The role of architecture. Rethinking the limits of the practice

Fundación RIA

Fundación RIA
March 2024
Published in Crítica Urbana

Aligned with the global efforts to address the urgent issues of climate change and with the vocation to promote the debate on territory and quality of life, Fundación RIA was created as a mediator to carry out a collective reflection that connects local issues with global challenges, through analysis and strategic territorial planning.

One of the challenges faced by towns and cities is to control the quality of their urban development in order to protect and improve their physical identity and local character. In this sense, it is no secret to any Galician that over the last 40 years the urban centres of Galicia have suffered a strong loss of identity, as a result of uncontrolled growth and the indiscriminate demolition of old buildings.

This fact also caught David Chipperfield’s attention. Those values that, by invitation of the architect Manuel Gallego, attracted him to this place in the 90s, were being degraded by different processes that were distorting the raison d’être of Galicia’s territorial structure.

This personal initiative by David Chipperfield begins in response to these concerns. The research starts from the world of architecture and urban planning, with a small group of young and local architects focusing on degraded urban environments and out-of-scale developments that are out of scale in Galicia.

These first reflections already pointed to a scarce and clumsy planning, especially related to the insufficient protection of the heritage and the proliferation of new urban developments that had a great impact on the identity of the place and the natural environments. Inevitably, the study of these issues made clear the need to broaden the perspectives, addressing a more comprehensive reflection related to the territory and redirecting attention to infrastructure, mobility, productive landscape and the importance of interdisciplinary work in the profession.

RIA was formally established as a foundation in 2017, with the aim of responding to the need for territorial and urban analysis that would allow both public administrations and private agents and universities to promote effective strategic planning that is coherent and sensitive to the identity values of the place.

Galicia as a living lab
These issues addressed by RIA are neither exclusive to Galicia nor similar to any other development process occurring in other European cities and towns.

The precariousness of planning weakens its structures in the face of the forces of private investment, undermining its function of prioritising the common good. In regions without a strong economy and without great investment pressure—as is the case in Galicia—these structures become dependent and anxious to facilitate development, relaxing their restrictions and allowing negative impacts on built and natural environments, often irreversibly. On the other hand, in places where investment is a bid to find a site—as is the case in London and other large cities—weak planning structures do not have the capacity to stand firm, and it is these investment forces that end up leading decision making and the construction of our surroundings.

In the case of Galicia, moreover, the explicit presence of nature and its economic and cultural importance in the territory make these errors and shortcomings in planning processes even more evident.

Local identity and heritage
The phrase “let’s go to the street”, so deeply rooted in popular culture, understands the street as a destination, as a common place to be, to meet other people, to play or to shop. As a public space, the street plays a central role in shaping the identity of the towns and the people who live there.

It is when it prevails to accommodate vehicular traffic that the street becomes a road. Together with the poor quality and uncontrolled scale of new constructions, the factor that most eroded the aesthetic and social integrity of so many cities was the influence of the automobile on the configuration of public space.

RIA has been facing these challenges for three years within the framework of a collaboration agreement with the Galician Infrastructure Agency (AXI), working on the urban integration of the AC305 road, which articulates the towns on the north coast of the Arousa estuary. Through five coordinated actions based on measures such as the reduction of traffic speed, the provision of a larger area for workers, the introduction of trees and the improvement of accessibility, the aim is to return the character of a road to what has been transformed into a highway.

Work from the front line
The Fundación RIA team has been working closely with the local community since its beginnings in order to gain an in-depth knowledge of their concerns and interests. This continuous contact with the common land communities, the local community and the rest of the sectors and local stakeholders that intervene in the territory allows us to design solid processes that facilitate a better identification and evaluation of the problems at different scales. The most obvious example of this way of working is the Barbanza Ecosocial Laboratory, a project promoted in 2020 by Fundación RIA in collaboration with the University of Santiago and Fundación Banco Santander.

This project made it possible to confirm the importance of the involvement of communities in territorial management and the protection of ecosystems through the sustainable use of their resources. In this process, the foundation carried out the accompaniment of coordinated decision-making by the communities, promoting a bottom-up approach.

From the past and present of the rural communities of Barbanza, we draw multiple lessons of sustainable use of the territory that become the keys for the future. Through research, recovering the living memory of the place, current concepts such as circularity, proximity, community management and diversification were identified.

Asking a good question allows us to obtain good answers.
Many of the decisions that condition these principles of sustainability are already taken when an architectural firm receives a project. Issues that condition the location, limits, scale or architectural programme are usually left out of the commission, limiting the response capacity of the design teams.

In relation to this issue, the foundation has been working with several high-level institutions in the processes of analysis, diagnosis, planning and definition of public initiative projects. Firstly, accompanying the CSIC Marine Research Institute in the planning process of its new headquarters, which will be moved to the former military area of the ETEA in Vigo. Through interviews and analysis with their research groups, we defined a programme that would meet their needs. In the same way, an exhaustive analysis of the site allowed us to define the criteria for the location of the new building, taking into account the budgetary and logistical capacities that the CSIC could have. With this work, the bases for a competition were drawn up, which was decided this year.

In a similar way, the foundation collaborated with the Regional Ministry of Rural Environment to develop a broader reflection on the rehabilitation of the Lourizán estate and pazo, in Pontevedra, relaunching this complex as a reference point for the forestry industry. After a needs analysis, a new functional programme was structured, which served as a basis and allowed an architectural competition to be organised.

In these processes, RIA establishes itself as a tool to ask questions—more reflected, analysed, coordinated, consensual and multidisciplinary questions—in order to establish the bases on which to elaborate the answers—the projects.

Towards a territorial agenda for Galicia
Aware of the need for a broader and more transversal reflection on the territory and planning structures that would incorporate a wide range of stakeholders, RIA promoted last year “Towards a territorial agenda for Galicia”, a transversal process of participation and strategic planning.

The Fundación RIA—with these relationships at different scales and sectors and after working in areas that cover the first line of action, but also the strategic one in the decision-making bodies—presents itself as an entity that can coordinate a process of participation of different stakeholders to define what are the principles that should guide the sustainable development of Galicia in the next decade.

This initiative is based on an initial analysis that seeks to explore those strategies that have been defining the way forward in Galicia and that highlight the sectoral and divided approach to planning. The process tries to incorporate—through round tables, conferences and analyses—all those visions and to try to coordinate a common mission through points of consensus that will allow the development of policies, strategies and plans for the sustainable future of Galicia. In the coming year, this process will be enriched by integrating international knowledge through cycles of conferences and round tables that encourage dialogue with local experts.

A dynamic space for reflection on the territory
The opening of Casa RIA marks the beginning of a new stage for the foundation. This building in the centre of Santiago will be the headquarters of Fundación RIA, an open house with the vocation of being a new meeting point where to continue the multidisciplinary dialogue and research on sustainable development.

This public and open building will have exhibition spaces, conference rooms and facilities for academic research residencies, which will not only allow the foundation to expand its research and planning activities, but also to develop a public programme around this mission. A canteen will support this programme, connecting the work and values of the foundation with the territory and the food market. This gastronomic space will be focused on local and seasonal products, as a symbol of the importance of food production and marketing in Galicia.

Casa RIA aims to be the catalyst for new collaborations, a space in which to develop participatory processes between the different actors of society, in which to establish connections with international experts and in which to give a high profile to promote local initiatives outside Galicia, motivated by shared interests in the community and the environment.