Barcelona is a city known for not only its culture and lifestyle, but also its architecture. The visionary expressions of Gaudí still dominate the cityscape, defining and solidifying Barcelona’s architectural character. Culture Trip explores the best of Barcelona’s architecture, starting with Gaudí.
Gaudí’s Imprint on the City
Anyone on a quest to find Barcelona’s best examples modernist architecture should make a pit stop at Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família. The temple, still years away from completion, represents a bridge between ancient and modern architecture and is an architectonic jewel in the heart of the city. Such is Gaudí’s genius that the Sagrada Família is even publicly admired by architects like Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, and it is without a doubt the defining building of Barcelona’s architectural landscape.
Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion
Gaudí’s innovations sparked the development of new and fearless approaches to architecture, of which the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion, constructed in 1929, is a prime manifestation. The original work was built as the German Pavilion for the Great Exhibition and was demolished after the event, but in 1986 it was reconstructed in the same location as the Barcelona Pavilion. A key reference point in both the career of Mies Van Der Rohe and 20th century architecture as a whole, the construction has become a highly celebrated building for its use of natural marbles, onyx and glass, as well as its particular structure and distribution of space. A combination of elements seem to float on the water of its two rectangular lakes, reflecting, both literally and metaphorically the rise of a new style of architecture.
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The Miró Foundation
Not far from Barcelona’s Olympic stadium on Montjuïc, the Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert showed his devotion to modern architecture with his design for the The Joan Miró Foundation. Sert was commissioned by Miró himself to create a center for research and promotion of the latest contemporary art trends. The museum follows the patterns of rationalist architecture with a white structure of modules organized around a central yard. The foundation opened up in 1975 and revolutionized both architecture and functionalism and their relation to museography.
Arata Isozaki and Santiago Calatrava’s Olympic Ring Complex
The Miró Foundation’s expansion and the Barcelona Pavilion, two key projects for the future development of the Montjuïc area in anticipation of the 1992 Olympics, were later complemented by the Olympic ring complex. This added the signature of yet another architect of worldwide prestige to the city: that of Arata Isozaki. Isozaki’s project for an indoor multipurpose stadium called the Palau Sant Jordi was built to be one of the main Olympic venues. It opened in 1990 and became famous due to its innovative design, technological achievements and ability to hold all kinds of sporting and cultural events.
Santiago Calatrava’s Telecommunications Tower was built in 1992 right next to the Palau Sant Jordi. The Spanish architect gave the complex special meaning by designing an outstanding tower symbolising victory and progress in the form of an Olympic torch. The tower was built with an inclined shaft that rests on a semicircular base and has a series of waves that the architect coated with trencadís thereby rendering homage to Gaudí.
Norman Foster’s Futuristic Landmark
Santiago Calatrava’s Telecommunications Tower on Montjuïc was one of two towers designed for the 1992 Olympics. The other was designed by Norman Foster to crown Barcelona’s other mountain, Tibidabo, which is part of the Collserola mountain range. The Collserola Telecommunications Tower was designed with the aim of creating a new symbol for the city, an icon of the new Barcelona to be born with the Olympics. Its futuristic design is an example of high tech architecture, particularly because of its exposed structure and technological inspiration that uses guy-wires for lateral support. Despite the initial criticism surrounding its creation, the tower eventually succeeded in providing Barcelona with an iconic symbol thanks to its unconventional design and its unique location rendering it visible from afar. Mainly designed as a TV and radio transmitter, it is now more well-known as the site that offers the best views of the city from its panoramic observation deck located on the tenth floor. The tower belongs to the World Federation of Great Towers.
The Olympic Port: Frank Gehry and SOM
While Norman Foster’s tower was making its way to the top of the city, another area was also getting ready for the ’92 Olympics. The next celebrity architects to come to the city were Gehry Partners and Skidmore, Owing & Merill (SOM) whose Barcelona Fish and the Arts Hotel, respectively, added two more iconic buildings to the city’s skyline. With their growing fame as the designers of the tallest buildings in the world, the Chicago-based architectural partnership SOM built the Arts Hotel to be Barcelona’s tallest building. Together with its twin, the Mapfre Tower designed by Iñigo Ortiz and Enrique de León, it follows the rules of international style with a simplified and unornamented structure. Nevertheless, the particularity of The Arts is its iron white outer skeleton designed by Bruce Graham.
Located beside these two buildings is Frank Gehry’s golden fish, a huge metal sculpture whose wavy lines and sun-reflecting material contrast sharply with the neighboring buildings. This construction is another example of Gehry’s distinct sculptural style that uses curvaceous titanium forms and plays with light and air.
The Raval: A Cultural Renaissance
Taking the booming success of the Olympics as impetus for more changes across the city, and with the desire to maintain Barcelona’s relevance in the international scene even after the event, urban rehabilitation projects were planned in the Raval neighborhood, traditionally a poorer working-class area. This was done, mainly, with the creation of two new cultural facilities located side by side: the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA).
The CCCB first opened its doors in 1993 as a center that organizes exhibitions, debates, festivals, book readings and other such artistic events. Located in a building that used to be a charity house, it was redesigned by Albert Viaplana and Helio Piñón in an effort to match the past with the future of the building. This was achieved by changing only one of the sides of the inner courtyard with a modern glass wall that reflects the old wall and whose top floor provides both an observation deck and a reflection of the city in a stunning metaphor of the center’s function.
Right next to the CCCB, the New York architect Richard Meier was commissioned a building to host contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) is a nuclear white modern-looking building with a glass façade that faces a large square surrounded by old streets and buildings. It was designed following Le Corbusier’s rationalist style of clear lines and a combination of curved and straight shapes. The cross-linked structure that covers the glass façade creates an ongoing dialogue between the indoor and outdoor as light enters the building. The project, finished in 1995, succeeded in helping revamp the area, and its square, curiously enough, has become the mecca for skateboarders worldwide.
The turn of the century also began with the impressive modern rehabilitation of buildings, such as with Arata Isozaki’s new entrance hall for the CaixaForum Cultural Center in Barcelona. The Barcelona CaixaForum opened in 2002 in an old textile factory originally built by the famous Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Isozaki’s new entrance hall makes the renovated center more distiguishable and helps attract more visitors. This new entrance even has a hidden Zen outer exhibition area that is capable of holding live performances, screenings and presentations.
EMBT 21st Century Icons
In 2005, just a few years after the new entrance of the CaixaForum was unveiled, the stunning renovation of Santa Caterina’s Market, designed by the EMBT studio, was finished. It consists of a colorful mosaic deck that covers the old market gates in a wave-like manner. Since Enric Miralles’ premature passing in 2000, the studio has been led by his partner Benedetta Tagliabue. Tagliabue has continued his work by finishing some projects that have become new Barcelona iconic buildings, such as the headquarters of Gas Natural (Torre Mare Nostrum) in 2007, the Diagonal Zero Hotel and the W Hotel, both finished in 2009.
Herzog & de Meuron Forum
Another event, years after the Olympics, filled the city with a renewed enthusiasm for architecture: the 2004 Forum of Cultures. Used as an excuse to rehabilitate the Besòs area of the city, the event became the perfect reason to attract more international architects to contribute to changing city’s landscape. Among these projects, the Forum building by Herzog and de Meuron was supposed to be central to the event, but due to a series of misfortunes it was only recently was relaunched as the new Natural History Museum (Museu Blau). Although the Forum of the Cultures did succeed in adding some new facilities and buildings to the map, it did not succeed in completely revamping this extremely degraded part of the city, which is still years away from becoming a real business and recreation area.
Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower
The other side of the Poblenou neighborhood fared better than the Forum did. Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower, unlike the Forum building, became the gateway to Barcelona’s new 22@ tech district. Despite early criticism and many a funny nickname relating to the building’s shape, Jean Nouvel’s water geyser-inspired building, which is headquarters of the water supply company of Barcelona, provided the city with more a colorful new landmark; this is especially true due to its nocturnal lighting system. Nouvel was apparently inspired by the shapes of the mountain of Montserrat and also wanted to pay tribute to Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, emulating certain characteristics of its bell towers and turning the inner hall into a sort of temple, which looks like one particularly when the sun shines through the stained glass windows. Rumor has it that Nouvel’s design was completed before Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the Gherkin, was erected between 2001 and 2003 in London. Either way, both buildings have become famous landmarks and great examples of high tech architecture.
DHUB: The Last Piece of the Mosaic
The building of the Agbar Tower sparked a much needed renovation of Plaça de les Glòries. Efforts to improve its connections to the city center are now underway, as is the pedestrianization of the square. Meanwhile, more start-ups and technological companies have also moved into the neighborhood, turning the page from its abandoned industrial past into a promising technological future. After renovation works began in the square, the inauguration of the Design Hub Barcelona (DHUB) building was the next big thing everyone was paying attention to. Commissioned to the Catalan architect Oriol Bohigas, it is intended to become a design hub, a meeting point of sorts for a network of people and institutions which is supposed to encourage both research and economic activity.
DHUB opened in late 2014 despite its once unknown and controversial future due to its location, far from the city center, and also due to some friction between historic design institutions like FAD (Fostering Arts and Design) and more recent initiatives like BCD (Barcelona Centre of Design). Moreover, its enormous and intrusive design, with one side facing into the Glòries Square and the other facing the Poblenou district and blocking the view of the Agbar Tower, is perceived as mal-intentioned. Popularly known as ‘the stapler’, its cost, construction and size are claimed to have been too large, even if the MBM architectural studio attests to the eco-efficiency of the building.
All in all, Barcelona’s modern architecture highlights are colorful, rich and spread across the city offering a balance between the past and the future and creating a diverse and appealing architectural mosaic. After all, Gaudí’s forms are part of this city’s DNA.
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