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Notes from Barcelona

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'La Pez' by Frank Gehry at Barceloneta
'La Pez' by Frank Gehry in Barceloneta

Having recently returned from Barcelona, Sean Ruthen of re:place magazine presents a monograph of architecture from that city, and ponders how we in the West could learn a lesson or two from Barcelona’s transformation as rough-and-tumble industrial port town to the host of the 1992 Summer Olympic games.

Text and photographs by Sean Ruthen, re:place Magazine

For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return…

While a student in first year architecture school, a building in Spain opened to the public and to the world, a building that my classmates and I knew at the time had irrevocably changed things, resounding through the halls of both architecture schools and practices alike, a resonance that has now since been dubbed the ‘Bilbao Effect’. I also knew that at some point in my life, I would have to visit this building and experience it first hand, and indeed find out what all the fuss was about (including its ability to make the late Philip Johnson weep). With its Pritzker-winning architect – Frank Gehry – now having achieved star status thanks to the building, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum has taken its place as one of the country’s most formidable venues, as attested to by the trio of artists presently showing there – Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, and the late Robert Rauschenberg. And so now, twelve years hence, I was lucky enough to find myself in Bilbao, Spain, to feel the late April heat, and bear witness to the cacaphony of titanium glimmering in the midday sun, spending one full day experiencing the Guggenheim Art Gallery – the architecture and the art within.

So it was curious that I found myself in Barcelona at this same time. On the verge of being sworn in as an architect, I set off for the Catalan capital, only later asking myself as the plane was nearing the BCN why had I chosen this particular city? Why does anyone go to Barcelona for that matter – whether the ancient Romans or Woody Allen, what is this magnetic pull that has over the ages drawn the modern artists, the writers, the idealists. Stepping on Iberian soil for the first time, I was a tabula rasa, open to anything and everything that sixteen days in Barcelona, and one in Bilbao, could offer.

Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe
Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe

Along with a Lonely Planet guide of Spain, Wallpaper’s Barcelona would prove to be the perfect and compact guidebook, giving tips on the must-see architecture, like the Barcelona Pavilion or Santa Caterina market, as well as the restaurants, hotels, and shopping that was to be had. Once there, however, I discovered that the most amazing companion to Barcelona’s architecture would be the English version of local publishing house ARCAT’s BCN, picked up at one of the city’s many La Central bookstores. This 380 page book is an exhaustive survey of the city’s modernista architecture built between 1860 and 2002. From Gaudi to Miralles, the book also includes the master plans for both the 1888 and 1929 world’s fair exhibitions put on by the city, as well as the 1992 Olympics.

After a week of wandering the narrow laneways of El Barri Gotic, the always entertaining Las Ramblas, perusing both Spanish and English bookstores, as well as walking atop both Gaudi’s La Pedrera and Sagrada Familia cathedral, it became very obvious why indeed I had come to Barcelona. My naïve presumption that Bilbao would be the main event of the trip became increasingly apparent as each day uncovered a new surprise, whether a new museum or art gallery, or a new magnificent plaza accompanied by an equally breathtaking cathedral. And always there was music, whether a Spanish guitarist performing in the chapel of some cathedral, or a trio of musicians playing in a plaza like the painting by Picasso. That so many other artists, writers and painters have drawn their inspiration from this city is not surprising, on top of the anarchists, Marxists, and other ideological leanings that the Spanish Civil War brought to debate at the cafés and bars lining the city’s narrow streets.

Any journey through Europe is made richer by the brilliant writing of Walter Benjamin (who died trying to cross into Spain during WWII), and so finding a new English edition of his essays was a personal victory, as well as my finding a copy of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Be forewarned that some of the English bookstores in Barcelona have not appeared to have weathered our current recession so well, despite the city being the publishing capital of the country, and have had to relocate within the city, most likely to less expensive digs. In one particular instance, I found a weather worn ‘for lease’ sign where there had once been the ‘Elephant’ – though upon my arrival home I was happy to find out that it hadn’t gone out of business, just moved. Regardless, having left at home the distractions of my laptop and television, I was more than content to spend my time in Barcelona immersed in print, whether the English version of El Pais or the numerous books I purchased, new and used alike.

Santa Caterina Market by EMBT
Santa Caterina Market by EMBT

But of course the real allure of traveling is the mystery of the unknown, or what one discovers as a result of the traveling itself – those random and unplanned happenstances that linger long after one has returned home. Such was the case one day when my girlfriend and I discovered it was Sant Jordi’s Day, an event not unlike our Valentine’s Day, where it is customary for a man to buy a woman a rose, and the woman to buy the man a book. As a result, the Passeig de Gracia and Las Ramblas were filled for that one day with bookstands stretching as far as the eye could see, while all the women walking by were laden with red roses. Another surprise was to discover we had just eaten some amazing paella at a restaurant Pele and Che Guevara used to dine at, or ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant where Picasso had painted the menus.

It goes without saying that the architecture of Barcelona is necessarily befitting of a world class city, with exemplars of both Catalan modernista and International Style work. Architecture is just one more expression for Barcelona, as important as its unique Catalan language, so much so that the city planners have located its architecture institute directly across from its great Gothic Catedral. Above all else though, what constantly strikes one while visiting Barcelona is how much thought has been put into the designed environment, down to the finest detail – whether in the simple act of hiding clunky building machinery, or in the way each new building has been woven into the older city’s fabric. Similarly, the new parks and boulevards that have been built since Franco are contributing immensely to the health of a city that has come once or twice dangerously close to self-annihilation.

Forum by Herzog and de Meuron
Forum by Herzog and de Meuron

Since 1979, Barcelona has been the seat of its own national Catalonian government, complete with its own Parliament and flag – four red stripes on a yellow background – and is recognized, along with sixteen other regions of Spain, as an ‘autonomous community’ within the nation of Spain and the European Union. Canada and Quebec could very much take a lesson from this – with Catalan as the official language, Castilian Spanish is a second language in much the same way French is a second language in Canada. This is perhaps much the result of how Franco had all but banished the language during his fascist regime, such that to visit Barcelona today is to visit a city whose overall culture is in complete revival. Thus, it is a wonderful surprise to remark how this gap in Barcelona’s and indeed all of Spain’s modern history is book-ended by two immensely talented Catalan architects – Antoni Gaudi and Enric Miralles.

For Gaudi, his was still an age of architectural patronage, such that two or three local patrons provided him with the creative latitude he needed to realize his idiosyncratic expressions – the Palau Guell, the Casa Batllo, the Casa Mila, and the Casa Calvet are four of his finest Barcelona apartments built for just such clients. His whimsical brushstrokes upon the Catalonian capital city have struck such a profound chord with its citizens that post-Franco Barcelona has made much of his work synonymous with the city itself, right down to the camp of Sagrada Familia glass globes in the gift shops. The Sagrada itself remains unfinished over eighty years after Gaudi was killed in a freak streetcar accident, but as we were told during our tour of the magnificent structure, the intent is for it to be completed by 2026, the hundred year anniversary of his passing.

As for Miralles, his vision of Barcelona represents a bold, neo-modernista direction for the city’s architecture, with his unabashed use of shape and colour to enliven and enrich the city’s public spaces – as seen in the playfulness of his Diagonal Park – and the plaza adjacent to his vibrant restoration of the Santa Caterina market. It is however his office’s more recent Natural Gas tower, completed posthumously in 2007 by his wife and architectural partner Benedetta Tagliabue, in which one sees the growing confidence of a prototypical Barcelona architecture office, in this case EMBT. Located a stone’s throw from the beaches of La Barceloneta and the two towers of the Olympic Village, this building’s honest use of modern material and engineering is revolutionary as it seeks to eject the kitsch of some of the city’s other newer buildings which fall short of anything beyond grand gestures. Most recently, EMBT has designed the Spanish pavilion at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, very much in keeping with the richness of material and expression that has defined their work. Tragically, Spain and Barcelona lost this great master-builder in 2000, as he passed away suddenly from a brain tumor at the too young age of 45.

Diagonal de la Mar park by EMBT
Diagonal de la Mar park by EMBT

To visit Barcelona now is then to see a city that is presently modernizing itself as it simultaneously declines from its old Roman and Gothic constructs. Likewise, the old skeleton of the half-century dictatorship it endured for most of the twentieth century is still visible amid the vibrancy of its packed narrow laneways, in the faces of the buskers along Las Ramblas, as well as in the flurry of activities in the old city markets, with their intoxicating arrays of colours and aromas. The magnificence of Barcelona’s great public spaces – atop the hypostyle hall at Park Guell, in front of the Santa Maria de la Mar, looking over the city from in front of the great exhibition hall from the 1929 Expo (now the MNAC) – all are testament to a city that recognizes its place in history, unique with its own language and culture, writ large with its collection of new and old public plazas, art galleries, museums, and promenades.

It comes then as no surprise that the city has, with such a depth of architecture provided by Gaudi and Miralles, opened itself to international architecture, as evidenced by Mies and his Barcelona Pavlion, and more recently by Herzog & Demuron’s Forum, Gehry’s copper fish at the Olympic Village, Meier’s pristine white Museum of Contemporary Art, and Nouvel’s glimmering Torre Agbar. The Olympics in 1992 also gave the city its spectacular modern airport (that all important first impression), along with the stadium and grounds atop Montjuic, a new sports complex by Arato Isozaki, and punctuated by Santiago Calatrava’s playful communications tower. Also atop this hill by the sea is the Joan Miro Foundation, designed by yet another Barcelona native, Josep Lluis Sert.

An absolute must while in the city is the ‘Articket’, which can be purchased from any of the city’s tourist bureaus. For twenty-two euros, one is able to gain entry to seven museums, including the Picasso Museum, La Pedrera, the MNAC, Joan Miro Gallery, MACBA, CCCB, and Antoni Tapies Gallery – and astonishingly, without having to wait in line. Another wonderful and unexpected moment was the result of deciding to first visit the Sagrada Familia at night, as it was within walking from our apartment in Port Vell. With its spires lit with massive spotlights on its Nativity façade, we were able to sneak into the Crypt (currently the only finished part of the church) and find our way to the foot of the grave of the architect himself. The Sagrada, La Pedrera, and Casa Batllo simply must be seen at night to fully appreciate them, as well as during the daylight hours when one can tour them.

Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi
Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi

A definite treat was going to the Casa Calvet, another of Gaudi’s apartments within walking distance of the Placa di Catalunya, in which there is a four star restaurant on the ground floor. While the interiors of the restaurant are mostly reproductions of the era (it was originally the offices of the client’s textile business), the proprietor was kind enough to show us the inner vestibule for the apartment itself, closed to the restaurant’s patrons, for which Gaudi had designed a wonderful modernista elevator. And then, of course, one cannot visit Barcelona without spending at least one day in Park Guell – touching the multi-coloured mosaic salamander at its entry stair, gaping mouth open at the great hypostyle hall, and listening to the musicians play in the great gathering space atop the hall, itself offering one of the city’s greatest vantage points to look out over Barcelona and the sea.

The shopping promenades, each side of the Placa di Catalunya, one the Portal de l’Angel, the other the Passeig de Gracia, are filled with both bookstores and clothing stores alike – satisfying both the chic fashion tourist and academic. Most amusing were the English names given to some of the stores – one candy store in particular was called ‘Happy Pills’, while likewise a nearby bookstore was called ‘Happy Books’. Where the Portal de l’Angel meets the Placa del Sol in front of the city’s great Gothic cathedral, a curiously out of place modern building sits – a stone and glass three storey podium adjoined by an eight storey Miesian office tower. This could only be the architecture institute, or as it’s known there the COAC (Catalan Architect’s Association). As well as housing exhibition space, administration offices, and a general assembly room for its meetings, the basement is home to the city’s most formidable architecture bookstore, with titles in both English and Catalan.

Guggenheim gallery by Frank Gehry in Bilbao
Guggenheim gallery by Frank Gehry in Bilbao

Now back on my native shores for over a month, I have realized the folly of my uncertainty in visiting Barcelona. Having slowly dissolved amid the days of adventure and sleepless nights that accompanied my dislodged circadian rhythm (it was at least five days before I got a full night’s sleep), I found comfort in the architecture, literature, music, and cuisine that one would normally have had to have travelled to at least two or three cities to have found. And the sketches and notes that I made, besides becoming the impetus with which to write this article, are the richest souvenir any traveller could hope to arrive home with. Like Marco Polo trying to relate his travels upon his return home, I will continue to recount these two-and-a-half weeks of bliss, though I may fall short in doing them justice. Visiting Bilabo near the end of the trip, I realized that one building, regardless of its ‘effect’, does not come near to the splendour that is a whole city.

You follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible.

by Sean Ruthen

Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver. Excerpts are from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.