Hugh Broughton Architects

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My Kind of Town

Published in Architecture Today, 1 January 2014

Founder of Hugh Broughton Architects, whose work includes a recent extension to Maidstone Museum, the design of Antarctic research stations for the UK and Spain, and an American atmospheric observatory in Greenland, reflects on his love of Barcelona for the feature 'My Kind of Town' in Architecture Today.

Twenty years ago, in 1994, I handed in my notice, got married and moved to Barcelona. We lived in a small rooftop flat in the Barri Gòtic with a terrace, hammock and an unsurpassed view of the cathedral. I was researching the feasibility of a large practice setting up an office in Spain but their fortunes were waning and it became increasingly clear that they were more intent on closing offices than opening them. I began to seek another job, and on a trip back to London I met Tom Neville, then editor of architectural publisher Ellipsis, who invited me to write one of its series of city guides to contemporary architecture. I made a bid to do Barcelona but that role was already taken and he offered me Madrid. Reluctantly we packed up the hammock and moved south to the Spanish capital to begin the task of documenting the best new buildings in the city.

La Rambla Boulevard in Barcelona

La Rambla Boulevard in Barcelona

A few minutes after arriving in our basement apartment the doorbell rang and I was greeted by an architect who had heardabout the guidebook and wanted to submit his projects for consideration. The architect was Alberto Campo Baeza. From that moment on the soul of Madrid began to get hold of me, and it has never left. Madrid came to prominence only when Philip II moved his court there in 1561. Right in the middle of the newly unified nation it quickly became a focus for migration from all over the country. Its cultural diversity has been a feature ever since, representing every corner of the country in its politics, cuisine, arts and architecture. In every sense, Madrid is a microcosm of all Spain. On the one hand it is a traditional European capital with unsurpassed art galleries, glittering towers, wide boulevards choked by crowds of suited Euro-businesspeople all bathed in a haze of pollution. 

On the other hand it is almost rural in its provincial subculture: elderly women dressed in black passing the day on shady benches, bustling community markets and the constant gossip emanating from cafes on every street corner. It is this dichotomy which is the lifeblood of the city. The development of Madrileño architecture is closely linked to the country’s recent political history. Franco’s approach to building was strictly revisionist, drawing upon ill-conceived notions of empire to project an image of strength, exemplified by monumental edifices such as the Air Ministry at Moncloa or the Edificio España in the city centre. As a result, following the return of democracy in 1982, architects invested in modernism with unfettered enthusiasm as they threw off the shackles of the past and joined in the creative boom of the Movida Madrileña. Unlike other European cities where commercial projects dominated the 1980s and 90s, in Madrid there was a public building boom, with numerous libraries, galleries, health centres and social housing constructed over a short period. Highlights such as Rafael Moneo’s Atocha station and Cruz & Ortiz’s Community Athletic Stadium are matched in quality by much smaller, but nonetheless delightful, projects such as Juan Navarro Baldeweg’s Pedro Salinas Library and Andrés Perea Ortega’s Santa Teresa Church in Tres Cantos. 

In the last 20 years conditions in Spain have changed. Following European integration and economic boom the country has slipped into decline and the architectural development of the capital has suffered consequentially. Spanish architects now scramble for every commission, with many going out of business and others forced to find work abroad. Just before the slide the city did have a glorious swansong, gaining some of the most exciting examples of public architecture in Europe including Jean Nouvel’s brooding extension to the Reina Sofia, Rafael Moneo’s bravura extension to the Prado, the peerless new terminal at Barajas by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Estudio Lamela, and the seductive Corten-clad Caixa Forum by Herzog & de Meuron. These projects demonstrate the national commitment to the public realm. 

For my own part, however, the best demonstration of public interest in architecture stretches back to my halcyon days in 1995, reviewing buildings for that Ellipsis guidebook. At the time the right-wing City Hall had decided to introduce a series of bulbous pastiche advertising columns, known by their detractors as ‘chirimbolos’, or ‘thingamajigs’. Intended to raise extra income, instead they raised the blood pressure of the people, who organised mass public marches through the city to protest at their installation – demonstrating both an extraordinary commitment to the built environment and the irrepressible Madrileño appetite for design of only the highest standard.