There are a handful of buildings which have come to define the Barcelona skyline: the Sagrada Família, the W Hotel, the carousel of Mount Tibidabo – and the Torre Agbar. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it is a symbol of Barcelona’s modern face and the urban renewal of the Poblenou neighbourhood, to which it marks the gateway.
Designed by famous French architect Jean Nouvel, the Torre Agbar is a 38-storey skyscraper that covers some 50,693 square metres (545,655 square feet) of total surface area. Construction began on the building in 1999, and in 2005, it was inaugurated as the main seat of the Agbar Group, the namesake company by which it is owned, and includes the local waterworks company, Aigües de Barcelona. Despite initially attracting some criticism for its unusual shape, today the tower is considered one of the most emblematic landmarks of the Catalan capital and has become a symbol of the new face of Barcelona.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the building is located in the Poblenou neighbourhood: once the industrial heart of Barcelona, today its warehouses and factories are being converted into art studios, co-working spaces and micro-breweries, as the city’s young, urban elite relocate there. Other relatively new buildings in the area include the Barcelona Design Museum, which opened its doors in 2008.
The structure’s smooth, spherical shape has drawn comparisons to Norman Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe building in London, more commonly known as ‘The Gherkin’. On its design, Nouvel himself has said that he drew his inspiration from the nearby mountains of Montserrat, and the building’s shape is said to represent a geyser exploding into the sky. On another occasion, he also recognised that the Torre Agbar had a phallic character – the citizens of Barcelona seem to agree as local nicknames range from ‘el supositori’ to other, more sexually, explicit names.
One of the most remarkable features of the Torre Agbar is its night-time illumination system, which involves some 4,500 LED lighting devices able to produce over 16 million different colours across the entire surface of the building. A complex computer system means that the colours can be programmed to follow animated sequences, which can quickly change from one colour to another. In recent years, the Torre Agbar has become a popular gathering point on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona as it puts on a spectacular display to see in the new year.
Aside from its remarkable exterior, another noteworthy feature of the Torre Agbar is its intelligent system of temperature control. As an example of high-tech architecture, the tower relies on a network of temperature sensors placed on its outside surface to regulate the opening and closing of window blinds, hence increasing energy efficiency by saving on air conditioning. This revolutionary design earned the Torre Agbar the Green Building Award by the European Commission in 2011.
Despite its futurist appearance, the tower was also inspired by Barcelona’s past and by the work of one of its most famous architects of all time: Antoni Gaudí. The bell towers of the Sagrada Família, perhaps the most famous of all Barcelona landmarks, are said to have been a direct inspiration for the Torre Agbar, and it is no coincidence that there are clear views of the cathedral from one of the tower’s faces.
Inspired by the city’s past but also a symbol of the new face of Barcelona and the widespread urban renewal that arose after the 1992 Olympics, the Torre Agbar has rapidly succeeded in establishing itself as a defining feature of Barcelona’s iconic skyline.