Far from everything and everyone, a hydroelectric power plant in Asturias, Spain, is the perfect example of a total project: art at the service of technology.
Shortly after the end of World War II and a few years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Narciso Hernández Vaquero, one of the founders of the Hidrológica del Cantábrico company, decided to build what at the time would be the second biggest hydroelectric power plant in Europe. It would be located right in the middle of the Cantabrian Mountains in Asturias, almost 100 miles away from the city of Oviedo, but many hours away driving due to the terrible roads, in an impossible environment.
The construction entailed such an important challenge that a cable car from the coast, located 22 miles away, had to be built in order to avoid the traffic of about a hundred 10-ton trucks on the road that connected the coast and the future dam. The construction images convey a sense of the feat. Thinking about the mechanical and human means available at the time, one can only define the construction of this infrastructural project as a pharaonic effort.
Beyond the dizzy figures of miles and cubic feet, what is really impressive of this dam is that its developers wanted to go further, turning a mere site of production of energy into a total work of art, an example of integration between architecture, sculpture, and painting in an industrial project that we owe to a family: The Vaqueros.
On the one hand, we have its architecture: along with civil engineer Enrique Becerril, the project was designed by architect Joaquín Vaquero Palacios, son of Narciso Hernández Vaquero. His are the beautiful architectural designs, such as the stairs, with its handrail made out of electric cable; the control room with its perfect use of materials and color; the refuge that includes a couch shaped as a turbine used for meetings and a resting area; and five exterior lookouts and three control posts for the floodgates of the overflow channel, with a clear influence from expressionist architecture. It conveys the powerful presence and monumentality of the dam, taking advantage of the sculptural qualities of reinforced concrete, a material that is used with a wood formwork across the whole project.
The project would have been even more astonishing had the overlooks, shaped as falcons and located in the original project at each side of the dam, been built. The idea was ultimately rejected due to economic reasons but that didn’t hamper the richness of the architectural and artistic merit of the rest of the project. Vaquero Palacios was also in charge of the sculptural work located on the main façade and entry to the complex, that symbolically reproduces the production of energy in a dam through the use of concrete volumes.
On the other hand, besides the architectural and sculptural work, the artistic proposal is enriched by the pictorial work. The main turbine hall, located under the overflow channels unlike most of the hydroelectric power plants, was the place for the intervention of Joaquín Vaquero Turcios, son of Vaquero Palacios and grandson of Narciso. At only 22 years of age, he created two large murals located at each side of the room. The first mural, known as “La Chispa” (The Spark) and executed with his father, is colorful and abstract, representing an electric discharge between two terminals. The second one, a 3,200-square-foot mural, features the remarkable use of color present in “La Chispa,” but in a figurative way in this case. From left to right, it narrates the complex history of the construction process of the dam, from its beginnings when his grandfather arrived by horse to the town of Grandas de Salime, the construction process featuring the technicians, workers, and their families, to the use of the energy generated by the dam.
Besides the murals, Vaquero Turcios planned to draw the faces of Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Sigmund Freud, above some of their most memorable quotes. However, the censorship of the dictatorship ruling Spain at the time didn’t allow it. Coinciding with the 2001 restoration of the murals by Vaquero Turcios himself, the original idea was finally implemented. Vaquero Turcios, also an architect, designed the overlook located by the road, popularly known as the “mouth of the whale,” from where one can admire the whole complex.
In this important work one finds a perfect harmony between functionality and ornament, technical wonder and artistic proposal. It is an unprecedented comprehensive project that perfectly combines engineering, architecture, and art.
The expressive power of the architecture of Vaquero Palacios was applied years later to four other hydroelectric power plants in Asturias, including the Proaza Hydroelectric Power Plant. Despite being smaller, it also possesses an important artist value for its iconic façade of fractured concrete planes, inspired by the monumental limestone rocks of the mountain range in Asturias, and for its interior paintings and mural reliefs located on the side façade.
Vaquero Palacios stated that the integration of the arts in engineering was absolutely needed “because our current activity is overwhelming, and our organism needs to be calmed down in order to survive the tension that we apply to it, each day more demanding.” A total work of art.
This text was first published in Spanish on AD Spain.