My trip had been booked for weeks, but I was still in two minds as I raced for (and nearly missed) an early train to Manchester Airport. I say two minds simply because of all the projects I was leaving behind, and work piling up to fill every spare moment. They say a change is as good as a rest, and even though this wasn’t going to be anything like a rest, it actually turned out far better…
The destination was Madrid, and the contrast with Yorkshire and its deep green valleys couldn’t have been greater. The majority of the two-hour flight was spent travelling over a layer of clouds until we neared Spain where, blocked by mountains, they gave way to a landscape of brown and gold, arid features explained instantly by the wave of heat waiting as I stepped off the plane.
Madrid was only a brief stop for one night though – a chance to visit the vast El Retiro Park complete with architectural follies of historic splendour, and to sample indifferent food at a couple of local tapas bars – before meeting my coach and fellow students the following morning.
The purpose of the trip was a two-week traditional architecture summer school organised by INTBAU, the Premio Rafael Manzano, and the Fundación Botín, and supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Charitable Lead Trust as well as numerous other organisations. (The full list and further information can be found at: https://summerschool.premiorafaelmanzano.com.) Spain has a rich heritage of vastly different building traditions, which (like everywhere) have suffered the effects of globalisation, with a subsequent loss not just of richly distinctive and beautiful places, but also the skills necessary to maintain them. The summer school though was one part of a growing movement to retain and improve the skills necessary to keep these traditions alive, and this year would be set in Cantabria, a mountainous area several hours north of Madrid, where the Celtic part of Spain meets the sea.
Thankfully the long coach trip was broken along the way with a visit to the cathedral at Burgos, where a senior priest led us from one opulent space to another, a literal treasure house of art and architecture, and notable for the large choir area not at the head of the church, but in the centre.
Unlike the medieval cathedrals of France whose layouts focused on the celebration of Mass, Spanish cathedrals focused on music, and the greater the number of choristers the greater the blessings on their cities. The relentless combination of visual splendour however, and a stream of translations, caused my mind to wander until a distinct mention of El Cid, and the realisation that we were standing at his tomb set in the floor, and images of old movies came instantly riding out of time.
Spaniards in our group were quick to point out that he was basically a mercenary, and that the stories which surround him are larger than life, yet as they talk they not only mention the name of his wife, but of his horse and his sword too, revealing the strength of a legend which clearly lives on…
Leaving the cathedral and going for lunch was the first real chance to meet some of the other participants, and to find just how international the group was. The different regions of Spain were heavily represented, but also much of the Spanish speaking world, with students from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Cuba, and many students from the States as well. Britain however was represented by just three people, and all of us ‘foreign’ – myself, Basia (proudly Polish but resident in Scotland for many years), and Anna, a Spanish plasterer and designer from Barcelona who has lived in the UK for the past decade. Strangely though that was it for northern Europe, and the rest of the delegates had found their way there from Jamaica, Italy, Portugal and even India – students and architects united by an interest in traditional architecture and creating beautiful places.
The rain in Spain might fall mainly on the plains, but it clearly hadn’t done so for a while based on views from the coach windows, but as we drove further north the parched landscape began to change – rugged mountains and unforgiving cliffs appeared as we climbed, with fields becoming more green.
Eventually we left the main motorway and the road dramatically shrank, and fields that once filled the views on either side narrowed as well, sliding wherever possible to find level ground in the rugged terrain.
At our highest altitude the land was wrapped in cloud and fog, before beginning the descent down into the valley beyond, and our home for the next two weeks. Down through oak forests to the valley floor where Spain’s largest river flows (the Rio Ebro), and small traditional villages of stone houses and churches lie strung in sequence, interspersed with pasture, orchards and farms.
Our own destination was Polientes, the administrative capital of the local district Valderredible (within the region of Cantabria). But despite its relative importance Polientes, like the rest of the valley, had seen more prosperous days. Walking around it felt substantial and well maintained, but a closer look revealed the number of empty properties, some of them in very bad states of repair, but the solidity of the construction meant that for most of them the decline was long and slow, at least for the outer walls.
The full capacity of the village was 500-600, although only 100-150 people now live there full time. In spite of this the town has a bank, hotels, bars and restaurants, and a small supermarket too, as well as a town hall sadly modernised and gutted of the former character clearly suggested by its grand façade.
On arriving, Rebeca (one of the amazing organisers of the school, always helpful, happy and miraculously unphased) quickly sorted us out with rooms, and coming to me with a clipboard said in a quiet voice that “most people are sharing, but because of your age(!), I’ve given you a single room, if that’s alright…”. A slight indignation aside, having my own space was a godsend gratefully received, although it turned out there was barely time to enjoy it.
The schedule for the next two weeks was quickly established, and just as quickly dashed early notions that the course might simply comprise bits of drawing, balanced with easy days of eating, drinking and seeing the local sights… Instead the daily routine (for most of the time, including weekends) was breakfast at 8, then a combination of drawing tours of surrounding towns and villages (the first week), or workshops (week two), from 8:45 until 2pm, a long lunch, then carrying on again until 7, when evening lectures would begin. Although these were meant to finish by 8:30pm or so, in practice it was usually 9:30 or 10pm by the time we finally stepped outside and made the walk down to a small restaurant bar beside the river.
A special marquee had been set up to accommodate everyone, with food that had a fantastically random quality to it, invariably three simple courses accompanied by a local red wine, and staff that seemed genuinely happy to see us, even though the number of special diets must have driven them crazy!
Remarkably I only saw one mosquito the entire fortnight, however flies did their best to step into the breach, at least in terms of being annoying. Never enough to feel like a swarm, but always a few during the day that would make you feel like their special chosen one, looping around over and over despite repeatedly waving them away… Larger wildlife surely existed, and locals told us that there were still wolves (small ones), bears and wild boar in the forests, but apart from a few song birds and vultures far away and on the wing, the countryside seemed remarkably quiet apart from the bells and lowing of local cattle, and not even lizards on the walls…
And so the first week was mainly composed of exploring the nearby towns and villages with sketchbooks in hand. Split into groups, we were given special drawing exercises to complete – perspectives, cross sections, details, plans or elevations, followed by group reviews and positive critiques that helped interrogate places in even more depth, and which helped with technique as well.
The level of ability amongst the faculty would be worth a blog of its own, but hopefully it’s enough to offer a brief summary under the umbrella title of ‘excellence’. Douglas Duany (University of Notre Dame) gave the impression that he must have surely put the word urban in urbane – steady, inquisitive, and with an oblique, participatory teaching style that helped students to find their best. Christopher Miller (Judson University) possessed a supernatural niceness, matched with an equally impressive ability to draw beautifully from life, and Frank Martinez (University of Miami), friendly, encouraging and endless amounts of energy. Extensive local guidance and support came from José María Ballester from the Fundación Botín, who had also been instrumental in bringing us all to Cantabria.
The star of the show however was Alejandro García Hermida (Vice Chair of INTBAU Spain) who, together with Rebeca, had organised the summer school, and who acted as both teacher and translator, particularly for the evening lectures.
These were often very technical, and could have risked becoming tedious after long days in the sun with dinner yet to come, but had drawn in a remarkable array of speakers whose knowledge and ability made one feel lucky to participate. Rafael Manzano (who gives his name to Spain’s incredibly generous traditional architecture prize) was with us for several days, and offered two lectures on the evolution of classical architecture – old school images slowly and methodically drawn on the chalk board, partially illustrating a lifetime’s depth of knowledge and experience working on some of Spain’s most iconic historic buildings.
Other lectures ranged from understanding local and regional history (from ancient prehistory to the middle ages), traditional craft techniques and restoration, beautiful examples of contemporary traditional architecture, and even the fallacies of the Venice Charter – the foundation and cornerstone of international policies that intentionally destroy the character of historic buildings.
The focus of the summer school was (partly) two-fold – to increase the skills and abilities of participants interested in traditional architecture and urbanism, and secondly to increase interest and awareness in preserving the remarkably intact identity and character of Valderredible.
Global warming will inevitably drive many people in Spain further north to repopulate the green valleys of the River Ebro (the temperature in Madrid on our last day was 102F / 39C, and European summers are getting hotter all the time), bringing further risks to a coherent local identity comprised of a strong vernacular tradition of building. Massive stone construction, simple details, jettied timber balconies and tiled roofs are played out in endless variation, artfully following the terrain, and effortlessly demonstrating ways to build in beautiful places that actually add to that beauty.
And so the course delivered on both its main aims. Although the overall level of ability of participants was already high, the quality of drawings improved perceptibly within just a short time, and the amount of work produced was immense. Pulling it all together was a challenge, but from a chaos of drawings order rapidly emerged on the final day, just in time for a public exhibition back at the town hall.
The Mayor and other local dignitaries collectively thanked us for the work we’d done, and an impressive turnout of local residents circulated, questioned and commented on the drawings and plans pinned to the walls, particularly the collective work that had produced a vision for 2050.
Based on past summer schools, this work will possibly be pulled together and made available online, adding to that of previous years. It will also be linked to other initiatives that do more than simply promote the idea of maintaining a cultural continuum of building beautiful places, but which also demonstrate that it’s possible.
Before I came on the course I was incredibly jaded, having spent years working within local government on the front lines of discourse and policy that explicitly call for better quality in the built environment, but which are actually more interested in ensuring business as usual, and maintaining the professional and commercial activities that have destroyed (and continue to destroy) some of the finest towns, cities and countryside in Europe and the world. The reasons for that are manifold, from the bureaucratic and universal imposition of technical standards for highways, through to architectural ideologies, lack of local accountability, public sector risk aversion, lack of capacity, and on, but I’ll come back to these another time.
Instrumental to all of this though is a flawed narrative, a dichotomy of ‘past vs present’ which makes pariahs of architects who wish to work as part of highly evolved and proven traditions (both classical and vernacular). The urbanist Léon Krier has made the observation that we live in an age when almost anything within architecture is technically possible, but not everything is permissible, namely reconnecting with and maintaining a cultural continuum. In the UK (and elsewhere I’m sure) there are strong legal frameworks which help to preserve the historic environment, but which also schizophrenically dictate that places with comparable qualities should never be built again. So my final take away from the course is to ask a simple question – Why not? Why not be allowed to build beautifully again? And to create places people like, which work well, and where people can live well indefinitely… It seems to me that there are two routes to sustainability for the future, either by living lightly on the land, or by sinking deep roots, an example epitomised by Valderredible and the villages of Cantabria.
The final evening stretched long into the night, and it was a quiet coach that departed for Madrid the next day. Travelling south again, timeless landscapes, towns and villages eventually give way to the heavy infrastructure that accompanies ideas of the modern city.
Graffiti lines the bleak motorways like a confused cry for help from the monotonous housing estates either side, and then exiting on a slip road we’re suddenly back in traditional neighbourhoods, like flicking a switch between what is, what was, and what could be again.
So I have returned to the UK re-enthused to be working as an urban designer, but significantly less prepared to compromise, and recommitted to hammering home the question posed earlier – A simple ‘Why not?’ to building beautifully again, especially when so many amazing examples still surround us.