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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.80 Santiago abr. 2012 

ARQ, n. 80 Representations, Santiago, April 2012, p. 42-53.


Architecture as Propaganda
A Look at the History of Spanish Architecture

Ana Portales *, Maite Palomares *

* Professor, Universitat Politècnica de València, Valencia, Spain


The recent history of Spain shows how architectural images were powerful and convincing ideological tools: representation is a proper vehicle to disseminate ideas.

Key words: architecture – Spain, drawing plans, representation, reconstruction, architecture and politics.

Apriori, historically architecture is designed, developed and drawn according to pre-established canons conditioned to undertake its materialization. However, in parallel, in an effort to approach the public and for diffusion, architecture is also pictured using less specialized mediums and techniques, some even belonging to the other plastic arts such as painting and graphic design. This strategy of differentiation between technical plans, used to define the architecture and other graphic resources employed in its representation is found throughout the history of architecture on varying occasions.

With the avant-garde, this method is employed as a schematic resource that approximated the new art of abstract character to a relatively uneducated public. The Soviet avant-garde would incorporate a propagandistic sense to this strategy to cultivate the masses. In the post-war Spain, during the forties, architectural representation was also used as propaganda to show, in this case, the benevolence of Franco regime beginning with the works realized in devastated regions. Upon the end of the Spanish Civil War a series of works were initiated directed at rebuilding the country. One of the most important of which was the reconstruction of those areas laid waste during the military conflict. With this finality, in 1938(1), the government founded the General Office for Devastated Regions (DGRD), whose main objective was to repair and rebuild the various affected populations (fig. 1).

The architectural magazines, from their beginning, were established as one of the most appropriate means of communication for the transmission of architectural ideas. Using simple language, publications brought their content to a mainstream audience, so it would also be utilized as tools for propaganda. The journal Reconstruction, linked directly to the Devastated Regions Office, documented and represented the spirit of autarkic Spain. It symbolized the Spanish architecture, built from the end of the civil war, providing argued evidence of the aims and objectives that the regime reserved for the architecture of those years.

As in other media, the peculiarities of the elements (transmitter and receiver) channeled the particular relationship between architecture and the political system. Some of these singularities should be noted. In Spain, as in other totalitarian regimes, architecture was used as a propaganda resource to extol the main political objective of the scheme: the reconstruction. The user would be excluded and treated as a passive subject of the architectural product, without any involvement in the creative process(2). In this case, the ill treatment is stressed as a result of the primacy given to the image of architecture considered as one of the emblems desired for the new Spain. As is known, compared to the profile of modernity that Spain saw during the thirties, forties architecture sought to recover the most prestigious Spanish architecture in of ficial buildings, particularly linked to the architecture of Herrera, using historical languages towards a desired unity of style that reflects the political moment. However, for residential construction popular architecture would be taken as reference, thus the logic of the tradition of building local level(3). German and Italian experiences, previously performed in similar processes would be present in these projects. So while government buildings would reference Germany, the construction of new rural is focused mainly towards the Italian context (Berguera, 2004).

The symbolic universe, built from the architecture represented in Reconstrucción magazine, constituted the identifying medium for the ideals of the political system.


At this phase, with the country destroyed and in poverty, a model for interior development called autarky based on economic self-sufficiency and state intervention was adopted. Autarky resulted in a shortage of resources that directly affected the DGRD's reconstruction process. The urgent need for the reconstruction led to the quick response from the Devastated Regions body, which, beginning in 1940, began to generate projects that prioritized the most damaged areas. These settlements were distinguished in the adoption decree as "pueblos adopted by El Caudillo"(4) and either partial or total reconstruction projects were carried out in these places, depending on the degree of destruction.

Architects had a privileged place in the reconstruction, crafting the process. In a professional environment that was characterized by a lack of outside communication, as was the case in the rest of the country, and because the people who had won the war ran it(5), the Dirección General de Arquitectura was created in 1939 to focus one of their primary goals in the reconstruction. This unified climate favored the development of homogeneous architecture carried out by the Devastated Regions and a very specific context was established for the practice of professional architects. In addition to adjusting to the shortage of materials and adopting traditional models and construction techniques, these individuals had to respond to the conditions and guidelines of a regime that sought to use the reconstruction as a political and propagandistic tool.

The magazine Reconstrucción appeared as the DGRD's means to communicate through press and propaganda, and its existence would coincide almost exactly with that of the organization. It began in April 1940 and ended in 1956, a few months before the DGRD disappeared and the Ministry of Housing was created (Llanos de la Plaza, 1987). To popularize the reconstruction process, the magazine published detailed information about its progress, documented with information from projects, exhibitions, site visits and inaugurations. The majority of the architects that worked in the devastated regions used the publication as a reference manual and a source for consultations. At the same time, the journal triggered a particular feedback as it had contributors with a technical background writing historical articles.

For the regime, architecture had a dual role: on the one hand, it solved the housing need through the construction and reconstruction of villages(6) and on the other hand, it was a tool for propaganda, evidencing the regime's achievements and showing a country on the road to recovery.

Architecture manifested itself through different techniques, depending on the ultimate purpose of the final product. Detailed and precise technical plans were produced to carry out projects, along with illustrations and models based on these plans that gave the documentation a distinctively informative feel. This second kind of documentation was prepared to present the architecture of the DGRD at national and regional exhibitions, in addition to being included in Reconstrucción. Thus, in contrast to the technical plans showing zoning plans of the "adopted pueblos" through rigorous and simple graphics, complementary information was also produced to serve as propaganda, employing a number of graphical resources intentionally selected to magnify the projects and works, making them more "attractive":

"This exhibition of the DGRD, like previous ones held in different cities in Spain, has been limited to showing the work done by the Valencia regional office, without being excessively technical, to show the public in the most attractive way possible the work done as part of the country's reconstruction"(7).

The technical plans for the newly zoned areas for intervention were carried out with great precision. Over a cartography base including the topography lines, general alignments of the projected zoning were traced. The representation system included technical information, as well as information about the specialization of whomever would be receiving the information. These plans were also aimed at highlighting the presence and location of strategic urban elements such as infrastructure. For this, the architects drew on formal theories derived from the Gestalt theory, using artistic resources with a lot of iconic power such as form and content. In the case of Seseña (fig. 2) or Las Rozas, a black fill was used, and for Villanueva del Pardillo (fig. 3), a roof floor plan with shadows. These graphic tools aimed to highlight the new plan, distinguishing the building from the land, highlighting the road infrastructure and emphasizing the infrastructure. In this way, the graphic design
made it easy to observe the new proposal's fundamental ideas.

The documentation for the technical projects to build groups of housing units was more concise. It contained only two or three plans outlining the distribution plan, structure, elevations, sections and materiality, which were, added with great detail onto the elevation sketches. Sometimes decorative elements were also alluded to through the incorporation of additional details (fig. 4 and 5).

Reports were written to complete the technical documentation. Concise and brief, like the technical plans, these tended to be summarized in a mere three pages(8).

With a realistic approach that contrasted the austerity of the technical plans, the use of graphic media and resources abounded in the production of propaganda. Perhaps because of the ideological content that Brunete represented for the regime(9), the information presented at the Devastated Regions exhibitions and reflected in the third edition of Reconstrucción became significant(10). The zoning was synthesized in three large plates. In the first, an aerial perspective of the zoning, in the second a general plan and on the third, again, a perspective with the most representative elements: the main plaza and the church(11). Despite the different information provided in each of the plates, all three emphasized the public spaces that the regime wanted to identify as representative of its idea of an urban proposal.

In more detail and bringing out the realism of the employed technique, one must stress the design of each of the panels. The first panel was divided into two vertical parts. The top part showed the sky, featuring clouds and a suspended ribbon with the name of the town (fig. 6). In the lower part, drawn on papyrus, a legend was etched with the crest of the municipality. On top of this background a general image of the zoning was inserted representing by means of a conic perspective. Despite the choice of a distant, aerial view, much detail is placed on the typological definition showing the main square and the church tower in the foreground. The depth of the image allowed one to discern an un-urbanized area stressing the rural character of the interventions developed.

The language used for the representation had a certain baroque character to it, noted in the figurative treatment of the sky, the landscape and the scenic picture. In this way, the linguistic academicism gave the architecture the characteristics the regime wanted.

It is fitting to highlight, at this point, the contrast with the system of propaganda used in Spain barely a decade before. Markedly abstract and heavily influenced by the Soviet avant-garde, the graphic work of Josep Renau greatly diverges from that of the Devastated Regions Office. The poster made for the pool in Las Arenas, Valencia (fig. 7) is a representative example of this trend. While the building type was already evidence of the programmatic modernity of the architecture, incorporating new health and recreation programs, the most iconic element of the entire building, the trampoline, was emphasized in the picture by using recognized Soviet avant-garde images such as the Lenin Tribune project by El Lissitzky (1920-24).

The second plate corresponds to the zoning plan (fig. 8). In this example, the most important resource is the use of simple geometric graphics in black and white, showing the building against the landscape, organic, irregular and shown in gray scale. The zoning plan took the central position of the illustration, with the bottom area reserved for an additional two perspectives highlighting the silhouette of the town, with its main plaza, and the verticality of the bell tower. The upper portion of the plate features the site plan and laterally, the town's crest and a wind rose.

To complete the trio of images, a third plate was included, once again showing the main square with the church in the background. Here, the focus was shifted to the lowest level to incorporate the user in the scene. The model used to represent Brunete's central plaza is illuminating. The national tradition of bullfighting is appealed to as a resource and the town square is shown as the scene of this activity (fig. 9). In this way, a very popular symbol served as the basis for emphasizing national and architectural unity. The iconic capacity of the image would remain underlined with the graphic incorporation of the curtain, as in theatrical representation.

As mentioned before, the key pieces to the urban organization proposed by Devastated Regions Office (main plaza, and church plaza) constituted reference elements for the city identity. Another highlighted place in this panorama would be occupied by the infrastructure formalizing an official repertoire for the organizing of the new plan. And as such, they were represented through these urban spaces of religious, political and military power that reinforced the identity of the regime.

The church was treated as the nerve center and its importance in the urban project was reflected in its location near the civic center. It was easily identifiable in the profile of the town by the vertical bell tower. Models and perspectives that played up these urban spaces were also used at the exhibitions and the articles in Reconstrucción.

It should be noted that the three-dimensional models at the 1948 National Exhibition of Spanish Reconstruction(12) encouraged popular participation. Some proposals were put on public display. As a result, Salvador Rocafull's plaza in Nules would not be carried out due to the opinions of property owners and neighbors (fig. 10 and 11): "The management committee unanimously agreed that the municipal architect would study the best solutions in order to present them to the DGRD, carrying out a prior consultation with the affected homeowners to explore their feelings about the expropriation of the properties" (Felip Sempere, 1998).

As with the Brunete panels, the perspectives showing these representative spaces aimed for viewpoints that favored their urban appearance. In general, for the churches, a point of view close to the viewer was employed to reveal the height of the bell tower, as can be seen in the images of Belchite. Contrasting this, however, and as has been previously noted, aerial perspectives were usually used in town squares, as seen in the plaza of Las Rozas (fig. 12).

The infrastructure also passed through a filter of the representation before its exposition and public diffusion. For this purposes different volumes were drawn, such as city halls, school groups, butchers, barracks or public laundries.

The diffusion and propaganda of the residential projects, channelled principally through Reconstrucción, was exhaustively realized though numerous monographs that included all the works and all the projects developed in a region (13).

The most significant case within the Devastated Regions Office was the single-family dwelling between two dividing walls building enclaves of marked horizontality. Exceptionally, the residence would be resolved with collective housing grouped in blocks, as in the "Grupo Virgen del Castillo" in Valencia(14) (fig. 13). Generally, the single-family dwellings, destined for workers and day laborers, were considered for rectangular sites with a back patio, although they were also used in residences for artisans and fishermen. Structurally, they were resolved with a double void and load bearing walls in the facades. They were also characterized by the use of local materials and vernacular construction techniques. This architecture was principally represented by means of technical plans, relegating a simple explicative complement to the projects along with the more expressive resources.

The particular example of the Grupo Virgen del Castillo, in Valencia(15), formed by three high-rise housing blocks was featured in the magazine Reconstrucción in the editions 32 (1943), 45 (1944) and 59 (1946). In these issues the different phases of the complex were independently shown. However, the presentations had something in common: all of them featured aerial perspectives of the complex. This resource gave greater relevance to such a singular intervention, within the housing program of Devastated Regions. Another singular case would be the housing group for farmworkers in Teresa (fig. 14). Its particular location, on the side of a mountain, provokes a picturesque representation by means of a perspective with an inferior viewpoint that integrates the complex with the landscape.

In a time of scarcity a large economic investment was made to represent the architecture published in Reconstrucción magazine. This generous attitude and the dilated period of its publication tell us about the wide media effect of the medium and its transcendence for the regimen. Currently, the majority of the architectural examples continue to be used even though many of them have been distorted from their original character due to supported reforms. Still, the constructive simplicity and domestic character of the works persists.

The magazine formed part of the private core of the architect's libraries that worked for the Devastated Regions Program. Currently, these volumes have been transferred as donations to the libraries of architectural association and universities, offering to investigators a vast panorama of building activity realized during approximately fifteen years of the period.

It is fitting to say that in the most relevant aspect, the necessary complementarity of both representative resources. On one hand, both perspectives are unavoidably to formalize a global identifying idea for the work. Yet on the other hand, the so-called transmission of architecture comes from a representation based on the diffusion channels of the moment.


1.     As indicated in the article "Organismos del Nuevo Estado. La Dirección General de Regiones Devastadas" featured in Reconstrucción Nº 2.

2.     Certainly, the participation of the user as an integral part of the architectonic process would not be considered until the publication, in 1962, on the theory of the supports by John Habraken.

3.     Due the scarcity of materials such as steel and concrete and the high cost of gasoline, the autarky favored a return to traditional types and constructions.

4.     General Franco was also known in Spain as El Caudillo, the leader. "The Decree on Adoption" from September 23, 1939, allowed for the "adoption" on behalf of the Chief of State, of populations whose level of destruction was elevated and where a special state intervention was advised. In these municipalities a series of architectonic interventions were developed from urban planes to residential projects, public and religious buildings. "Organismos del Nuevo Estado. La Dirección General de Regiones Devastadas", in Reconstrucción Nº 2, 1941.

5.     Those architects that did not participate in the Regime´s ideas were either exiled or banned on the practice of the profession.

6.     The efforts of reconstruction realized for Devastated Regions Office could be in full or in part according to the level of affectation of the populations.

7.     The text was taken from the article "Exposition of Devastated Regions in the XXth International Sample Fair of Valencia". En Reconstrucción Nº 23, 1942.

8.     These texts usually included the location of the work, a brief description of the functional program of the dwelling, and finally an explanation on the most appropriate building system and materials. Habitually, an economic reference was made with regards to the intention of minimizing costs starting from the utilization of materials and building systems specific to the place.

9.     The Battle of Brunete (July 1937) was a franquist victory. It is considered one of the most violent episodes that occured in the Madrid area during the Civil War.

10.     This edition of the magazine, of 1940, showed the content of the national exposition of the Devastated Regions. It took projects from the entire national geography.

11.     The basic type in the adopted pueblos was the single-family, two-story row house. And as such, the bell tower was used in the proposals of Devastated Regions to introduce a vertical component in the design.

12.     "National Exposition of Spanish Reconstruction". In Reconstrucción Nº 87, 1948, p. 323-334

13.     For example: "Reconstrucción de Levante" in Reconstrucción Nº 58, 1945.

14.     Featured in "Exposition of Devastated Regions in the XXth International Sample Fair of Valencia" in Reconstrucción Nº 23.

15.     This project is the larger scale intervention of housing realized by Devastated Regions Office, in the Valencian community. The architects Julián Francisco Fornies, José Ramón Pons, Eduardo Torrallas, José A. Pastor and Camilo Grau Soler participated in the project.



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