For nearly two decades Andrés Rubio poured over photos of Spain’s magnificent cathedrals, delicate Moorish architecture and quaint cobblestone streets. But as the editor of newspaper El País’ travel supplement, what often caught his eye was what was hovering in the background: glimpses of towering megahotels, skeletal remains of half-built buildings or jarring blocks of apartment buildings.
To him, the conclusion was inescapable – even if it clashed with the Spain that draws millions of tourists a year and is home to one of the world’s largest collection of Unesco world heritage sites. “Spain is ugly,” he said. “It’s very hard to say, but that’s how it is.”
His controversial view is the backbone of a new book, España Fea, or Ugly Spain, that takes readers on a romp through what Rubio describes as an “unprecedented cultural catastrophe”.
Looking past the dazzling Alhambra and alluring whitewashed villages, he catalogs fishing villages on the Costa del Sol that have been supplanted by a chaotic jumble of overdevelopment and charming villages where painstakingly preserved historical centers give way to peripheries pockmarked by discordant blocks of housing.
Eye-catching title aside, the aim is to explore the country’s wildly varying approach to development. He’s quick to point out municipalities in which development has been done well, such Barcelona, where tradition and public good have often been factored into the conversation.
The northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela – where a former mayor had a habit of turning down hastily conceived projects with the phrase “this is unworthy of Santiago” – is also held up as a model, as are villages such as Vejer de la Frontera in southern Spain and Albarracín in central eastern Spain. “Spain as a whole is very chaotic,” he said. “But there are individuals who manage to do things very well.”
He is also a fan of the Mediterranean city of Benidorm. “I like it a lot.” While he stops short of calling the coastal city a model of development, he said it had done well in striking a balance between population density and respecting the natural landscape.
“There may not be many examples of great architecture – there are some skyscrapers that are very beautiful – but the general tone of these skyscrapers is very dignified,” he said. He was swift to add: “With some exceptions. For example, the recently inaugurated Intempo tower is hideous. ”
He describes these municipalities as rarities in a country where development has long been driven by speculation and developers rather than thinkers and artists. Spanish politicians, in his view, have compounded the issue by refusing to have any kind of national conversation on how to grow its cities and villages in a way that protects the country storied past, cares for its stunning landscape and caters to the public good.
He contrasts Spain’s laissez-faire approach to development with that taken in neighboring France, where in 1976 former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called on the country to fight back against the “uglifying of France” in a letter to then prime minister Jacques Chirac. “France was the only country where the state took the reins and tried to control the process, in some ways,” said Rubio.
As a result, Spain is far from alone in its chaotic approach to development, he said, citing examples that stretch across the Mediterranean. “What we have to do is give the power to the thinkers of the city,” he said. “Hire the best architects, urban planners, landscape architects and geographers and all their multidisciplinary teams to get it right.”
And how to treat the blemishes that already exist? Rubio concedes that this is where things get complicated. He outlines a sort of “urban acupuncture”; small, targeted actions aimed at healing areas such as La Manga, where he said decades of unfettered construction had blighted what was once one of Spain’s ecological jewels.
Days after the book’s launch, Rubio’s provocative take on Spain has featured prominently in national media. So far the reactions he’s received have been positive, he said. “People see this as a very important issue in Spain. If you destroy a landscape, you end up destroying part of our memory. ”