Andalucía is one of Europe’s foremost travel destinations with a rich and diverse cultural past. One can hardly put a spade in the ground without bringing some more ruins to light. Roman, Visigoth or Arab treasures seem to be discovered every time an Andalusian town excavates underground parking, builds a new road, or simply expands a local tapas bar.
Clearly, development has to be made even in the most historic places, but there are always options on how best to achieve this – and more importantly, what not to do.
The ideal – harmoniously blending modern and classic
If modern architecture is used mindfully, it can coexist with and enhance both historical and natural environments. As an example, we need to look no further than to the museum by the archaeological site of Medina Azahara in the outskirts of Cordoba. The 10th Century Caliphate City is designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site and its museum and research centre, designed by Nieto Sobejanos Arquitectos, received the prestigious Aga Kahn Award for Architecture in 2010. Indeed, it is superbly executed, and what is most remarkable about the modern structure, which is partially sunk into the surrounding farmland, is how it inconspicuously yet harmoniously compliments the historical site.
Málaga city has managed to combine their archaeological findings with urban city developments in – mostly – a successful manner. Take the contemporary bronze and glass visitor’s centre adjacent to the Roman theatre. Designed by Tejedor Linares & Asociados in 2010, the exterior walls are decorated with fragments of text from the ancient Lex Flavia Malacitana, a 2000-year-old document describing the laws of this Roman city. The building elements and the colours of the bespoke edifice merge perfectly with the archaeological site and the towering Alcazar fort above it, while enhancing the overall aesthetic impression.
Industrial archaeology in nature
As far as natural environments go, one of the most memorable examples of how modern architectural elements can successfully blend with nature can be seen in the El Caminito del Rey, the almost 3-kilometre walkway through el Chorro pass that opened in 2015.
Following the petrifying old path, new, safe footbridges have been anchored directly to the walls of the gorge sometimes a hundred meters above the river. Wood, glass, stone and steel wires are the elements that were used to remake this spectacular route. The architect responsible for the new Caminito, which together with the surrounding area soon will be designated a World Heritage Site, is Luis Machuca Santa-Cruz. His incredible piece of industrial architecture causes minimum intervention and adapts to the movements of the landscape, making it an organic whole. Again, an award-winning construction with great respect for both location and patrimony!
Examples of recent developments in Ronda
Ronda is unquestionably one of the most spectacular places in the world. For this reason, this small Andalusian town receives more tourists than even the city of Cordoba. Concerns about excessive wear on infrastructure and how to move the visiting masses through the town, are continually on the town hall agenda. Although a one-block section of road between the town’s Parador Hotel and the Bull Ring has been redone three times since New Year (by the same company…), one should remember that it cannot always be easy to find a balance between development and restoration in a town with such enormous patrimonial value. Progress must be made, and infrastructure has to withstand modern traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian. But how can this be done while retaining its intrinsic historical value, which in the end is what Ronda largely lives of?
In the past decade, the town has seen some rather preposterous development proposals, such as a modern vehicle bridge parallel to the historical Puente Nuevo bridge – the very structure that all the tourists come to see, that is emblematic to the town, unique in the world, and which should be another UNESCO World Heritage Site, if the town could satisfy the strict prerequisites for such a designation.
Another proposal (presented before the last municipal election) was to create a beach by the river near Ronda’s Arab baths. Regretfully, the river is notably polluted, partly due to the municipality neglecting to repair their sewerage system. Therefore, instead of spending money on importing alien tropical sand from the coast that would be swept away by the first flood rain, Ronda rather ought to spend its citizens tax money on some less visible, but far more vital repairs to the local sewer pipes. Yet, money spent underground rarely translates into votes, whereas a beach, or ‘Bread and Circus’ to the masses as in Ancient Rome, is a much more popular preposition.
Beautiful stone paths
By no means are all of Ronda’s developments poorly executed, and credit must be given where it is due.
A most successful and popular recent town improvement is the stone walking path constructed between the San Francisco neighbourhood and Ronda’s Arab Baths. Following the hillside beneath the historic town wall, people can enjoy strolling along a sea of wildflowers, occasionally accompanied by a flock of sheep. This classic natural rock trail, including ongoing additions with hopefully more to come, has been made meticulously by hand by local stonemasons. Furthermore, the paths blend perfectly with the landscape and feel like they have been there forever. In other words, Ronda can if we want to!
On the opposite side of the historic quarter, another path has been constructed leading down to what they call Arco del Cristo (Christ’s Gateway), though the arch is clearly Arab. The custom-cut stone walkway is admittedly less authentic-looking than the before-mentioned natural stone path, but it is still a commendable development leading partially down into Ronda’s Tajo gorge. The project is a good start of a more extensive walkway system that will allow visitors and locals to explore our spectacular dramatic surroundings in a safe and comfortable manner.
Ronda’s path-plan doesn’t stop there. The next step is to improve the rather treacherous trail leading down underneath the Puente Nuevo Bridge, in addition to creating accessible trail through the old mill ruins in the area, which presently are quite overgrown and unsafe to walk. Such development proposals can only be applauded, as long as the trails blend harmoniously with the natural surroundings.
Ronda’s own Caminito
The final and most exciting proposal, for which the application is now in the provincial culture department, is to create a walkway anchored to the actual cliff wall in Ronda’s gorge, much in the same manner as the Caminito del Rey. In fact, while Cultura is debating the project, the municipal government has contacted the architect of the successful caminito to hopefully make the local version of the pasarela a reality. And if the walkway is executed with minimal interference to the natural environment and becomes part of an organic whole, we can all only hope that the permit and funds will be soon forthcoming.
The importance of urban planning
Urban planning can boost the liveability of cities by controlling resource use, limiting pollution levels and ensuring that traffic and public transportation operate seamlessly. A well-planned urban environment can create safer and healthier communities, accommodate growth, and revitalize and improve public facilities. The primary vision for an urban masterplan is to create Places for People, while respecting existing zones and infrastructure. Urban plans should therefore faithfully protect public interests at all times. But do they?
A much-debated development project in Ronda is the town’s new bus station. It began with a design competition back in 2012, when the town received 83 proposals from architects and designers from all over Europe. Amongst the applications was the winning project, called ‘Meeting Point’, by the Cantabrian architect company Estudio MMIT.
While nearly everyone in town agrees that a new bus station is needed, its location have been far from unanimous. In a town hall meeting last year, all the political parties except the one in power voted against the proposed location, which is designated as an educational and recreational zone. Alternative locations, such as next to the train station, were presented. Although the latter location has more space and offers a closer, and more direct and scenic walk into town, the original proposal won. The 1.7 million euros project has been green-lighted from all levels of government and the first stone has now been laid.
Noise and air pollution in educational and recreational zone
The new bus station location presents problems on several counts. First and foremost, the allocated space is too small, squeezed as it is between the rail line, a couple of bottle-neck roads and the new library. The library itself has already proven to be too small, as it can hardly house the collection of books from the old library. The space in front of the library would have been adequate enough to hold a few parking spaces and a nice non-polluted exterior green seating area for readers, in addition to a possible future library annex to room the volumes that cannot be homed at present.
Regretfully, the decision to put the new bus station next to the library remains (I am not the only local shaking my head). Why place a bus station with its inherent air and noise pollution next to a place of study, unless there were no other options, which there are? To add insult to injury, other buildings near the future station include a home for the elderly, an open-air youth centre, the municipal pool and a football field. No-one can be blamed for wondering if the town hall has the best interests at heart of its youth, its athletes and the elderly, not to mention the disturbance some 150 daily buses will cause to anyone trying to study.
If these deterrents weren’t enough, the location is right next to the rail line (but not next to the train station, which would make sense from a transport and transfer point of view), so the station can never expand beyond its planned borders. In addition is the added cost of creating railway crossings that are structurally strong enough for buses, yet far enough removed from the crossings for the foot passengers. Not that any sleekly designed pedestrian bridges can hide the fact that visitors will be forced to walk in traffic through a convoluted set of streets to get into the town centre.
According to the station’s advocates, the space will be ample, students and tourists will be delighted, the plaza will be heaving with commercial life and the buses will ooze in and out without anyone being notably affected. The future will tell…
Seven-story car park in a historic neighbourhood
And so, we come to the final chapter in Ronda’s progress report and the last addition to Ronda’s aspirations of becoming a grand city – the parkade.
In a normal year, Ronda receives several hundred thousand tourists, most of which arrive by bus and do a quick one-hour spin through the historic centre before heading off. It is completely understandable that the town wants to attract more overnight visitors and therein lies the issue of parking. The rondeños themselves are experts at unlawful but rarely penalized mini stops in loading zones, bus stops, pedestrian crossings, handicap zones and wherever else they see fit, though visitors are rarely that bold. Lack of parking is particularly prevalent in the San Francisco neighbourhood with its plaza full of restaurants and bars.
The town hall has been discussing Ronda’s parking problems for years. Finally, they have settled on a proposed 471-car 7-storey parkade at the southern entrance to town. The project is now in its last stage of approval with the regional culture department, and if all goes according to plan, Ronda will have a 12.000 m2 new parkade (though sadly with Covid, no visiting cars to fill it).
As soon as the drawings were made public, there were cries of protest from locals who felt that the white concrete and steel structure looked like something out of a space movie. San Francisco is one of Ronda’s historic neighbourhoods. It offers the most spectacular entrance into town, as the ancient city emerges surrounded by the Arab city wall amongst rolling fields and grazing animals. If the application goes through, it will have a hyper modern parkade across the road.
The parkade appears to once again be an example of short-sighted urban planning, and how so-called progress takes precedence to patrimony. Whether it looks like a high security prison or a Marbella drug lord hideout, the parkade clearly doesn’t blend with the natural surroundings, consisting chiefly of rocky outcrops, small stone huts and grazing land for livestock. As protests pour in, the mayor has been quick to claim that the development will avoid visual impact and be completely integrated into the landscape, with 5 out of the 7 floors underground. But the controversy is not just about impact, it is also about location. It will be too far for most tourists to walk from the parkade and up the hill into the historic centre, especially on hot summer days, so Ronda will be forced to supply shuttle services into town, meaning more traffic and more pollution. The impact of such development does also not factor in existing issues such as cars driving at excessive speeds through residential streets frequented by families with children and pensioners. Speed ramps are urgently needed around the historic San Francisco square, as the current risks to pedestrian safety will undoubtedly be compounded as traffic flows increase with the new parkade.
For all the promises of harmonious landscape design, the people of Ronda have learned to be cautious of lofty promises. Patrimony means everything to a town like Ronda, and outmost care has to be taken every step of the way. Something as simple as changing the lightbulbs in the lovely antique street lanterns from warm to brighter cold light, affects our patrimony. Cold light might illuminate more, but it is decidedly not romantic, classic, nor dream like. If Ronda still wants to propagate the image of being a dream city or ciudad soñada, it has to make certain concessions. Progress and hyper modern parkades in a historic area do not, and never will, blend with such an image. Therefore, for towns like Ronda where tourism is the primary source of income, patrimony should always take precedence to, and decide the pace and direction of the town’s progress.
La Opinión de Málaga
Ayuntamiento de Ronda
Caminito del Rey
Aga Kahn Award for Architecture
Urban Design Group