As one of Spain’s most prestigious contemporary architects, Ricardo Bofill is responsible for a huge variety of commercial projects, from hotels and airports to office complexes and hotels. But it’s his earlier work, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, that really pushed boundaries thanks to his groundbreaking combination of socially-minded urban philosophy and artistic brilliance. Here Culture Trip explores some of Bofill’s most iconic works.
In 1973 Bofill came across a disused cement factory composed of over 30 cement storage silos and vast, industrial machine rooms in the suburbs of Barcelona. With thanks to his outstanding vision and spatial sensibility, the former industrial complex was remodeled into what is now the head office for his architecture firm, Taller de Arquitectura, and his home. By leaving in place much of what was left of the original structure, Bofill reinterpreted the traditional concept of a home or office. The cement plant’s forlorn, empty shell, void of its original function, became a collection of abstract elements which Bofill transformed into unexpected new spaces. Enormous cylindrical silos were repurposed into light-filled office chambers, whilst immense concrete supporting walls were cut-away and sculpted into decorative arches. The sober, concrete walls of the former factory are given a more human touch with an abundance of lush vegetation. Roofs are carpeted in grass whilst palm trees stand tall within the shells of former machine rooms.
Sitting on the outskirts of Barcelona, in the otherwise unvaried satellite town of Sant Just Desvern, is Walden 7, a mammoth-like terracotta structure, more akin to a fortification than an apartment building. Conceived upon a utopian vision of social housing, Walden 7 is a maze of shimmering, turquoise corridors and light-filled central courtyards. Made up of 18 separate towers which are bound together by a series of lofty atriums, the building is a vertical labyrinth of immense proportions. Bridges and meandering passageways connect together the 446 residences that, thanks to careful planning, all boast both exterior and interior views. Named after B.F. Skinner’s science fiction novel, Walden Two, which depicts a utopian community, Walden 7 was Bofill’s attempt to unite his early architectural ambitions into one project. He hoped to tackle housing problems, such as those related to a lack of public space for collective activity, by creating a residential building which also incorporated elements of the outside world such as a central plaza, shops, swimming pools and bars.
After a devastating fire completely gutted the old Romanesque chapel of the Virgin of Meritxell in Andorra in September of 1972, Bofill and his firm were tasked with rebuilding the mountainside chapel. Instead of rebuilding it brick by brick and returning the old sanctuary back to its former self, Bofill took the opportunity to reinterpret the building and create something completely new. By gently fusing together traditional Romanesque imagery with modern building techniques and design, Bofill paid his respects to the architectural heritage and landscape of the Pyrenees whilst taking bold steps towards something more innovative. The result is a building of astonishing beauty. Traditional stone and black slate, typical of the Andorra region, are reconfigured into contemporary, minimalist blocks. Their clean geometric lines break occasionally into a symphony of sweeping white arches that mirror the dramatic curves of the chapel’s mountainside backdrop.
As an antidote to the dearth of monotonous, utilitarian blocks that characterised the suburbs of Paris, Les Espaces d’Abraxes was conceived in 1982 as a building complex based on historical references and classical forms. Baroque details such as pillars and stone cornices relieve the uniformity of post-modern mass housing and create a theatrical stage in which the drama of daily life is played out. By dividing the complex up into three distinct areas, ‘The Theatre’, ‘The Arc’ and ‘The Palace’, Bofill aimed to create what resembled a grandiose inhabited monument. ‘The Theatre’ is a colossal, curved arch, home to 130 apartments that gently envelop the communal, central lawn. ‘The Arc’ is a relatively small building comprised of 20 apartments that renders the omnipresent, neoclassical symbol of triumph into something functional. ‘The Palace’ is made up of three separate buildings in a U-shaped formation. The complex’s otherworldly appearance has been the location for numerous films including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy.
Rising up from the rocky cliffs of Calpe, on Spain’s Costa Blanca, La Muralla Roja (The Red Wall) probably lays claim to the title of Bofill’s most breathtaking work. With clear similarities to Walden 7, La Muralla Roja is an imposing, fortress-like edifice concealing a dazzling tangle of colorful corridors, open stairways, apartments and outdoor spaces. Inspired by Islamic vernacular architecture, Bofill borrowed several elements from the Kasbah, including their tall, imposing walls, and the way in which they synthesize the outdoor and indoor into one space. La Muralla Roja also evokes the clean lines and geometric abstraction of Soviet constructivist architecture. Yet it is prevented from becoming too imposing and austere by the use of color. Walls alternate between red, lilac, blue and pale pink, whilst the deep azure of the ocean backdrop and the invariably blue Spanish skies further broaden the color palette. Built in 1973, the building is still as daring and fantastical as it would have been then.
As part of the La Manzanera development which also included La Muralla Roja, Xanadu is an 18-apartment building gazing out on to the Mediterranean Sea. Designed around the concept of the castle, Xanadu’s structure pivots around a central axis, off of which numerous cubes are added on to form the apartments. Every residence is made up of three cubes that each correspond to a designated function, either for sleeping, living or services. The twist comes on the exterior, where each cube is modified in order to maximize the quality of living for each resident. By taking into account orientation, corners are shaved off strategically to exploit sea views whilst cut-out spaces and protruding cubes provide shade from the intense Spanish sun. Vernacular elements such as terracotta roof tiles and traditional window shutters further contribute to a completely original and beguiling facade.
Situated in the town of Sant Pere de Ribes, just outside of Barcelona, is Bofill’s surrealist homage to Franz Kakfa, El Castillo Kafka (The Kafka Castle). Built in 1968, the apartment building stands tall on a hillside overlooking the Bay of Sitges, its figure a swelling mass of purple cubes and mind-boggling angles. With its construction, Bofill and his firm not only crossed boundaries in terms of aesthetics, but also in design and construction techniques. Following a similar design philosophy as the Xanadu apartments in Calpe, Castillo Kafka uses the castle as its reference point. The main nucleus of the building where the stairwells are situated acts as the axis to which the rest of the building corresponds. Prefabricated cubes plug into the central core to form apartments, their formation dictated by a series of mathematical equations, rather than traditional plans. Windows alternate between elongated, minimalist frames or cut-off road drainage pipes to further add to the intrigue.
At the request of the Algerian government, Houari Boumedienne was built to house agricultural workers in the semi-desert area of Abadla in western Algeria. In an effort to promote agriculture in the area, the government chose Bofill due to his experience addressing housing problems in a range of different countries across the world. Created in a block formation, the village revolves around a large central square such as those found in most Arab towns. As in much of Bofill’s work, he recognized the power of public space as the platform on which communities are bound together, be it as the meeting place, the marketplace or the centre for celebrations and festivities. Geometric forms and clean lines reminiscent of traditional Arab and Mediterranean architecture characterize the village, whilst added drama comes from vast, circular cut-outs and vaulted archways that, with the help of the intense northern African sun, cast beautiful shadows across the ground.
One of the first projects to be built in La Manzanera, the holiday development which is also the home to La Muralla Roja and Xanadu, Plexus is a complex consisting of villas, apartments and amenities. As with all of Bofill’s works, his study of vernacular architecture plays an important role. Mediterranean-style windows with the habitual wooden shutters, arched passageways and white-washed walls sit alongside stone terraces, built in the same style as the traditional ones built for agricultural purposes that characterize the area. As ever, however, Bofill’s sensitivity to tradition is not without its contrasts. The delicately built stone walls suddenly give way to cubic window frames painted in bold tones – their linear forms sometimes rising vertically to form decorative chimney shapes that dance across the roofs.
The first major project to be built by the Taller de Architectura in France, Les Arcades du Lac was conceived in order to ease the problems of overcrowding and congestion in the centre of Paris. In Bofill’s reinterpretation of the classic French garden, vast housing blocks take the place of elegant, manicured hedges. Their block formation conceals vast courtyards and creates the shared public space that is always so integral to Bofill’s residential projects. The overall purpose of a garden city is achieved through abundant greenery and a pleasant lack of cars – instead hidden away in a network of subterranean roads and parking lots. Meanwhile, a large, artificial lake is an opportunity to pay homage to the French tradition of building castles on bridges across water, with a reinterpretation of those seen in the Loire Valley. By resurrecting the stately nature of traditional French architecture Bofill sought to prove that courtly elegance was not to be confined solely to the upper echelons of society.