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“Alternatives” showcases designs that competed in the Thirteenth Spanish Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, including Casa Chao, shown here. (photo by Hector Santos-Diez)

Two exhibits organized by SPAIN arts & culture showcase the rapid rise of Spanish design and architecture internationally.

“Alternatives” and “Export,” both currently open at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, 2801 16th St. NW, bridge the domestic and international work being done by Spanish architects. Both exhibits are comprehensive and detailed, giving the viewer a holistic view of how architecture works in urban and rural spaces around the world.

“Alternatives” showcases the Thirteenth Spanish Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism across three installations. Hosted by the Spanish government, the Biennial is a national competition that funds projects across the country. The bids include housing, schools and structures in parks or other urban spaces, among other designs. All 22 award-winning projects are outlined in detail, including how the space is used, how much the project itself cost, and how architects bridged form and function to design their structures.

“The architect not only works on construction, but also in very broad fields,” curator Begoña Díaz-Urgorri said. “We have worked hard [to explain] architecture not just through the architect’s eye, but through the public’s understanding of architecture.”

To that end, one of the three installations features multiple video panels that show architects and people who interact with the spaces on a daily basis sharing their thoughts on the design and functionality of the buildings.

“It’s not only the architect; it’s also the people who live and work near it,” Díaz-Urgorri said. “It’s an approach to architecture from the citizens.”

There is also a third, interactive installation, featuring models that can be picked up. Each has a barcode that can be scanned to unlock further information, including dimensions and specs for the buildings themselves. The exhibit offers an in-depth but accessible look at the work being done in Spain, particularly how heritage, culture and modernity are being blended to create buildings that fit organically into unique spaces.

While “Alternatives” takes a domestic look at Spanish architecture, “Export” is international in scope. Curated by Edgar Gonzalez, the data-heavy exhibit examines how Spanish architects work globally in education, architecture, the arts and other mediums.

“Buildings are the most important part of the practice of an architect, but it’s not everything that an architect produces,” Gonzalez said as he introduced the exhibit on April 6. “There are many ways to practice architecture outside of Spain.”

“Export” covers a 12-year period between 2002 and 2014, a timeline that begins and ends with two of the most important recent Spanish designs completed elsewhere in the world. In 2002, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi’s Yokohama port in Tokyo was built, and in 2014, Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz’s Rijksmuseum opened in the Netherlands.

“I wanted to select a timeframe between two very important icons of Spanish architecture that represent the excellence of Spanish architecture,” Gonzalez said. In this short amount of time, Spain became a leading architectural power.

Across multiple panels in a large space, the exhibit highlights the demand for Spanish design and the influence of Spanish architects around the world. Not only does the exhibit feature the numerous awards and bids won by Spanish architects — including the esteemed Pritzker Architecture Prize won by a locally focused Catalonian architects Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta this year — but also on the way Spanish design is influential in more subtle ways.

“The curricula of architecture is very tough in Spain. It is very technical on one side, and very humanistic and artistic on the other side,” Gonzalez said. “Just a few countries have this rigorous excellence. … It produces professionals that are very liked by the big offices.”

Gonzalez added that Spanish architects are directly influencing the next generation of professionals.
“There are a lot of Spanish architects teaching at the top schools in the world,” he said. “People are being taught by Spanish teachers at the top American schools, who are going to be producing the cities of the future.”

On a more local note, the exhibit features a brief mention of the Catalonian designer of the chairs in the White House pressroom. Although Gonzalez does not feel there is one quintessential Spanish design, he does believe this soft power is giving rise to Spanish architecture as a driving force for global architecture, a case these two exhibits make strongly. Taken together, they paint a human portrait of a medium that shapes our lives, and the ways in which Spanish architects are carving out space for themselves on the international stage.

“Alternatives” and “Export” are on view through June 4 at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain at 2801 16th St. NW in Columbia Heights. For more information on these exhibits and additional programming, visit spainculture.us.