Barcelona has rediscovered its zest for urbanism

The final dinner at last week’s World Architecture festival was held in the inimitable surroundings of the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, courtesy of the Mies Foundation and the City of Barcelona. The pavilion can be transformed into a temporary restaurant, seating 64 people at eight tables. I think it is fair to say that for architects, this becomes a very special occasion . . .

As it happens, the WAF completed building of the year award went to another Barcelona building, the extraordinary Media-ICT landmark in the ‘22@’ Poble Nou regeneration area. The winning building, designed by Cloud 9/Enric Ruiz-Geli, has addressed head-on the question of Co2 emissions, long-term sustainability and efficiency of performance by rethinking just how an office might work with no design holds barred.

The appearance of the building is extraordinary for several reasons. ETFE cushions, which inflate with nitrogen during very hot weather provde an extra façade layer. Luminous paint, inspired by jellyfish, replaces night-time electric lighting. The parametric design has minimised non-usable space, and the structural and services design is based on complex distributed patterns rather than centralised systems.

The final ‘super-jury’ which picked the building, Jo Noero, Michael Sorkin, Kongjian Yu, and Tim Macfarlane, of course had to take on trust some of the claims made for the building, since long-term sustainability will only be proved by time. I was reminded of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper’s remark: ‘Better a fertile error than a sterile accuracy’ (made before he wrongly validated the Hitler diaries!). Even if the building turns out to be less successful than hoped, its scale of ambition and the symbolic nature of its design will guarantee it a place in the canon of architecture.

It is always refreshing to see presentations oozing with confidence and optimism, and it was not the only one emanating from a Barcelona local during the festival. The new chief architect Vincent Guallart (pronounced why-art), appointed three months ago by the new nationalist ‘centre-right’ administration, gave delegates an inspirational insight into the new planning thinking informing the city’s future, which is radical and public-minded.

Some of the ideas being pursued had echoes with the Media-ICT building, for example in thinking about distributed networks rather than central control. Guallart, who previously ran the Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia, intends to extend the work of Cerda, whose 19th century plan invented the idea of urbanism in the modern age, by taking the city down to the sea to a greater extent than before, also extending the ideas behind the masterplan for the 1992 Olympics.

The chief architect was also able to say that the mayor has put architects at the ‘top of the pyramid’ in promoting new ideas to set a pattern for the next few decades, while delivering individual projects within shorter timescales. These will include bring nature into the city rather than the city endlessly expanding into nature; transforming city blocks into energy generation centres as part of an energy self-sufficiency programme; building affordable housing and city-owned sites; and developing a ‘smart city’ model which combines design with environmental thinking, operating systems, infrastructure and ICT.

Three competitions for strategic projects have already been announced, and one sensed that the old Barcelona of Pasqual Maragall, and the spirit of Martorell Bohigas Mackay (celebrating their 60th anniversary with a fine exhibition at the Collegi d’Arquitectes) is back.

Actually MBM’s has never been away, proof if it were needed being provided in their latest city building, the magnificently cantilevered design museum on the big roundabout near Jean Nouvel’s tower. David Mackay gave a keynote presentation at the festival, tracing the work of the practice through dictatorship, revolution, democracy, world Olympic city, and now a vibrant location for continuing experimentation. What a story, and how removed from the idea that history can merely comprise information or data. As he said, neither are useful without knowledge; he might have added that knowledge can also usefully be tempered by wisdom, as his own lecture elegantly proved.

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