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Where did all the good architects go?

The Hotel Algarrobico, an illegal eyesore on the Spanish coast

Spain’s modern building doesn’t live up to it’s architectural heritage, muses Lenox Napier.

Spain is a fascinating and beautiful country: indeed, someone once said that it is more like a miniature continent. We have high snowy ranges, deserts, savannahs, lakes, long empty beaches (well, in the winter anyway), cliffs, gorges, rivers, forests and some magnificent city centres.

Those cities are full of nineteenth century buildings: apartment blocks and mansions. They will be close to palaces, cathedrals and monuments to a glorious past. Surrounding them, at just a few stops down on the metro, will be ugly modernist buildings, with frumpy flats equipped with a tiny terrace. It is as if the architects were one day taken by surprise by the accountants.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be that many good Spanish architects these days, and while it is one thing to see an apartment block appear to be out of place to the ones next door – as if the designer never came by for a good look – there are some truly horrible creations peppered amongst them. The Corte Inglés in Pamplona plated with tin is a fine example; or the notorious Hotel Algarrobico, abandoned since 2006 (but still not demolished); or the unfinished shells of hotels and apartment blocks, like those in the Canaries; or the ten ugliest buildings in Spain thoughtfully put together by Civitatis, including that odd pyramid thing in downtown Alicante and Santander’s remarkable Festival Palace.  In Almería, the old 19th century building that is the Centro de Arquitectura is encased in glass. Franky, it doesn’t look at all comfy. Nearby, what could only be an architectural prank, we have the council building in Retamar, where the metal skeleton of the edifice is outside: standing a couple of metres out from the walls like scaffolding. I have to look away when I pass it.

A book called España Fea: El caos urbano, el mayor fracaso de la democracia by Andrés Rubio blames the Franco regime for the cheap housing and the cult of mediocrity which followed the uprising of 1936. Perhaps the better architects all moved abroad.

Spain then, is breathtakingly beautiful, but with some ugly addenda. The coast is all but cemented over with buildings, hotels and campsites. The Government says that it is aware that there are only a few bits left to be urbanised.

On the bright side, even the most humble village has seen some investment: some improvement. Perhaps those who moved to the cities for better or for worse sent some money to fix up the old homestead.

Still and all, it’s not the tower blocks, or the occasional exuberance of a middling architect, or a massive hotel… so much as the apparent indifference to the fate of the remaining Spanish countryside (outside and beyond the huge region of the España Vaciada), and above all, our coastline.

Yet, at the same time – 28% of our land is publicly owned and protected: even (apparently) the bit where the massive Hotel Algarrobico rots gently under the warm sun.

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