Friday, November 30, 2012

No Bull

Canteen. Image courtesy of the architects

The cover story in December's Architectural Review (London) features my article on the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid's Matadero Cultural Center by Langarita Navarro Architects. The project is one of four winners in the Review's annual AR+D Awards for Emerging Architecture.
"María Langarita summarises, ‘Buildings are like ships that travel in time, with certain technologies from the past, and you decide if you are going to send those technologies again into the future or not.’  In the case of the Matadero, their project promises to quietly disappear, like the village of a nomadic tribe in the underbrush, while sending the naves onward towards a more durable reincarnation."
Red Bull Music Academy
Matadero Cultural Center, Madrid, by Langarita Navarro Architects
The Architectural Review, December 2012, page 46, cover

Hidden corner of the Academy. Photo by DC

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Call for Entries

The editors of Architectural Record announce the 2013 Record Houses awards program. Entry is open to any architect registered in the U.S. or abroad. Of particular interest are projects that incorporate innovation in program, building technology, materials, and form. Projects must be built and inhabited. They may be new construction or renovated and adaptive reuse projects. Entries must be approved by client for publication and if selected, be available for a visit by a writer.
Deadline is January 4, 2013.
For more info and to enter, click here.

The editors of Architectural Record are currently inviting submissions for the 2013 ARCHITECTURAL RECORD GOOD DESIGN IS GOOD BUSINESS awards program.
Deadline is February 15, 2013.
For more info and to enter, click here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Crisis Casualties: Foreclosed Homeowners

Anti-eviction march in Bilbao this weekend, from El País.  © Luis Tejido (EFE)

News and Opinion
Amid Spain's economic woes, the drama of mortgage foreclosures has captured public and political attention recently.

Since the crisis started, some 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes for defaulting on mortgages, according to estimates.  The rate is about 3% of all outstanding home debt -- not an alarming number in economic terms, but staggering in human cost.

Protest movements to halt evictions have been growing, and leftist parties such as Izquerida Unida have for years been calling for major reforms in the harsh eviction laws, which strongly favor banks  over homeowners.

This fall, the protesters received the support of an association of judges, who demanded that the government take action. Judges  aren't supposed to be in the business of recommending legislation,  but they have assumed a degree of moral responsibility and authority before the public that Spain's politicians have largely lost. 

Several dramatic suicides by people caught up in evictions attracted the attention of the press (middle class people, who can mobilize public concern to a degree that the merely poor and working class seldom do), and the government was forced to consider the question with some urgency, although the measures they've announced amount to very little.

In Spain, companies are prohibited from cutting off your water or electricity for failure to pay their bills -- these utilities are considered essential to the right to life and dignity and so forth. But a bank can throw you out of your house for default, even though the right to decent housing is written into the Spanish constitution.

What is more, the subjects of foreclosure have no voice in eviction hearings. And the seizure of the property in question does not necessarily satisfy the debt with the bank. The value of the property is officially appraised and whatever is not covered by its value, including accumulating interest, remains as a debt on the shoulders of the evicted former homeowner.  And banks routinely manipulate appraisals downwards in their benefit, according to newspaper articles on the issue.

Families in Spain had few alternatives to high mortgages with floating interest rates in the years of the boom. The rental market here is very limited, while speculation sent home prices soaring.. In an article on November 11, for example, The New York Times reported on one foreclosure victim, a construction worker who paid US $ 320,000 --a staggering sum here-- for a basement apartment in the working class neighborhood of Carabanchel, and lost it to foreclosure three years after he lost his job.

Despite the pressure, the conservative government has done very little to alleviate the predicament of  families facing foreclosure -- in part, according to El País, due to counter-pressures from banks and Brussels, worried about Spain's general credibility.

The government proposes to pass a two-year moratorium on foreclosures for only a small percent of victims who must meet a number of conditions in terms of income, family size and other factors to qualify as "the most vulnerable" to "social exclusion".  Interest on their debt will continue to accrue during the moratorium. And the government has promised to set up a fund of apartments to rent at subsidized prices to evicted families, drawing on Spain's stock of vacant units, although such a government program will probably take years to get going.

What I don't understand is why so much is mobilized to rescue banks, and nothing for the victims of their manipulations. Conservative politicians talk about foreclosure victims in moral terms, as welchers on a business deal  --private property always seems to be the most sacred right for conservatives-- but balk at holding banks to the same moral standard.

Wouldn't it be more logical if some of the money sunk into bailing out banks was used to lower mortgage debt and payments for foreclosure victims too? The same money would end up in the banks anyway. Spain' stock of vacant apartments, vagrants and squatters would not continue to grow, and a lot of human suffering would be avoided.

But to enact something so simple and logical, so full of common sense and humanity, would probably take nothing short of a revolution.

Other basic measures should be enacted:
  • Fixed interest rate for life of mortgage.
  • The house as sole guarantee for the loan.
And the market should consider:
  • Conversion of empty units to rentals facilitating long-term occupancy.
  • Sale of empty units at real present market value. Banks and owners still resist serious markdowns (except when they are taking over foreclosed properties).
In the NY Times story, the construction worker in Carabanchel won a temporary reprieve from his  bank after protesters, outnumbering the police on the scene:
"By the end of the morning, bank and court officials had agreed to postpone Mr. Hernández’s eviction for six weeks. He still faces a debt of more than $330,000, more than he paid for the apartment. In Spain, mortgage holders are personally liable for the full amount of their mortgages. Then penalty interest charges and tens of thousands of dollars in court fees are added at foreclosure. Bankruptcy is no answer, either — mortgage debt is excluded."
El Pais has a web page dedicated to their ongoing coverage of this issue, which can be found here.

Link here to the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca  or Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages, the popular movement leading opposition to evictions.

A story in El País on November 24th traces the links between the anti-eviction movement and the 15-M movement:
La lucha antidesahucios, el primer logro del 15-M

Add to these victories against evictions the demonstrations that forced Madrid's regional government to go back on its plan to convert La Princesa, the noted research hospital, into a geriatrics facility (a plan also criticized by professional associations). And the adventure towards Catalan autonomy sponsored by regional president Artur Más was also inspired by a massive pro-separatist demonstration in Barcelona on September 11th. As in the years of the transition to democracy or the mass protests against Basque terrorism, well-organized public demonstrations are proving again to be a powerful tool for shaping policy in the Spanish democracy.

Is this necessarily positive? Or does it point as well to a fragile rigidity in Spain's democratic institutions, unable to adequately respond to crises, and to the weakness of its politicians, lacking in leadership and vision? As in Catalan separatism, the impulses of the mob are not always so hot. But so far, in their level of civic awareness and active solidarity, popular movements and voters are way ahead of Spain's political class.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Antón García-Abril: Fun with Precast Concrete

© Roland Halbe. Used wit permisssion

This week, Bauwelt (Berlin) runs my article on the House of the Reader in Madrid's Matadero Cultural Center by Antón García-Abril, where he adapts three of the early 20th century industrial sheds of the old municipal slaughterhouses for a center dedicated to fomenting reading  (sorry, no web version).  

"Where's the challenge in a simple renovation project? Characteristically, García-Abril found that challenge not so much in the design as in the process of its construction, introducing eleven precast concrete catwalks, U-shaped in section, into the existing structures, each 13 meters long and weighing 52 tons, without knocking down a single wall. "

"Go to Youtube and look up Building the Reader's House, and you will find a time-lapse video, set to the mechanical music of a popular Madrid organ-grinder tune, of workers sliding the precast elements one by one through the masonry window openings of the existing structure. The fit is as tight as a greased drill shaft going into an oil well, and is comically hard-core." 

"It matters little that the final product of this sleigh-of-hand seems tame in comparison.... "

Bauwelt 43
November 9, 2012
Pages 28 - 32; cover

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lebbeus Woods 1940 - 2012

Here's Steven Holl's tribute to Leb Woods in the Architecture and Design Blog of The Guardian, which brings together many other testimonies. Remember Pamphlet Architecture? Together with John Hejduk, Woods was a singular figure from a singular time:

"I met Lebbeus in February 1977. I arrived at Leb's small loft in TriBeCa to find him standing bent over an enormous black and white drawing of a Piranese-like urban vision. His cigarette had a long grey ash that was about to drop as he greeted me briefly and turned to show me the amazing drawing."

"Lebbeus and I began to meet every couple of weeks at a diner that served "all-you-can-eat-for-a-dollar" bean soup. Our ongoing philosophical discussions led to our sharing reviews in the design studios we were teaching.

"In 1977, I began work on a project titled Bronx Gymnasium-Bridge that would become the first issue of
Pamphlet Architecture. Lebbeus made the third issue with the project Einstein's Tomb. It was an amazing vision for a tomb about Albert Einstein – a strange architecture that would travel on a beam of light around the Earth. Today, I imagine that tomb is occupied by the spirit of Lebbeus."

"The freedom of spirit in architecture that Lebbeus Woods embodied carried a rare idealism. Lebbeus had very passionate beliefs and a deep philosophical commitment to architecture. His designs were politically charged fields of reality that he created."

Photo above from Dezeen

Berlin Free-Zone 3-2, 1990. From a 2008 NYTimes article by Nicolai Ouroussoff
Addendum 12.30.12
See Michael Kimmelman's tribute to Woods in the year-end New York Times Magazine.

Gae Aulenti 1927-2012

Benedetta Tagliabue, a Milan native, wrote a personal tribute to Aulenti in El País last Saturday (in Spanish).
"Aulenti had to chose between art (her true passion) and architecture. The second option finally won out, after seeing the ruins of Italian cities a hundred times in the postwar years. "I still hate ruins," she acknowledged not long ago."

Spaniards Abroad: Donaire in Ramallah

The Seville-based architect Juan Pedro Donaire has won an international competition to build a cultural center for the A. M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, on the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority is based. Two of the finalists were also Spanish firms, and the third was from London. The building includes galleries for the Foundation's art collection, a library and spaces for cultural events.
El País, 10.28.12

Spaniards Abroad: AV62 in Kabul

Victoria Garriga and Toño Foraster of the Barcelona firm AV62 have won an international competition  to build the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. Second place went to the Madrid studio of Emilio Tuñón, out of a total of 70 entries from 43 countries. Garriga and Foraster have  pioneered in working in the Middle East, where they previously won a competition to rebuild a Baghdad neighborhood. The architects cite the Mosque of Córdoba as one of the inspirations for the project. After a quick glance, it would also seem to owe something to Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The full story in the English edition of El País can be found here.

Hermitage Franchise Planned for Barcelona

Taking a break from his campaign to secure re-election and sponsor a referendum for Catalonia's independence from Spain, Catalan President Artur Mas was in Moscow last week to close negotiations for a branch of the Hermitage Museum in Barcelona.

The museum will occupy an expanded industrial building in the port, near Ricardo Bofill's Hotel W. The project is designed by architect Ujo Pallarés, who is also the principal in the private firm that will finance and run the museum, according to El País.  The details of the agreement signed in Moscow have not been made public.

Above, rendering from El País of the proposed musem.

The story in El País:

Mas y Mascarell viajan a Moscú para cerrar la llegada del Hermitage
Un Hermitage con muelle propio