Architecture Misfit #36: Ricardo Bofill

We’re still waiting for the definitive book on the architecture of Ricardo Bofill and Taller de Arquitectura but, until then, Ricardo Bofill: Visions of Architecture recently published by gestalten will have to do. Previously, there had been Christian Norberg-Schulz’s 1985 book Taller de Architectura but this was published when Bofill was 60. This new book comes when Bofill is 80. That these are the two main books on an architect who’s been designing and building for 60 of his 80 years suggests something is amiss. In Bofill’s case, he has been good, he has been prolific, he has been inventive and he has been always curious and enthusiastic about buildings and cities yet still he gets written out of history. Individual buildings may be highlighted now and then but always in isolation and through the lens of a style, and never as evidence of a consistent approach to design and construction, let alone society and the city.

The new book has four introductory essays that are anecdotal yet sufficiently informative to put together a picture of the man. Having your parents as your first clients is never a handicap for an architect and, when he was nineteen, Bofill designed a house in Ibiza for them.

It’s not that unusual a beginning but the influence of his parents is greater than that. Throughout his childhood, his mother filled their home with artists and thinkers and his father was an architect, a property developer and a builder so you could say he learned an essential humanism from his mother and a sense for building from his father. The reality was probably not so black and white but being able to reconcile humanism and building is a powerful skill for an architect to have. They were his parents, after all. Bofill had no need to be in somebody’s office at some fortuitous time to observe and learn how it was done. [c.f. Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark] His parents gave him the confidence, knowledge and encouragement to be an architect. Importantly, they didn’t teach him how to be an architect and how to design. He just started doing it..

“Bofill admits his mother “pushed people to be better and more special – to think higher.” She was also energetically encouraging … which perhaps explains the bravura that characterised Bofill even in the early stages of his career, when he first took to architecture. Architecture is a profession that relies upon a certain level of precocity – arrogance even. Introverts lacking self-esteem do not tend to want to mark the ground around them on such a large and long-term scale.” [from an essay by Tom Morris, p187]

After being expelled from University of Barcelona for organising a student union, Bofill completed his studies at the University of Geneva and then returned to his native Barcelona. While his contemporaries were doing their first extension or conversion, he was designing a series of apartment buildings. His father no doubt assured the clients his son was as capable of designing these buildings as he was of building them but the important thing is that Bofill didn’t waste a single opportunity.

1960: Single family house, Ibiza, Spain
1964: El Sargazo Apartments, Barcelona, Spain
1965: Back 28 Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (14 apartments + retail)
1965: Bach 4 ~Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (12 luxury + 21 rent-controlled apartments)
1965: Nicaragua Apartment Building, Barcelona, Spain (shops + offices + apartments)
1966: Plexus Condominiums, Calpe, Alicante, Spain
1967: Club Mas Peo, Alicante, Spain (sports club)
1967: Phytochemical Laboratories, Lliça de Fall, Spain

Bach 28 Apartments is a mature and complete building. With no opportunity for windows along two and a half sides of the site, Bofill placed the living rooms to the main street and created an open light well facing due south to the rear, thus increasing the surface area of the building that can have windows. Those windows are then angled towards the opening, ensuring long views out towards daylight. When compared with alternatives such as narrow bedrooms on opposite sides of a central light well, this solves the problem in a way both logical and humane. As is the Catalan way, the maid’s room and kitchen are illuminated and ventilated via service balconies adjacent to the service lobby and its glazed staircase. I can’t see how it could have been done better. It was 1964 and Bofill was 24.

In 1965 came the Nicaragua Apartments for a tricky corner site, as well as the El Sargazo Apartments. Both make extensive use of a mixture of modular elements along with traditional materials and techniques.

No,. 28 Bach in 1968 is two buildings side-by-side, one having luxury apartments and one having rent-controlled apartments. Apartment sizes and levels of finish are different but the street facades of the two buildings complement each other rather than disguise their differing programs. This is a social statement.

Bofill’s buildings up till 1967 had elements of Catalan modernism not dissimilar from those of Josep Antoni Coderch. There was a high degree of craft involving materials that were identifiable and expressive but never Brutalist.

The period 1968–1975 was one of consolidation and invention. The Gaudí District was an apartment complex for 500 subsidised apartments for 2,000 immigrant workers in the city of Reus, a commercial and industrial town of 50.000 south west of Barcelona. A client with such a brief is inconceivable now. This project marks the beginning of geometrical explorations to enable maximum variation within a low-cost construction system.

1968: Gaudí District, Barcelona, Spain (500 subsidized apartments)
1968: Kafka’s Castle, Barcelona, Spain (80 apartments)
1970: The City in Space, Madrid, Spain (multifunctional neighbourhood proposal)
1971: Xanadu, Alicante, Spain (18 apartments)
1971: La Petite Cathédrale, Cergy-Pontoise, Paris, France (urban mixed-use proposal)
1973: Arc de la Défense, Paris, France (offices)
1973: Family House, Mont-Ras, Girona, Spain
1973: La Muralla Roja, Calpe, Alicante, Spain (50 apartments)
1973: La Maison d’Abraxas, Versailles, France
1975: Les Halles, Paris, France (market redevelopment proposal)
1975: Walden-7, Barcelona, Spain (urban and mixed-use development)
1975: La Grande Chapelle, (urban scheme)
1975: La Place Majeure, Cergy-Pontoise, Paris, France (town centre mixed-use scheme)

The above list has very few unbuilt schemes and the ones there are I’ve italicised.

One very notable one is The City in the Space proposal for Madrid. An article in Avery Review “In order to execute their plans, a new judicial and economic framework was planned for the formation of this new type of city. They established a self-managed cooperative development company and a new economic system of belonging, where people did not own a flat but rather a share of the city. La Ciudad’s drawings were filled with ideological messages: “The City Is You,” “Coexistence,” “Mystical,” “Time for Everyone and Everything,” “NO to Schematic Urban Planning,” “Gold Is Time to Love,” etc. Unfortunately, one of the impediments that prevented the city from materializing was its ideological condition. In the middle of the design process, a party for La Ciudad was organized on site and, according to Bofill, over 100,000 people gathered. The police had to intervene, and that was the beginning of the end of the project. By then Franco’s government had already shown certain disagreements with the ideology of the project and the party was the perfect excuse to shut it down. At the time of its demise, more than 1,520 people were involved in the new city.states.

The othe very notable one is the one for Les Halles. Considered the winner of an interntational competition run by the French Ministry of Culture for the historic Paris site, construction of Bofill and Taller Arcquitectura’s design had begun when the project was cancelled by Jaques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, and the proposal of a different architect constructed instead.

These were two major projects that were cancelled. The cancellation of the first could be attributed to over-idealism but the cancellation of the second, and in favour of a lesser scheme can’t not have been a blow. To be an architect one sometimes needs to have a heart of stone.

Here, I must admit to losing patience with my new book when a caption unhelpfully explained that “inverting the plan” created variation. This led me to the https://www.ricardobofill.com website which is a huge and generous archive. You can click on PROJECTS \ ALL and scroll down back to the vacation house in Ibiza. There are essays and plans and sketches and descriptions and many many high-resolution photographs for downloading. All the information is there to make what sense of that you will. It is the complete works and probably no book can or will better it. Any links in my chronology (in the yellow boxes) will take you to some of my favourites. Anyway, from the following diagrams I worked out that “Inverting the plan” means “alternating two typical floors”.

The Gaudi District project marks the beginning of a concern for the Mediterranean city – a concept that includes North Africa and its architecture of shaded courtyards, open access and rooftop amenity.

Kafka’s Castle from the same 1968 also has alternating typical floors with adjacent apartments separated by a quarter flight of stairs. All information needed to build the project was contained on one main drawing and four secondary drawings.

I read elsewhere that the Gaudí District project was the one with the five drawings. But whether either or both, the point is that if a cellular system of planning and construction brings efficiencies then something would be wrong if it didn’t also bring efficiencies in documentation. It’s also worth mentioning that developing these cellular systems requires an understanding of how they will operate and integrate on all levels. It is not trial and error.

I’ve written about Walden 7 before. [c.f. The Landscape Within] It may ” successfully merge science fiction with a desert vernacular” [p195] but this is only relevant if that was the intention. And even if it was, I’d still want to know what benefit someone expected to gain from doing that. What I like about Walden 7 is 1) that a high degree of spatial complexity has been generated from very simple geometry and conventional construction and 2) the strong sense of being a part of something greater than oneself, generated simply be seeing people come and go about their daily lives. Walden-7 had no known architectural style but its residents seem to relate to some inherent humane-ness about the building that I expect stems from its the enclosed spaces and highly visible access making the building feel, look, and be a social place.

There’s something important and special about that and I’ve learned a lot from it. [c.f. Streets In The Sky, The Universal Apartment] Walden-7 is not just an exercise in people living together. It’s also co-operatively owned and always has been and I think that more important than how it may or may not merge science fiction and desert vernacular. It’s an extremely photogenic building and the RBTA website has an abundance of images.

Bofill and Taller de Arquitecturas’s only major theoretical work is The City in the Space. Allegedly influenced by Archigram, The City in the Space was applied research honed in the above housing projects. Graphics such as the one below are of their time but the proof-of-concept demonstration proposal was a buildable, workable, liveable building.

La Petit Cathedral was another articulation of the same principles to a mixed-use proposal attempting to elevate a fragment of a city into something more than a collection of spaces, Shopping malls with their atriums are the closest we look like getting.

1976: The Pyramid, Spanish-French border (monument)
1976: Gazteizberri, Vitoria, Spain (urban masterplan)
1977: Echevarria, Bilbao, Spain (mixed-income urban renewal scheme)
1977: Algeria Urban Planning (Extension of Bechar-Abdadla), Becher, Algeria (cultural and civic centre)
1978: Meritxell Sanctuary, Andorra, Spain
1980: Houari Boumedienne Agricultural Village, Abadla, Algeria (rural housing prototype)
1981: Les Maisons Temple, France (industrialised single-family house in the style of Palladio)
1981: Classical Garden for the Ensanche, Barcelona, Spain (landscape scheme)
1982: La Manzanera, Calpe, Alicante, Spain (tourist complex)
1982: La Manzanera Villas, Calpe, Alicante, Spain
1982: State Mosque, Bagdhad, Iraq
1982: Le Viaduct & Les Arcades du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris, France(74 apartments + 389 subsidised apartments)
1982: Les Espaces d’Abraxas, Paris, France (20 + 130 + 441 apartments)
1983: Lafon House, Marrakesh, Morocco
1983: Amphitheatre, Calpe, Alicante, Spain,
1985: La Place Du Nombre d’Or, Montpelier, France (288 apartments; part of Antigone District)
1986: Les Temples du Lac, Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Paris, France (12,000 sq.m housing development)
1987: Turia River Gardens, Valencia, Spain (landscape masterplan)
1987: Bab-Al-Sheikh, Bagdhad, Iraq (2.30-ha housing development)
1988: La Bastide District, Bordeaux, France (urban redevelopment masterplan)
1988: Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild Wine Cellars, Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
1989: L’Arsenal Auditoriuim, Metz, France (music venue restoration and remodelling)
1989: Port Juvenal, Montpelier, France (350 apartments; part of Antigone District)
1989: Parfums Rochas Headquarters, Paris, France
1989: Hotel de Région Languedoc Roussillon, Montpelier, France (offices)
1989: Les Echelles de la Ville, Montpelier, France (offices)

I’ve also written about the French social housing projects [c.f. Misfits’ Guide to PARIS] that are often cited as successful examples of Post Modernism but rarely as successful examples of social housing meeting geometry meeting prefabricated construction meeting symbolic content and sense of place. They are all examples of something never attempted before and probably never again will be. By their very geometry, arcades, promenades, amphitheatres and semicircular massing all create focal points but amphitheatres and circles create communal space more efficiently.

The combination of classical and neo-classical elements with social housing and fusing it with prefabrication and symbolic content has never been bettered. These facades don’t appear gratuitous because Bofill sees classical architecture as always having been a system of standardised dimensions and prefabrication. Rather than build cheaply and dress it up, using classical elements that integrate cladding and symbolic content makes prefabrication the logical and natural choice.

Because of an internet-famous photo-essay on forgotten French housing estates, Bofill’s name often is often wrongly associated with these next two projects that, by comparison, illustrate how good Bofill’s French projects are. The one on the left is Le Pavé Neuf (1985) by architect Manuel Núñez Yanowsky and the one on the right is Orgues de Flandre (1980) by Martin van Trek. Both show what happens when symbolic content becomes detached from the elements used to create it. Instead, Bofill used the expressive potential of prefabricated elements in the same way as a Brutalist (or a Catalan Modernist) would use more natural materials.

It’s rarely the case that architects get to choose their projects. After 1965 there was less call for social housing projects worldwide even though France is a notable exception with large scape projects extending into the 1980s. The Taller took on projects such as the Houari Boumedienne Agricultural Village (1980) in Algeria and the scheme for Bab-Al-Sheikh in Iraq. Both are amazing for their understanding of what was required humanly, socially and politically.

Finally, there is this unbuilt proposal for a mass-produced single-family house in the style of Palladio. It is a study done to see if it could be. Nobody asked for it. Les Maisons Temple is an exercise in fusing prefabricated components and architectural symbolism into a useful housing product and this to me seems to illustrate what Bofill and Taller de Arquitectura has been doing all along. It is in line with Bofill’s 1989 statement that

“Architecture is the victory of man over the irrational: the construction of a familiar, domestic, human space.”

• • • 

Ricardo Bofill
(1939 ~ )*

*

For always rising to the occasion,

misfits’ salutes you!

• • • 

After 1990 there’s more retail and commercial work, as well as an airport terminal here and there. Social housing projects disappear. The only major ones are in Stockholm in 1992 and the Antigone project that continued throughout the 1990s. This project list shows how the clients for architecture changed.

1990: Institute for Physical Education of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
1990: Mediterranean Cultural Centre, Barcelona, Spain
1991: Olympic Village Apartments, Barcelona, Spain (113 apartments)
1991: JC Decaux Headquarters, Paris, France (offices)
1991: Rioxa Park, Vigo, Spain (park and landscaping)
1991: Shepherd School of Music, Houston, Texas, USA
1991: Taller de Arquitectura, Paris, France (office renovation)
1991: Barcelona Airport Terminal 2, Barcelona, Spain
1991: Parfums Christian Dior Building, Paris, France (facade refurbishment)
1992: Pa Soder Crescent, Stockholm, Sweden (310 apartments)
1992: United Arrows Harajuku Main Shop, Tokyo, Japan (luxury retail)
1992: 77 West Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois, USA (office tower)
1992: Madrid Congress Centre, Madrid, Spain (convention centre)
1993: Costes K Hotel, Paris, France
1996: Olympic Swimming Pool, Montpelier, France
1997: Redevelopment of Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid, Spain (masterplan)
1997: BNP Banque Paribas, Paris, France (mixed-use redevelopment)
1997: National Theatre of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain
1998: Atrium Saldanha, Lisbon, Portugal (retail + office mixed-use)
1998: Casablanca Twin Center, Casablanca, Morocco (offices)
1998: La Bastide District, Bordeaux, France (100-ha urban masterplan)
1979–1999: Antigone District, Montpelier, France (36-ha mixed use development, incl. 800 apartments)
1999: Museum of the Royal Collections, Madrid, Spain
1999: Zarazoga-Delicias Interchange (railway station development)
1999: Aoyama Palacio, Tokyo, Japan (13-storey offices + retail)
1999: SPI Fiumiconi, Rome, Italy (mixed-use town centre masterplan)
2000: Casa Ananda, Miami, Florida, USA (private house)
2000: Corso 1 Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic (offices + renovation)
2000: Savona Cresent, Savona, Italy (apartment building)
2000: Funchalcentrum, Madeira, Portugal (mixed-use town centre development)
2000: AXA Offices, Paris, France
2001: Shiseido Ginza, Tokyo, Japan (offices)
2002: Nexus II, Barcelona, Spain (offices)
2002: Zona Franca Logistic Park, Barcelona, Spain (business park)
2002: Platinum Tower, Beirut, Lebanon (33-storey residential tower)
2002: Maritime Front Development, Barcelona, Spain (office + housing mixed-use)
2002: Cartier Headquarters, Paris, France (offices)
2003: Dearborn Center, Chicago, Illinois, USA (office tower)
2003: Monchyplein, The Hague, Holland (mixed-use urban regeneration)
2003: Manzanares Park, Madrid, Spain (industrial area park renovation)
2004: Corso 2 Karlin, Prague Czech Republic (offices)
2006: Lazona Kawasaki Plaza, Kawasaki, Japan (mixed use city centre development)
2006: La Porte, Luxembourg (twin office towers)
2007: Miguel Delibes Culture Centre, Valladolid, Spain
2007: Savona Tower, Savona, Italy (commercial + apartments + hotel)
2009: W Hotel Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
2010: La Résidence de la Paix, Dakar, Senegal (18 low- and medium-income apartment buildings)
2010: Barcelona Airport Terminal 1, Barcelona, Spain
2012: Moscow Agglomeration, Moscow, Russia (urban growth masterplan)
2012: Desigüal Headquarters, Barcelona, Spain (offices)
2013: Qingdao New Airport, Jiaoxhou, Qingdao, China
2013: L’Ourse Public Library, Dinard, France
2013: Economic Newsroom, Prague, Czech Republic (factory adaptive reuse)
2013: Leningrad, St. Petersburg, Russia (cinema refurbisment)
2013: The Connected City, Dallas, Texas, USA (transportation masterplan)
2014: Forum Karlin, Prague, Czech Republic (renovation + offices + multipurpose hall)
2015: Nou Camp Not, Barcelona, Spain (stadium)
2016: Université Mohammed VI Polytechnique, Benguérir, Morocco (55-ha university campus)
2016: Corso Court, Prague, Czech Republic (office development)
2016: Obecní Dvů, Prague, Czech Republic (12 apartments)

There’s much that is good and some that is very good. For reasons I’ve already explained, Bofill’s commercial applications of prefabricated classicism are extremely competent, even handsome.

There are also buildings such as the Shiseido building and the W Hotel Barcelona that are extremely accomplished buildings and should be appreciated for what they are.

*(1939 – 2022) [16 Jan 2022]

6 thoughts on “Architecture Misfit #36: Ricardo Bofill

  1. bowen

    Ha! I have been trying to find a copy of the first book for ages and a new pops up this year! I notice many parallels between him and Piet Blom/Herman Herzburger/Aldo Van Eyck. What are your thoughts on the Dutch structuralism and ?

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hmm. Interesting. I shall do some reading and get back to you, It sounds like a post. =)

  2. J.

    I have to disagree with the W Hotel. It sticks out like a sore thumb in Barcelona’s waterfront.

    On the other hand, Terminal 2 of the airport is a very pleasant place, much more so by bein an airport terminal. The use of tinted glass gives the whole interior space a dreamy quality that fits very well with it being an in-between place.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      I remember when I passed through Terminal 2 thinking what a bright and pleasant space it was. I just appreciated it and didn’t even think to myself how well it had been done or who the architect was – as I usually do. It’s the same with W Hotel. The first time I saw it at the end of the beach it didn’t occur to me that someone designed it and only last week did I learn it was Bofill/RBTA.

      Unlike Terminal 2 that can be appreciated without even being aware of it, W Hotel is a different matter because as soon as you’re on that beach you’re forced to have an opinion about it. I don’t know the history of the site but buildings of such size and height on such highly visible sites don’t tend to happen by accident so I’m guessing the municipality made it available for a landmark hotel. Architects don’t get to choose these things but if you’re the one chosen to design it, then you have a very big problem and you don’t want to misjudge by being scared and thus produce something that’s too tame and let people say “Why did they bother?” and you don’t want to get too excited and overplay it and have people “Whatever were they thinking?!” Either way, the result is an eyesore and W Hotel seems to find a good balance as far as the appropriateness of its design for its location on the beach and in Barcelona goes.

      I do wish it were a bit slimmer when seen from the side and maybe it didn’t need to be so big, but architects don’t usually have much say in how much building there is. Burj Al Arab is the only other building I can think of that pulls off something similar. Kursaal in San Sebastian is good but it’s not a hotel. Architects are supposed to enjoy challenges and to rise to the occasion but I’m glad it wasn’t me who had the job of designing a landmark hotel for that site.

  3. jonathan

    the late 70’s early 80’s dalliance in post modernism left me little cold, albeit the your exposure of the thought below the surface that has been raised and brought to my attention.
    the choices made might have been different with deeper understanding. winters in spain probably preferable to winters in NYC
    excellent misfit choice.

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Yes I was a bit surprised myself. I never minded post-modernism when Bofill did it for prefabricated social housing. I guess his sense for that came from his investigations into cellular housing. Here’s a link to that Avery Review article I mentioned. They refer to it as “cellular urbanism” but it seems to me the underlying principle was not so much of a cellular city but a cellular society where the whole is made up of the cells. Franco and, later, the modern world found this metaphor not to their liking. The Avery article, for example, seems to take pleasure in pointing out that Bofill later seemed to downplay these aspects of his earlier work.

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