Shocking images

Each year the Bakema Foundation awards a fellowship for research that ‘can offer a new perspective on the design, use and perception of the built environment’. On 15 December last Elena Cabrera Vacas, the fifth fellow, presented the findings of her study ‘Beni-YORK versus Marbella-BEACH’ on the development of two Spanish coastal resorts.

Can one really speak of ‘shocking images’ in urbanism? I certainly know almost no examples in the Netherlands. But my jaw did drop a little during the story about the effects of municipal corruption in Marbella, touched on during the presentation of ‘BeNI-YORK versus Marbella-BEACH’.

Elena Cabrera Vacas analysed two Spanish seaside resorts, Benidorm and Marbella, and examined the particular political and economic factors that resulted in two totally different cities. Benidorm and Marbella are also well-known in the Netherlands: the first as a place where North-European ‘snowbirds’ spend the winter; the second as a place of excessive pomp and circumstance for sheikhs, footballers and figures from the underworld. What’s more, in urban terms Benidorm is known as the high-rise capital of Spain, with towers of up to 200 metres in height. The name Marbella is linked to its corrupt ex-mayor Gil y Gil, who was found guilty of real-estate fraud on a grand scale in 2006.

What the two resorts have in common is that they were nothing more than small coastal settlements up to about 1950. Yet the location and climate turned out to be a major asset in attracting tourists. The opening up of Spain to tourists by Franco led to the emergence of the Spanish coast as a sunny alternative for the rain-soaked beaches of England and the low countries. That prompted the explosive growth of hotels, boarding houses and apartments on the costa. But the way in which Benidorm and Marbella have developed since the 1960s is as different as day and night. The causes of and effects on the urbanism and architecture of these places formed the subject of the research.

Cabrera Vacas considers Benidorm to be an urban model (BeNI-YORK) and Marbella a suburban model (Marbella-BEACH). At an early stage the local authorities in Benidorm took the decision to develop a ‘Future Plan’ for the coastline. This was based on urban building blocks along the beach. It soon became clear that this did not work for the development of boarding houses and hotels, especially when English tour operators started scouting for cheap accommodation in the 1960s. And thus came the high-rise typology for which the city is now famed: compact towers with space for a swimming pool and car park on the remainder of the site. Later, when the originally open zone along the street was filled with shops and restaurants, an urban streetscape did materialise. The impression ultimately created was that of a ‘skyscraper resort’, now beloved among local residents.

In Marbella there’s hardly any high-rise development. Here tourism was originally aimed at exclusivity. An ambitious vision of mass tourism, as in Benidorm, was never an aspiration. However, the city almost closed the gap with Benidorm after the election of Gil y Gil as mayor in 1991. During his tenure in office the built area of the municipality of Marbella increased sixfold. The majority consists of a sprawl of villas in resorts, and no fewer than 15 golf courses were built. This enormous growth could take place because the municipality and developers formed a clique. The power of the city authorities to determine the use of land was abused by earmarking as many areas as possible as ‘development sites’. In exchange, the city council received some of the profit. So to earn as much as possible, one could build everywhere: not only on agricultural land and nature areas but also on sites on business parks and areas in the city that were laid out as parks.

The analysis of the resulting urban situation therefore produces a shocking map. The street pattern looks like a shredded shirt that hangs together by a single thread. That’s because the city consists of a chaotic collection of dead-end roads leading to villa parks and golf courses. Owing to the lack of any overall plan, the old route along the coast is now the only east-west connection. All access roads therefore open off it, and that leads to a bizarre jumble of approach roads and exit roads along the coastal road. This is not only ill-considered but also unpractical: a route through the city from one to another place always means taking a detour.

The fraud was discovered in 2006 and Gil-y-Gil found guilty. In urban planning, however, what’s done is done. Marbella was saddled with the legacy of 1000 illegally issued development permits. There was little choice but to legalise these and accept the situation. A pragmatic solution, which makes clear that real-estate fraud is not only a punishable act but also adverse to the quality of the environment: once built, the city cannot be planned again.

In her presentation Cabrera Vacas clearly voiced a preference for the Benidorm development model. For even if it is less appealing aesthetically, it does produce a seaside resort that uses the available land relatively efficiently and is even an attractive place outside the tourist season. The plan and programme for the resort turn out to be adaptable and suitable when it comes to expanding its range of amenities. It remains to be seen it that is also true for the mono-functional and segregated Marbella. But beyond that, her presentation did not explore the flexibility or lasting character of these remarkable urban conditions.

It was also unfortunate that Cabrera Vacas did not exploit the ‘shock factor’ of her analysis to any great extent, certainly for a Dutch audience. With so much ‘firepower’ in the images, both the presentation and the discussion that followed could have used a bit more drama. Benidorm and Marbella are familiar examples here, and corruption and fraud in the property sector are also major themes in the Netherlands too. Alas, the evening kept well within the safe margins of spatial analysis and experience. For a foundation that explicitly focuses on the link between built environment and society, that was a missed opportunity.