Day 4: Sagrada Familia and OAB

The Sagrada Familia

I grew up in a catholic family and as I child I was obligated to attend a weekly Sunday mass. It was an hour trapped in my own tortuous impatience, forced by social conscience to sit in silence, to stand sit and kneel in unison with the congregation. To exhale the same words that droned on without meaning, occasionally punctuated by sombre songs with lyrics that were drowned out by a small electric organ. The architecture of my childhood church was humble, built of solid sandstone blocks and roofed with dark stained timber rafters and a gabled ceiling lined with dark stained timber boards. It was a chapel that could seat no more than 100 attendees, including a small choir. Preferring the the dusty red carpet to the hard timber pews my favourite place to sit was the steep, narrow stair to the choir’s cloister. My brothers and I would treat the stair as a playground, arbitrarily shifting positions, playing whispered games and no doubt silently infuriating our fellow church goers. The experience of attending church always imparted a cognitive dissonance, a tension between the knowledge that I was in a space meant for ritual, and the unrelenting desire for play. Attending church was never a joy, but an obligation. A mild form of weekly suffering for the psyche, a suffering that was meant to bring us closer to the suffering of christ.

While I no longer attend a weekly mass and probably never will again, churches now hold a different form of spiritual significance. No longer tied to a supposedly knowable deity, for me they have become spaces of meditative contemplation, a place outside time that inspire a melancholic awe, simultaneously a reminder of my own cosmic insignificance and the glorious potential of collective human achievement.

The Sagrada Familia is a place outside time. Not only in its atmospheres but also in its expression as an object in the city. Beginning in 1866, it will be a project that has been under construction for over 160 years once complete. With an awareness of his own mortal limitations and a construction timeframe that may span generations, Gaudi focused his efforts on the construction of the Expiatory Temple and the Nativity facade to serve as a standing example of what should follow. Historic photos show this facade near complete, standing as an isolated edifice within the undeveloped grid of Cerdà’s iconic city blocks. With Gaudi’s death and the subsequent destruction of his studio and its models and drawings during the spanish civil war the fragmented remnants of Gaudi’s vision was all but lost. What followed was an interpretation of a long forgotten design intent based on the limited artefacts that now adorn the museum in the crypts below.

There is an unfortunate tendency in the architecture community to automatically dislike works of architecture that are popular within the broader public eye and the Sagrada Familia is indeed overwhelmingly popular with over 4.5 million ticketed visitors a year. With the minimum ticket price at 15€ ($22.50AUD at the time of writing) that amounts to a minimum of over $100mil AUD per year. With the inclusion of guided tours, souvenirs and special access options our tour guide assures us that this revenue is more than enough to cover the cost of the reconstruction. Setting this evident popularity aside is difficult but necessary to see the space for what it is.

Despite the unrelenting carpet of humanity that that jostled across its floors it is possible to imagine what it would be like to stand within the axis of the nave in perfect solitude and marvel at the otherworldy beauty of the space. The hierarchy of detail is such that the eye is enticed upwards and met with a polyphony of intersecting geometries and a spectrum of colours. A procession of stained glass windows surrounds the nave, shifting from one end of the colour spectrum to the other and fragmented with cubist compositions. The fractal soffit is punctured by apertures of light and merges with the branched sandstone columns. It is a space that is maddening in its complexity, a kaleidoscope of surface, form and light.

The Sagrada Familia reveals something that I have never experienced within the sacred space of a catholic church: Joy.

OAB (Office of Architecture Barcelona)

Borja Ferrater greeted us by the OAB’s oversized glass entry door. Their minimalist offices occupy the first three floors of a mixed use infill building they had designed on Carrer de Balmes in Sant Gervasi – Galvany. The facade of the building is a succinct demonstration of the office’s founding manifesto, summarised by four ‘pillars’; light, landscape, systems and materiality. The apartment floors front the street with floor to ceiling glass windows and sliding doors sheltered behind a interleaving pattern of solid and open rainscreens that consists of either stone or timber as a contemporary play on the materiality of typical building stock in Barcelona. A continuous running ballustrade creates generous outdoor terraces for each apartment that is sheltered from neighbourly onlooking and street noise. Large glass panels reveal the workings of the office to the street and bring light deep into the floorplate while a hidden courtyard illuminates the deeper spaces and offers Carlos’ personal office a meditative outlook.

We walk beneath a suspended steel plate stair and pass models and photos of work that has spanned two generations. Borja is the second child of Carlos Ferrater and a founding partner of OAB. While Carlos Ferrater remains the figurehead of the practice it is the younger generation that seems to be taking an increasing lead on the direction of the work. The tempered rationalism of Carlos has been softened to give way to a broader formal lexicon, one that adheres to a clear and articulate underlying system and is guided by the practice’s founding ideologies.

Borja has a warm demeanour and exudes a humble confidence. “We are a family business”, Borja gestures towards a woman working intently at a desk in the corner. “This is my mum”. Ines Arquer is an accomplished interior designer and politely waves to us before resuming her concentration. “And this is my dad”. Carlos emerges from his office with a subtle smile and greets us individually, politely asks us a few questions and returns to his work. We were grateful enough for the tour of the practice so the brief encounter did not disappoint.

We are led back outside and around the corner to a small storefont on the same block. Borja shares that the office receives many guests and tour groups and so in response has created a shopfront gallery space to serve as a model display and a small lecture space. It is a generous public gesture for a relatively small practice, one focused on advocacy through a sharing of the practice’s values.  We are guided through a rapid fire narrative of each of the modes on display, many of which it was revealed were created after the fact, more akin to abstract art objects than working design tools. Borja invites us through a vine covered courtyard and into to a small presentation room, plugs his laptop in and delivers a fast paced presentation of the practice’s history. His introductory slides shows a young Carlos Ferrater, wearing nothing but a pair of striking flares and gazing up at the interior of his inflatable city, a temporary radical hotel installed as part of the International Congress of Design in Ibiza. “My father is a man between two worlds, a sort of rebel that works mainly with developers and private clients”. It is a familiar story of humble beginnings, collaborating with his wife and working out of a garage on very small projects.

“Geometry makes the irrational rational”. Their diverse projects don’t appear to rely on a consistent aesthetic language, instead there is an emphasis placed on a clarity of vision and efficient pragmatism with an increasing tendency towards playfulness. Borja stresses the importance of maintaining the essence of a project despite antagonisms “We try to keep the intellectual distance between the initial idea and final result as close as possible”. Their office of 25 now work on projects that are almost exclusively global, making collaborations with local practices necessary. This distance and the inherent challenges of working within different legal and political frameworks means that the project’s ‘essence’ is continually under threat. “we have ten years of work and ten years of enemies” Borja jokes.

– Alberto Quizon

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Day 3: Designing for the city or as a city?

There are some projects that require you to interrogate further your own values in order to divise your opinion. These projects are polarising, difficult, and are the ones that make an impression. The Walden 7 housing development by Ricardo Bofill was one of these projects, and with its monumental red-tiled facade, and sci-fi references, was our first visit for the day.

A speculative, low-cost housing development, Walden 7 was a utopian vision for a fringe community outside Barcelona. The 14 levels of the building contain 446 individual and unique apartments bound together by a labyrinthine plan – including 6 kilometres of external corridors.

To greet us is the enigmatic Alessandra, a resident at Walden 7 for over 25 years. She whisks us from the bright Barcelona light into the heart of the building to begin our journey to enlightenment. We make our accent, like pilgrims, winding up to the terrace on the roof. This journey is incredibly animated, as we are captivated at each turn. Breaks in the terracotta walls give views out over the surrounding landscape and bridges over the voids remind us of where we are. Moving from dark and narrow stairs, across projecting bridges and balconies, every step opens up new connections and vistas. We take lots of photos, and try to imagine the people living here.

Our next stop is just 100 metres down the road to a decommissioned cement factory where we find the office of Riccardo Bofill Architects. Walking through this industrial ruin overgrown with plants, gives the impression of wandering through a film set. It is a quiet and monastic space.

Back in the taxi we head to Santa Caterina Market, a building that has teased us with glimpses of its colourful roof as we have been wandering the city over the last few days. We met with Arturo and Gabriella from EMBT who talk us through the development of the project.

The roof is incredibly expressive and clad with bright colours. With an intent to reflect what is held within, a photo of fresh produce is abstracted to a pixilated pattern in 72 colours of local ceramic tiles that have been laid over a complex timber and steel roof frame. There is a bacalao washing station at the back of the market that I particularly take delight in; a modest celebration of a very specific and local tradition.

From here we follow them to the studio: a historical four-level building in the Gothic quarter full of models, drawings and character. Model making is integral to the practice, and myriad handmade physical models are used as the key design tool for every project before it enters the digital world. Being a believer of the physical model, I found this inspiring.

Pushing every minute to its maximum, we hurry to our next visit. Darting through the narrow streets we emerge in a square surrounded by the grey debris of construction. In the distance we see a striking woman with flowing watermelon pants, stacked sandals and silk. It is Carme Pinos.  With barely a greeting, she ushers us into the construction site for Gardunya Square. Radiant and engaging, but with no nonsense, she talks us through the project. She pulls out models twice her size, and takes plans from the walls to talk us through her approach.

We tour the building in construction and are impressed by her intimate knowledge of every detail, though it was worked on by a team of many.  She has a confident honesty and expressed delight in serendipitous outcomes that were not intended, as well as a frankness to less favoured moments. There is a rigour to the design process to ensure the outcome was not a singular expression of the architect, evident by little discussion about the view of the buildings, and more about how they engaged and enhanced with the fabric of the city.

The visits done for the day we head to a little bar near the office of EMBT. We revisit our discussion on Waldon 7, and try to frame the uncertainties in our minds through collective inquiry.  Uplifting or overbearing?  “Psychedelic purgatory” or sustenance for the eye and mind? There are wonderful moments, but this at the price of an over prescriptive system? There are no answers tonight but there is an energy in these discussion and a keen curiosity to keep the conversation going.

– Claire Scorpo

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Day 2: BiciBCN

A good interpreter does more than just translate, they provide the tools to begin to understand in another language. Spending the day cycling around Barcelona with architect, urbanist and cycle tour guide Jaume Carne, it was the language of the city that was revealed. We began in the crush of the old city, tangled streets catching the morning light on the canyon facades. Arriving into the Mercat del Born, a market hall turned cultural centre, delivered us into the 19th century with a parasol of cast iron and glass that firmly situated the building in the industrialised 19th century, while its feet lingered in the revealed excavations of the medieval city. Cycling through the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella, artefacts from the military history of the site sat alongside follies and curiosities of a 19th century pleasure garden, with an outrageous fountain featuring waterfalls, dragons and charging guilt stallions rumoured to have been designed with the help of the young Antonio Gaudi.

The story of this city will always find its way to the ocean and we next headed to the Olympic Village and waterfront promenade built for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In the lead up to the Olympic Games, Barcelona sought to shake off years of stagnation and re-imagine itself on the water. Beyond the highrise towers, Frank Gehry’s fish and the Olympic village, the real story of this period of the city’s history is the transformation of the waterfront that reconnected the city to the ocean. The train line and highway that cut off the city from the water were buried, industry relocated and kilometres of sand, promenade, parks and pathways installed in their place. There are kilometres of promenade now, and moving through the city on a bicycle creates a continuity of experience, allowing the narrative of a place to unfold seamlessly. Jaume was able to punctuate this experience, delineating an invisible line between the 1992 works, and the extension of the promenade which terminates at the Fòrum, developed in 2004 for the Barcelona Universal Forum of Cultures.

The Fòrum area is a strange part of the city, the regularity and density of the city dissolves in a loose collection of oversized structures and spaces: a monumental canopy, an artificial beach and a lumpy blue wedge of a building by Herzog & de Meuron. The area felt like a zoological exposition of exotic animals, the forms and scale, so unfamiliar as to be a curiosity in it’s own right, one couldn’t help but feel that the structures lacked the correct context to be legible in the city. Jaume explained that the whole site is built over the site of a functioning sewerage plant, which illuminated the context, but failed to make the spaces any less strange.

As we returned back into the heart of the city, we followed the Avinguda Diagonal, a monumental avenue that forms a fundamental axis of the Cerda plan, which marches through the heart of Barcelona with an aggressive geometry. Cast at 45 degrees to the 100m square grid of city blocks, The Avinguda Diagonal forces a geometric disruption with curious corner wedges, parks and plazas negotiating these orthogonal left-overs. And then we encounter Gaudi. The Sagrada Familia which occupies so much of the urban consciousness of Barcelona is characterised by our guide as a problem child for the city. We move quickly past this century old construction site turned tourist Mecca to safer ground with Casa Milà and Casa Batilló. Two grand villas that wobble against the regimented facades of these grand city blocks. A riot of loose lines that shout out to the outrageous steel contours of Miralles Tagliabue’s Parc Diagonal Mar we had seen earlier in the day.

Indeed, transecting the city on the ride home, allowed the language of the city to move from single motifs into fully formed complex narratives. We could see how the rhythm of Cerda blocks occupied the unbuilt space that had been preserved around the old city, defined by the geometry of the firing range of a cannon from the Parc de Ciutadella. How the winding tangle of the old city starts and stops so abruptly, terminated by city walls and ocean. The bicycles mimicked the pace and rhythm of these stories, the long straight transepts, the odd detour through a corner park and finally the slow dodging and weaving through the old city streets, crowded by people, tightly packed buildings and punctuated by the wobbles of cobbled streets.

– Imogene Tudor

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Day 1: Hola Barcelona!

What’s a word for that feeling when you finally arrive at the airport? Deadlines and tasks finished in a flurry, plants left unwatered, clothes in a shamble in your bag.  “As long as you’ve got your passport, you’re ok,” we were told. The moment had finally come, the point when you get to the airport and no more can be done. A collective exhale was shared as each person arrived in the departure lounge at Melbourne airport. We were here! Well almost. Fast forward 24 hours as we touched down at the Barcelona airport. Now, we were really here.

The sunshine felt like it was life giving. The colours of both the buildings and landscape whizzed past from the taxi… terracotta, oranges, browns. The warm colours and the warm sun made us feel pretty rosy, and with an unstructured half-day before us, we decided the best way to tackle the jetlag was to stay outside. First stop, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe.

Arriving on the top of Montjuïc Hill, the incredible view of Barcelona opened up before us.  Excitement built as we pointed out buildings we recognised, some of which we will be visiting over the next few days.  As we descended the stairs down the grand hill, our bubbling chatter turned quiet as we approached the Pavilion almost as a procession.

Designed as the German National Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition (Expo), I couldn’t believe it had been designed in 1929. It felt timeless. Despite it being made of glass, steel and beautiful slabs of marble, the building felt like a warm and rich space. It felt very peaceful. The water reflecting on the soffit animated the rigid structure, the deep red curtain moved in the breeze, and the echoes of chatter and laughter bounced through the building.

It was interesting to see how each of us absorbed the building. Concentrating on the plan, I walked between the thin blade walls, the roof felt like it was floating above me.  Things I had never properly understood from drawings, but instantly understood now having experienced in person.

Next stop, we headed towards the Plaça dels Angels square, weaving through the beautiful back streets of Barcelona’s old city.  Colour and life were everywhere as we walked. Clothes hung on balconies, people sat on steps in the street, small public squares cropped up around unexpected corners.

The square was even more full of life. We discussed the skateboarding mecca, and how the lack of rules encourages occupation. The public space is not adorned with architectural seating or a feature public toilet to attract the crowds, it is the people that occupy the space that bring the life.  Adjacent to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art by Richard Meier, the square has a simple ramp, and a wall for people to sit on; it is a public space open to all, no prejudice. This was reflected in the diversity of people hanging around.  Sitting in the sun, excitement had turned to relaxation, we happily took a seat alongside the crowd with a beer in hand. Day one, what a start!

– Louisa Gee

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