Essay Luis Ulacia. Photography by José Ronco. Introduction by Iker Gil.
Eibar, a city of 27,000 people, is situated in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains on the border of the Biscay and Gipuzkoa provinces in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. The highway runs next to and above the city and, during my family trips between Bilbao and San Sebastián in the 1980s, I remember seeing the residential high-rise buildings, the soccer stadium, the seemingly random layering of low-rise buildings, and the roofs of the industrial buildings covered in a thin layer of water. A complicated topography that shaped a built environment with unique characteristics.
In the late 1990s, Eibar-based photographer José Ronco began photographing the city after witnessing the progressive disappearance of the industrial heritage that defined the life of Eibar. The combination of industrial and residential uses in the buildings located in the urban center of the city had created building configurations particular to this place. Ronco sensed the urgency to document this period of industrial activity and the buildings that housed it before its disappearance. The result of that work was presented in the remarkable book Eibar, Ciudad Taller, published in 2001 by Ongarri.
Years later while working on the Bilbao issue of MAS Context (itself a look at the transformation of an industrial city into a service city), I was introduced to the work of José Ronco by photographer Aitor Ortiz. Seeing his photographs and reading his book, I was suddenly taken back to all those family trips from my youth.
Two decades after its publication, we look back at this extraordinary book, republishing the text by architect Luis Ulacia and a selection of photographs by José Ronco. It is an important analysis and documentation of a city that has since evolved into a different place. The changes in these two decades since the book was published prompt us to consider what was gained and what was lost during the economic, physical, and social transformation of Eibar.
An Industrial Image of Eibar
Essay by Luis Ulacia
José Ronco’s photographs are being taken just as the factories have become obsolete and are being abandoned, and at a time that appears to be the end of the story for something which was once so significant to Eibar.
The observation of the process of deterioration and abandonment leads to reflection, which suggests providing something to keep a memory of the present panorama of industry alive. It enables us to show future generations at least a part of the industrial image which reflects the industrial process that has characterized the town of Eibar.
There is no intention of classifying or selecting types of buildings, nor of identifying buildings of greatest historical and artistic interest. The aim is to identify the most significant expressions of this industrial complexity and show the industrial landscape, which is part of the urban environment of Eibar. These photographs appear as pieces of a scattered museum devoted to bearing witness to an obsolete enterprise. An attempt has been made to reflect the diverse urban atmospheres as detected through walks throughout the industrial streets and environments.
It was decided to show the diversity of environments and the contrast between the ordered and rational buildings, which make up the quality urban spaces, and other buildings constructed in unsuitable places, which are in ruins and abandoned, and that will be demolished in the near future.
Ronco’s Eibar, Ciudad Taller book expressly aims to reflect part of the aspects so closely related to the building process of the 1960s, including the industries that have become obsolete as well as the vision of the urban landscape. In both we appreciate details that sometimes go unnoticed, but that correspond to elements which make up the urban image. The façades of the different buildings and panoramas of the urban context express the industrial strength of the time and the special way of personalizing the industries, as well as the different ways of inserting themselves into the natural environment.
Through photographs, an attempt has been made to provide the reader with a visit to this town of armorers and show information on those buildings that were emblems and the driving forces of the economic life of the town and on the urban areas related to the factories. In short, an image of the industrial landscape.
The intent is to show the reality of the urban spaces and atmospheres, the streets, buildings, and details related with the industrial environment to bring the reader to contemplate the fact that it is still possible to recover and to modernize part of that industrial image that has characterized the town of Eibar.
The photographs correspond to a particular moment and represent only one part of that complex and varied image of Eibar. The subject of those images will, without a doubt, continue to change, mostly the buildings located in the urban core with narrow streets and deficient accessibility and infrastructure.
Characteristics of the territory and the urban structure
Since the beginning of the last century, the area of the lower Deba River has stood out for its great industrial activity. It was in the districts of Eibar, Elgoibar, and Soraluze where the most significant growth and industrial impact took place.
Within the area of the lower Deba, it was in the district of Eibar where the most significant industrial activities were concentrated. In this respect, the arms industry, and in particular the Armory School, were extremely important, as well as other prestigious activities. Without a doubt this was the town that was most affected by the acceleration of industrial and residential growth.
The particular configuration of the land, together with the difficulties derived from the topography, placed decisive constraints on not only the availability of sites on which construction was possible but also the adaptation of the buildings themselves to the natural environment. This situation limited any kind of development and even more so if the intention was to create industrial areas with adequate and useful spaces.
The long, narrow shape of the valley had its effect both on the shaping of the historical center as well as the subsequent growth of the town. The historic core occupied the center of the valley and followed the accessible central area of the town. The road connecting Bilbao and San Sebastián passed through the historical center and was one of the main streets of the town acting as the main axis of the urban fabric. One of Eibar’s urban characteristics is that the basic structure was maintained, which would serve as a basis for the significant industrial and residential growth that took place in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In the perpendicular direction, small areas were developed which were connected to the main road by narrow streets.
Access was improved at both ends of the town with the construction of the Bilbao-Behobia highway, but the highway had practically no effect on the accessibility of the industrial buildings located in the urban core. It was subsequently decided to build a bypass but its effects on accessibility of the factories located in the center were again limited as, among other reasons, it was built after the process of abandonment of the industrial buildings had taken place. It will only able to exercise an effect on part of the urban industrial environment and as a function of the planning alternatives provided.
Similarly, the railway, while it was originally a development of great importance, has now become a barrier that will be necessary to overcome with the building of crossings at various levels. Perhaps, after a century, it is time for an integral plan for the railway to be adapted to the current needs of the town.
It was from the 1960s onwards that the dynamic deriving from the industrial tradition and business initiative constantly ran up against the lack of spaces and sites suitable for setting up industrial activities. These limitations, together with the characteristics of the land itself, led to the crammed nature of the buildings in the urban environment and the necessity of moving certain industries to other towns.
Without a doubt, Eibar is one of the towns where productive capacity and the desire for progress contrast most spectacularly with the physical limitations of the landscape and with those of the urban framework. This complex situation gives rise to serious difficulties when formalizing valid alternative urban measures and even more so if, besides guaranteeing profitability and viability, the measures need to be compatible with the needs of the society and the physical conditions of the territory.
Process and location of industrial building
Discussing the industrial panorama of Eibar implies that it is necessary to contemplate both the process of constructing a building as well as its location.
During the beginning of the twentieth century, the first foundries and factories of relative importance were set up in areas at some distance from the historical center of the town. During the first third of the twentieth century, the newly created arms factories and other important industries were located outside the limits of the historical center. However, within a short period of time, they were absorbed by the growth of residential suburbs. This was a building era due to the manufacturing activities arising from the industries related to bicycles, sewing machines, and other products.
The craftwork tradition of this arms-producing town, the desire for progress among businesspeople, the education level, and the degree of workers’ training created a special dynamic, generating optimal conditions for industrial development. In general, this was a population with productive capacity and a situation that fostered the formation of new companies, whether private or cooperative. Thus, the industrial growth of Eibar was not by chance but rather the result of an inherited situation which exceeded all expectations. Without a doubt, this was the reason that this spectacular growth took place, mostly during the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This was the moment that coincided with the establishment of numerous industries, mostly related with machine tools.
Within the complex building process, we have to differentiate between two groups of buildings: on the one hand, urban industries located at the edges of the town and those located on recently established industrial estates; and, on the other hand, buildings located within the urban area or on secondary roads without sufficient accessibility.
The buildings of the first group are those that have convenient access and fulfill sufficient conditions for the conduct of their industrial activities. This corresponds to the buildings located on the scarce lots of industrial land in the vicinity of the highway.
The second group includes those industries in which the urban conditions and the needs of the industrialists led to an excessive use of land, building as much space as possible on multiple floors. This is when all the spaces and niches of the town were filled up, and when urban spaces became crammed with buildings seemingly constructed without any kind of regulation or any relationship with either architectural or urban considerations.
At the same time, it is the moment when certain industries, for reasons of productivity, competitiveness, and survival required larger and more convenient spaces with dimensions large enough for the needs imposed by new production systems. Consequently, faced with the impossibility of finding accessible and adequate spaces in the urban environment of Eibar, they were forced to move to other districts, leaving their buildings empty.
Other industrialists opted to remain in the town and decided to build within the municipal district despite the limitations of the urban structure, difficulties of access, and lack of space. As a result, part of Eibar’s industry was located and developed within the old urban layout with very narrow streets and spaces, and even in areas of limited accessibility due to the urban barriers. This was the reason that buildings were constructed with an excessive number of floors and with loading and unloading areas that were too small. As a result, many industries had to relocate, beginning a necessary and accelerated process of abandonment of industrial buildings.
The lack of spaces and sites for the location of small industry gave rise to small ancillary workshops typically tending to be located on lower floors and in semi-basement areas of residential buildings. Without a doubt, this was the only option that allowed certain activities ancillary to industry to exist. It is significant that overcoming the difficulties offered by the said spaces gave rise to the origin of numerous workshops which, in turn, have been the driving force for many prestigious businesses. The coexistence of industrial and residential use was apparently possible, and the impact of noise was tolerated with a certain flexibility.
In Ronco’s photographs we can see buildings with various floors without proper access where small ancillary industries are running in an unexpected and unsuitable way. It is evident that all of them will become obsolete within a short amount of time.
Finally, industrial areas such as Industrialdea were developed by the public administration. These were located in areas that fulfilled the proper conditions in terms of location and accessibility as they were close to the highway. They seem, however, to be insufficient to satisfy existing demand. The number of industries that have moved to other towns is significant. This process is inevitable and only those activities that can find a location in one of the buildings which can be reused or renovated in the urban environment of Eibar will remain.
Categories of industrial buildings
Without aiming to classify or analyze industrial buildings and the variety of constructions that make up the different urban spaces in detail, it is appropriate to make schematic reference of the various building categories. No express reference is made to any particular industrial building.
There are industrial buildings that are integrated in the urban fabric where industrial and residential uses are combined. They are urban industrial buildings of merit in both their construction and architectural value. Even if, for functional reasons, they are abandoned at the moment, they are buildings with a clear sense of permanence and that can house other uses compatible with their location, dimensions, and other characteristics.
Sometimes, industrial buildings are located between party walls and inserted between residential buildings. Defining the streets or urban spaces where they are located, these buildings shape one of the most characteristic urban images of Eibar. On very few occasions, the particular design of the façades and a building profile similar to that of the neighboring residential buildings demonstrate that not only is coexistence possible but that positive qualities may even be generated from that diversification of uses.
There are groups of industrial buildings belonging to large companies that, despite being in urban areas close to the historical center, are integrated in the urban fabric without causing any problem. Despite this, these buildings are probably destined for demolition for reasons of function and economy deriving from the value of the land. Nevertheless, given their superb location, it appears that it may be possible to make public and private interests compatible.
We find industrial buildings that, despite occupying urban sites, are abandoned on grounds of access, functionality, and economy. As they do not satisfy the minimum conditions for reuse, it is clear that they will be demolished. Nevertheless, there may be building fragments or details that shape the urban image and that, once it has been decided that they should be conserved, can remain as a complement to the industrial landscape. However, those elements that have already been demolished can be remembered through photographs.
Residential buildings located on hillsides or areas with steep slopes give rise to the formation of a number of ground floors and semibasements, which are often put to industrial uses. Sometimes, those industrial activities are not compatible with human occupation, but considering that residential is the permanent use, it is the industrial activities that will have to adapt to the requirements and the quality of life of the residents.
It is necessary to point out industrial buildings with concrete flat roofs that, when covered with a layer of water, reflect the landscape. This is a common solution that is both useful and economical. Given the unusual characteristics of the Eibar area, it is an option than can valid and spectacular.
The evaluation of the urban structure and the elimination of architectural barriers are basic questions that must be considered for the development of any economic activity. In the case of Eibar, the physical characteristics of the territory and the conditions of the urban structure are unfavorable for the successful development of economic activity. Therefore, it is necessary to create opportunities for urban planning measures that enable an urban distribution with better access and communication conditions.
The absence of suitable urban spaces in certain industrial areas implies that it is necessary to reinforce the dimensions and the utility of those spaces through decisive urban measures taken with imagination but without detracting from the quality of the urban environment. Aiming for a greater quality implies that it is necessary to think of useful and convenient urban spaces and buildings and, above all, ones adapted to the societal needs of the town and the surrounding areas.
Industrial buildings mixed with residential buildings, participating in the shaping of urban spaces, is one of the characteristics of the urban layout of Eibar. This is an option that may still be considered valid and feasible: making residential compatible with industrial use, usefulness with beauty, and urban spaces with the environmental potential offered by nature. Studying the suitability of making industrial buildings compatible with residential ones is a matter for the urban planning options that may be set in the future.
In certain cases, the decision in favor of the reuse of industrial buildings may prevail over demolition. In these cases, it is necessary to use imagination to optimize the buildings own qualities, in order to create spaces that enable the location of high-tech industries or activities of interest to society. It is necessary to select the uses to guarantee both the viability of the activities and the buildings’ very own survival.
Urban planning and architecture must put themselves at the service of society by improving the conditions of accessibility and communication, by adapting industrial buildings to each location, and to the favorable conditions that nature offers us. They must guarantee that the options for the internal reuse of industrial areas are planned and regulated with imagination to create new multifunctional public spaces favoring social gathering and, when required, making high density areas compatible with the creation of open and natural spaces.
To sum up, the industrial landscape defined by the diversity of factories and types of building constitutes an industrial heritage that should be analyzed and reconsidered. All of this will require a process of gathering information, proposing options, and defining priorities to identify the costs and benefits and, in general, the factors that have an effect on the quality and use of the buildings.
Thanks to Jesús Mari Sarasua for the support to gather the information for this essay. The essay was originally translated for the book by John True (Tradufax). This version has been edited by Iker Gil and Julie Michiels.
José Ronco is a photographer based in Eibar, a city in the Basque Country. After collaborating with the press and experimenting with different types of photography, during the last decades he has focused on the landscape that surrounds him. An example of this work is his series focusing on the city of Eibar and published in the book Eibar, Ciudad Taller (2001). His work has been exhibited in multiple individual and collective exhibitions across Spain, including Ongarri (Elgoibar), BilbaoFot (Bilbao), Galería Railowsky (Valencia), CC Montehermoso (Vitoria), Institut d´Estudis Fotografics (Barcelona), COAVN (San Sebastián), Canal Isabel II (Madrid), Bienal Sao Paulo (Valencia), Galería Rafael Perez Hernando (PHE, Madrid), Photomuseum (Zarautz), and Casa de la Imagen (Logroño).
Luis Ulacia graduated as an architect from the School of Architecture in Barcelona (ETSAB). Professor at the School of Architecture in San Sebastián since its founding, he received his PhD from the school in 1992. Between 1981 and 1999, he was an advisor to the Elgoibar City Hall, collaborating on the formulation of subsidiary regulations (1992) and the most important urban interventions of the last two decades of the twentieth century. He has worked on multiple architecture and urban projects in the Basque Country. He is the author of the book Evolución urbana de Elgoibar (2014) among other publications.