During the 1990s Spain went through a period of rediscovery, it seems, by the cultural establishment at large, which, suddenly, put the country right at the core of the international scene. It was the decade of the Olympic Games in Barcelona and the World's Fair in Seville, two events that left their indelible mark in the two cities and that, abruptly, catapulted Spain into the XXI century.
After close to two decades of democracy in the country, it seemed as if Spain was ready to join the leading players in world affairs, which led to increased interest in the real estate and the projects carried out in the country. Consequently, the years leading up to the third millennium were filled with plans to make this the land of the future: suddenly everyone wanted to visit Spain.
One of the projects dedicated to the celebration of the arrival of the XXI century was the Kursaal in San Sebastian. An ambitious complex incorporating a conventions centre and a concert hall, the Kursaal was designed by Rafael Moneo as a pair of rocks stranded on the estuary of the river Urumea. Two wedged structures that resemble more boat keels than stones the construction remains striking, especially by night when the whole building lights up from within.
Moneo's Kursaal is one of the representatives of an interesting theory dubbed critical regionalism, which sets out to buck the trend of an international, almost unified, style, and seeks instead to adapt the structure of the building to its surroundings and to adopt the characteristics native to the areas in its design.
However, the prevalent tendency of XXI century architecture in the great majority of projects in Spain has been to import architect and develop the most fashionable designs by hired hands. Such, for instance, has been the approach in the construction of the Cuatro Torres Business Area of Madrid,
Meant to be Spain's financial district, the four towers right on the edge of Chamartín have become an emblematic symbol of the city, such that the first thing you would see if you came to Madrid would be the silhouette of the towers in the distance. Built between 2007 and 2009 they are all between 225 and 250 metres high. Naturally, the last one to be built, the Torre Caja Madrid, designed by Norman Foster, is the tallest.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most emblematic project of XXI century architecture so far is the Torre Agbar from Barcelona. Commonly known as the 22@, it bears a remarkable resemblance with the Axe Tower in London. Built two years before the London 'gherkin', the Torre Agbar was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and has quickly come to be, at 150 metres high and with its colourful exterior, a true icon of the city.
Comparable, perhaps, to the status attained by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Although not, strictly speaking, pertaining to the XXI century architecture (the museum was built between 1992 and 1997) the structure of the Guggenheim belongs entirely to the trends set in the new millennium by architects worldwide. Often described as a deconstructivist building, the Guggenheim Museum successfully achieves the goals of critical regionalism by adapting its extraordinary shape to the history and tradition of its surroundings.
Recently, however, the tendency can be detected, as well, of an overturn in the preference of foreign architects over local artists. By way of example we could return to the Cuatro Torres complex in Madrid, where at least one of the four skyscrapers, the Torre Sacyr Vallehermoso, was designed by Carlos Rubio Carvajal and Enrique Álvarez-Sala Walter.
Another prominent example of this return to local talent, although in this case not necessarily to a local style, is the W Barcelona Hotel, designed by Ricardo Bofill, who was made famous in Spain for his adventurous building block Walden 7 in the 1970s. However impressive, the structure bears tremendous similarities to the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, a building that has firmly established itself as a landmark of the international style of XXI century architecture.