Photo by Lorenzo Vecchia
Long time coming
Barcelona is already famous for one unfinished architectural masterpiece, but it’s the Las Arenas bullring in Plaça Espanya that’s currently grabbing the headlines—for all the wrong reasons. The paralysed project is embarrassing to all the players involved, including the architects, the contractors and the Ajuntament; it’s a half-finished €100-million white elephant in one of Barcelona’s most trafficked places. While the economic crisis is largely to blame, disagreements between the high-profile British and Spanish architectural firms involved have surrounded the project. With the original completion date of autumn 2006 long passed, and the second target of spring 2009 also gone, there is now no official end in sight.
The remake of Las Arenas is one of Barcelona’s most prestigious recent construction projects. Originally built in 1898, the bullring was abandoned in 1990 as the popularity of bullfighting decreased. It fell into disuse and the homeless camped out there. Then, in 2003, the illustrious British architectural firm of Richard Rogers announced a collaboration with Barcelona’s Alonso Balaguer firm to finally revitalise it. The €100-million project featured mouth-watering designs to create an elegant and sustainable combination of old and new, providing 70,000 square metres of space for business, retail and leisure facilities including a new FNAC, Mercadona and museum of rock music. The pièce de résistance was a solar-powered roof terrace that would form a ‘piazza in the sky’ with stunning panoramic views over the city.
In March of this year, however, amongst the economic meltdown and unpaid bills, construction was abruptly halted. The building firm Dragados stopped work after months of being unpaid and Sacresa, the owners of the site, went into liquidation. They subsequently entered into a messy administrative takeover by Metrovacesa who, in turn, suffered a partial takeover by banks. At press time, no official agreements had been reached regarding the resumption of construction, with the entire project in limbo.
Lluis Alonso, a joint partner in Alonso Balaguer, told Metropolitan that construction would resume very shortly. “At the moment the construction—not the project—has been stopped due to the economic crisis. That means that the owner has changed from Sacresa, which was our original client, to Metrovacesa. The delay is because there were so many pending administrative questions, specifically about the construction company Dragados.”
In April, they started removing construction equipment from the site in protest at the failure to reach a settlement. “In my opinion, this is a question that could take just a few more days or weeks—no more than that because everyone is focused on following ahead because the building is so advanced that it’s not logical to stop now,” Alonso told Metropolitan in late April.
The economic crisis does not bear all the blame for the project’s problems. Disagreements over design specifics of Las Arenas have resulted in a rupture between the British and Spanish architects involved. “Problems between Richard Rogers and Alonso Balaguer emerged as early as 2007 when Richard Rogers departed their joint offices with Alonso Balaguer to set up a skeletal staff of their own separately,” a British-trained Spanish architect close to the project, who asked to remain anonymous, told Metropolitan.
“The reasons for the split were because of concerns over issues of credit for the design of Las Arenas and the Protos Bodega, and also the loss of the Viladecans Business Park joint project later to be commissioned solely to the Alonso Balaguer office. This followed the first joint project between the two offices for the Hotel Hesperia building on Gran Via, regarded as a huge failure both in financial and design terms by the Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners London office.”
A representative of Richard Rogers declined to discuss Las Arenas, telling Metropolitan that the company “is not commenting” on the project. Alonso denied that any rift has taken place, although he told Metropolitan that the two firms won’t be working together again. “We have been working with Rogers on several projects in Spain but the bullring will be the last one that we are developing together. We decided to finish this joint venture together without any kind of problem. We have been developing everything in harmony, but in the future each one wants to have their own way. It must be made clear that there is no kind of problem between us. We are friends and completely without any kind of problem. We have an office onsite where our architects have been living together for the past five years.”
If economic problems and architectural bickering aren’t discouraging enough, it seems that even the weather is determined to plague the progress of the project. During the period that construction has been suspended, Las Arenas has suffered structural damage, which will set back the project even further. The persistent rain that fell in Barcelona during April damaged the wooden interior, which was not yet fully protected by the shell. “It’s not a really, really serious problem, but it is a problem obviously,” said Alonso.
Even if building resumes, the problems for Las Arenas won’t stop there. There is a worry that the building will open half empty, without enough occupants to cover the first and basement floors. However, Alonso maintained that the majority of the building is occupied with businesses currently being selected to fill the remaining two floors. “The dome will be occupied by a media company and the fourth floor will be occupied by a sports company and rock museum. On the second and third floors will be 12 cinemas. FNAC, Mercadona and Veritas will occupy the lower level. The rest of the space will be occupied by small operators. It’s not necessary to have everything occupied yet because there are many operators waiting and Metrovacesa are selecting which ones will be appropriate to balance everything in the retail centre.”
As a result of its problems, the final cost of the project also remains unclear, although Alonso said that as far as he is concerned, the final figure will only differ by four percent from the original budget of €100 million. “The project has cost almost the same as the budget we signed with Sacresa six years ago. We have just a deviation of four percent. But the question is, we don’t know anything about the figures Sacresa has passed onto Metrovacesa.”
Asked about the €200 million figure being suggested in the Spanish press, Alonso said, “I’ve seen that figure too, but I don’t know anything about it.”
The €100 (or €200) million question is when will Las Arenas finally open its doors to the public? Once construction begins again, it should be no longer than a year, said Alonso. “We should take no more than six months. That means six months to finish the shell and six extra months to finish the interior design.”
If recent developments are anything to go by, however, it seems there’s a good chance of seeing the Sagrada Familia finished before Las Arenas.
Las Arenas’s rebirth has been going for six years. It seems like a long time, but is a drop in the ocean compared to some other building projects:
Great Wall of China—actually multiple walls and collectively taking at least 2,000 years to build.
Sagrada Familia—still going, and so far it’s taken 127 years...
Sydney Opera House—it needed a fairly modest 16 years to build.
Leaning Tower of Pisa—Begun in 1173, work came to a halt some 10 years later as a result of soil subsidence that made the tower lean by five centimetres. Construction restarted in 1275 and was completed in 1284.
Meanwhile, other projects were finished in a relative blink of an eye:
Empire State Building—started on March 17th, 1930 and officially opened by President Hoover on May 1st, 1931 although masonry work had finished on November 13th, 1930.
Eiffel Tower—constructed in two years, two months and five days between 1887 and 1889.