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The Things Architects Do #7: Brand Recognition

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This is Barcelona’s old bullring, Arenas de Barcelona, completed 1900 in the then-fashionable Moorish Revival style.

foto antigua2

It has or had history, was part of a culture, the people, who they were, etc. Befitting a leisure and entertainment centre, it bordered the important transport hub of Plaça d’Espanya. In 1914, a better bullring was built nearby but Arenas de Barcelona continued to function until 1977. After that, nada.


Whilst the building was deteriorating, the site continued to increase in value but resisted all redevelopment attempts in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics. In 2000, Barcelona-based developer Sacresa appointed RSH+P to redevelop Arenas de Barcelona into a leisure and entertainment complex. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind why the scheme was taken over by another developer, Metrovacesa, who stayed the distance until completion in March 2011.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the developer offloading had something to do with anticipated return on investment as the city council had imposed a height restriction and also decided the façade should be retained. The reason I think so is the extremes to which RSH+P went to cram as much value into the permitted envelope. Here’s what they did. ¡Ay, caramba! 


Within that facade and height limit are 47,000 sqm of moneymaking including 115 shops, restaurants, a gym, twelve cinemas, a multipurpose event space and Barcelona’s very own ‘Museum of Rock’. A separate four-storey building adds more retail and office space outside the facade but perversely hides perhaps 40% of it. An elevated terrace and walkway is the giveaway attraction to get the people in. There’s a return-on-investment calculation behind this for even if those sightseers don’t spend anything, they make the place more “vibrant” for those who do. Architects like vibrancy [sic.] It’s vibrance, surely? Clients value it. Interestingly and with neither shame nor irony, RSH+P index their projects by it. 


Dezeen provides its usual reportage along with a project description by the architects.


Even turn-of-the-century bullrings had their own return-on-investment calculations. Arenas de Barcelona was built on an artificially constructed hill so most seats could be inexpensively constructed amphitheatre seating.


Circulation was straightforward and designed to get people in there as smoothly as possible. These things don’t change.

before arenas

Bullfight operators wanted bums on inexpensively constructed seats but contemporary leisure, retail and entertainment operators want maximum exploitable volume. The hill had to go. Simple. Here’s how these economic facts on [in? under?] the ground get reported.

The original 19th century bullring was raised above the levels of the surrounding streets with ramps and stairs within the surrounding plinth providing access. However, the redevelopment – which involved the excavation of the base of the façade and the insertion of composite arches to support the existing wall and create new spaces for shops and restaurants – establishes a new, open public realm around the building providing level access to a wide range of retail facilities.

Here’s a better look at those composite “arches”.


The historic facade has been severed from its foundations and is now supported on exposed underpinning of precast concrete beams post-tensioned to clamp the facade. Basically, an alien structure tames an existing one, in the manner and style of orthodontic braces and to similar visual effect. It’s structural goosing –squeezing from under in order to make the building jump.

Inside is a 67-panel display describing the complete “transformation”.


Check that last image and the section and you’ll see how the post-tensioned concrete clamps are supported on the red V-shaped columns supported by a ring beam [hello!] supported by a transfer beam between columns supporting the retail and parking levels. ffs.


As for the solution RSH+P settled on, I’m not sure what exactly it does that extending the existing supports downwards to a simple ring beam below grade wouldn’t have done more efficiently, cheaply, soundly, quickly, elegantly and, I might add, prettily.

This is precisely what RSH+P have done for the main entrance and, to be honest, it’s the only part of the existing building that has any dignity left.


You’d think replacing columnar extensions with ground level high-technics would create more openness to the street and yes, you’d be right. But let’s do a quick 270° to see what openness there is. As mentioned, the office/restaurant building and associated compound block 40% of the ground level facade from view and surrounding pedestrians. That’s over one third gone.

Three entrances and four shopfronts account for perhaps 30% of the two thirds left. Two of those shopfronts are opaque. What’s left is taken up by mesh-covered fire-escape exits. As an exercise in openness, it doesn’t wash but it is wildly successful as an excuse RSH+P retro high-tech grandstanding.


Keeping the facades in place was less important than showing us how hard they worked to keep them in place. Here’s some facade stability details. Arcelor Mittal tells us the facades are fully structurally independent. I believe them.


Once the facade was dealt with came the more pressing business of cramming value behind it, under it and on top of it. RSH+P decided four different structures would be just the ticket. Visit Dezeen to find out how clever it all is. More on structure here.

A strange sentence on the architects’ website says

All the constituent parts – the facade, the roof-level spaces, the four internal segments and the adjacent Eforum are structurally independent, allowing for future flexibility and change to encourage a wide variety and changing rotation of activities to take place, including sports events, fashion shows and exhibitions.

It’s a bit of a conceptual leap from independent structures to a variety of events (that are basically the same). The real purpose of this sentence is to remind us that Richard Rogers has built a career on promises of flexibility and change. Mostly broken.


The building works itself out to its grisly conclusion. Towards the top, there are 12 cinemas, the multipurpose space and the deck, all blocking natural light to the intensively cultivated punters below. Richard Rogers is the man whose hagiographies typically refer to “his beloved socialism”. Let us not forget that Las Arenas is contemporaneous with One Hyde Park 

– a building for which few are willing to make excuses. Billed by its brokers, the Candy Brothers, as the world’s most expensive apartment block, the multi-storey west London development perfectly embodies London’s out-of-control property market, distorted by a global oligarchy who use international property hotspots to bank and grow their savings. A similar scheme alongside Tate Modern, NEO Bankside, which deploys decorative structure as a form of brand recognition for investors – ‘you too can have your own Richard Rogers’ – suggests the firm’s socialist roots have long since been ploughed over.

Decorative structure as brand recognition is how to understand Las Arenas. It explains the red V-shaped ornament. It explains the compulsively yellow structural intrusions inside. It explains the precast circular walkways with round glass insets. It explains the triumphal escalator that shows you all this structure.

It doesn’t really matter what the decorative structure supports but, as it happens, it’s supporting more decorative structure


and ultimately the roof.


Along the way, we get to see some RSH+P crane, those eternal symbolisers of Achigramesque change,


a nice cluster of RSH+P ventings
some RSH+P window cleaning balconies for walls that don’t have to be opaque windows some RSH+P glass elevators on the inside

and two RSH+P glass elevators and “communications tower” on the outside which, for 1€ will take you to/from the promenade.


This tower of course reprises RR’s famously carbuncly National Gallery extension. As with all the other tropes, architecture solution as brand recognition demanded its presence.


from the very beginning – although one should never trust architects’ “concept” sketches.


* * *

Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2010. Barcelona’s last bullfight was held at Bareclona’s other arena, La Monumental, in September 2012.


La Monumental’s approx. 20,000 seats make it suitable for large outdoor events such as concerts. It will probably be spared the indignities Arenas de Barcelona has suffered.

la monumental

But let’s wait and see.



  • Your critique of this built project is spot on…

    The original building due to RSH+P’s intervention became so over-engineered and over-built that it became buried in heaps of colorfully painted metal.

    The original structure appeared to be standing fine on it’s own for more than a century without the assistance of RSH+P contrived novelty.

    It’s a shame most visitors will not recognize the folly, but at least they have another “nice” place to shop.