Ten Years Later

architects Grupo Aranea
project Rafal Secondary School, Alicante, Spain
written by Antonio Abellán Alarcón

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As soon as I graduated, I packed my suitcase and left, fed up with a way of understanding architecture and construction solely at the service of photogenics. I skedaddled, sick to the teeth of the latest local instalment in the dominant thesis: a building for journalism students in a fantastic green south-facing hillside, absolutely perfect before being turned into a bunker in which all spaces looked in on themselves, condemning future generations of users to autism and greyness. A hulking presence that was nevertheless, thanks to the omnipresent and profusely carved and gestured concrete, turned into a monument and altar to the ego of the artist-cum-architect for a duration of months until the next one comes along.


From them on, I have tried to remain watchful, or perhaps better said, on the defensive, against anything of the kind, instead trying to come up with logical buildings, to foster a project-based approach that puts the user before the designer.


Ten years later, I’ve just spent the morning with architecture students in a recently opened village high school (without entering a single classroom). The guys played two football and basketball matches at the same time, four teams cutting across the yard’s one pitch; while the girls preferred hanging out on the mauve velvet inverted cones and slope until lunch time. And now everything, it seems to me, has been turned on its head, so much so that we even felt like drawing up a contract for the rest of the year, on the contents, the timetables, the architecture we felt like doing … and we now refer to that deal and to that day as the Rafal Pact.


Rafal is a place well known to all architects who live in and think in terms of the towns and villages in south-east Spain. We understand it well even if we have never been there, because it is the same as all the others, equally disconcerting, equally special. The scale and lifestyles of these towns and villages built up around agriculture. Thirty years ago the dwellings and streets in these places were based on a kind of life in which distinctions were blurred, in which the time of day was spent indistinctly in indoor and outdoor spaces that were hard to differentiate yet were all completely inhabited and inhabitable. These places were self-built, and because of that, always made to measure and always in-the-making, in continual change. A series of small juxtaposed uneven buildings with an unreal geometry that came about as a result of neighbours adding and removing room to room, creating a seamless material and spatial fabric. Low-rise multifunctional houses, at once open and closed, able to house a living room, a siesta, a workshop, a village fiesta, depending on the needs; finished with stepped ceilings and roofing connected together in all kinds of ways possible and dotted with rooms, porches and patios whose uses and ownership were impossible to work out.


Unfortunately, in a very short space of time, these villages lost most of their best qualities, abandoned these traditional typologies and surroundings that once sustained an enormously rich way of life, trading them in for urban apartment blocks built over unusable ground floors, spaces impossible to administer and not flexible, not even one per cent. And with these blocks, non-specific city planning rules, transplanted from the big cities on which these villages depend, have mistreated the scale, the sunlight, the use and character of the streets and, as a consequence, even the relationship with the surrounding market gardening land which barely survives under permanent threat, now transformed into a kind of fallow land foreshadowing building sites to come.


In this context, an enormous building creates an island, a haven of prior scale, of spaces without beginning or end mixed together in one single amorphous and tremendously comfortable space; different: at once intimate and public, in every corner. Everyone in their rightful place, whether on the ground floor, the stairs, in a corridor, a landing, the roof of the guard house, in the corner for shady deals, the door to the bathrooms, at the entrance to the gym… in every single corner the photos captured a teenager, a young couple, a gang, all at the perfect distance, one from the other, taking shelter just in time from the elements, fulfilling the stage setting of making the most of and creating a place.


And everything in exposed concrete, in a very strange dark grey, which strikes me like plaster softened by the weather and the passing of time … a time it still does not have.


This time, a concrete architecture, as painstakingly drawn and planned as the one on the hillside, has now managed to produce the effect of the predominance of the inhabitant over the draughtsman, in a space which a masterly emptying of material, in which the architecture is the perfect mould which presents us with a gift of a succession of spaces: small, medium, big, medium, small and back to the beginning in plan and in section in order to chain together the surprises as we use it, turning, diagonally, going up or down.


It is reason to affirm and to celebrate that, here, the next few generations of young people are going to have an opportunity to grow up with the need to use and name places according to their own desires and ideas, instead of suffering the boredom of the given.

Girls and boys for whom this effort to erase the dominant conditions and hierarchies should provide guidelines for living by means of reaching an agreement, a pact, with an open-ended reality that will not resolve their lives for them, guidelines for taking a creative part in the reconstruction of the reason for things.


This visit, this building, and these architects have gifted me the cure for a seminal wound, making me take so much pleasure from the naturalness with which things can simply be that I wanted to publish this cure, and encourage each and every one to visit and draw up their own Rafal Pact for an Architecture of Truth.