On approach to Barcelona via the A-2, the main highway that connects the city to Madrid, a mammoth, multi-cubed terracotta-coloured structure rises up over the freeway, towering above the middling residential blocks that proliferate Barcelona’s outskirts. The building is named Walden 7 and it was built in 1975; the year of Franco’s death. Since then, it has come to represent the birth of New Spanish Architecture. Its creator is the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill. His studio—or Taller de Arquitectura —is located next door; an extraordinary conversion of a disused cement factory in the midst of a lush garden of bamboo, eucalyptus and cypress trees.
Bofill was born to a prominent bourgeois Catalan family. His father worked in construction and he admits that these circumstances afforded him opportunities very early on. He formed the Taller de Arquitectura in 1963, a multi-disciplined group that became a leading catalyst of the gauche divine (or ‘divine left), a movement of artists and intellectuals that, during Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, waged to yank the country into the 20th century. ‘When I was growing up Spain was a ‘grey’ country, everything was shadowy, dirty, dull,’ says Bofill from his capacious office located in one of the factory’s former silos. ‘Spanish fascism was brutal.’
By any standards, his oeuvre has been prolific. The Taller, which now employs 70 people has carried out over 1000 projects in over 50 countries. Bofill’s architectural language switched in the nineteen-eighties from the early neo-realist, utopian experiments to one using historical references, mostly renaissance and baroque, to create grand urban spaces, particularly in the villes nouvelles that mushroomed around Paris during the decade.
This integration of the old and new has not always sat well with critics (Robert Hughes, in his seminal book Barcelona, said that Bofill’s French cities were ‘carried out in a coarsely scenographic style, a parody of neo-classicism’) but he has remained true to his postmodernist creed and disapproving of the current architectural star system. ‘In architecture, as in all the arts, there is a history and one has to know it. From this history and by using new technologies, we can go forward. If you don’t (know history), then you are creating architecture that is very personal. That may make sense on an experimental level, but its not one that adapts to the needs of the people.’
Paradoxically, two of his projects have just been completed in Barcelona that bare no signs of his trademark inverted classicism. The first is the city’s new airport terminal (called T1) an elegant, ethereal, spear-shaped structure compactly organised and easy to navigate. ‘When people walk through it’s like a small city,’ he says when asked to describe the building. ‘It’s all perfectly integrated. It’s simple, austere with a quality of function and good light. (Bofill has never been known for his modesty but in this case he is perfectly correct). The second, and certainly more iconic is the new W hotel, a 109-metre high, glass-clad, sail shaped beacon at the entrance to the city’s port.
At 70 years old, it seems that Bofill may still have a few critic-confounding cards to play. ‘My work (in various locations in the world) has given me a very kaleidoscopic vision, which obliges to you to create distinct projects in distinct places. But I want to adapt and change, because for me repetition is boring, I would hate to repeat what I have already done.’