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The blog originated as a forum open to studio team members or anybody else with an interest in architecture, where opinions, news and comments could be freely posted. We hope it will provide a small window to let views and comments flow out while fresh air blows in to revitalise those on the inside.
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
We recently learned – not without a certain degree of relief on realising that things are the same the world over – that the almost complete Elphilarmonie Concert Hall in Hamburg designed by the architects Herzog and De Meuron is going to cost the staggering figure of 789 million euros rather than the 77 million euros estimated by the architects in their design, that is to say more than ten times the initial budget.
The fact that this almost comes as no surprise should not hide the harsh reality that an “unexpected” 712 million euros implies, even for the powerful coffers of the German government and/or its sponsors.
Those of us who have had the opportunity, and been lucky enough, to design and construct buildings of a certain size, will know how far a million euros can go, not to mention figures that have two digits before the million.
Anyone can imagine what 712 million euros will build in terms of basic infrastructure, amenities or housing.
In the case of housing, that budget could be used to build an estimated 7,000 homes in Spain, with just a minimum amount of public intervention, or if you prefer to consider the figure in terms of the number of people you could give a decent home to, the estimated number becomes 25,000, and still the citizens of Hamburg might have their new Concert Hall.
Enrique Fombella, 01 December 2016
The winner of the ‘competition’ for the Museo del Prado expansion has just been announced; and the award goes to one of those works that boost the prestige of the reigning authorities and of the winning designers.
A golden opportunity for the government and official bodies to promote new architectural proposals and brighten the sad professional landscape has yet again gone to waste.
The judges? Royal Patrons of the Museo del Prado chaired by the current Minister of Culture, and including the president of the Madrid Regional Government and the presidents or former presidents of Spanish companies such as Telefonica, Iberdrola, La Caixa, BBVA, etc…..
The result? The winning team conveniently includes a famous British architect (yes, that one! the one who’s married to a Spanish lady) and his local entourage, so that nobody can say we only give work to foreigners.
Our thoughts? Always the same ones!!! Which is probably what many of the thousands of out-of-work architects are also thinking, many of whom are under 40 and will probably never be able to practise the profession they love and to which they devoted at least 6 years of their lives in study.
Always the same !!! is the cry of the architects and citizens who are tired of stunning buildings of questionable use, often of dubious architectural quality, built at an astronomical cost and populating our cities which, on the other hand, lack infrastructure, basic amenities and decent housing for recently evicted low-income families or energy-poor households, creating an unacceptable situation in a society that calls itself democratic.
Enrique Fombella, 26 December 2016
Recently, a story was published in the press about an elderly person who died when her house burnt down while she used candles instead of electricity because she couldn’t pay the bill. In addition, the City of Valencia has published a report, a first in Spain, showing that in Valencia alone, 15 per cent of all households suffer severe energy poverty.
Without going into causes rooted in deficient insulation and the poor condition of many homes with inappropriate electrical systems and installations, etc., I would like to reflect on my reaction to a picture published in the press showing the doors of the oversized headquarters of Union Fenosa – Natural Gas in Barcelona. The image also featured a few poor people, (in the literal sense of the term), some quite elderly, holding banners and timidly demanding a solution to the very serious problem of energy poverty.
Many, probably subconscious, images came to mind. Perhaps I had even seen them in a film set in the Middle Ages, where poor souls in tattered rags at the doors of the nobleman’s castle beg for food, shelter or some miserable work so that they can feed their families.
Relatively speaking, the two images are not so different. You only have to replace the ragged 12th century beggars with our country’s elderly and low-income families; the insurmountable walls of the medieval castle with the headquarters of the powerful power company that insults us all with its huge profits, often obtained from exorbitant tariffs, and its head office housed in a disproportionate, grandiose, expensive and certainly – and this never ceases to be a paradox- energy-inefficient building. Of course, all this is for the glory of the owners, who on the other hand, at this stage of the game, do not need to demonstrate their power and do not need to house their head offices in buildings that are simply unnecessary.
We already know what these corporations are capable of, while some politicians turn the other cheek.
Enrique Fombella, 23 December 2016
A few days ago, the ‘manifesto’ written by the architect Patrick Schumacher was released to the public. The current head of the office formerly led by the recently deceased Zaha Hadid, insists that it is essential to implement policies that not only privatize public services and social housing (a strategy already used in Madrid where the former city council sold part of its social housing assets to vulture funds, with devastating effects), but which also – and this is new – privatize public space, especially parks and gardens. He bases his thesis on the well-worn argument that only free competition and the free market guarantee the best use.
Whilst an exhaustive analysis of the merits of P. Schumacher’s opinion seems uncalled for, it does seem appropriate to reflect on what we might term the ‘de-ideologization’ of an overwhelming majority of architects, particularly in the capitalist West.
It is interesting to note that these comments have given rise to complicit silence, if not consent, on the part of all the stars in the architectural firmament – in the United Kingdom and in our neighbouring countries – while a choir of admirers, as well as a good number of politicians, voice opinions in favour of ‘de-ideologized’ architecture, detached from the real needs of the world today. Economic interests, egos or any other excuse to erect buildings that have little or nothing to do with the needs of a global world, seem to come before the architect’s ethical commitment and thus the powers that be manage to build for their own glory, while contemplating their navels.
We miss that recent, albeit short-lived, time when more than just a handful of committed architects was keenly devoted to convincing those in power of the value of architecture as a tool to transform society without renouncing beauty, by designing and erecting all kinds of buildings built to fit social needs and which in many cases have remained as an example of authentic architecture.
Enrique Fombella, 22 November 2016