The Urban Legacy of Modern Spain – creativity & technique 02

Nowhere has the transformation that occurred during this period being more noticeable than in Spain’s large cities. They have become the greatest symbol of a nation emerging from 50 years of malaise.

In cities the political forces, the labour, the skill and the financial capital all merged to give rise to initiatives, projects and transformations that have reshaped these cities.

The now classic example is that of Barcelona. It successfully used the 1992 Olympics to relaunch the city as one of the great European humanistic cities. The ‘Barcelona Model’ changed how the Olympics are planned and executed because the focus of was to invest in the urban legacy, both in terms of hard infrastructure and civic places, with over 80% of the resources committed to city as a whole. Since then Barcelona has become the third most visited city in Europe.


Probably an even greater success story has been that of Bilbao. This now vibrant and successful city that has fared comparatively well throughout the crisis was, from the 70s onwards, assailed by structural failure in its once key manufacturing industries.

Guggenheim Bilbao

The transference of a great deal of competencies, as a result of the creation of the autonomous communities after the 1984 Constitution, allowed the Basque Country a great deal of self rule. This translated into the capacity to act decisively on regional matters.

But probably just as crucial was the creation of independent government bodies in the 90s to tackle the grave economic and urban issues that afflicted Bilbao.

The first organisation created was Bilbao Metropoli 30 in 1991. This research, advocacy and urban regeneration body was created through a private-public partnership.

Ria Bilbao 2000 is a body formed to plan and implement large scale urban regeneration throughout the dilapidated workers suburbs and old industrial sites. It was formed by and, therefore, facilitates the coordination of all levels of government (local, provincial and regional) and government agencies such as port and rail.

It was not the Basque Government ‘bringing’ the Guggenheim to Bilbao, at cost of 100 million euros, alone that created a catalytic effect and a shift away from dying industries but many other technical projects. Some of the most most crucial were the cleanup of the heavily polluted estuary, which cost about 1 billion euros, and the rehabilitation of former industrial sites for residential development. Key transport infrastructure projects such as the much loved Foster designed metro (opened 1995) and the iconic Bilbao International Airport by Calatrava (inaguration 2000).

Responses – the creatives & technocratic

Whilst the modus operandi of the boom period was uniformly in line with providing business solutions for the affluence with mostly conventional means, even if at times allowed to be somewhat extravagant and excessive, the response to the crisis has been nothing but.

Post-GFC Spain has shown that a strong undercurrent of independent creative thinking and innovation exists within the workers (mainly craftspeople), professionals and thinkers that served the housing boom.

They are confronted with a socio-economic maelstrom that has many causes and many more actors. One could say they are confronted by  a wicked problem “a class of social system problem that are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing” Rittel.

Related and intertwined with the alternative approaches are a demonstration of technical skill and competence. This is mainly based mainly on two pillars:

  • A technically driven education systems when it comes to the built environment (e.g. architecture is taught as a science discipline heavily linked to engineering)
  • Extensive experience developed by delivering the transformation of Spain (Madrid Rio, Ria Bilbao)

Both have in common that the boom was significantly delivered using local companies and local professionals. This has meant that they have achieved a significant level of expertise.

In the recent planning and urban design tour we did of Spain we explored some of the salient places and people that were active participants in this transformation.

Solutions – the technocratic

Hombres de Piedra

Cruise Ship Terminal in Sevilla by Hombres de Piedra


Fundacion Metropoli


Solutions – the creative

Santiago Cigureda – Recetas Urbanas




Colectivo de Arquitectos

Architectures Collectivas - network

Scenarios for change

New rhizomatic technocracy (ESD, strategic design, etc.)

New guerrilla democratic economy-design (shared economy)

New creative glocal corporations (big construction and design conglomerates like ACS Group/Hochtief, Ferrovial, Sacyr, OHL)

Spain ranks amongst the in the world in terms of civil engineering, construction and engineering. In actual fact Spain is now the fifth most internationalised country in the world head of countries like France. These companies have erupted on the world stage over the last 20 years and have been forged in the strong infrastructure transformation that saw the rise of Spain since the 1950s.

All these responses to a changing nation, both in sociocultural and economic terms, are within the context of a globalising world. Spain’s integration into firstly the European Union in 1986 and then monetary union in 2001 has meant that the country is now part of the largest, most integrated supranational identity in the world. Conversely more and more autonomy has been transferred from Madrid to the states, mean that the traditional ‘periphery’ has a greater say and even a great deal of self governance.

This has resulted in the erosion of nation state which is now charged, ever increasingly, with creating an apparent ‘level playing field’ situation of economic and legal stability to facilitate private investment and actuation. This is at the behest of the current tenants of international capital and globalisation. It role as a direct investor is diminishing; as is it’s role as social guarantor.

This vacuum brought forward by the crisis and socioeconomic changes in Spain is being filled with the responses. They have certain elements in common:

  • “Design as the science of the artificial” Simon Herbert. They are all concrete manifestations of how to solve their individual, local, corporate and even collective issues based on conceptions that differ from the present reality. and are complementary or even competing to the vision of the nation-state.
  • “Incremental experimentalism” Karl Popper. They try to evolve, adapt and improve ideas and execution incrementally be it because of resource constraints, the manner in which they conceptualise the problem/issue (prototyping, etc.) and/or simple risk aversion.

What all have in common is that the explore what could be, the potential for other models of development, of understanding the urban condition. It is dealing with the potential, it is, in terms put forth by Deleuze, the virtual difference.

The difference is sometimes complementary/intersects to/with the existent state framework (legal, economic and planning) as is the case with the corporations, others it is antagonistic/parallel as is the case of collectives around the shared economy.

Maybe Christopher Alexander’s concept of the semilattice, that is the overlapping of sets of units that create provides a strong visual model to explain not only the built elements of the city but also the social networks. The building of these overlapping structures may create a more resilient outcome, a network that has fewer key links.


Should we not, in the making of our cities and communities, be allowing and even encouraging this behaviour?

Transference to Australia

With the mining boom likely at at its end because of the slowing growth and transition to a less resource intensive economy in countries like China and the environmental concerns around fossil fuels Australia is at an economic impasse.

If we wish to improve our quality of life further, which may not be based on greater economic prosperity, we will need to learn ‘to do more with less’.

The technocratic side of the equation is: How can we leverage our technical expertise? How can we enhance our knowledge economy?

The social capital aspect is: how can we better engage our citizens? how can we facilitate social interaction? How can we leverage their creativity?

Significantly for us in the built environment sector what spaces, what places shall we plan, design and deliver to encourage the serendipity of exchanges in these ‘third spaces’. Even more importantly is the processes that lead to these places, the need to co-create, the sense of community ownership, making them emergent and, therefore, adaptable and resilient.

‘Cities as testbeds’ for change.

Was has occurred in Spain shows us the pitfalls but also of the opportunities that are unlocked in times of scarcity, times that Australia may yet need to confront in the future.

But beyond the economic facet of the city there is the human dimension which we should never forget and which, ultimately, is what powers cities, in Spain and in Australia. Let us all say together  “our right to the city” Henry Lefebvre “La ciutat no es ven, es viu” (“The city is not sold it is lived”)


1) The real estate sector and economy in Spain:

Ministerio de Fomento Observatorio de la Vivienda y del Suelo (4th Semester 2014). In Spanish. GDP growth Spain graph, World Bank. Youth Unemployment graph, Eurostat. Drop in land values 2014, El Mundo (Spanish newspaper, in Spanish). Tourism number in 2015, El Mundo (Spanish newspaper, in Spanish) Comparative GDP growth Spain – Australia – Greece, World Bank. CIA World Factbook. La Ley del Suelo – planning law dealing with the nature urban land and how to convert rural land into urban land. In Spanish. blog post about the 1997/8 Ley de la Liberalizacion del Suelo. In Spanish. blog post about the 1997/8 Ley de la Liberalizacion del Suelo. In Spanish. editorial from the Spanish national newspaper El Pais (2009). In Spanish. editorial from the Spanish national newspaper El Pais (2007). In Spanish. YouTube video Aleix Salo Spañistan La Burbuja Inmobiliaria Wikipedia, retrieved 11/05/2015.

2) Bilbao:

ESRC Bilbao City Report (2007) The German Marshall Fund of United States, retrieved 12/05/2015 The German Marshall Fund of United States, retrieved 12/05/2015 Bilbao Ria 2000, retrieved 12/05/2015 Bilbao Metropoli 30, retrieved 12/05/2015 article about the debt incurred by Bilbao Ria 2000, El Diario (Spanish newspaper, in Spanish) article about ex Bilbao major Iñaki Azkuna, El Confidencial (Spanish newspaper, in Spanish)

3) Creative responses: article about Spanish construction and engineering companies in Australia, Australian Financial Review. article about the Spanish OHL construction company in Australia, Australian Financial Review. Fundacion Metropoli website (led by Alfonso Vergara)

4) Projects: Ensanche de Vallecas, Google Maps Madrid Rio (M30 park), Archdaily Madrid Rio (M30), Basurama collective (website, in Spanish)

5) Legal and planning framework:

Garcia, Jose Universidad de Valencia El Precio del Suelo: La Historia Interminable (1999). In Spanish.ón_oficial Vivienda de protección oficial, affordable housing in Spain, Wikipedia.

5) Theoretical framework:

Purcell, Mark Excavating Lefebvre: The right to the city and its urban politics of the inhabitant (2002)

Colebrooke, Claire Understanding Delueze (2002)

Alexander, Christopher A city is not a tree (1962)

Buchanan Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (1992)

Mulgan, Geoff NESTA The radical’s dilemma: an overview of the practice and prospects of Social and Public Labs (2014)

MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning Places in the Making (2013)


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