The Island That Never Was

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Extracts from the book published in December 2015

I felt strangely at home in this abandoned, isolated district of a foreign city. They say no man is an island, but I must admit that at times I’ve felt like a peninsula. The no-man’s-land down near the point, especially, seemed to resonate in me with some private strain of toxic melancholy. Industry had moved on; life was moving in. Weeds in the gutter reached up as tall as a wrecked car. Cooling ponds atop factories were crowned with waving bull-rushes; cracked pavements sprouted pampas grass, brambles and buddleia. A corrugated shed roof had all but disappeared beneath a living rug of bracken and moss. The river wall was carpeted with stonewort and samphire, attended by little darting lizards. Fat carp nosed along the river bottom, and a collapsed wooden landing-stage, choked with debris, had become a sparrow chapel. Cormorants fished in the river, wagtails bobbed and dipped on the canal bank, and herons and egrets could sometimes be seen wading the mud-flats at low tide. One day, riding the bus into town, I was jolted out of my doze by the bolt-from-the-blue of a kingfisher, shadowing us in mid-river. And one time I saw a royal couple, king- and queen-fisher, holding court in the gothic vault of a shattered factory, with vines and creepers hanging down through gaping wounds in its concrete floors. There was perhaps more of life’s diversity, certainly more of its wild spirit ― the holy grail of creative inspiration ― in this ravaged wasteland than in all the city’s manicured parks. If nature and the man-made world were supposed to be separate, nature didn’t seem to have got the message.

From the point, the views were outstanding. On a clear day you could see the city in a true light: as the embodiment of ancient stories, coded instructions copied from clay tablet to compact disc; symbols channelling through minds and bodies into steel and concrete, glass and rubber. A gargantuan machine, deranged in its Byzantine complexity; a heat exchanger dissipating fossil energy and human dreams, a mill grinding souls into frangible currency. The city, Babylon; but also a city, Babylon–Bilbao, with its own distinct identity, re-founded over the centuries from the melted-down scrap of the masses. Bilbao, Bilbo ― a name that was part dagger: a knife to the heart, in the back, in the dark, dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed; part mind-forged manacle: the handcuffs of wage-slavery, the bondage of a mortgage, the massive anchor chains of language, identity, family; but also part hero: unwitting at first, later unwilling, but able, in the end, to claim the ring, outwit the dragon and bag the gold.

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The everyday life of the barrio took place mainly in the central district, revolving around the church, the bars, the children’s playground, and the meetings of several different groups including the neighbourhood association, youth club, women’s club, retirees’ club, and the traditional gastronomic club or txoko. Throw together a few hundred people of varied origin; steep in a culture that emphasises conformity, tradition, the local and the collective; leave to stand for a generation in isolation and official neglect; result: a community with an extraordinary degree of autonomous organisation.

There was also a small arts foundation, la Hacería (the Foundry), in the barrio: a space for theatre, music and art events. Then there were the squatters, who occupied half-a-dozen different buildings, including a disused sailcloth factory at the beginning of the peninsula. Their graffiti art spoke of the Incas, a punk tribe bound by ideals of freedom, anarchy and resistance. Many of the pieces were tagged by ‘House’; he turned out to be a scrawny, scruffy young man from Valencia, who said he was planning to go back there soon because his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Other squatters came from Russia or Argentina, or were native to Bilbao. On the whole they kept themselves apart from the locals: sometimes they would turn up to social events with free food and drink, but never for dull meetings.

Elsewhere in the city, however, meetings were being held to which the residents, scruffy or otherwise, were explicitly uninvited. In 2002 the major landowners, construction companies, and various levels of government got together to form a development commission for the Zorrozaurre peninsula. There was no masquerade of public consultation; the neighbourhood association were refused permission to attend, much less join the commission. Soon the developers announced that Zorrozaurre’s new fairy godmother would be the internationally renowned architectural superstar and Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid. She would wave her magic wand and conjure up a sparkling Master Plan for the peninsula. Word in the barrio was that a few buildings would probably be retained for their architectural quality; legal means would be found to raze the rest and, where necessary, rehouse the inhabitants somewhere cheap. Both common knowledge and local history proved that when money talked, people walked.

And indeed, soon enough they came for the squatters. Vans full of police in red berets rolled up to evict them, house by house; the squats were declared unsafe and torn down by big yellow diggers. With the squatter tribe driven into exile, the quality of graffiti in the barrio went into decline. Over time, the ardent designs of House and the Incas were effaced by scrawled ego-tags like the piss-markings of dogs. One of the last houses to be evicted was on the small plaza at the heart of the barrio, facing the art-deco palace (which was being renovated in opulent style by Catalan investors). On demolition it revealed a previously hidden graffito on the wall of the adjoining house, painted from the roof of the squat. Alongside an elf playing maracas and a man dancing in the heavens was the phrase ‘We shall build dreams.’

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A decade on from the presentation of Zaha Hadid’s first Master Plan, the construction boom has come and gone without a single new building going up in Zorrozaurre. The planners are still struggling within the cage of Zaha’s design, which put aesthetic appearance in first place, and where boring things like sun, green space, social space or mobility were barely even considered. And despite the improvements, the new future is essentially still the same as the old: Zaha’s dream of sharp skyscrapers, on glossy paper from a sales prospectus. Even the developers admit that this vision is going to take quite a few decades to build; many other people see it as an absurdity in the current economic climate.

Meanwhile, a network of upstart projects has taken root among the disused factories, empty warehouses and vacant lots. Theatre and circus, flea markets and crafts, ukulele workshops and urban gardening, painting and jazz and flamenco, printing and electronics and bike maintenance, a climbing wall and a skate park… These initiatives are loosely inspired by a vision of Zorrozaurre as an evolving work in progress, rather than following a plan handed down from above. In short, they are less ostentatious, more vital and infinitely more interesting than the official future.

But what if ‘meanwhile’ became a permanent condition? What if the official future was cancelled? What if the destiny of Zorrozaurre were guided, not by the egos of planners, politicians and superstar architects, but by human creativity and the subtler, slower, yet ultimately more potent forces of nature?

For the time being, until the bulldozers move in, the inhabitants of Zorrozaurre cling stubbornly on in their diverse niches. Despite its many wounds, the place endures. The point is still there, in its lovely loneliness, its decaying beauty. Perhaps next year the kingfishers will return.

front cover-smThe Island that Never Was, published December 2015 in print and online by Zorrozaurre Art Work in Progress,  is a personal memoir by Robert Alcock. The book tells of 15 years in the dream life of a unique neighbourhood ― the post-industrial Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao, the island that never was ― with its diverse characters, including lizards, kingfishers, Bertolt Brecht, a make-believe cowboy, Gargantua, squatters, developers and Zaha Hadid; its ruins, its graffiti, its decaying beauty, and the divergent visions for its future.

The text is loosely based on two essays that first appeared in Dark Mountain: ‘Beyond Z’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 3, summer 2012, and ‘Thin Blue Line’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, autumn 2014 (also published here on the blog).

You can buy the book online here.

Robert Alcock is a writer, self-builder and ecological designer based in northern Spain.

 

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