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Ildefons Cerdà's original plan for Eixample
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Street plan Gràcia - Eixample
Aerial photo highlighting the differences between the layouts of the Eixample and Gràcia
Have roadworks ever pounded your brain to pieces? Every time the pneumatic drills start to carve your street open yet again—fiber optics two months ago, gas repairs today and a long-planned new water mains next week—remember Ildefons Cerdà, the civil engineer who in 1855 conceived of a single service duct, a tunnel for all these pipes and wires to run through, large enough for utilities to be maintained and repaired without stopping traffic. He eventually dropped the idea, but imagine if it had been implemented then, instead of 1992 when the Vila Olímpica was built!
Think of Cerdà, the brains behind Barcelona’s Eixample, as a 19th-century progressive geek with a cause: to banish sickness, encourage trade and communication, and provide adequate living conditions for all, especially in cities. His plan? Flow, flow, flow: the flow of people, goods and information, the inflow of clean air and water (and sunlight)—and the outflow of runoff, disease-bearing waste and ‘miasma’.
Cerdà’s plans for “excessively” wide streets all over town were ferociously criticised by many landowners who planned to make a killing as soon as the city walls came down. But to him, wider streets meant more sunlight and air for all buildings, easier flow of traffic and plenty of room underground for water mains, gas lines, even telegraph wires—and sewers large enough for future needs.
Cerdà thought big and thought ahead. Realising that his ideas required deep pockets, he decided that human waste (night soil) should continue to be sold to farmers for manure. This was already an established industry at the time and would provide much-needed income to offset development costs. Besides, keeping it out of the sewers would help prevent flooding and epidemics, as long as proper sealing and equipment prevented leaching and contained the stench.
However, the early Eixample still had many old-fashioned cesspits and small, patchy, or poorly-built sewers; Cerdà’s recommendations were ignored by local lawmakers (who also happened to own a lot of the land to be developed) as was also the case with many of his other plans. Thus, instead of public gardens at the centre of each block, there were workshops and warehouses. Separate lanes for trams, carts, carriages, porters and unburdened pedestrians never happened, while railways were only sunk below ground level many decades later. His huge intermodal road-rail-shipping terminal failed to materialise. An electric clock at every intersection? Even now, our newest airport terminal lacks large, highly visible indications of the time.
Fortunately, Cerdà won his main battle: the grid plan he laid out for the Eixample largely held. Twenty metres is the minimum street width, ample pavements are the norm and every intersection is expanded by signature truncated corners, or chamfers. These are not mere eye candy: plenty of turning space averts traffic jams, drivers who can see what’s coming at them cause fewer accidents and, while not really what he had in mind, short-term parking possibilities on some of those corners are nothing to be sneezed at nowadays.
Roller-bladers and skateboarders swooshing down Rambla de Catalunya are experiencing one of the practical features of Cerdà’s layout: his street alignment provided the maximum practical slope for our ‘vertical’ streets, so that the sewers wouldn’t clog easily. At the same time, when skating, cycling or even walking uphill, you can bless this detail-obsessed techie for specifying that the climb should never be too steep!
Incidentally, traditional maps of Barcelona point northwest rather than north, so what we call ‘vertical’ streets actually run northwest to southeast. Thanks to Cerdà, Barcelona natives ignore the terms north, south, east and west, instead orienting ourselves in terms of mar and muntanya (the sea and the ‘mountain’ of Collserola, not Montjuïc) for south and north, and either ‘Llobregat’ and ‘Besòs’ (our main rivers on either side) or ‘Tarragona’ and ‘Girona’, to represent east and west.
Despite his defeat on the drainage front, Cerdà’s wide streets set at meticulously planned heights eventually provided ample room for large sewers under the streets of the Eixample. Also because of Cerdà, gravity, not pumping, drives most of the sewers—as important today as it was then, thanks to rising fuel costs and global warming. Furthermore, as angles and flat surfaces easily cause blockages, sewer floors had to be round, just like the ones being built in Paris at the time. Cerdà borrowed the Parisian cross-section in his own proposals and, eventually, round-bottomed designs prevailed worldwide, highlighting Cerdà’s vision.
It was another civil engineer, Pere García Faria, who finally secured approval for his own sewer scheme in 1891, years after Cerdà’s death yet acknowledging his visionary general principles, which are obvious, common-sense ideas, if you think about them. For instance, any gently sloping sewer sections had to be large enough for manual cleaning and unclogging just before stormy seasons, to avert flooding. You can just hear his opponents whining, “But it’s too expensive to build a sewer large enough for a worker to walk through.”
Gràcia’s sewers were connected to the Eixample’s by García Faria after Gràcia was absorbed by Barcelona in 1897. However, this, too, had been part of Cerdà’s plan earlier in the century. Glance at his topographical survey map of the city surroundings from Montjuïc to the Besòs river—the first-ever use of contour lines for Barcelona—and you can see how this made perfect sense, despite the added complication of involving two councils and not one. So Cerdà’s ideas finally prevailed, though some streets in the Eixample had to be dug up after 30 years to lay new sewer pipes, just because of previous short-sightedness.
Underground, though, Gràcia had much less room for proper sewers. The Festa Major de Gràcia taught me that in the early Eighties: every year I would traipse off in my traditional espadrilles to dance on decorated streets until the equally traditional August downpours. I have memories of walking home ankle-deep in rainwater, never knowing what else I was wading through. Downstream, the Eixample never flooded at these times.
Derided as an engineer by many architects in his day, viciously slandered by the Modernista architects of the following generation, Cerdà did more for everyday life in our city than any of them ever did: he imposed a few important principles and practicalities over monumental approaches. The beautiful Modernista buildings, like diamonds and rubies, get most of the attention but the crown in which most of them are set—the Eixample—is, on a day-to-day level, arguably more important, thanks to Cerdà’s carefully crafted design.
Cerdà cared deeply about the fate of the city’s inhabitants. As he laid down the principles and started to draw the lines that would determine quality of life in Barcelona for a long time to come, responsibility weighed upon his soul. He wrote: “And could there be any professional so bereft of conscience and so heartless that he does not tremble at drawing these lines, unless the conviction of justice directs and strengthens his hand?” We all know the answer, don’t we?
La Fàbrica del Sol schedules two sewer tours a month and organises group tours on demand (note that the tours are not in English). Booking for scheduled tours starts two weeks before the date of the visit at 10am. www.bcn.cat/agenda21/crbs/index.htm
You can visit the exhibition ‘La revolució de l’aigua a Barcelona. Aigua corrent i ciutat moderna 1867-1967’ at the Museu d’Història de Barcelona until September 25th. www.museuhistoria.bcn.es