A tale of high-profile design projects in Barcelona and Santiago that created two new icons of Spanish architecture.

Credit: Alvaro Leiva

In the 1990’s, when Spain was flexing its post-Franco freedoms, savoring a rush of prosperity, popping out movie stars, and reshaping culinary chic, the nation sowed its landscape with exuberant architecture. Now Spain is suffering through a protracted economic winter, but here and there a few vast projects still straggle into existence, glittering holdovers from more lavish times. These buildings can seem unmannered, like guests who stay and keep drinking long after their hosts have gone to bed, but they also supply consoling shots of optimism.

At the center of Barcelona, a beloved but decommissioned bullring has been reborn as a $169 million leisure palace: architect Richard Rogers’s Las Arenas, a gleaming and perpetually crowded mall inserted into a hundred-year-old wrapper of bricks. Clear across Spain, on a hill outside the pilgrimage magnet of Santiago de Compostela, a $365 million quartet of new buildings flanks a rain-filled crater where an opera house was slated to go up. When completed, the City of Culture of Galicia, designed by Peter Eisenman, might rival the town’s great cathedral—or it could remain a fantastical but forlorn oddity.

Different though they are, these hugely expensive, much delayed, structurally complex, and controversial projects were both born of local pride. Spain is a patchwork nation of autonomous regions, each with a desire to affirm its international standing through architecture. In 1997, the Basque Country inaugurated Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which transformed the city’s economy, extended the art world’s reach into northern Spain, and gave Europe a new destination. It also prodded other regions to stoke their global ambitions: Valencia erected Santiago Calatrava’s sprawling City of Arts & Sciences; wineries in the Rioja turned their structures into glittering billboards for the appellation.

Galicia, the Basque Country’s western neighbor, clambered onto this bandwagon of wonder-making in 1999 when it decided to match its ancient religious attractions by holding a design competition for a new monument: the City of Culture. You might think that those circumstances would favor a local architect, but Eisenman, a New Yorker best known for designing the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, got the job, and his provenance and stature helped justify the project’s scale.

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For Eisenman, whose interest in Galician nationalism was essentially nil, the project represented the culmination of a lifetime as an architectural theorist, teacher, and practitioner. The vague mandate left him free to design in the way he wanted, and Eisenman filled the programmatic chaos with a cornucopia of architectural conceits. There are meandering pedestrian boulevards, massive columns, and curving roofs. The crosshatching of lines and axes makes every point on the campus seem at once meticulously plotted and utterly random.

The design’s greatest strength is the feeling of a perpetual surge, of geology being formed. Of the six planned buildings, two may never get built, but the four that have been finished—a government archive, a library, an office building, and an exhibition hall—cohere into an artificial topography of undulating masses cut through by glass-walled ravines, like the products of instant erosion. Polychrome stone façades and undulating rooflines are broken by great arcing cuts. A nimble visitor can scramble up a sloping roof from ground level. The interiors feel equally acrobatic. Ceilings swoop and wrinkle in cavelike eccentricities. The museum’s atrium shrinks to a crawl space at one end and soars at the other, enclosing an inner structure that bellies out so that it nearly grazes the exterior windows. The obscure logic of Eisenman’s geometries fades into an impression of a steel-ribbed, stone-sided landscape.

Eisenman has produced a campus intended to astound. Soon, the museum will start bedeviling curators and attracting the curious with its eccentric spaces. But for now, it sits empty, huge, awesome, and crazy, architecture in its purest state. How will the project’s patrons—the Galician taxpayers—measure its success? Santiago already welcomes more than 9 million visitors a year, so the floodgates probably can’t open much wider. “We have something that needs to create its own trademark,” the region’s then culture minister, Roberto Varela, told me. “It has to become famous.” And magnify Galicia’s fame in the process.

The tension between parochialism and cosmopolitanism also makes itself felt in Barcelona. The city’s Catalan identity is expressed in politics, in the revival of its language, in the early-20th-century modernisme architecture of Antoni Gaudí and Luis Doménech y Montaner—and lately, in a distinctly un-Castilian aversion to bullfighting. Even before a total ban took effect in January 2012, the city stood ready with Las Arenas, an accidental emblem of the post-corrida era. The bullring-as-shopping-center also satisfies another point of regional aspirations: to confine big-box retail to dense urban centers rather than let them colonize the countryside. (The European Court of Justice struck down a Catalan law banning suburban malls, but the goal remains.)

While Eisenman was covering a blank hilltop with complexity, the architects of Las Arenas were working with a seemingly straightforward set of givens: a freestanding circular structure adjacent to the circular Plaça d’Espanya, which forms a hub for a set of spokelike avenues. But that simplicity is deceptive. The bullring, built in 1899 by August Font y Carreras, sat atop an unstable mound of earth. Time and weather had turned the outer wall into a shaky pile of bricks, a rippling perimeter that only approximated a circle and that couldn’t be trusted to stand up on its own. It would have been far quicker and more cost-effective to tear it down.

Instead, Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners—the firm led by Richard Rogers—dug out the earth beneath the building and installed massive, bright red, V-shaped steel columns. The new inner structure barely grazes the delicate façade, except to shore it up, and an elaborate system of internal trusses supports a vast but lightweight plywood dome. The result wears its ingenuity lightly. Shoppers flow through the center’s circular heart without noticing the challenges, much less the solutions. Eisenman’s design overwhelms; Rogers’s gets out of the way.

Like the City of Culture, this project had to weather controversy and delays, but on the weekend that it opened last year, it instantly (if temporarily) became Barcelona’s most visited landmark, surpassing even Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. Two elevators on a freestanding tower lead to a top-floor passeggiata lined with cafés; there are spectacular views over the city. Suddenly, a monument that had been moldering away in plain view for half a century has become a vibrant part of the urban fabric, an icon of Spanish architecture. People come not because it is strange and fabulous, but because it is at once familiar and new.

Though the City of Culture is an auteur’s opus and Las Arenas is a commercial project, each is also a costly declaration of local identity. Both are supposed to generate money—Las Arenas by selling shoes and movie tickets; the City of Culture by filling hotels and restaurants—but the constant in all the shifting calculations of cost and projected revenue is the pursuit of prestige. The City of Culture will succeed if it makes the country’s damp northwestern corner seem vibrant and alive instead of isolated and rustic. Las Arenas’ job is to recycle a facility for a fading blood sport into a hub for Barcelona’s more enduring passion: shopping.

In the post-binge era of galloping debt and more muted designs, gratifying regional pride with such ostentatious gestures has come to seem distasteful, or at least disproportionate and shortsighted. But it shouldn’t. Most large-scale developments depend on hazy motivations, irrational optimism, and the illusion that the world is stable. Yet between the first sketch and the ribbon-cutting, rationales change, economies lurch, power shifts. And then everything alters again—only the architecture remains.

Justin Davidson is the architecture critic for New York magazine.