Measure, enlarge, unify: Spanish landscapes

by diego terna

text published on Dlle, n.2, 2010 – Spain Landscape 2010 – Urban Hybrids – Evolution in Regeneration

testo italiano su Arch’it

– Mire vuestra merced – respondiò Sancho – que aquellos que allì se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento, y lo que en ellos parecen brazos son las aspas, que, volteadas del viento, hacen andar la piedra del molino.-

(- Look, your worship; – said Sancho – what we see there are not  giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that  when turned by the wind make the millstones go. -)

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, 1605.

Windmills, Castilla La Mancha, Spain, photo by chiara quinzii

Mar adentro, mar adentro,

y en la ingravidez del fondo

donde se cumplen los sueños,

se juntan dos voluntades

para cumplir un deseo.

(Out to sea. Out to sea,

and in the weightlessness of the deep

where dreams come true,

two souls unite

to fulfill a single wish.)

Ramòn Sampedro, Mar Adentro


Nowadays visitors in Spain will notice that territorial urbanization has taken place without any planning beyond speculation. In recent years a destructive bulimia of first and second houses has consumed the territory. A few kilometers from the Madrid center, urbanization looks like the results of a race among speculators who were trying to build more square meters in the shortest amount of time. Small villages along the rias (valleys where the rivers flow into the sea) in Spanish Galicia have been transformed into overbuilt areas that are typical of urban outskirts: big pastel buildings with ungainly sea-view balconies, white columns and pilaster strips.

The Spanish economic miracle created this building boom but produced the territorial destruction, without apparently having learned from its neighbors like Italy, where, since the 1970s, the natural and artificial landscape has been ruined.

The territory will continue to be destroyed by this absurd race to urbanization, because of the low housing density and because of state intervention that encouraged public construction projects in order to weather the economic crisis.

Nevertheless, despite the decline in its buildings, Spain’s production of architectural quality is one of the richest and most developed in Europe. Its cities are marvels of public space planning.

This is due to the sensibility of the local architects and, maybe, ironically, to the law of numbers: when there are so many projects, a few of them will have to be good. Most of all, the strong civic sense of the citizens has made a difference. When we study the public spaces of the Spanish cities, we cannot overlook the human factor, the intensive use that citizens make of their exterior spaces. “Vamos a la calle!” (Let’s hit the street!), is an idiom that evokes a very important urban image: the street, the square, the park become places to be used, directing residential spaces towards the exterior. Citizens unconsciously contribute to the urban landscape by gravitating to places that are clean, safe, and comfortable. A uniform distribution of cafes and restaurants ensures conviviality, with people moving freely among them, not crowding into some establishments while others stand empty.

So it is very important, when we analyze landscape projects, not to forget that the planning of urban spaces created a virtuous circle in which citizens justify the continuous creation of very good projects by continuing to use them.

Measure, enlarge, unify: A short story

The history of the Spanish landscape seems to have had three themes, related to a kind of dimensional disproportion:

– the need for punctual high elements in the landscape, landmarks that  make the surrounding area more familiar, giving a measure of the territory;

– the creation of large spaces for public assembly, encouraging a multiform use of the emptiness by the people;

– the construction of a territorial topography that combines natural and artificial elements.


Around the first century AD,  the Romans built a 29-meter aqueduct in Segovia, with big ashlars of dry-assembled granite. The city seems to have been invaded by this gigantic element, and yet they coexist peacefully. The aqueduct gives scale to the territory; its wide arches surround it in a quite geometric way. Starting from this measure the city has a center of gravity around which it builds itself, constituting a point of  reference that citizens can look at when they walk through the streets.

Segovia aqueduct, Segovia, Spain, sec. I AD., photo by Chiara Quinzii

The same thing happened, more romantically, in Oviedo, where in the middle of the 800s, King Ramiro I built a small pavilion on the Mount Naranco, overlooking the town. A few years later, the pavilion became the S. Maria del Naranco Church, a timeless monument of disconcerting complexity: church, overlook, palatine room. Everything was constructed with a pre-Romanic calligraphy, that advanced even Gothic elements, through the use of buttresses and its insistent verticality. S. Maria became an element by which to measure the territory, but from where the territory itself can be viewed, understood and, finally, put in proportion with human dimensions.

S. Maria del Naranco Church, Oviedo, Spain, 800, photos by Chiara Quinzii


An interior reveals the value of emptiness: it is the big Cordoba Mosque, built at the end of 900, with its petrified forest of columns, totally artificial, where vertical elements offer incredible views and extend the main room, that appears like an infinite succession, one after the others, of trunks, losing the limits of the space.  Paradoxically it is in this fullness that emptiness can express itself, with the loss of spatial boundaries, that does not leave the people dismayed, but induces them to use it and fill it with their activities.

Cordoba Mosque, Cordoba, Spain, 900, photo by Annapaola Ramorino

This becomes clearer in Madrid, where in 1617, Juan Gòmez de Moura completed the Plaza Mayor, giving to it a container for its urban rituals. It is the pure celebration of emptiness, without any architectural quality apart from being a space free of artifice. Here there is the celebration of life, where every human activity is allowed. At night, the citizens take possession of some space to watch small shows, to talk, to drink, to sit down, as if they would in their own living rooms. And here, in the open space of the city, surrounded by long facades, the interiors of the houses flow towards the exterior, naturally, as it happened years before inCordoba, when it was possible to get lost in a forest of stone.

Juan Gòmez de Moura, Plaza Mayor, Madrid, 1617, photo by Chiara Quinzii


In 1922, the public garden Park Güell, designed by Antoni Gaudì, was officially opened. In this park we can assist with a synthesis of the elements that are characteristic of the Spanish public space, with a richness and complexity that had been previously unheard of. Punctual elements and open spaces, nature and artifice, structure and decoration: everything seems to have a common genesis, in a continuous and fluid passage from one to the other. Gaudì devours architectures and past styles, revising them and placing them in original garb. This is how the hall of 100 columns is presented, an architectural forest that resembles the Cordoba Mosque, but in an essential Romanic style that gives majesty to the space, but soon it is reversed by the informal shape of the shingle: a wavy parapet that can be a seat and contains a wide exterior square. The ambiguity continues, using as floor a drain excavation, defining a kind of warped Plaza Mayor. From there, some trails follow the slope of the mountain becoming a series of tilted columns, that create a covered walk. And yet it is not mountains, and not even columns; maybe they are caryatides, statues of women that bear the entire weight of the ground.

Antoni Gaudì, Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain, 1922, photo by Chiara Quinzii

1975: Plaza del Tenis is completed in San Sebastian, in the Basque Country, designed by Luis Peña Ganchegui and Eduardo Chillida. This project is both art and an urban arrangement of sculpture and landscape. Architecture and sculpture blend into each other, thanks to the Chillida sculptures, made of Corten steel, directly tied to the rock, and to the stone cubes that create the floor of the square, designed by the architect Luis Peña Ganchegui. The urban space here becomes the direct extension of a wild, hard, and implacable nature, as ocean, yet domesticated through human effort. The warped stone of the mountain is regulated, converted into the floor, then the ocean is embanked by strong parapets, but still it blows through convenient holes  in the floor. From the sea, the Peine del Viento (the Wind Comb) observes human events that happen in the square, imperturbable in spite of the surf.

Luis Peña Ganchegui, Eduardo Chillida, Plaza del Tenis, San Sebastian, Spain, 1975, photos by Diego Terna

Expo, Olympic Games, Forum

1992 was a magical year for Spain because it hosted the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the Expo in Seville. These international events of historical importance brought worldwide recognition to Spain. It was the first turning point for the country, since the death of the dictator Franco in 1975. This time the turning point was in the architectural field: starting from the early 1980s the country began its building future, and laid the foundations for the economic growth of Spain, and the building frenzy that followed.

With the Seville Expo was created the AVE, the high-velocity Madrid-to-Seville rail line that has added new lines, finally of international gauge (the large gauge of the Spanish railways impeded the admittance of European trains in the country). Seville was completely reorganized and provided with the infrastructure that it had lacked under Franco’s dictatorship.

Although the enormous effort to bring Seville to a respectable urbanistic condition, Barcelona cannot be overlooked in discussions of urban quality. From the end of the 1970s, Oriol Bohigas assembled some young architects and developed a new city plan for Barcelona, that would be completed by 1982. That plan became the starting point for the construction of the Olympic Barcelona: the project is based on the transformation of many parts of the city  that became a complete urban project when they were combined.

1983: Viaplana and Piñon, with the collaboration of Enric Miralles, completed Plaza de los Paises Catalanes in Barcelona, in front of the Sants Rail Station. The architects planned to avoid the use of natural elements, but used artificial elements as they would appear in nature. There are pillars and metallic roofing like trees with foliage, minimal, abstract, quite like an application of the paradigm point, line and surface by Kandinsky, according to the critic Kenneth Frampton. In that situation, the architects integrate a wide surface, crossed by different traffic flows, and designed as a homogeneic floor surrounded by vertical elements, and with thin metallic shelters as counterpoints.

Viaplana – Piñon, Plaza de los Paises Catalanes, Barcelona, Spain, 1983, photo by Annapaola Ramorino

The Plaza de los Paises Catalanes is an iconic project of the first phase of the general plan; the second phase would have as its symbol the return to the sea of the city, thanks to the remodeling of Barceloneta through the construction of the Olympic Villa. With a few exceptions, the project of the single architectures has not been so successful, but the urban surrounding of the area create the sense of  a new concept of city: from that moment on Barcelona would be a place where people could work and entertain, where it is possible to find frantic human activities and solitude by the sea or in the mountains. From the discovery of the sea until the Universal Forum of Culture in 2004, Barcelona continuously renovated its landscape design. For that reason another part of the seaside was recovered with the construction of a masterpiece by Lapeña-Torres, a photovoltaic shelter that covers the end of the maritime path of the city. The shelter defines a strong area, concentrated, but not oppressive, on the contrary extremely light and prismatic. The four shapeless pillars contain an aerial environment, where the view to the city, to the park, and to the sea blend into a single landscape. The roof determines another limit, between sky and earth, maintaining the dichotomy of lightness and gravity. People are driven in a world of powerful airiness, in which the human dimensions become immense, giving the impression of anchoring the landscape.

Lapeña-Torres, Photovoltaic shelter, Barcelona, Spain, 2004, photo by Chiara Quinzii

Unify, enlarge, Measure: recent projects

2000: Enric Miralles is buried in the cemetery of Igualada, that he had completed in 1991, with the collaboration of Carme Pinós. Seventy years after Park Güell, we are surprised at the complete indistinguishability between architecture, landscape and nature, in a totally anthromorphised topography but respectful of the landscape’s pre-existence. Miralles-Pinós’ design is stunning for its totality, from the landscape to the smaller design objects. The retaining walls become buildings, then bending in light embossed elements that become stepping stones to the staircases or shelters of the accesses. The trees, as usually used in Spanish squares, rise directly from the artificial floor, in which drowned timbers guide the path. Shapeless rocks, supported by metallic cages, contain the main square with a wavy outline, that resemble the Park Güell square. Here again, the slope of the mountain becomes a wall, maybe a column, and a grave. In spite of its sad function, the project conveys serenity amid the tension of the architectural shapes, a place where, paradoxically, it is pleasant to walk.

Miralles-Pinós, Igualada Cementery, Barcelona, Spain, 1991, photos by Diego Terna

2001:  Eduardo Arroyo’s Plaza del Deserto was inaugurated in the Basque city of Barakaldo. The fusion between greenery and the building and the creation of a new urban land is determined by a colored pixel grid, that from time to time becomes essential shrubbery, floor, slope and water. Against the logic of superimposed layers, Arroyo sets a mathematics of cards that add up each others and give life to a considerable complexity even the modest dimensions of the intervention. The project, in fact, is a notable microcosm of the Bilbao outskirts, giving a meaning to the big buildings around the Plaza. To the possibility of build a big open space, Arroyo enriched a desolate territory by adding new views, many paths and new possibilities.

Eduardo Arroyo, Plaza del Desierto, Barakaldo, Spain, 2001, photos by Diego Terna

2005: On the newer periphery of Madrid, in Vallecas, the Ecosistema Urbano Office designed the Ecoboulevard, a pedestrian boulevard between two lines of residential buildings. The key idea is still the integration between nature and artifice, not to create a new land but some punctual objects of urban scale, three large artificial trees that scan the path along the street and create a relation with the big dimensions of the housing along that. The hypothesis is to activate the ecology of the area without waiting several years to permit the growth of greenery. Therefore they propose an artificial and concentrated kind of nature, constructed from recycled material and using solar panels that make the object energy self-sufficient. Every tree creates a single square of shade on the sunny boulevard. When the natural green grows, the three artificial trees will be disassembled and become colonizers of other spaces, starting a cycle of reusable resources, that may be the only practical means of future urban growth.

Ecosistema Urbano, Ecoboulevard, Madrid, Spain, 2005,  photos by Diego Terna

Measure, enlarge, unify: six contemporary projects

The projects that there will be introduced here are a synthesis of the quality of the urban interventions in contemporary Spain.

Their main characteristic is their shared birthplace, place of study, or workplace in Barcelona. This is no coincidence: in the past twenty years, Barcelona’s urban space has become paradigmatic. Although the wild competition with the Madrid University, that is the base for Spain’s most important architectural offices, Barcelona, and its university, have dominated the development of landscape projects, the legacy of the preparation for the Olympic Games and for the permanent renewal of the city.

Another factor is the legacy of Enric Miralles, again linked with the city of Barcelona. Despite his untimely death, Miralles is the most shining example of Spanish and world architecture. Many of the architects who worked in his office have shown their talent, even if, so far, the reference to Miralles is mostly formal. It is too early to know how enduring his legacy will be, as Koolhaas work for the Dutch architects, or it would be a unique case, on the manner of Gaudì.

Some architects were born and raised under Franco’s dictatorship. Their projects seem to express a sort of liberation that pushes them to design playfully, reading the world as a blank slate (tabula rasa) where everything is possible. Although the projects are complex they are always light, playful, and more physical than psychological.

These projects have three defining characteristics: the search for vertical elements in the landscape; the definition of empty spaces of which people can make intense use; and the construction of a new territorial topography. It is a broad classification, absolutely schematic, so that every project has more than one characteristic. Its purpose is to facilitate a first reading, that, will be broadened to analyze every single project.

It is essential to understand why Spain is so architecturally advanced; in every proposal spatial planning occupies the land, the light, the seats, and the green. Every project sets its own standard and there are no reference models imposed by the municipality, as has happened in other cities. This fact is important because is a cultural fact: to design a different kind of chair, for example, encourages architectural research, responds to citizens’ requests, and encourages people to think about the contemporary urban space, on the small acts, and on ways to use architecture and objects.

Measure: vertical marks

In 2006 movie Volver, Pedro Almodóvar introduced Solano, the wind from the west that sweeps through La Mancha and, some say, gets mad. And yet this wind is a resource that Spain has exploited used for centuries to run its windmills and, nowadays, wind turbines. So the country is crisscrossed by a series of vertical elements that arrange the landscape with their large scale.

The ad for Brandy Veterano, with its logo the silhouette of a bull designed by Manolo Prieto, has became a national symbol of the landscape, in just as the innumerable photovoltaic panels have become along the highways.

The Segovia aqueduct and the Naranco Church, like the windmills and the bulls are marks on a bare landscape. They reduce the dimensions of the landscape to a human scale, by a familiar sense of recognizability.

And so it often happens that in the Spanish landscape projects, also in the smallest, there are sculptural shapes, artificial evolutions of trees and bushes, as it was before the shelves in front of the Sants Rail station. In the Pinar de Perruquet Park, the symbolic elements are some pergolas that have some strongly recognizable elements, quite like landscape icons. That fact makes the project recognizable and gives pedestrians around a familiarity with the new giants (gentle giants, as opposed to those against whom Don Quijote fought).

Enlarge: juxtapositions

At the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, in Madrid, it is possible to see Eduardo Chillida’s 1988 work, La mesa de Giacometti, a work in which a flat surface of corten steel is blended on the edges, cut, and sectioned, giving life to an imaginary city. In this city the quality of the space is played on two essential elements: the edges and the homogeneous material of the surface. It is simply the juxtaposition between the horizontal surface and the volumes that rise from it. It is an elementary but fragile balance, one that is perfectly weighted.

Eduardo Chillida, La mesa de Giacometti, 1988, courtesy Museo Reina Sofia, photo by Diego Terna

You can see the same weights in the plans of the domes of the Bab al-Mardum Mosque, in Toledo, a drawing that seems to be very similar to an urban square, to a block of Example in Barcelona, or to Plaza del Deserto, in Barakaldo. In these vaults the game gets more geometrical in comparison with the work of Chillida, and only thin lines break the strong mathematics of the project, accidents that give life to an imaginary city, where every dome builds an individual world, that is tied to other worlds.

Plans of the domes of the Bab al-Mardum Mosque, Toledo, Spain

The projects for the Casco Antiguo de Banyoles and for the Plaza del Torico hark back to this problem. Their fundamental characteristic is the balance, a careful calibration of single pieces. In both the cases the presence of the historical city requires a balance that impose a considerable rigours: the solution is played on the horizontal surface, on the new field, that cannot be a mad topography, but rather a  moderate connection between volumes. But as in the work of Chillida, or in the Toledo Domes, an act can break this rigor, bringing life to the project and so to the city: in an instance are the edges on the floor, like to lift up the surface to reveal a water world; in other instance is the flooding of hundreds of lights that transform the square in an iridescent setting, that breaks the consolidated schemes of the historical center, as years before the timbers in the Igualada cemetery established a new, changeable landscape. It is possible in this way to create a wide territory, in which volumetric pre-existences, ground, human activities converse in a continuous relation, that is the empty space stressed by the project.

Unify: fictitious topographies / deformations

In 1592 El Greco completed The Coronation of the Virgin, in which he shows the ascension of the Madonna to heaven, at the center of the divine Trinity. The scene is enclosed in a landscape made entirely of clouds. The crescent that supports the Madonna distorts the scene, as if it were stretched downward, as if the mortal woman was still tied to the Earth, and the divinity tried to snatch her to her nature. Everything is warped: the scenery, figures, the light.

So, wracked with grief, comes the breast of Christ on the cross, in the Crucifix of the Carrizo, in Leon, of the end of the eleventh century. It is necessary to approach it and imagine a top view. The chest becomes a new landscape, an imperfect topography still alive, furrowed with deep scars that shake its nature.

So most of the projects involve the construction of a new ground: the Park Cuchillitos, the Parque Atlantico in the Vaguada de las Llamas, the Galindez Slope and Pau Casals Square. All of these projects have an exaggerated research of stretched, warped, bent shapes defining a new artificial topography. But it is an exasperation that, when built, works, because it stimulates the senses of citizens, creates unexpected views, gradients and slopes that animate the landscape. It becomes vital, then, the floor of the ground, but at the same time the vegetation, water and seating combine to produce a new world, a kind of playful enclave within the hardest rhythms of the city. In these projects there is no fear of the new; the experiment is always strong, bold, and the citizens seem willing to accept the hypothesis proposed, they want to try new ways to use the city. New urban areas are created, some super natures which lead to testing of use.

Again we go back to the fundamental fact of Spanish urban planning: the city is the place that people exploit during their public life. This fact gives life to the projects, to their quality, forcing planners and municipalities to continue the renewal of the city.