Text by Bart de Hartog and Marije Ruigrok
In his introduction Sebastian Severino explained us an enlightening example of how the football club of Real Madrid became a big player in the land development of Madrid. The area around the Atocha station was destined to be the new business heart of the city, with a grand park featuring a massive opera (everything from the plan was built, except for the opera). After selling the land they had been assigned previously to use as their training facility, they had the money to buy Zinedine Zidane from Juventus. And now the municipality assigned them a new piece of land, which they would again use for speculation.
This is just one of the interesting cases he presented us with, showing a lack of responsibility in planning of the policymakers and developers. The city Madrid wanted desperately to be a big player in all fields, and after the government changed the law so that the whole area around the city all of a sudden became land for optional future growth, everyone started investing which led to the devastating images of the results of the housing bubble that drew us to Spain. Useless toll roads and highways were built, connecting nowhere to nowhere, which has been beautifully captured by photographers who presented it to us as modern ruins.
It is typical for Madrid to see the three (failed) attempts to become a Olympic city, all the investments for this have proven useless to win but have led to enormous improvements in the infrastructure and amount of green in the city, increasing the livability of the center. This has nonetheless meant that for many people this is not an affordable place to live anymore, and this “gentrification” has led to most people within the lower-income range to move to the periphery, and the existence of ghetto-like neighborhoods such as the Cañada Real.
Spain is left with a huge amount of apartment buildings that are lacking quality, whether architectural, technical or sustainable. Severino explained us in his lecture that in the Spanish culture it is considered very important for your social position to actually buy a house. It is no surprise that in in the economic wealthy years many Spanish people invested in acclaiming property. The urge of ownership rather than renting an apartment made people close of mortgages they appeared unable to afford any longer when the crisis hit the market. In the previous years, closing of a huge mortgage was considered very normal; even though it might sound funny or ridiculous, newly weds would close of even bigger mortgages in order to purchase a car on top of their new house, and they would even close of a loan to go on a luxurious honeymoon that normally would be way out of their budget.
The effect of the real estate bubble popping might be clear to everyone, but another problem that might be less visible, concerned with the construction hype in the first years after the millennium, is the bad quality of the constructed houses. There was a huge demand from the market to build, this made the quantity overshadow the quality. As Sebastian Severino points out, many apartment buildings were built in order to construct ‘meter quadrats’ instead of qualitative living space. The professor of the Master in Social Housing suspects the average Spanish person to consider quantity above quality; owning a 5-room apartment sounds better than owning a 4-room apartment. Even when the rooms in the 5-room apartment are a lot smaller and lacking daylight or a view. Who can be pointed guilty in this matter? Many parties were only in it for the profit, but very questionable is the role of the architect… Did the architects solely served the demand of the developer and investor instead of using their knowledge and expertise for guarding the quality of the city, neighbourhood, buildings and houses as well? Now Spain is left with a huge real estate portfolio of dwellings that lack the qualities a building in the 2000’s should have.
Since the crises struck the country, (young) architects are trying to find new ways to work in their practice. A group of architects devoted themselves to ‘heal’ apartments that were constructed some years ago without any ‘love’ for architecture. Architects are eager to work and help people improve their living environment with smart budget solutions. In this way there is work commissioned and owners of the apartment pay directly the small intervention. There are no third parties in-between, and the house owners only let execute interventions that they actually can afford. No more loans! This small development shows how the relation between architects and clients has changed over the last years. Architects in Spain (but in other Western countries we see the same thing happening) are more active in commissioning their own work. Severino even gave a striking example of a young architect that offered his ‘knowledge’ for free on a flee market; “free architectural advice” his slogan said. It turned out a clever business strategy, he obtained multiple small design assignments.
Severino’s main solution for the problem that Madrid is facing lies not in building more or expanding, but in looking differently at what we have now. One of these solutions is the Supermanzana, an urban solution developed by a joint group of policymakers and technocrats, who instead of changing the existing formation of the blocks in Barcelona devised a new strategy for the infrastructure. By closing certain streets for through traffic and re-organizing the bus schedule, they create green islands in the city that increase the livability and decrease pollution, traffic accidents and so on. A promising idea and Severino seemed very enthusiastic by this plan, but among the Delft delegation some eyebrows were raised by the modernistic character of this approach. But whether the Supermanzana would work as pictured or not, the lesson from this lecture could be summarized that the task for us future architects and urbanists lies in improving the existing, which can vary from improving the existing housing market with small interventions to come up with ideas for improving the urban fabric by introducing green apples in the city.
Severino, being the coordinator of the international master in Social housing in Madrid showed us some projects of the students attending his master program with various renowned international architects. The examples showed us once again that it is about thinking differently about what we already have. The students were assigned a vacant plot, for which they devised strategies on how to make them grow in a more natural way: slow urbanism. One project suggested to use the large vacant piece of land as a natural zone, in which people could camp, mountain bike, climb etcetera, and whenever the possibility of developing arose a part of this could change in a green neighborhood. Another project focused on creating an autarchic community, collecting its own energy, growing their own food and most of all developing their own neighborhood into a fitting environment for them to live, with small scale growth as the main instrument. These two examples might not be the most enlightening, but they do show us that through thinking and approaching things differently we are able to re-envision our future, something that for us, the next generation of architects, according to Sebastian Severino is of vital importance if we want to prove ourselves useful in the world.