The Landscape Within

I’d been seeing images of one corner of this project on and off since 1975, as if elevational hijinks were the only thing of general architectural interest. Times being the times, they probably were but, in my own way, I was equally guilty of not being curious as to what lay below the surface of Ricardo Bofill’s Walden 7.

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This wasn’t such a bad thing as I’m probably more alert now to what this project set out to achieve and, by all accounts, succeeded in doing. At first sight, it appears complex but it’s less obvious how that complexity has been generated from a few very simple moves. Complexity for the sake of it is never good but if this project were simply a straightforward, low-cost, social housing development it would never have even crossed the architectural radar in order to fall from our collective memory.

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Multiple small floor plates successively stagger outwards to create openings, and then stagger inwards to close them again.

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Access galleries run along the inner sides when the building staggers outwards and also, as seen below, for the four midle floors of two-storey apartments where there’s no staggering.

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They switch to the outer side when the floors stagger back in.

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Considerable art has been applied to disguise repetition. Only two of these four stacked access bridges look the same, for example.

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All galleries lead to the centre where four banks of two elevators serve 446 apartments. Images of the entrance space are easy to find but images of the central elevator void are oddly elusive.

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All apartment layouts are based on a module that can be combined horizontally and/or vertically to make apartments of various sizes. This thinking is the product of a time when everything was suddenly modular – a concept that was sold as catering to freedom and individuality. This was no lie as a wider range of virtual needs could be catered for with a single product and manufacturing economies ensured at the same time.

It’s still a good idea because a wide range of real needs can be catered for with a single product, ensuring manufacturing economies.

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The project is located just west of Barcelona so there’s no pressing need for enclosed staircases or for air conditioning. Six extremely photogenic voids run vertically through the building, intersecting with three horizontal voids that someone has called “urban windows.”

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Urban windows are all very well but the only view of some of those apartments is onto a lightwell, Barcelona being Barcelona, those lightwells at least have plenty of light, but even so … These next three images are looking in, out and to the side of the entrance doors.

Here’s a rare shot looking up.

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And here’s an ever rarer image of the four banks of two elevators backing onto the centre most space. The larger one is the service elevator.

What I admire most about this project is how it doesn’t hide its internal circulation within corridors. People inside their apartments can see what’s going on inside the building and always be aware of other people moving around. There’s no lack of images of bridges and galleries and, although these definitely are trying to be attractive, it’s not to draw attention to themselves but to the people on them. This is easy to forget today when things only seem to exist in order to be photographed.

In the same way, people moving around can see windows opening and lights being turned on and off and are always aware of lives being lived inside the apartments. These access galleries aren’t trying to be streets in the sky but merely interesting ways for people to get home. The building works the way it was intended, and is loved by its residents. All reports indicate a definte sense of community and an awareness of living with other people. [Which comes first?] Walden 7 got something very important very right. It’s fine to label it a “1970s Classic” but to do that is to place it safely at a distance and prevent us learning important lessons from it today.

Why aren’t more buildings configured like this? I suspect it’s because our standard apartment block with inner rooms with mechanical ventilation and artificial light is configured in the cheapest and fastest way to build. Voids don’t come cheap as they are still space partially enclosed by a structure that still costs money, even if it can’t be walked in. Voids such as Walden 7’s can be partially monetized back by internal views that, though undeniably interesting, are nobody’s idea of a preferred view if there’s only one view to be had. 

Trellick Tower, a thirty-one-story apartment block in North Kensington, London, designed by Ernő Goldfinger, 1966–1972; from Elain Harwood’s <i/>Space, Hope, and Brutalism: English Architecture, 1945–1975

Ernő Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in London was completed 1972 so, stylistically, Walden 7 was slightly outrageous for its time. It offered a Post-Brutalist way forward for social housing but ended up suffering the same fate as Brutalism before it, suggesting that the way forward for architecture may or may not have been a question of style, but it was certainly not social housing. Just as with Brutalism, we’re encouraged to look at Walden 7 as a failed aesthetic experiment rather than a successful social one.    

Perhaps the most amazing and possibly damning thing of all is that Walden 7 was constructed simply and within budget, using conventional technologies. It didn’t require the column to be reinvented. It didn’t require a new type of concrete to be developed. All it took was the ability to conceive of pleasant and nourishing spaces and which is supposed to be the job of architects.

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Only since this February and the Repeating Crevice Revisited post did I begin to think internal views of a building’s inner life might be a socially useful thing to provide. In April’s Plan B, I bemoaned the anti-social elevator lobbies and corridors in contemporary apartment buildings and proposed making it easier to see more of what is happening in them. In June’s Detective StoryI developed this a little with overlooked, open corridors.

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Three levels of apartments form triple-height elevator lobbies overlooked by apartments accessed up from that level and also by those accessed down from the access level above. Rather than three isolated individual lobbies, these three-storey lobbies have a touch of Walden 7 about them.

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This proof-of-concept layout has four simple two-bedroom apartments per level, with two open stairs, each with gallery landings serving two apartments. Kitchen windows observe the defensible space of the apartment entrance, but hallway windows in 45° walls face and directly overlook the centre of the lobby space, allowing glimpses of it and activity within to persons passing in either direction through the apartment hallways.

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This approaches a minimum configuration. The only “value-engineerable” elements are the elevator glass doors and transoms, and the vision panels to the elevator shafts, but to remove them would be a loss since the sight of mechanical activity provides an indirect awareness of people moving within the building, adding to the direct visual one.

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  • http://www.gooood.hk/walden-7-by-ricardo-bofill-taller-de-arquitectura.htm It’s no surprise this site has a Hong Kong domain because the Hong Kong public housing tower block usually has much resident interaction in the form of views within and between towers. Here you’ll find more details on the apartment plans as well as a good set of photographs.
  • http://www.averyreview.com/issues/7/revisiting-systems A curious article. It seems to be saying that considering buildings as integrated structural, construction and social system is a retro-throwback. It focusses on how Bofill’s theoretical position has changed over the years rather than on Walden 7’s unexplored potential. In the midst of post-modern madness, this original and unclassifiable 1975 project never impinged upon the architectural consciousness as much as did Bofill’s 1971 Xanadu or his 1978 Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Walden 7 created a new reality for living rather than new architectural representations of property and privilege. 

  • https://habitatgecollectiu.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/walden-7-ricardo-boffil/ This site has a good set of images and overview.
  • https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/12915930 £50 a night seems like a good deal.

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This links to a description of Walden 7 on ricardobofill.com.

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