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Ajo´s lighthouse

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ALEJANDRO REQUENA MARTÍN

Faro de Ajo (located in Spanish Autonomous Region of Cantabria) is the most recently built lighthouse in the region. It was inaugurated in 1930 and reconstructed in 1980 by engineer Fernando Rodríguez Pérez.

Over the past few years, the local government in the town of Bareyo –where the lighthouse belongs– has been promoting several activities in order to foster tourism. In 2015 a project was launched to fence off the perimeter of the cliffs and create a parallel 3-meter-wide pedestrian pathway. Since then, the lighthouse receives a high amount of visits every year.

Image 1. Faro Blanco Cabo de Ajo (Source: https://www.turismodeobservacion.com/foto/el-faro-de-ajo-en-cantabria/68115/)

Continuing with its goal of increasing tourism, in May 2020 Bareyo’s Town Council and Santander’s Port Authority presented a project to Cantabria’s regional government to paint Faro de Ajo for 75,000 €. This proposal encountered several opposing views who did not deem it artistically suitable and preferred the tower to remain white. A signature collection was even organized for the project to be dropped.

Finally, the work was commissioned to Cantabrian artist Óscar San Miguel (also known as Okuda), who started painting on August 24, 2020 and took only three days to finish it. He used 72 colors to represent the region’s cultural and natural diversity. The work’s final cost was 40,000 €, since it excluded the renovation of adjoined buildings, which was originally included in the budget. The paintings are initially scheduled to stay for a maximum of eight years, after which the lighthouse could be painted white again. Faro de Ajo has thus become the first lighthouse in Spain to be artistically modified. During the first opening day after the painting was finished, 1,800 visits were registered in the lighthouse.

The original purpose of this work as a tourist magnet might seem more than settled. However, this “makeover” is bringing endless controversies, for the new design of the lighthouse leaves no one indifferent: you either love it or hate it. Since its introduction, the project raised waves of criticism disapproving either where, when or how it was assigned, i.e., without a tendering process and without an urgent need for it.

Many artists took a stance for maintaining the white color for the lighthouse. A collection of signatures was organized via the online platform change.org under the title Preservemos blanco el Faro del Cabo Ajo (Let the Cape Ajo lighthouse stay white). Their objective was to prevent Okuda from intervening on a unique and rural landscape, for his urban art proposal was regarded as inadequate for the place. Many cultural representatives in the region adhered to this petition.

Ecologists and left political coalition Izquierda Unida also requested to stop the project, claiming it was a “heritage outrage” and a “cultural atrocity”. Likewise, Equo political party branded it as a “cultural degradation”.

Several cultural organizations and associations sent a letter to the mayor of Bareyo, José de la Hoz, arguing that tourism can be promoted without committing such serious offenses on heritage and requesting him to “reconsider” whether this intervention was necessary and whether the lighthouse was the ideal place for it.

Nonetheless, despite the criticism, Cantabria’s President, Miguel Ángel Revilla, seconded the works on the lighthouse, together with Bareyo’s mayor, José de la Hoz (belonging to Cantabria’s Regionalist Party, PRC), who asserted that most local citizens support the project for its potential as a cultural and touristic interest driver.

Image 2. Painted Faro de Ajo (Source: https://www.traveler.es/viajeros/articulos/polemica-faro-okuda-arte-turismo-masivo-ajo-cantabria-revilla/19039)

Historically, most lighthouses have always been and still are white. Faro de Ajo, located in the most northern point in Cantabria and 40 kilometers away from Santander, used to be white too. It has comprehensive protection under the 2015 Catalogue of Architectural and Archeological Heritage of Bareyo’s Town Council. As Bareyo’s main emblem, it is featured at the home page of the village’s website. 

However, with the so-called Infinite Cantabria project presented in May 2020 by Okuda San Miguel, the roadmap for the lighthouse changed and from August 24 to August 27, 2020, he carried out the painting works. Now a composition of colors covers the cylindric walls of the 16-meter-high tower. The lighthouse will still maintain its function to shed light at night, but during the day it is conceived as a touristic appeal. 

This controversial action has opened a debate and raised questions on the limits between urban art and heritage preservation. It could be argued that, if an element’s essence is not altered, an artistic intervention can add a new layer as a reinterpretation and a new, contemporary meaning to such element, reflecting on social, political or economic criticism, on environmental awareness, etc.

Though this post is not intended to judge Okuda’s artistic value, I believe that Faro de Ajo and its surroundings already had a self-reliant natural beauty which stood out without the newly added colors to the lighthouse. It also attracted visitors when it was white. On the other hand, as Okuda claims, it is true that only one wall of the lighthouse was painted, and it can be painted white again in the future. Still, one could wonder why a local resident cannot paint his/her house with bright colors if it is located in a protected or natural environment, whereas the government can. Moreover, neither the time, the place or the way the project was commissioned seemed ideal.

I personally think that, in such a situation, the environment should be analyzed and a wide array of opinions should be considered. For me, although the lighthouse’s purpose as a touristic attraction can be compatible with its functionality, tourism should not be prioritized at any price. I believe there must be indeed a limit between urban art and heritage preservation, based on respect to such heritage and to its role in society.

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