Modern Spanish Architecture

This major piece of research covers the period from 1875 with the first breaks from classicism, to 2000 when Spain's architecture was pre-eminent around the world. EDC's writings and photographic archive extend into the dark years of the 1940s, and include the entire Franco period which is little chronicled outside Spain.


A comprehensive history of 20th century Spanish architecture has, incredibly, not yet been told in the English language. While certain periods are familiar, notably the Modernista period of Antoni Gaudi, and the extensive building, development and refurbishment programmes of the last thirty years, there are many decades in between of which very little is known outside Spain. This is not because there was nothing built of any interest, but rather because internal political restrictions and external political isolation over long periods meant that little information was disseminated outside. There are of course innumerable glossy monographs of the best-known architects and their work, and these began to enter mainstream architectural media 20 years ago. But these are often one-sided and look at end products – buildings, spaces, streetscape – with little insight into provenance or process. Some architectural movements and historic periods have been reviewed in depth, but these have often been in academic publications for a specialist Spanish or Catalan-speaking readership. There is a growing international fascination with contemporary Spanish architecture; a major survey of historical, political and social context and of architectural antecedents is well overdue.

For example, as Modernisme was waning, the dictatorship of Diego Primo de Rivera (1921-1926) patronised the clean lines of the Noucentismo style (and it was a style) in architecture and design, which was unique to Spain, producing innovative public buildings and the new campus of the University of Madrid. The Second Republic (1929-1936), with Josep Lluis Sert as Director General of Architecture, oversaw a massive building programme of social housing and community health and welfare projects, many still standing though some were torn down or compromised beyond recognition by the Franco regime. The Republican period is well documented in Spanish and Catalan, and periodicals of this era give insights into the ideologies of what was achieved and of what might have been. The 1940s was a period of experimentation for Franco, who was personally involved in attempting to find a Spanish National or Imperial style. Though this ultimately failed, and produced some dismal buildings in the process, the iterations of the debate are quite extraordinary and have important lessons for history on the dangers of using architecture, or at least architectural language or styles, as propaganda. During the 1950s and 1960s, a period of political isolation, economic deprivation and blockade, some architects produced ground-breaking work for private clients despite the severe shortage of steel, using traditional building techniques and materials on radical Modern building types.

‘Modern Spanish Architecture’ begins with a summary of the relevant historical, political, social and economic background of the 19th century, which spawned the Modernista period that was patronised by the burgeoning cultural appetites of middle-class industrialists and entrepreneurs. Leading into the brief but architecturally productive dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, the impact of the World’s Fair in Barcelona of 1929 is assessed, during which there were angry street demonstrations against the architectural aesthetic of the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion. Following political developments into the Second Republic, a survey of the built and unbuilt social projects includes a study of AC magazines, which reviewed prevailing art and architectural movements around Spain and those of the ‘comrades’ in Russia. A review of the violent rhetoric surrounding the style of public buildings in the first ten years of the Franco regime, 1939 to 1949, where Rationalism was vilified as ‘Marxist’ and ‘godless’, brings us into the 1950s.

The mind is easily filled with architectural banalities of the 60s and 70s, but little is known outside Spain of the high quality buildings of this period that were technically, aesthetically and ideologically distant from the concurrent rampant building of the seaside tourist boom, and the uncontrolled modernisation of city centres, which ripped the heart out of cities such as Valencia. The fifties, sixties and seventies in Spain were oddly inspiring years for the young architects who had chosen to live under Franco. Architectural training was in academic classicism, but many young architects avidly read foreign publications, travelled and worked abroad in avantgarde practices. Fine art was split between ‘acceptable’ classicism and extreme nihilism, whose political undertones were hidden in metaphor. Franco had finally decided that Rationalist architecture could be separated from its Marxist past, and he espoused modern architecture as a symbol of progressiveness. A generation of left-wing architects associated with the Republic had disappeared overseas after the Civil War, so those practising were either supporters of the regime, or kept their counsel in order to survive. Despite the scarcity of steel, skilled craftsmen and builders were still available. Private houses, churches, convents, and tuberculosis sanatoria were built to new criteria that left the classical behind. The return of democracy in 1977 led to the development programmes, city refurbishments, public buildings and the imaginative museum and gallery building programme which brought in world class architects and, as in the astounding Guggenheim in Bilbao, also had a major impact on tourism.

While the last 20 years of the twentieth century have been far better recorded, international enthusiasm for the world of contemporary Spanish architects has focussed on celebration, even gratification, with little understanding of social, political, cultural or economic context. This book includes discussion of spatial concepts, theories, structures, construction, materials, and technological progress. There are also insights into what characterises each period – what architecture symbolises – struggle, subversion, political strife, nationalism vs regionalism, order, authority, and failed experiments. It includes private houses, social housing, city planning and public buildings, with reviews of major figures where appropriate. ‘Modern Spanish Architecture’ gives critical insights and perspectives on what has become an issue of huge international interest.