The City That Never Was: Learning from the Spanish Housing Bubble

International
Monday, February 25, 2013
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Conditions outside of Madrid. (Jennifer E. Cooper)

Conditions outside of Madrid. (Jennifer E. Cooper)

Described as “crime scene photos,” stark images of Spain’s housing bubble landscapes depict a grim reality. But instead of a somber discourse on the evils of political corruption and real estate speculation, the Architectural League’s symposium this past Friday, The City That Never Was, looked forward and, as Iñaki Abalos aptly asked, wondered if we, “can turn shit into gold.”

Building on their research and design studios at the University of Pennsylvania, Chris Marcinkoski and Javier Arpa, the moderators, explored the future of urbanism through the lens of Spain’s economic crisis and its resulting desolate urban form. Framing the historical context of boom and bust cycles, they reveal that the Spanish situation is only unique in scale and intensity. It exists as part of a larger commodification of urbanism all over the world resulting in similar conditions in an ever simplified placeless urbanism.

An international range of speakers from both Spain and the US covered issues regarding agricultural production, city planning, waste flows, and repurposing of vacant land. Each panel ended in a group discussion which began as an invigorating dialog, but by end of day became a bit muddled in message.

University of Pennsylvania’s new Chair of Landscape Architecture, Richard Weller, struck a positive note in the final panel when he said that each speaker had “left clues” as to how the current situation could be ameliorated and avoided in the future. Some of which included Barcelona’s Enric Batlle’s ideas regarding the preparation of space over time providing a road map for incremental change and Chris Reed’s kit of parts for Detroit which could be useful in facilitating the reuse of incomplete developments.

In thinking about other paradigms for development, Weller advised “designing the system, not the aesthetic.” To that point, the discussion of waste became particularly fertile when Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for the NY Department of Sanitation answered the previously asked question with a resounding, “Shit is gold!” The audience may not have left with a definitive recommendation but was certainly inspired about the possibilities.

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