Our friends David and Hinda escaped the ice and snow of Canada to meet up with us in Barcelona. We share a love of architecture, art, food and wine. Barcelona was the perfect place to rendezvous.
The first thing that struck us when we arrived was that the signs were in Catalan, English and Spanish. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, the centre of the world for more than 7.5 million Catalunians. Tim and I had been immersing ourselves in regional cultures of Italy but we had never been to Spain and thought of it as a solid mass. We were soon in a crash course learning about the exciting region of Catalunya.
The city of Barcelona has a population of 1.7 million, but Barcelona’s influence and importance far exceeds its size with a surrounding metropolitan area of 5 million people. It is a city with a proud history, and a city that has made very conscious decisions about its growth.
The city’s original Roman roots can still be seen in the Ciutat Vella (the old city). In the 19th century, L’Eixample (the expansion) was built to connect the old city with surrounding communities. L’Eixample was designed along a grid system with the corners lopped off (chamfered corners). Buildings were built on these octagonal blocks and the resulting intersections are more spacious with greater visibility than in ordinary grids. Courtyards for residents were built in the centre of each block, and the whole area was designed to ensure that there were markets and schools within each 10-block radius.
It is a city with a fascinating mixture of styles, architectural ideas, city planning and happenstance with the people placed firmly at the centre.
We began by taking the funicular up Muntanya de Montjuïc. The original fortifications for the city were built here, affording a view of the city and the port beyond.
Walking through the gardens we began to get a sense of the city as we headed for our first architectural pilgrimage, the Mies van der Rohe “Barcelona Pavilion”.
The Barcelona Pavilion was actually built as the German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. An icon of modern architecture, it is known for its simple form and straight lines that guide the visitor’s movement through the space.
Made with marble, onyx, glass and travertine, it was designed to be the exhibit, not to house an exhibit.
It contains a single sculpture and 4 “Barcelona Chairs” of van der Rohe design. It was envisioned as a “zone of tranquility”, for the weary exhibition traveller.
The building was torn down following the Exhibition but reconstructed on its present site in 1983. Coming upon it as we did, in a park overlooking a city of curvature, of buildings created to mirror organic shapes and reflect human usage, it’s simplicity was a shock.
By contrast, construction on the Hospital de la Santa Creu began in 1902 as a vast project to respond to the expanded needs of a growing city. Designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau opened in 1930.
With 48 different health care pavilions, it functioned as a city within a city, with ingenious tunnels between buildings and gardens and open spaces for patients.
In 1987, UNESCO declared The Hospital de la Santa Creu i de Sant Pau a world heritage site. Hospital functions were moved to a new location and in 2009 a new project began, the Sant Pau Historic SiteThe original buildings are being restored, and will be the home for an exciting international think-tank.
Working with the United Nations University Institute for the Alliance of Civilizations, Sant Pau aims to collaborate with various international organizations to generate new solutions for environmental, financial and social problems facing the Mediterranean. Through an alliance of nations and cultures, it is envisioned as an “incubator for new ideas”.
“…different ways to approach the issues and find solutions, by mixing corporate enterprise with social groups, and by mixing social groups with international bodies, with universities, with centres of research…” Gemma Sendra, director of St. Pau’s Historical Site.
Visiting the site, which is under reconstruction, we were struck by the beauty and the infinite optimism. This is a city that believes in its history and in its place in the world. The architecture is a home for ideas and it continually reflects the boldness of the city’s vision.
We ended our day of architectural exploration with an evening walk along the boardwalk and onto the beach to see people building castles in the sand. A city of contradictions and passion made visible. A city of the people.