Until the nineteenth century, Bilbao was a thriving yet small city in the north of Spain with a sheltered port connecting Castile and the sea. Surrounded by mountains all the way around (the city is known as El Botxo, the hole), its flat area by the Nervión River was not very extensive, but still big enough to accommodate all of its population.
The situation changed drastically after the Industrial Revolution. From the end of the nineteenth century and across most of the twentieth century, the presence of steel mines nearby turned Bilbao and its environs into an important area of steel and iron production. The banks of the river became the second most important industrial axis of Spain, just behind the metropolitan area of Barcelona.
The consequence of this buzzing economic activity was the exponential growth of Bilbao’s population: from 35,000 people in 1870 to 405,000 people a century later.1 2 Until the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the process of urban intervention was more or less controlled by programs like Casa Baratas (Cheap Houses) developed along the river basin until 1936 or the creation of workers’ housing in Iralabarri related to Harino-Panadera. Those examples epitomize the quest for housing solutions that guaranteed a minimum of habitability for the new population surging in Bilbao.
During the Civil War and the traumatic post-war era, an economic halt took root. However, the opening of the Francoist regime at the end of the 1950s generated one of the most abrupt changes in the recent history of Spain. Called desarrollismo (or the Spanish Miracle), this period of important industrial and economic growth had a significant effect in Bilbao. During that time, planning was unable to address the urban issues that were being generated by the strong migration to a city defined by a complicated orography.
The strong industrial growth that took place after 1959 required an important housing intervention by the government, which resulted in three large urban projects: Begoña, Txurdinaga, and Otxarkoaga.3 It is in this last peripheral neighborhood of Bilbao where a group of architects, some of them recent graduates from the School of Architecture, including Juan Madariaga, Luis Saloña, Martín de la Torre, Esteban Argárate, Julián Larrea, and Rufino Basáñez, started to work to fight the proliferation of slums. The invaluable 1961 documentary Ocharcoaga, directed by Jorge Grau, showed in its first few minutes the dramatic situation faced by many families who were crammed into the hillsides surrounding Bilbao.4
Propagandistic, it called the new projects a “miracle,” but in reality, they were quick fixes with simple construction methods that resolved a social issue yet had no urban or architectonic qualities, creating bare minimum units within a bare minimum budget.
Rufino Basáñez, who had graduated just two years earlier from the School of Architecture in Barcelona, commented in his 1985 paper Me llamo Rufino Basáñez Billabeitia (“My name is Rufino Basáñez Billabeitia” and later part of his monographic book), “I came back to Bilbao where I practiced the profession in a grim and degrading manner, building houses that we consider shacks. It was a task that ended up depressing me personally.”5
It is shocking that the urgency to resolve such an important urban problem as the proliferation of slums led to building new housing that the architects themselves still considered slums. Despite the bloodyminded Francoist regime, the young architects had creative goals that were not met with these first few projects they worked on. Fortunately, once those initial and serious urban issues were solved, the government focused on dignifying workers’ housing by building interesting projects.
In 1963, the Bilbao City Council organized a competition to build a 227-unit apartment building in the San Ignacio neighborhood. Rufino Basáñez, along with his peers Esteban Argárate and Julián Larrea (with whom he had worked in Otxarkoaga) won the competition. Like in their previous experience in Otxarkoaga, the size of the apartments and the budget were tight, but this time this would not be an impediment to create quality architecture.
Their proposal was a reinterpretation of the Unité d’habitation that Le Corbusier had built a decade earlier in Marseille. Instead of the singular long linear building designed by the Swiss architect, the proposal by Basañez, Argárate, and Larrea featured three buildings of different heights located in a rectangular block, responding to the typical urban configuration of a block surrounded by four streets.
The Unité d’habitation was a city in itself, with a complex programmatic configuration that never worked as well as it was intended. It had a central commercial street located in the intermediate level and communal spaces located on the rooftop. The “Grupo Pedro Astigarraga,” as the project is officially known, was, however, less ambitious. Instead of the open space on the ground floor, here we find the more conventional commercial spaces. The rest of the building is dedicated exclusively to housing. Framed between the three buildings there is a large communal space that contrasts with the inhospitable void found in Marseille.
The internal architectural communication was also different between both projects. Le Corbusier proposed an internal longitudinal street that provided access to the units on both sides of a very deep building. In Bilbao, the large corridors that provided access to the units, also duplexed, are located in the exterior of the building, a feature that gave the building the nickname of Casas Americanas (American Houses).
To access these exterior communal spaces, the architects designed an external element removed from the main volume and of bigger height: the stair. It is a sculptural vertical volume that generates an imposing image of light and shadows, visually anchoring the proposal within the site.
The buildings, like the stair, are built out of exposed concrete. There, the large concrete pillars are removed from the plane of the floor, serving as the support for the guardrails (similar to the brise-soleils of Le Corbusier) that, arranged in an alternating way, generate a compositionally rich façade and a skillful play of light and shadow.
The construction of the Casas Americanas was completed in 1968, instantly becoming a radical and unique proposal within the Spanish urbanism of the time. Similar to the Unité d’habitation (“Architects complained that the project violated the ordinances, doctors predicted mental illnesses to future users”), the Casas Americanas have never been understood. They were not understood then, with a society not used to radical housing proposals of this kind, and they are still not understood nowadays, with neighbors surprised that the buildings received awards. The DOCOMOMO foundation included them in their registry of essential buildings within the Modern Movement in the Iberian peninsula.
Since they were completed, and in the following five decades, few social housing proposals built in Bilbao can be compared to the radical and daring projects of Basáñez, Argárate, and Larrea. The Casas Americanas continue to symbolize that social housing of quality architecture can be possible. They are a stroke of genius amid the typical monotony of Spanish residential housing.