A road crosses the brown plain of La Mancha in search of the sea. Its outline splits the conglomerate of unfenced crops and meadows in two, dotted with scattered houses that make up a single district called Balsa de Ves. Eight different nuclei make up this municipality of Albacete with 131 registered inhabitants, including eight children, and a population density lower than that of the African Kalahari desert. Lucía Vila and her two brothers take shelter under the shade of a whitewashed house, they choose these moments of solitary rest for confidences. From a mound, they observe the languishing of the afternoon and of a town without a pharmacy or butcher shop, bakery or health center. “In a few days I will be 18 years old,” announces the young woman. “I’ll still be here for now, to see if I can finish high school, and as soon as I can I will leave.” You will shape your future elsewhere.
Lucía is studying a medium degree as a nursing assistant in Casas Ibáñez, 25 kilometers from her town, she gets there thanks to the bus chartered by the institute. The Balsa de Ves unitary school has been closed since 1973, a children’s playground designed by the Rellam architecture studio, based in Malmö (Sweden), Houston (United States), Madrid and Valencia. The swings and lighting are part of the same tubular structure that rises above the yellow rubber floor, the tone with which its authors sign. The modest venue, commissioned and funded by the City Council, has been among the 70 finalists of the XV Spanish Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism – promoted by the Ministry of Transport with the aim of alerting about empty Spain – whose jury has announced the 20 winners this week.
Lluis J. Liñán is one of the architects of this work that has redefined the physiognomy of Balsa de Ves, a town painted in ocher and silent until a tractor crosses it from end to end. Under the plateau sun, the architect places the lack of definition of uses at the center of his design, so that “children and adults find a way to use it”. Their forecasts included the planting of leafy trees, but the natives of the place recommended placing younger ones that would take little by little and better. The project will have concluded when they grow and provide shade in the La Mancha summer, although the park’s political objective can already be considered accomplished. Liñán points out: “It is about showing the importance of children in the life of the people, even though they constitute a minority sector.”
“You had to give a tour of the typical playground that exists in any city, because we work with a very limited budget that did not allow to buy slides or castles,” continues the author. When night falls, the rubber of the enclosure can become a great mattress to frolic on. If the most veteran of the town are still reticent, among the youngest there is a closed defense of the novelty. Javier, Lucia’s brother, is 12 years old and is a good example: “Now new families with small children can come.” The intervention itself is minor, two swings and two small wheels with which to recover 350 square meters in disuse. Most of the space is cleared for the meeting, although Javier prefers cycling routes, soccer games and some longed-for water in the municipal swimming pool, which will reopen in a couple of days.
The first-born of the family, Lucía, 19, works during the summer months in one of the two bars in town. “Life here is very quiet and boring, what we do most is walk, at least it gives us a little air,” he notes. An older man, club in hand, passes him moments later and shouts at the park. The young woman understands that resistance, “although if changes of this type do not come, the people will die.” Balsa de Ves lacks any public transport, so everyone at home depends on their father’s car, a construction laborer. Two days a week a taxi offers its services with prior notice, then the elderly take the opportunity to withdraw money from the bank or visit a medical specialist. There are also those who carry out these errands only when a family member visits them with their own vehicle. Living here requires anticipating each task, planning everything.
Daughter of farmers and pedagogue, Natividad Pérez, the socialist mayor, laments: “Policies for rural development are made from offices where we are numbers and it does not matter if someone is ill and cannot go to the doctor.” The idea of projecting a park where there were ruins and rubble arose from his desire to spruce up the municipality, “not only so that new neighbors can arrive, but also for those who already live here to stay.” The scarce means demanded a high dose of imagination, and that is why he immediately turned to a young studio like Rellam, which already had other urban recycling projects in its portfolio. The firm proposed in 2016 to resuscitate the real estate corpses of a Valencian town where the brick crisis had left dozens of half-built single-family homes. The project earned them gold in the Spanish pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
That use aroused the interest of the councilor, who cites the Nobel Prize in Economics and recent Prince of Asturias prize Amartya Sen, emeritus critic of capitalism. “When he received the award, he said that it is time to move from the debate on income to the debate on people’s lives. That impressed me a lot, ”she recalls, sitting at the pool bar, which the City Council put out to tender and no one wanted to manage. In the absence of initiative, his government team agreed with Cáritas Valencia to bring a family in a vulnerable situation who will run it for free all summer. The father’s name is Jorge Chía, a 59-year-old Peruvian, grateful for an opportunity that he thought was impossible. As he sweeps the place, he evokes the poetry of small places: “There is something very beautiful in this stillness. Who knows if we will stay ”.