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Curator spotlights Spain's unique architecture

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Leer en EspaƱol

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Terence Riley did not set out to mount a sprawling exhibition on architecture in Spain. In his mind, the country would figure briefly in a show he was organizing at New York's Museum of Modern Art about stadiums, auditoriums and theaters around the world. Tentatively titled "Being There," that show was to take note of the remarkable array of new places of public assembly and spectacle around the globe, upending predictions that such buildings would become obsolete in a postmillennial technological age.

But as he traveled through Spain last February looking at various projects before heading on to other European cities, Riley, the museum's chief curator of architecture and design, changed his mind.

"I had this revelation of sorts," he recalled. "I began to realize that, as interesting as these projects were, they actually did not go together."

"I began to worry," he said. And then Riley realized that the show was right in front of him: an explosion of inventive architecture in a country that had long shunned experimental forms. From the Barajas Airport Terminals in Madrid with its vast wings of wavy steel, to the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona with an undulating roof of riotous color, so much of what he was seeing was compellingly original.

Powered by a democratic awakening after decades of Fascist rule and by the dividends of European Union membership, Spain, he saw, was clearly outpacing its European siblings in the breadth and daring of its new architecture.

The resulting exhibition, which opens on Feb. 12, will be Riley's swan song. Declaring that it was time for a change, he announced last month that he would step down in March after 14 years at the Modern.

The Spanish show, which is among the more ambitious in his tenure, could have a significant impact on Riley's legacy as an heir to Philip Johnson, the first to hold his position.

It wasn't easy to frame his Spanish show historically, Riley said, given that there were so many points of reference from the end of Franco's 35-year dictatorship in 1975, to Spain's entry into the European Union in 1986 to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, to the opening of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997.

The popular success of Gehry's turbulent titanium-clad museum turned a depressed postindustrial town into a bustling tourist destination. That turnaround, Riley said, prompted other cities in Spain to ask, "Why not us?"

"Local mayors have been emboldened, risk has been incentivized," he said. "Post-Gehry, there is this whole attempt to make the country more open to cultural tourism."

Spain now holds architectural competitions for all new public buildings. And an organization called Europan 8, which fosters architectural competitions for people under 40, has given young architects a boost; a bright orange housing project in Seville by Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano, which will be included in the show, was a Europan 8 winner. Also in Seville is Jurgen Mayer H.'s Metropol Parasol, which features mushroomlike structures in a grid formation framing a plaza; it is expected to be completed in 2007.

Construction has eclipsed tourism as the largest economic sector in the country, Riley said. And Spain is overflowing with architectural publications.

"What I really wanted to do was capture this excitement of how much stuff is happening right now," he said.

To test his idea, Riley asked several path-breaking architects what projects they were working on in Spain. Zaha Hadid had three; Jean Nouvel, five; Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, seven. Richard Rogers has designed the Barajas airport terminals in Madrid, with Estudio Lamela.

Other leading architects in the show include Rem Koolhaas, Thom Mayne, Rafael Moneo, lvaro Siza and Gehry all of whom, like Hadid, Herzog and Meuron, are winners of the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture.

When the Modern approached him, Nouvel applauded the notion of focusing on Spain. "He said Spain is just a unique environment," Riley recalled, "and I started to think about why."

Riley's love affair with Spain actually began three decades ago, while he was studying architecture for a year in Rome. He took the train to Barcelona to see Ricardo Bofill's new Walden 7 housing project, a labyrinthine complex of tiled buildings. It was 1975: Franco died that November.

He has since been to Spain perhaps 25 times, he said, sometimes simply for a Mediterranean vacation but often for work. Three of his department's exhibitions traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, and Riley is involved with the Mies van der Rohe Foundation, also in that city. And he was on the jury that chose Nouvel's design for an expansion of the Reina Sofma museum in Madrid, a project completed this autumn.

The addition, an assemblage of glass and steel structures with a triangular bladelike roof, is one of 18 completed projects in the show, and Riley included 35 buildings that are or will soon be under construction.

"It's not retrospective at all," he said, adding: "It's interesting how unnostalgic these projects are for some notion of old Spain. There is a freedom of expression that's evidently available to these people now, and they're using it."

There is Koolhaas's conference center in Cordoba, with its continuous open-air promenade establishing the building as a linear viewing platform overlooking the river and historic center; Toyo Ito's Relaxation Park in Torrevieja, Alicante, an inland salt marsh that evokes an abandoned natural landscape; and an expansion of the Valencia Institute of Modern Art clad in a metal screen, by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.

Spain's architectural boom is, of course, closely related to its economic upturn. In joining the European Union, the country became eligible for funds intended to equalize the standard of living in member countries. Spain received $110 billion to improve rail lines and build new airports, highways and bridges.

On another level, the country is playing catch-up, seeking to compensate for years of architectural conservatism that had left it out of step with design-savvy neighbors like France, Italy and the Netherlands.

"You have a country that has had a certain cultural and social deficit from the Franco years," Riley said. But the gulf between Spain and its northern neighbors stretches back much further.

"In the 18th and 19th century, it clung to this Counter- Reformation definition of itself," Riley said. "It became the anti- modern state, autocratic and orthodox. This is a serious attempt by these cities to address the deficit between them and other countries in Europe."

This context gives Spain's renaissance an explosive quality a sense of pent-up energy unleashed. The country is rebelling against its traditional roots, opening itself up to a range of aesthetic possibilities and allowing its varied cultural strains Moorish, Christian, Roman, Celtic-Iberian to find vivid expression.

"When the clamps come off and you give up on a unified country, you get this incredible platform for contemporary culture, driven less by these overarching nationalized narratives and more by these individual and regional expressions," Riley said. "Then Spain is a very fertile place for contemporary architecture."

While an abiding belief in the power of the individual runs deep in Spanish culture, Riley said, it was captured mainly in literature ("Don Quixote") and painting (El Greco, Velazquez), but rarely in architecture until now.

Several of the projects included in the show are vastly ambitious, like La Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia, a complex of six cultural buildings designed by Peter Eisenman that would surround the original medieval town center of Santiago de Compostela and is scheduled for completion in 2010.

Casa Rural in Girona, by RCR Arquitectes, is a single-family house consisting of 11 booths and several sloped gardens connected by a subterranean corridor.

In some cases, such projects are groundbreaking not so much for their design as for the effect they will have on their surroundings, Riley explained. "While the whole rest of the world is desperate to get an icon," he said, these are "building blocks" to energize cities. Examples include a town hall in Murcia by Moneo, a tennis center in Madrid by Dominique Perrault and a health center in Ibiza by Mario Corea and Lluiss Moran.

The country is using architecture "to stabilize neighborhoods and maintain a sense of urban life," he said. Instead of centralizing social services, education and medical services in Barcelona in large, hulking structures, for example, smaller eye-catching versions of them are scattered within each of the city's 41 traditional barrios, enlivening the neighborhoods and enriching the city's architectural fabric. Unlike China, Riley said, where most of the big commissions are going to foreign architects these days, Spain is turning enthusiastically to its own as well as to outsiders. Because of the range of work cropping up throughout Spain, Riley said, it is almost impossible to isolate any single aesthetic trend. "It's not surprising that you find a swing away from architecture as an alphabet of kings towards architecture as a form of personal expression," he said. "You don't see a national style. I don't think there is a national style."

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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