22 December 2018

The region may be best known for the work of Gaudí, but Catalonia has also acted as a cradle and incubator for some of the most interesting and accomplished architects working today. With the region currently going through a traumatic and uncertain period in its history, Patrick Kingsland speaks to current members of the Catalonian architectural community and asks whether such a scene or school exists, the impact recent events have had on their work, and what accounts for the region’s incredible architectural legacy.

On any given day in Barcelona, there are so many tourists crowded around Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Família that you’d be forgiven for thinking the entire history of Catalonia’s architecture begins and ends with the still unfinished Roman Catholic basilica.

It is, of course, a remarkable building. By the time it is finished – some hope in time to mark the centennial of Gaudí’s death – what is already, even pre-completion, arguably Spain’s most iconic piece of architecture will reach higher than any other in Barcelona, further cementing the reputation of a man known simply by some as ‘God’s architect’.

But Gaudí, for all his accomplishments, is not the only architect to have left an imprint on the identity of Catalonia, a culturally and linguistically distinct region of north-east Spain that has Barcelona as its capital and contributes roughly one fifth of Spanish national GDP in taxes.

Born in provincial Catalonia, Gaudí was part of a much wider cultural and political movement, known as Catalan modernism, which appeared in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century and sought to transform Catalan society through new architecture, art and literature.

Nor is the period associated with Gaudí the only cultural era of note. From the so-called ‘Barcelona school’ of the 1960s and ‘70s through to the present day, Catalonia continues to act as a cradle and incubator for some of the world’s most interesting and accomplished architects.

Last year, a trio of Catalan architects from Olot-based firm RCR Arquitectes were the recipients of the Pritzker Prize. All too often awarded to globetrotting ‘starchitects’, the lesserknown practice was commended for its largely local designs, ranging from a winery in Palamós to an athletics track outside the town of Olot and a kindergarten in Besalú.

Finding a common thread that ties together contemporary Catalan architects is difficult. “If you go in depth you would discover that all of us have our own approach, slightly or very differently,” argues Xavier Ros Majó, partner architect at H Arquitectes, a Barcelonabased practice.

But some similarities can be detected. Many have studied at the same universities, deploy similar aesthetic and material approaches and have been influenced by the same movements of the past - from the old Catalan masters of Gaudí, Josep Maria Jujol and Josep Antoni Coderch to the ‘Barcelona School’ architects, Frederic Correa and Alfons Milà.

“I would consider my generation as an indirect descendant of the so-called ‘Barcelona School’,” says 40-year-old Borja Ferrater, founding partner of the Office of Architecture Barcelona (OAB), a native son of the city (and of one of its most celebrated contemporary architects, OAB co-founder Carlos). “We are part of the tradition of these architects, inheriting such values and keeping them in our DNA.”

A turning point for the current generation of architects came when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Rather than simply building sporting areas destined to become expensive white elephants, the city’s planners spent huge amounts of money on new infrastructure and public spaces – with architects playing a leading role.

Among the most notable projects completed was a 5km promenade that now runs along the Mediterranean coast, connecting the city to the sea; new ring roads, known as the Rondas, designed to reduce congestion; the regeneration of the industrial Poblenou neighbourhood and the opening of dozens of new parks and plazas.

“The Olympics changed the history of the city forever and architects played one of the main roles in this transformation,” says Ferrater. “Barcelona was a so-called ‘laboratory of ideas’ for architects and urban planners. It gave us the opportunity to show the world our values.”

After the success of the Games, the authorities in Barcelona looked for a new way to attract tourists and catalyse redevelopment. In 2004, the city was selected to host the Universal Forum of Cultures, or Forum 2004 – a four-month expo tackling everything from the environment to Chinese funerary art. Like the Olympics, the project generated new urban development and new architecture, which included Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s Forum building, a triangular structure that functioned as the expo’s main exhibition hall.

With so much urban transformation happening in Barcelona over the past few decades, some local architects are now questioning what is left to be done: “It is almost a completed city,” says Majó. “It cannot grow more or consume more land because it is physically limited by two rivers, the sea and the hills. All the new opportunities to improve Barcelona, in architectural terms, are surgery operations.”

Some also wonder whether the city has become a victim of its own success, as it attracts an increasingly large number of visitors from abroad. In 2017, around 8.9 million tourists stayed in Barcelona’s hotels, a rise of more than seven million people since 1990.

“Massive tourism is pushing the city too hard,” says Ferrater. “We do not recognise our city when we go downtown. We are losing authenticity by selling a banal version of our identity to the new visitors.”

More importantly, the massive growth in numbers has caused a strain on Barcelona’s housing stock. Across the city, apartments have been converted into vacation homes with affordable long-term lets increasingly hard to come by. Since 2010, rental prices have risen by a jaw-dropping 35% according to the real-estate website Idealist.

“Young local families cannot afford housing,” says Ferrater. “They can’t compete against Airbnb. Local shops or artisans must close to give space to the souvenir stores.”

This crisis of affordability comes off the back of the 2008 housing bubble, which triggered a crippling financial crash throughout Spain and years of austerity. Put together, Ferrater says these problems have severely dented the reputation of architects, developers and politicians in Barcelona and beyond.

“Politicians have become more populist,” he says. “In front of their voters they demonise developers – maybe most of the time they probably are right to do so – and they are suspicious of architects. It is not just a phenomenon of Barcelona, it’s also a global issue: mistrust from middle class and working class people on the leadership of the decision-makers of the city.”

The financial crisis had other effects on architects in Catalonia. Public commissions to design civic spaces – a hallmark of the post- Franco era in Barcelona – quickly dried up, while graduates who had found work so easy to come by before the crisis were suddenly left with caps in hand.

The lack of projects also forced more established practices ‘to go international’. In the five years that followed the crisis, Ferrater says he spent more time outside Barcelona than inside, working on projects as far afield as Turkey, Morocco, Mexico, China and Kazakhstan.

“Back then, the renowned studios of the city either became international or they died,” he says.

While the circumstances were hardly positive, for Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco, a New York and Barcelona-based architect, curator and scholar, the crisis forced Catalan architects to step out of their comfort zones: learning from others and letting others learn from them.

“There has been a series of people that have gone out either to Europe or the US to have conversations about the fact we need to reinvent ourselves now,” says Blanco. “These are the practices that have become more interesting in the last years and have idiosyncratic Barcelona hallmarks while connecting to the international context.”

Catalonia’s increasingly fractious relationship with the Spanish Government suggests its architects may be forced to look even further afield in the coming years. Tensions hit a new high last October when pro-independence parties unilaterally declared independence after a disputed referendum. More than a year on, many separatist leaders and activists are either in exile or prison.

“The distance between Madrid and Barcelona is starting to become bigger, and I am afraid it is to do with the current political scenario,” says Ferrater. “As a student in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I witnessed a very intense dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona, and so with the rest of Spain. I would be lying if I did not admit that the current situation has affected that relationship.”

Ferrater says the process has already begun, with Catalan architects “reconnecting” with their peers in Italy, France and centralnorthern Europe, and looking even further afield to Asia, the US and the rest of the world.

“We need to grab other regions’ attention,” Ferrater says. “Because the connection with Spain is getting lost.”

Museu del Disseny de Barcelona: the design museum is an Institute of Culture centre.
Sant Antoni – Joan Oliver Library, Barcelona: by Pritzker Prize winners, RCR Arquitectes.
Cristalleries Planell Civic Centre, Barcelona: designed by H Arquitectes, this converted glass factory highlights the necessity of redevelopment in the city due to the lack of space.

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