting as “lobbies” bowing to the powerful to become models of ethical behaviour and corporate responsibility.
Enrique Fombella, 23 January 2017