There was a time when the future of architecture lay in leisure. Cheaper travel, more leisure time, longer vacations, lighter currencies: the new utopia of the 1960s would be a landscape of megahotels with pools, towers with balconies, pedestrian zones with endless opportunities to eat, drink and dance, all implemented in the clear, clear architecture of the international modernity with a view of the endless blue of the sea. And all of this would come out of nowhere.
Well, almost nothing. Miami presented the template, a city on the Everglades. It is Raison d’etre was development, its industry consisted of real estate draining the swamp to create more of itself that could be resold.
Europe’s ground zero was Benidorm, Spain. On more solid ground than Miami and with a long history as a fishing village, it became a remarkable experiment in creating a vertical ocean city. Without Benidorm, Dubai might not exist – another city founded on the sand and forged by its skyline.
Benidorm has the most high-rise buildings per capita of any city in the world. But the resort is also mocked almost everywhere as a mass-market metropolis aimed at the drunk British crowds, a neon-lit strip that advertises fish and chips, jelly shots, and sangria jugs.
Mediterranean architecture usually conjures images of sleek white mansions on rocky outcrops or apartments with green shutters and gently peeling ocher plaster – not space-age towers with British pubs crammed into their floors.
It may not be the level of sophistication. But as an architectural experiment, it remains as fascinating and compelling as it was when it was conceived in the mid-20th century. It’s a density model that not only endures, but has proven to be incredibly influential and yet almost never featured in the credits – probably because of snobbery. It’s just not on the cultural radar that way.
Modern Benidorm was founded by its mayor, Pedro Zaragoza Orts (1922-2008), a local and Franco regime official who was sent back from Madrid in 1950 at the age of 28 to become mayor of his hometown. Benidorm’s fishing industry was ailing and southern Spain’s economy was still largely agricultural, but Zaragoza saw a future in tourism. He renounced height restrictions that excluded towers and welcomed bikinis (otherwise banned in strictly Catholic Spain during the Franco era).
More towers, more meat, more tolerance all around. Even with a grid plan based on the US model, this was still a decidedly European city with accessible block sizes, the beach as the most important public space, many pedestrian zones and small, family-run shops and bars.
While there would have been squares, public spaces for representation and relaxation in a traditional Spanish city, here they have been replaced by hotel pools. These are semi-public spaces that create the dynamism. Seen from balconies, restaurants and roofs, they set refreshing highlights in the street scene, always-present blue flashes remind the visitor that this is a pure holiday town, a land of leisure.
The Benidorm designers obviously took inspiration from American resorts like Las Vegas, Miami, Mexico, and even Cuba. The towers were amazingly modern for a country where architecture was stuck in a conservative culture (with a few brilliant exceptions like Miguel Fisac).
Against the striking background of the Puig Campana Mountains, the towers were less disturbing than if they had been placed in a flat landscape; as in Hong Kong, the skyline prevailed over the topography. There weren’t any architectural stars in Benidorm – no famous names or world companies – but many of the towers are inventive, elegant, sometimes minimal, sometimes maximal, sometimes space age, and often pleasantly louche.
In a city built entirely by private companies, one developer, Coblanca, had the greatest influence. The commissioned architect Juan Guardiola Gaya (1927-2005) became the single most influential figure in the design of the Benidorm skyline.
As a Catalan, Gaya moved to Alicante in 1959. He designed more than 40 towers in the city and more than 100 in the region. From the 29-story Torre Coblanca, Benidorm’s first skyscraper (1966), to the incredible 26-story Torre de Benidorm (1975), its buildings ranged from the elegant international style to the expressive late modern era recently through practices like. Herzog & de Meuron and OMA were revived.
For example, look at the formal similarity between Torre de Benidorm and Herzog & de Meurons 56 Leonard Street in New York. Coblanca 5 (1972) is a bundle of brick poles with curved bays, the shape of which has been adapted and adopted by designers around the world.
Gaya was the region’s renaissance man. He also designed the interiors, lobbies, and sometimes the vibrant murals, abstract sculptures, and art that adorned them. At their best, they are wonderful examples of a total modernist vision. Despite the rapid change in the shops, bars and clubs on the street, many of the lobbies remain exquisitely untouched and his work can still be seen inside.
Some buildings in Benidorm have theatrical curves, broad curves or angular floor plans. With its pool on the first floor and the concave facade, Coblanca 3 is reminiscent of Oscar Niemeyer’s seductive Edifício Copan in São Paulo.
Although I don’t know its designer, I’m also very impressed by the tower that towers over Tony Roma’s steakhouse on Avenida del Mediterráneo, a little eerie with curved corners and strange, eye-shaped openings.
The density of this high-rise resort means the elevations are just as important as the layout of the streets. It’s rich, complex, and colorful. Almost all buildings have balcony grids that give them texture and are enhanced by bright awnings. Although many are no longer functional or shabby today, the interplay of lowered, half-lowered and raised fabrics gives the towers a wonderful, varied wealth in striking pallets; Canary yellow, tree canopy green and so on.
The construction boom continued into the 1980s, but slowly gave way to a globalized aesthetic with towers like the recently completed 47-story Intempo, which was to be equally at home in Shanghai or Dubai.
The last of the really stylish, late modern towers is the Neguri Gane (designed by Roberto Pérez-Guerras and Julio Pérez Gegundez). It was completed in 2002 but looks like a brutalist retrospective, with an affinity for Madrid’s 1961 Torres Blancas. It arguably also predicted the shape of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
The tourist stereotype of Benidorm is one of lobster pink beer casings and screeching bachelors. The photos by photographer Martin Parr have captured a picture of these British people lounging by the pool and rolling through the streets in front of the abstract backdrop of the towers. The city’s appearances in popular culture have done it little favors. But that remains a classic, condescending image.
With much of the world neglecting its best architecture of the 1960s and 1970s, redesigning it for more density and profit, Benidorm still revels in it. These buildings have recently been represented in very different ways. The photographers Roberto Alcaraz Oviedo and Al Mefer filter out the tourists and have found striking beauty in the skyline, divining pastel areas and surfaces of seemingly endless balconies that lie somewhere between Andreas Gursky, JG Ballard and Wes Anderson.
Benidorm is not a nice place. Hiking through the countryside of
British pubs (modeled after British pub chains themselves), tiki bars, sub-Vegas neons, and English cafes can be a confusing, sometimes unsettling experience.
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Nevertheless, there are glimpses of the city’s incredible architecture and design through the strangest apartment doors, over pools and from balconies.
It indulges in its reinterpretations of modernity. The towers are a rare holdover from the optimistic architecture of a future of leisure that we may never quite have caught up with.
Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the FT
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