EMIGRATION

The Spanish architects building new dreams abroad

Faced with few opportunities at home, growing numbers of recent graduates are moving overseas

Pilar Moreno holds a video chat with her fellow architects Beatriz Asensio (l) in Luxembourg, Mario Fernández (r) in Shanghai, and Bárbara García (c) in Hong Kong.
Pilar Moreno holds a video chat with her fellow architects Beatriz Asensio (l) in Luxembourg, Mario Fernández (r) in Shanghai, and Bárbara García (c) in Hong Kong.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

A bright future seemed to await the class of 2003 at Madrid’s Politécnica University Architecture Department. This was the “top course” says former student Beatriz Asensio, now aged 27. First-year students were being headhunted by architecture firms, public investment in infrastructure was at an all-time high, and the construction boom just kept... well, booming. Asensio says she was constantly being bombarded with job offers. She is looking back on those heady days from her small apartment in Luxembourg, where she is now living after graduating a year ago and failing to find work in Spain.

Since the collapse of the property market in 2008, around 4,000 architects have moved abroad in search of work, according to a survey carried out in 2011 by SARQ, the body that represents many of Spain’s architects. Asensio says she can’t think of many people from her course who have found work in Spain. She currently has friends living in Norway, Switzerland, China and Germany. “Who’d have thought it?” she says. “If I had to choose a profession now, I’d think it through a little longer.”

Spain’s growing emigrant community is, on the whole, happy to be spending some time abroad: most had considered doing so when they finished their degree. Their complaint is that the recession has dictated when and how they must do so, even after three years of internships. “The crisis is not an opportunity, it is a tragedy, and in the case of Spain, which was enjoying a new golden age, it’s an even bigger tragedy,” says Iñaki Ábalos, the Madrid-trained head of Harvard’s school of architecture.

Fernando Frías finished his degree program last year, and in September, faced with no prospects of practicing his profession, booked a ticket for Frankfurt, Germany. Two months ago, and with a reasonable understanding of the intricacies of German verbs, he found a position as an intern working eight hours a day for 500 euros a month. “There is a lot of talk about the German dream, but this is no panacea, even though I would have to say that I have been lucky,” he says. “My boss is a cool guy — the other day he said it was clear that I had studied in Madrid: we are clearly highly prized.”

If I had to choose a profession now, I’d think it through a little longer”

Mario Fernández, aged 30, decided to look further afield for opportunities to practice his profession: Shanghai, where he is now a consultant for an architecture studio. He says his English is near perfect, but that his Mandarin has “barely advanced at all.” Historically, Spain has always been a difficult country for architects to make a living in, he believes. “In 2006, when I was in Sweden on an Erasmus course, the average wage there for an architect was 3,000 euros; in Spain it was barely half that.” He says he has adapted to the air pollution, as well as the Chinese character, and that he gets very few takers when he suggests an after-work drink. He earns 2,000 euros a month, and pays 600 euros in rent. He has few complaints, for the moment, but has a warning for anybody else thinking of following in his footsteps: “The Chinese know that there are big problems in Europe and that we are looking abroad for work: being a foreigner here doesn’t have the status it used to.”

Between 2002 and 2004, when recent graduates were taking their first steps around the faculty, the percentage of students combining work and study leapt from 20 percent to 40 percent, according to a sector investigation. These were the high water-mark years of the construction industry. But in September 2008, students began to notice that internships were suddenly drying up. The bubble was about to burst, although the full magnitude of the crisis did not hit home until their last year of study, when they began looking for jobs in the sector. “I remember a lecture where the teacher showed us the construction figures for Spain: I realized what was going on, but until I was out there, I didn’t fully get it,” says Frías. “You know that things can’t last forever, and that one way or the other the bubble is going to burst. We talked about it, but when it actually happened…” says Mario Fernández.

Pilar Moreno, aged 27, says that she knows “dozens” of former architecture students at the Madrid Politécnica who have left Spain over the last year. She considers herself fortunate to be among the few that have managed to make a go of it in Spain. “I asked a studio where I had been an intern for a letter of recommendation, and instead they offered me a job,” she explains, smiling at her good luck. She now hopes she will soon be given a full-time position with the firm.

Not everybody who has tried to make a start in architecture abroad has been successful. Aitor Pérez, aged 29, graduated in 2012, and decided to give Brazil a go. But once his tourist visa ran out, and he had still not found a position, he was obliged to return home to live with his parents, in the Canary Islands. “My uncle is an architect in the Basque Country and when I finished my degree he said that he wouldn’t give me a job. So now I am thinking of going to China or Mexico,” he says.

There is a lot of talk about the German dream, but this is no panacea”

Bárbara García, aged 27, travelled to Hong Kong three months ago. She finished her degree six years ago, and felt that she was not moving forward in Spain. She is now scoping the market in Hong Kong, and hopes to open a small studio with other like-minded architects. “It’s a shame,” she says. “I think that we have some interesting architecture in Spain, but I just wasn’t using my talents to the full there.”

A generation of young Spanish architects is discovering that the world has changed. Many thought they would be able to set up their own studios, and few took the words of one of their teachers seriously in 2003: “Only one or two of you out of this class will have the opportunity to work on something really big.”