A new book is scathing about the unsightly developments that have spread all over Spain – but there are still unspoiled corners to be found
A happy holiday is often about turning a blind eye – ignoring the inflated prices, brushing aside local problems, pretending the only view in the world is the one through the hotel window. The same, frankly, applies to travel writers. While working on guidebooks to Andalusia I have concentrated on sherry, bullrings, sunsets and gastronomy, somehow managing to disregard the hillsides of the Costa del Sol, a hell-scape of hideous over-development, stripped of trees, lost in a pall of dust made from construction materials and earth blown off the desertified slopes.
According to Andrés Rubio, author of a new book, Espana Fea (Ugly Spain), it’s high time we paid attention to the eyesores that are despoiling the cities and landscapes of his native country. Because, he says, “without a national strategic plan the devastation won’t stop but will only get worse.” Rubio, who was the El Pais travel editor for almost 20 years, has done a fair bit of promoting his country’s beauty to readers. He says his Damascus moment came when, on a visit to Tenerife, he went to see a beautiful valley that his uncle had shown him 30 years earlier. 
“It was an agricultural landscape, full of exotic flowers that Alexander von Humboldt had said was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. I went looking for it in the car. It had disappeared. In its place had spread a hotchpotch of informal constructions bereft of charm. Right there I realised that if you destroy a landscape you’re also destroying people’s emotional memory.”
His book, which is causing a stir in Spain, is subtitled “Urban chaos – democracy’s greatest failure.” Rubio lays much of the blame for deregulated, out-of-control development at the door of the Franco government of the Sixties which, while packaging up a sanitised “Sunny Spain” for foreign tourists, encouraged radical and ill-informed urbanisation. Franco’s housing minister, José Luis De Arrese, promoted what he called “the ideal formula, the Christian one”, by which he meant an architecture that eschewed local traditions and topography. Private ownership was key to the credo; notions of “public good” and civic responsibility were nowhere to be seen.
Franco, who, like many dictators, considered himself an artist, commissioned bombastic schemes like the Madrid Air Ministry, University of Gijón and Valley of the Fallen, that took inspiration from the sober works – most notably El Escorial – of the 16th-century architect José de Herrera. Often massive and monumental and always at odds with their setting, these “Neo-Herrerian” buildings were meant to demonstrate a new era of moral “reconquest” was underway. But democratic Spain fared no better, allowing speculators total control over developments, squeezing out public spaces, discouraging the contribution of artists and thinkers, and allowing what Rubio calls “segregating cities”: the wealthy here, everyone else over there.
España Fea takes the form of a travelogue, around Spain but also through France, Germany and Italy, surveying positive and negative examples. Along the way, Rubio reminds us of Spain’s remarkable architectural heritage, places like Granada’s Alhambra, Toledo’s synagogues, the Alcántara Bridge in Cáceres, Segovia’s Coca Castle. He praises sensitive developments in Santiago de Compostela and Girona. He also has kind things to say about Barcelona and, perhaps more surprisingly, Benidorm.
“Benidorm’s functional tower blocks, many of them quite slender constructions, are a model of sustainable density, nothing like the much more damaging sprawling developments we see elsewhere. With hindsight, if only there were more Benidorms.” 
Elsewhere, the coast comes in for particular criticism. “Around 90 per cent of Spaniards live on the littoral and in Madrid,” he writes. “Of the 26 kilometres of shoreline at Marbella, 98 per cent of the first 100 metres of land is urbanised  – and the remaining two percent is under threat.”
Rubio likens the “chaos of bad architecture, the horrible chalets and semis” to a “tsunami of urbanisation”. Spaniards, tourists and expats alike are condemned to dwell in characterless apartment blocks and ersatz “villas” that spread and replicate like a virus. Such a high degree of development, at sea level, has potentially catastrophic environmental consequences, removing natural barriers to rainfall and exposing property-owners to flood risk. It places a huge burden on local services, with millions of residents requiring sewage, motorways, water and food.
The 2008 financial crisis led to a property crash and the abandonment of many projects. Rubio gives the example of Ávila, where plans to double the population were scotched and the city was left with “skeletons of buildings, semi-urbanised zones, a landscape of contemporary ruination”. But the coast was where the market plummeted most, and it still lies strewn with unfinished developments and empty houses.
Not all of Spain has been blighted and botched to the same extent. I know beautiful corners of Extremadura, inland Andalusia, Galicia and Cantabria; there are lovely backstreets and alleys in Cádiz, Madrid and Seville. I recall landing once from the ferry in Santander and finding that city an understated joy – nothing attention-seeking or especially photogenic but solid, convivial, oldish and harmonious-looking. Certainly it compared favourably with Plymouth, where I’d boarded the boat.
Is Spain really any worse than other European countries? 
“I don’t think it’s possible to prove that Spain is especially ugly,” says Josep-Maria García-Fuentes, senior lecturer in architecture at Newcastle University. “Nor that Spanish modern architecture and developments are any worse than, or qualitatively different, from what you find in other countries like Italy, France, Portugal or the UK.
“During the democratic period in Spain there has been a boom of quality public architecture which has been acknowledged worldwide during the 1990s and 2000s, either for buildings or urban developments – think of Barcelona or Bilbao, for example.”
But Rubio’s point is only partly about aesthetics. His moral and political argument is that if a state allows speculators and developers free rein, ancient treasures as well as sensitive modern projects will always be at risk from desecration and intrusion. “Bad planning and illegal construction conspire against democracy and equality. Spain’s ugliness is not so much about what is picturesque or not, but, above all, about what’s sometimes called ‘spacial justice’ – the right we all have to a healthy and attractive environment whether we’re rich or poor.  
“What the country needs is something along the lines of the French system – where there is a powerful and independent body of architects and urbanists, a coastal protection agency that buys as many properties as it can and preserves them ecologically on behalf of the French people, and a ministry of culture that promotes architecture. It’s a truly unique and inspiring approach.”
Given protected status in 1961 – thanks, ironically, to the intervention of a Francoist museum director – this former capital of a Berber Taifa (kingdom) is a fine example of careful conservation. The Islamic, medieval character of the village is intact and the fortress, tower, cathedral and city walls are in harmony with the landscape.
Lanzarote-born Manrique’s “interventions” at the Jameos del Agua lava caves, along with his Cactus Garden, El Diablo Restaurant, Mirador (viewpoint) and House-Museum demonstrate how he channelled his responses to the island’s volcanic terrain into a dialogue between buildings and nature. 
In 1993, Unesco recognised Menorca as a Biosphere Reserve, recognising its “sustainable tourist industry and traditional practices that ensure the preservation of natural ecosystems.” The island is  low-slung and far more sensitively developed than Mallorca. Some claim Menorca was spared mega-development because Franco denied the island funds for infrastructure projects as punishment for supporting the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Others put it down to the island’s aristocratic families refusing to selling land to make a quick buck (the likes of Club Med were refused planning permission in the Seventies).
Not for nothing does JG Ballard’s dystopian murder fantasy Cocaine Nights unfold in Estrella de Mar, a development on Spain’s southern seaboard. Franco might have been a Catholic Nationalist, but the Costa del Sol is ugly as sin, with coastal hotels and resorts walling off the sea. But the real horror is up on the wastelands of the hills, where sterile white pods dot arid slopes for mile after mile – developments often financed to launder ill-gotten gains.
This recently completed 47-storey eyesore is a classic wannabe skyscraper. Visible for miles around – breaking up the panorama of nearby mountains – it erupts out of the city without any consideration for surrounding buildings. By comparison, the infamous curtain of mid-rise towers along the front looks positively discreet.
“It’s the murder of the landscape… merely looking after the personal interests of señores, X, Y and Z,” pronounced Joan Miró in the 1950s. From his stylish Palma studio, built by Josep Lluís Sert, the painter couldn’t ignore the contrast with the high-rise hotels erupting all over the island. Miró designed the famous sun symbol used in Spain’s tourism campaigns; the overselling of sunshine and sand played a key role in Spain’s devaluing its cultural and built heritage.
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