Water and modernization in Franco’s Spain: Salime’s Dam

The military uprising against the legitimate Spanish government of the Republic that led the country to the Civil War rested mainly on the support of its rural population. However, a few years after the end of the war, inland Spain witnessed an increasing exodus from these areas towards major cities such as Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao. General Franco knew that the country’s future would be played out in the cities but, in recognition of the support of the rural areas, he issued a number of important policies intended to modernize its infrastructures and prevent depopulation. Amongst these, two major programs, which were in some ways complementary, had wide social, economic and territorial consequences. On the one hand, large colonization projects were carried out and included the construction of new rural settlements linked to agricultural development programs. Water scarcity, a secular problem in most of Spain, needed to be addressed to secure these policies. Vast hydraulic works were carried out, that assured agricultural production and the subsequent colonization of previously barren territories. Water, however, was not only needed for agriculture or human consumption, it was also essential to produce electricity, a key factor in the development of the industry that would guaranty economic growth and help fight poverty. Influential professionals in architecture and engineering played a key role in the development of these programs and produced some of the most impressive and valued buildings and infrastructures of the central decades of the twentieth century in Spain.

© Luís Argüelles / Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

In 1939, at the end of the Civil War, Spain had been devastated by drought and battles. The National Institute of Colonization depending on the Ministry of Agriculture was founded to deal with some of the war consequences. A National Transformation and Colonization Plan was set in motion intended to achieve a huge task, the modernization of rural Spain. As a consequence, more than 300 new villages were built to house more than 55,000 families who were granted housing and land property as long as they complied with the strict moral rules imposed by the Regime. The villages, whose architectural quality has been unanimously recognized, always had a church as a central point and reference, surrounded by a central square and civic center, referential to community life. The single-family homes reinterpreted vernacular architecture from a modern perspective and incorporated services such as private baths and toilets, something very uncommon in poor, rural Spain at the time. Great Spanish modern architects, such as Alejandro de La Sota or José Luis Fernández del Amo, designed magnificent works in which they took care of the smallest details introducing rationalism in a context and a program unusual in Europe at the time. Villages such as Esquivel, Entrerríos or Villalba de Calatrava stand out as extraordinary examples.

© Colonization villages, José Luís Fernández del Amo. (Vegaviana, el Realengo, el Éjido)

The improvement of irrigation was essential to increase agricultural productivity and fight the scarcity of food that followed the war. Dams needed to be built and became a priority for the Regime which used them as propaganda in the media, especially in the 1940s, when Spain witnessed a severe drought. The storage of water became a priority for the Regime for agricultural use as well as for energy production.

Sometimes both uses were compatible, but there were frequent confrontations between the Ministries of Agriculture and Industry as resources were scarce. The company ENHER, depending on the National Institute of Industry, oversaw electrical production and was directed by two illustrious engineers: Victoriano Muñoz Oms and Eduardo Torroja, the great pioneer of the introduction of concrete in Spain. The task of building dams under Franco was huge, and 615 dams were inaugurated from 1939 to 1975.

salime dam exterior
© Luís Argüelles / Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

Salime’s Dam on the Navía River is one of the elements of the selection “100fromthe20th” of the INNOVA CONCRETE project, and perfectly represents the importance that the Regime placed on large hydraulic works. This is evident in the extraordinary quality and detail of the project that, far beyond its engineering function, incorporated architects and artists, in a desire to make an emblematic and coherent ensemble.

Salime’s Dam and hydroelectric plant were built between 1946 and 1955. The dam allows the River Navia to transform into the largest reservoir in the Spanish region of Asturias, just twenty kilometers from the Cantabrian Sea. Being located in a wet region, with no problems regarding water supply, its use was almost exclusively intended for the production of electricity which was in fact, much needed in this region, one of the most industrialized of Spain.

© Luís Argüelles / Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

Joaquín Vaquero Palacios was the architect and engineer who conceived the work as a whole. Its construction was extremely complex. The River Navia had to be diverted through a tunnel several kilometers long. The cement needed for the concrete of the dam and the construction of all the plant’s elements was manufactured in situ, with aggregates from a nearby quarry. It also required the construction of all the necessary infrastructure for its production, including silos and hoppers. Other required materials arrived by sea and were transported to the site by a 36 km long cable car built exclusively for this purpose. Finally, the construction of new roads and villages was needed, in order to house more than 3,500 workers that came from all over Spain, during the decade needed for its construction. All this, together with the more than 630,000 m3 of concrete that were needed, just for the dam, gives an idea of the immense magnitude of the hydraulic works of the early years of the dictatorship.

However, despite the technical complexity of the work, great attention was given in Salime to every aesthetic aspect. The son of the architect Joaquín Vaquero Palacios assisted his father in this task. He conceived huge exterior concrete reliefs and immense painted murals in the interior rooms – the turbine room is one of the most remarkable spaces of the plant, and houses a mural covering a surface of 300 square meters. All this combines with the expressive designs of functional elements like viewports or dam discharge gates that took advantage of the expressive and plastic capacities of concrete.

Salime’s Dam and its power plant are an outstanding works of engineering, architecture and art, a testimony of a time when the modernization of the country through infrastructure was a paramount political program and a key argument for the propaganda in the early years of the Regime.

salime dam
© Luís Argüelles / Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico

Learn more about this building, visit the website “InnovaConcrete 100 from the 20th” to find out more.


Roger-SubiraRoger Subirà, Architect.

Fundación DOCOMOMO Ibérico.

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