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W Hotel, Ricardo Bofill
The coupling of Barcelona and cutting-edge architecture goes back a long way. Now, a century after Gaudí and his fellow Modernistes wowed the world with fanciful, structurally daring edifices, the city’s architectonic panorama reads like a Who’s Who of the current wave of starchitects. Jean Nouvel, Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Toyo Ito have all left their stamp here, and others—economic climate permitting—will do so in the coming years. Yet, if many people who work in the industry were pressed to give the one name most associated with Barcelona and modern architecture, it would be that of local architect Ricardo Bofill.
He has been garnering press recently for two major works, both of which opened this year: the second terminal at Barcelona’s airport (the first was converted to its marble and glass appearance by Bofill in 1991, preparatory to the Olympic Games) and the controversial W Hotel on Barceloneta’s beach. Yet, paradoxically, his work is otherwise thin on the ground here and there has been a long gap between the buildings mentioned above and his last major local project, the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, completed in 1996. But one only needs to venture out to Sant Just Desvern to understand Bofill’s widely-held esteem. Built in 1975 (the year of Franco’s death), Walden 7 is an extraordinary work of New Brutalist architecture, a residential complex of towering geometric volumes covered with terracotta tiles and dotted with covered, cylindrical balconies. The complex, across from the studios of Catalan television, TV3, and clearly visible from the A-2 motorway, was designed to make the building’s residents accessible to each other, to give each apartment both privacy and integration into the whole structure. For many, it symbolises the year zero of New Spanish architecture.
Bofill’s studio, or the Taller de Arquitectura, sits next door to Walden 7, an extraordinary conversion of an abandoned cement factory surrounded by a lush garden. Bofill formed the Taller de Arquitectura in 1963, a multi-disciplined group of architects, artists, philosophers and musicians, a high-brow Catalan equivalent of Madrid’s ‘La Movida’. “When I was growing up, Spain was a ‘grey’ country, everything was shadowy, dirty and dull,” said Bofill in his capacious office with an echo, located in one of the factory’s former silos. “Spanish fascism was brutal.”
Born to an intellectual Catalan-Italian family in 1939, Bofill admits that he had a privileged upbringing, and a rebellious young adulthood. “I was a prodigious child. When I did my thesis at the university I started the students’ union, and I became very involved in anti-fascist politics. But they expelled me from university many times. Fame [in architecture] came quite quickly, in the sense that people were very interested in my work. So I started my first phase in Barcelona with an international, multi-disciplinary team.”
Today, the Taller de Arquitectura employs about 70 people and has carried out over a thousand projects in 50 countries, from office buildings in Tokyo to skyscrapers in Chicago and new residential suburbs in China. During the Eighties, Bofill’s architectural language changed direction, from his early utopian experiments like Walden 7 to one of post-modernism. There is barely a building signed off by him that doesn’t contain elements of historical prototypes, particularly touches from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This came to the fore in the villes nouvelles of France, the mammoth residential complexes built on the peripheries of Paris. The first were Les Arcades and Temples du Lac in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines; an ensemble of pavilions, arcades and parks built around an artificial lake, clearly influenced by Antonio Palladio, the Italian Renaissance architect.
Nothing can break free from geometry, Bofill has written, not even a doorknob. Going against the popular trend for more abstract, free-form structures, Bofill has remained true to his belief that people are more comfortable living and working in edifices that tap into a collective consciousness. He’s critical of ‘signature’ buildings and the media portrayal of architects as celebrities. “The architecture of the star system is being carried out by a small number of people in answer to a global demand to make a distinct type of public building,” he told Metropolitan. “A lot are well-executed and interesting, but then later those that don’t know how to do it well create something very vulgar: the ‘copies’. Unfortunately, a lot of these ‘copies’ get more attention than the original by people who read design magazines and the like. So people forget the sense of history and place of the original, and icons are created.”
Bofill’s W Hotel has already been described as ‘iconic’. He shrugged his shoulders. “[The building] was conceived to be an element that marks the entrance to Barcelona via the sea, the beginning of the beaches and the division between them and the industrial port.”
So there is an urbanistic aspect to it? “Yes, there is a master plan. In Barcelona, there weren’t any plaças from which you could clearly see the sea’s horizon. We have managed to open the city to the sea, but we didn’t have a plaça from which to view it.”
Bofill is referring to the new Plaça Rosa dels Vents, a concrete expanse lying at the W’s base on the southern side. A few days after the hotel’s opening, it was thronged with people zipping around on various modes of two and four wheels, or just basking on the snake-like bench or stadium seating facing the sea. Dozens of others were rubbernecking at the W itself. Despite the controversy (the building has been attacked on all fronts, from surfers who claim it blocks their winds to locals who say it’s the last thing their already service-stretched neighbourhood needed), this picture confirms the fact that Barcelona residents do appear to have a genuine interest in modern architecture.
Bofill said it is not possible to accurately predict the future of the city in terms of urban landscape. “What’s going to happen? I don’t think anybody knows the answer. Barcelona is a very difficult city to urbanise because of the way it is, with 10 kilometres of coast and then the great periphery. Then there is the railway that runs along the coast, which destroys it aesthetically, and some parts of the city are still badly connected.
“There are a lot of things in play. In the Nineties there was a consensus amongst architects that we needed to open the city to the sea and that’s what happened. But at this moment there is no grand plan. When a city desires to be a capital but is not actually a capital, it presents grave problems. Sometimes it surprises me that Barcelona actually works at all!”
For the moment, however, Bofill continues to build his oeuvre overseas. Most of his new work is in out-of-the-way places, developing economies in which people, quite simply, need a roof over their heads. “Eighty percent of our work is housing,” he said. “Social housing in various countries. The crisis may have affected a lot of things in architecture, but the demand for economic housing in Africa, China and Brazil is incredible. And they are building them. They are building badly a lot of the time, but they are building.”
With projects on the go from New York to Yuyuantan, so, it seems, is Ricardo Bofill.