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The Architectural Legacy of Spain's Building Boom

In the first decade of the 21st century, Spain was defined by bold building. But the recession has brought the country's architectural ambitions to a grinding halt. The legacy of the "Bilbao Effect" is a series of attractive but budget-busting projects for a country that couldn't afford much of it after all.

The bust has been much harder on small firms than the starchitects that helped define it. An estimated 45 percent of architecture firms in Spain have shut down since 2008. Four thousand architects have left the country in the meantime.

Earlier this week, Feargus O'Sullivan wrote on this site about the uncertain future of Spanish urbanism, highlighting pre-recession mega-projects not yet complete or even started. And in a recent interview, architect Manuel Ocaña offers a scathing critique of a building culture centered around its shortsighted vanity. 

Ocaña doesn't feel the legacy of Spain's building boom will be seen as much more than superficial, saying "98 percent of all of recently built architecture in Spain is crap, and half of the remaining 2 percent (the architecture we know by means of the Media) is manipulated in order to be appealing to the media." He took issue with what he saw as an "orgy of originality," that tried to "democratize excellence by mesmerizing the architecture trade with blissful paraphernalia of colors and soft shapes."

The works of international icons like Calatrava, Eisenman, and Gehry will likely define the boom at its most opulent, but small, usually local firms were just as busy during the good years. A dizzying collection of cultural centers, public housing, and athletic facilities from the era are sprinkled throughout Spain, each project a chance for small firms to get their big break.

In some cases, these projects were opportunities for smaller, poorer cities to get their own sort of "Bilbao Effect." While these projects may have boosted portfolios, the best chance for any more work will most likely be in other countries. 

Below, some of those less famous firms and their public works. All photos courtesy of the architects.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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