Saturday, December 4, 2010

Vancouver Sun: Homes away from Home: Barcelona

Gaudi’s Barcelona not our Vancouver

Neighbourhoods, buildings and homes exquisite pointer to contribution of planning to urban attractiveness, sustainability

Afew years ago, I was surprised to read that Granville Island had taken over from Stanley Park as Vancouver’s No. 1 tourist attraction. I still question whether this is true, but there is no disputing Barcelona’s No. 1 tourist attraction. It is an architect: Antoni Gaudi.

While I was familiar with images of his work, I did not appreciate his creative genius until I saw his projects during a recent visit to Barcelona.

Born in 1852, Gaudi was the leader of a group of architects known as the Catalonian Modernistas. Their work was inspired by the Art Nouveau movement, which spread throughout Europe at the turn of the 20th century. However, the Spanish version was more eclectic than that of other countries.

A number of Gaudi’s major works are in L’Eixample, ( the extension) a master-planned mid-19th century “ suburb” of Barcelona. The area is characterized by a very formal grid of wide streets lined with mid-rise buildings and central courtyards. It is a form of city planning that dominates much of Europe, and is now starting to become increasingly popular with Vancouver planners.

One of the striking features of L’Eixample is the network of small plazas formed by cutting off the corners of each building at every intersection. From the air, the district looks like a series of geometric doughnuts, with a few diagonal streets increasing accessibility and interest.

The initial plan included a significant number of public green spaces; however, many were not built. Instead, they were replaced by more buildings. Sound familiar? Many of the remaining public spaces were designed as linear parks, filled with children’s play areas. Unlike North American kids, most of Barcelona’s children grow up in dense apartment neighbourhoods.

In the heart of L’Eixample is Gaudi’s most famous project: the still-unfinished cathedral La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi started it later in his life, but was not concerned that it would not be completed before he died since, as he noted, his client had all the time in the world. It is now scheduled for completion in 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death.

It is one of the most dominant buildings on the city’s skyline, and appears, up close, like a hallucinogenic vision of a medieval cathedral. According to guidebooks, it is Spain’s most visited monument.

Two other notable Gaudi works can be found along Passeig de Gracia, L’Eixample’s most fashionable street. La Pedrera, with its wavy facade and highly decorative wroughtiron balconies, was designed as a mixed-use apartment and office block. On the roof are decorative and whimsical chimneys, around which nightly musical concerts are held in the summer. Another major work is Casa Batllo, one of three extraordinary houses on a prominent block known as the Manzana de la Discordia or Apple of Discord. ( In a play of words, ‘ manzana’ means both apple and city block.) The two adjacent houses designed by two of Gaudi’s Modernista colleagues have very different esthetics.

With its ornate tiled curvilinear facade, the Casa Batllo is one of the most extraordinary houses I have ever visited. This six-storey-and-attic residence was a renovation of an earlier building and is designed around a very large central light well, faced in decorative blue tiles. The hue is darkest at the top floor and becomes lighter on lower floors to compensate for the brightness of the sun. Similarly, the windows at the top are smaller than below for the same reason.

The curvaceous windows with blue and green stained glass and flowing walls and ceilings are inspired by the sea, while the front facade is topped by a sculptural element representing St. George and the Dragon.

In many ways, the house is an early testament to sustainability, with its careful attention to natural ventilation and reuse of materials.

Many of the doors and windows are designed with movable louvres to facilitate air movement through the rooms. The incredibly ornate windows, some of which fold open to create large openings, and large light well allow natural light into every room. Much of the decorative tile work recycles broken ceramics and glass, a Gaudi trademark. While these buildings are breathtaking, one of Gaudi’s most remarkable projects is Park Guell, originally planned as a new residential subdivision on the outskirts of Barcelona. Inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s new Garden City movement, it was initiated by Eusibi Guell, a wealthy and visionary industrialistturned property developer and politician.

Guell hired his friend Gaudi who designed the new community like a large work of art. One of the goals was to bring its wealthy residents into closer contact with nature. Another was to transmit Christian values, while enhancing local traditions. This was to be achieved through conditions on the sale of the 60 large triangular lots. In order to allow residents to fully enjoy the natural setting, only one-sixth of the property could be built upon, in sharp contrast to the rest of the city.

Visiting Gaudi’s projects, I could not help but think of some of Vancouver’s more creative architects, such as Richard Henriquez and Paul Merrick, who over the years have often infused their projects with works of art, and on occasion, whimsy.

I also thought about how Barcelona has truly enhanced its attractiveness as a place to live and as a tourist destination, through its community planning, imaginative architecture and public art.

Let me add....I think there's a lesson for Vancouver here!


David McPhee said...

Was impressed with your observations about the ‘urban planning’ work of Gaudi While his ‘hallucinogenic’ architectural works are intriguing, it was his use of wide streets and central court yards, which are enablers of gentle density, and Vancouver should embrace that notion enthusiastically. They are both focused on supporting and encouraging non-vehicle traffic; cycling and pedestrian. It is precisely this kind of traffic that should be seen as a market opportunity.

We in Vancouver have always traditionally prided ourselves in how we have celebrated ‘green spaces’ such as the Sea Wall, Kits Beach. Stanley Park etc etc. Antoni Gaudi’s plan for small plazas being deliberately formed by urban design is something our civic government should catch up with, as the Vancouver people are already ‘there’.

The popularity of Robson Square (2010 street celebrations), Granville Island, indeed all of False Creek, and Gastown are evidence of the popularity of non-mall urban retail opportunity. The commercial success of such opportunities is in no way a contradiction of the public support of a ‘green’ ethos. It is however a contradiction of our addiction to our ‘vehicle’ life style, which I am glad to say, has been largely rejected by our children. Reinvention of the ‘mall’ from big box enclosed, parking lot and suburbia dependent to high density live/shop/walk environs is a goal to have. Our political leader need to get us there in a financially sustainable way.

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