The proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931 raised great hopes in Spain. The appalling poverty affecting the majority of the population, the lack of training facilities, the concentration of land in the hands of a retrograde elite not concerned with development, the scarcity of industrial infrastructure: indeed the situation was requiring solid reforms. However, the republican government could hardly remedy all of these problems: the outbreak of civil war in 1936 interrupted its actions.
Fearing that the country would sink into communism, the junta of generals demanded a return to traditional Spain. Despite the support of the international brigades and the Stalinist USSR, the republican forces lost the conflict in 1939 – especially as the rebel officers were able to secure substantial military aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The great winner was General Franco, who knew how to concentrate powers under his rule, becoming the Caudillo of a national-Catholic Spain. However, if he used the Church and monarchist symbols to legitimize his regime, Franco felt strongly that he also had to solve the problems which had long weakened the country. On one hand, he carried out fierce and bloodthirsty repression against his opponents. At the same time, he initiated the construction of a series of facilities intended to improve the general educational level in society.
On the northern coast of Asturias, the Universidad Laboral (technical college) of Gijón was one of the most remarkable results of this tactic. This symbol of the new power was entrusted in 1946 to a still young teacher at the Madrid School of architecture: Luis Moya Blanco (1904-1990). If he wanted to reconnect with Spanish construction traditions – thus satisfying his sponsors – this architect avoided narrow nationalism, encouraging his students to experiment with modern solutions. Blanco also simultaneously built the Museum of the Americas and the Saint Augustine church in Madrid. Other beautiful witnesses of the confidence of the Francoist authorities and the Catholic hierarchy!
Situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking an austere landscape, the Technical College benefits from an eloquent site – which gives it the appearance of a 20th century citadel. A fortress mixing in a rather ambiguous way the progress of the academic knowledge of the people and a reactionary ideological control.
The main source of inspiration was the Royal Escurial Monastery. Built for Philip II by Juan de Herrera (1530-1597), this vast complex soon became a symbol of the greatness of Spain. The Escurial regained additional prestige under Franco, who began in 1940 the construction of his own memorial in the Valle de los Caidos, not far from the monarchical monument. This significant proximity prompted the architects to ostensibly cite the Escurial in the facilities at the service of Francoism. Thus, during the 1940s, Luis Gutierrez Soto (1900-1977) had to abandon his interwar modernism, also paying an almost literal homage to the Escurial in his Air Ministry.
Propaganda cliché? The talent of an architect lies in particular in his ability to reinvent a historical reference under the sieve of his own inventiveness. There are many points in common between the Escurial and Luis Moya Blanco’s work. Grid plan, mineral horizontality, stripping of the facades: a tasteless copy? No, so many similarities that the Francoist builder assumes and reworks according to his own style.
Firstly, he eschews the narrow courtyards of his classic reference, preferring to comb wings hung around the large central courtyard. This allows more efficient circulation. It’s also improving room ventilation. Appreciable qualities in the Asturias humid climate. Secondly, while the Escurial imposed the monochrome of a single stone used on all the facades, in Gijón Blanco sometimes enlivened the walls by juxtaposing walls of beige granite with cornices and openings in gray granite. Chromatic delicacy? Yes, but also a constructive choice made to ensure the solidity of the walls, also allowing better visual animation. Finally, while the access to the chapel from the Escurial is via a courtyard which is admittedly long but of an average width, Blanco dilated the space of his main courtyard – which therefore took on colossal dimensions.
Because this esplanade gives rise to a very careful architectural treatment. Unlike the Escurial, where the main door is in the axis of the chapel, Blanco opted for a side entrance forming a vestibule. Optical trap, preparing the spatial surprise. Since this space has passed, the arriving in the courtyard suddenly confronts a setting of unsuspected monumentality, carried to its paroxysm. Like a gigantic screen, the walls seem endless. However, in their central part the facades are underlined by a double level of pink granite columns. These seem to be derived from the stage walls of ancient theaters ... There Blanco probably wanted to recall those erected by the Roman Empire in Spain, including that of Mérida. No doubt, a choice with political motives!
However, the insertion of an enormous elliptical chapel monopolizes the attention, leading to an agitated baroque climax. This sanctuary is clearly inspired by the Roman church of Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza – built in the middle of the 17th century by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). Influence outside authorized national criteria? A cultivated architect, Blanco may not have wanted his creativity to be tied up by exclusively Spanish references. The Italian Baroque having had a considerable echo on Spanish architecture in the 18th century, Blanco could cite the example of the Royal Palace in Madrid – work of Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736) and Giovanni Battista Sacchetti (1690-1764) – for justifying the Hispanic acclimatization of a style brought by builders from Italy. Here Blanco transforms the memory of the Escurial by summoning a spatially more dynamic Italian source, which allows him to optimize the majesty of his church. The grandiose volume of this religious facility clearly establishes the importance of religion in the teaching that was given there under the Caudillo. Paradoxically, its interiors were never completed!
A similar form of appropriation prompted him to draw inspiration from the Sevillian Giralda for the tower dominating this chapel. Originally minaret of the 12th century Almohad mosque (designed by master mason Ahmed Ben Basso), after the Christian Reconquista this tower was kept to serve as a bell tower for the cathedral, and modified in the 16th century by Hernan Ruiz II (1514- 1569). This endowed the structure with a Renaissance-style crown. Another work built by foreigners or in an imported style, which Spain soon transformed into a national symbol. Again, the reminiscences seem deliberate – carefully selected to affirm Franco's Spain as heir to a glorious national narrative.
In this Universidad Laboral, the feeling of déjà vu remains tenacious. However, the elements borrowed from other works, recognizable, are reworked so that the originality arises from a curious phenomenon of metamorphosis. The mannerism of the concave and convex walls of the chapel, the columns forming the stage wall, the colossal stone coats of arms: this gives a certain degree of strangeness to the whole, to the confines of surrealism. The immense and empty courtyard seems almost the equivalent in stone of the melancholy urban paintings of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)! Metaphysical visions applied to architecture? As a building alchemist, Blanco almost seems to have practiced a transmutation of traditions to obtain their quintessence.
Is this insistent glance at the past enough to make of the whole building an anachronistic chimera at all? Not that easy. Actually Blanco limited the ornamental contributions to key places, making good use of the structural capacities of reinforced concrete, and resorted to internal arrangements with a very functionalist design. The architect did not hide his relative acceptance of modernity, through a measured use of geometric abstraction. Then, he knew how to adapt the potential of the Catalan vaults – fine vernacular coverings in bricks, used in particular by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) in his Barcelona works. Ideal for covering large areas with basic materials and great resistance, these vaults corresponded well to the needs of a complex on a tight budget and having to accommodate heavy tools as well as a significant number of students.
Blanco’s structural daring culminates in the chapel’s brick star mesh dome. If here again the memory of the stunning baroque domes of Borromini or Guarino Guarini (1624-1683) plays, Blanco magnified this Cisalpine heritage thanks to light construction processes resulting from ancient Spanish craftsmanship. Perfect conjunction between international scholarship, architectural pragmatism, and patriotic sense.
After Franco's death, the building was abandoned for a few years, suffering from various degradations. Restored, it has since been used for several cultural and administrative functions. Despite this, the Universidad Laboral de Gijón remains a contested legacy: the Spanish administration refused to file a UNESCO World Heritage listing, considering that the monument represented too much of the dictatorship memories.
Thus the shadow of the Caudillo continues to weigh on this ensemble, which is as majestic as it is intimidating. Dictatorial architectures often remain a little cursed.