Struggle for self-development

Miguel Fisac’s best-known building may be demolished, but it still provokes discussion. However, the documentary ‘The Freaky Story of the Funky Skyscraper’ by Andrés Rubio is not only about the Spanish architect Fisac and this building, but also about his generation during the Franco regime.

Heavy excavators fitted with steel claws eat their way slowly but imperturbably through the final chunks of concrete of a curious tower. Local architects have gathered to collect pieces of rubble as souvenirs, and to express their grief about the drama unfolding before their eyes. The Pagoda, the office tower belonging to the Jorba Laboratory and one of Miguel Fisac’s most distinctive works, was demolished in 1999 to make way for an anonymous building clad in glass. The modern era of shady speculation had taken control of the city of Madrid.
These are perhaps the most characteristic images of the film whose leitmotif is ‘struggle’. For director Andrés Rubio the confrontation with the demolition of the tower forms the introduction to a journey of discovery into the life of Fisac. It is an atypical architecture film that is about more than just ideas and designs. These are dealt with extensively, but the story of the architect serves to illustrate life in a turbulent country.

The film begins in the 1950s and ’60s as the Franco dictatorship started to stabilise after the war years and Spain profited from its increasing economic dynamism. In Madrid many buildings were constructed to celebrate industrial and technological progress. With its expressive twisted overhangs, the Pagoda became one of the new icons of the city. Fisac had already amassed an imposing body of work and was experiencing a period that would later be recognised as his most significant. These were the years in which he frequently experimented with concrete and became fascinated by the possibilities of flowing, natural forms.

After the introduction Rubio takes the viewer back to the dark 1930s and ’40s so that we learn more about Fisac’s background. His personality was shaped by the choices he took at crucial moments, choices with political and religious backgrounds that would have far-reaching consequences on his career.
During the first years of the dictatorship, Fisac lived in hiding in republican territory on account of his Catholic faith. He allowed his religious conviction to weigh more heavily than his republican background. During this period the modern movement of the 1920s was pushed aside by the fascist ideas of the new regime. At a certain moment Fisac met the priest Josemaría Escrivá, and through him Fisac came into contact with Opus Dei and thus landed his first big commissions. From that moment on his portfolio grew in tandem with an internal struggle: a confrontation between creativity and strict dogmatism.

His inevitable departure from Opus Dei signalled the start of a new struggle to position himself in the freedom achieved. He was helped in this regard by his wife and the other intellectual side of Spain that he got to know through her. His career was given another big boost. He developed the so-called ‘bones’ — beams shaped like vertebrae that he employed to create spatial rhythm and light incidence. In 1960 Fisac integrated these bones in his design for the Centre for Hydrographic Studies, a project comparable with the Jorba Laboratory and one that many people consider his most important work. The way in which the gigantic hall for basins is roofed was innovative for its time. The beams create rhythm, scale and illumination that breaks the monotony of the space. For most people, however, the spectacular interior remained a secret, and not everyone recognised the quality of this long, anonymous building that blocks the view of the river.

Churches constitute an important aspect of his work and are extensively covered in the documentary. As a devout man, Fisac was sensitive to religious architecture and succeeded in combining this with his love for structures. That resulted in a wonderful fusion of spirituality and earthly techniques that was also expressed in his rhetoric. In that sense the moment we see him explaining the origins of a particular design is typical of him. He gives the impression that the designs simply appeared and were not consciously conceived by him but simply constructed. It is unclear whether he saw himself here as an instrument of a higher power, or whether it was just a way of parrying tricky questions.

Opus Dei returns one more time in the film and the life of Fisac. Decades later, after the demolition of the Pagoda, Fisac and critics gradually started to suspect that the extensive network of Opus Dei was responsible for the tower’s violent disappearance. Vindictiveness towards the deserter, it is alleged, prompted Opus Dei lobbyists at the city hall to secure permits for demolition.

Despite the sense of calm, the structure of the film requires close viewing. It jumps back and forth in time, and the alternation of different forms of illustration with interviews works in a fragmented manner. Yet Fisac’s buildings always form the basis on which the story is carried along, and all information is forged together. Rubio makes frequent use of fragments from conversations with young architects for whom Fisac is a source of inspiration. During these interviews opinions turn out to be divided. The Pagoda is both praised and criticised, a confirmation that this important work provokes strong reactions of all kinds. Likewise, not everyone appreciates the later work by Fisac from the 1970s and ’80s, in which he used concrete more and more as a skin and experimented with its texture.

No matter how much the interviewees differ with one another, all agree on the significance of Fisac for the development of Spanish architecture. Even so, owing to his modesty, he never enjoyed the glory that befell contemporaries like Alejandro de la Sota and Javier Sáenz de Oiza. This absorbing portrait made by Andrés Rubio has contributed to a well-earned re-evaluation of this intriguing architect.