Essay and photographs by architect Pedro Hernández
Mass tourism arrived to Spain in the 1960s, forever changing the Mediterranean coastline. Dramatic population changes, massive building construction, excessive usage of non-renewable resources and other environmental problems have become its consequences. Architect Pedro Hernández explores the artificial territory of Alicante’s coast, defined by the presence of second home apartment buildings that remain empty, waiting for the arrival of the next busy tourism season.
The Party is over.
In recent months, that is the comment most often heard in Spanish mass media. The look and consequence of excessive urbanization appears everywhere. From newspapers to television, reports show the painful effects of the housing crisis and how we’ve been bad with the territory, the city or the landscape. The blindfold fell from our eyes and, although everything was there before, it seems we did not want to see it. The financial crisis exposes to the public the mess of a hangover that we now have to pick up.
The Spanish phenomenon of overdevelopment in residential construction is based on the idea of ‘Take the Money and Run,’ seeking, above all, immediate wealth with a short-term view, lacking any true intention of building a city. Thousands of houses were embedded in the territory, which caused a kind of cancer to spread from the city limits, houses that had to be connected in a network of communications, garbage collection and public services, and which quickly transformed the landscape. The bursting of the bubble caused the process to freeze and concrete skeletons, cranes, half-done streets, houses “for sale” or “for hire” and streetlights lighting up nothing to line the roads. In short, we live with the ruin we generated. The consequences of this situation go beyond the physical landscape, affecting the social one, too. Until the arrival of the crisis, we lived on the basis of a method: doing without thinking, which many people took as the chance to buy a home, either for their own use or as speculation through resale or rental. But now, with the absence of lending by banks, the Spanish dream of home ownership is farther away than ever, for a citizenry already uncertainty about their future.
A paradigmatic example of this situation is the province of Alicante, located on the southern Iberian Peninsula. Alicante, along with Malaga, Canary and the Balearic Islands are nodes in the country’s sun and beach tourism, and where you find the best cases to illustrate the oppositional ways of coastal planning: the management of quality space versus its sale. Benidorm, for instance, the city of entertainment par excellence, has a high concentration and low urban land occupation, a good reference on how to make an urban model associated with the sun and beach . But Benidorm actually represents an exception. Because on the opposite side of the situation, most of Alicante territory continues to be where “what you put on the market is the soil itself,” building large clusters of apartments and villas, “so as to get quick profits relating to property, but once these operations are carried out, structural problems appear”  and making this region now have the greatest number of second home ownership across the Spanish territory, with 9% of the total.  Tourist areas like Torrevieja (with 60% of homes built being second homes), Santa Pola (54%) or Arenales del Sol (91%) were built up following a dispersed urban model that occupies large areas subject to high seasonal sluggishness, accompanied by passive tourism. When the residents arrive during holiday periods and summer, the urban density increases three and fourfold. With the sedentary logic recurrent in present thinking (at least until the arrival of the crisis), static urban plans run a large number of houses and infrastructure that absorb these human flows, but are mostly underused and empty out the seasonal months.
This deserted picture is especially visible in the Mediterranean coastal areas, where a number of items incumbent upon economic speculation differentiate them from the interior land: the beach, the sea, the abundant sunshine, and the warm temperature, qualities that not only developed an abusive planning supported by the construction boom, but did it in parallel to the sea to get a piece of private property in a privileged, continuously built-up coastline.
Depending on the time of year, the landscape offers completely different perspectives. Every summer, thousands of tourists, domestic or foreign, travel in droves to the beaches in search of a spot where they can place the parasol and enjoy some sunshine, the breeze and the sea for several hours a day. In winter, by contrast, the situation cannot be more different. We meet huge urban voids that, a few months earlier, served as parking lots, windows with their blinds completely down, half-filled pools, closed shops and empty streets.
A walk in these zones extracts the actual behavior of these areas and easily displays the excesses of a decadent model where the asphalt and concrete grow rampantly and cause a break between the desired image of a resort — a relaxation offered by the old postcards — and the real image of the place, a landscape turned into a disaster, which seems to exude melancholy, a sense of loss resulting from a natural change in others, in parking and vacant lots, in abandoned, dirty, toxic, ambiguous, underused and somewhat useless spaces. The uncontrolled construction drowns the beach, reducing precisely those qualities that made it an attractive place for the economy. We are facing a huge graveyard from which we cannot hide and that we will be forced to face it in the future.
1. Benidorm “is nearly 30 years ago the first European destination on visitor numbers and overnight stays”: Benidorm: user’s manual. J.M. Iribas. MVRDV, Costa Ibérica : Upbeat to the Leisure City. Barcelona, ACTAR (2000)
2. INE (Instituto Nacional de Estadística) year 2001.
3. Benidorm: user’s manual. J.M. Iribas. MVRDV, Costa Ibérica : Upbeat to the Leisure City. Barcelona, ACTAR (2000)
Pedro Hernández is an architect and blogger who tries to redefine his interests beyond the traditional labor market. His work focuses on landscape and architecture as political weapons, and how they prioritize certain ways of life.
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