Like all major touristic cities, Barcelona’s got plenty of main attractions. The musts being Sagrada Familia, Guell, and a handful of cathedrals. I’m trying to get through the list while still attempting to discover the less commonly visited beauties.
Facing Mies van de Rohe’s German Pavilion in Montjuic is a medieval brick castle with two towers. This is CaixaForum, the cultural center of Barcelona. Although it houses exhibitions and an excellent bookshop, it used to be a textile factory in the early 1900s. Built in two years thanks to repetitive architectural patterns, the factory was dedicated to cotton production. The large windows, high ceilings, and separated pavilions helped with ventilation and created a large open workspace so workers didn’t feel trapped underground. Because it’s only made of brick and iron, there was also very little risk of fire. The flower bed skylights enabled fire brigades to reach any part of the factory but also doubled as a source of air and natural light. Besides light and space, it was the first factory to use electricity so there were no chimneys and, thus, no risk of respiratory diseases from coal and steam that previously powered looms.
Casimir Casaramona, owner of the factory, commissioned Josep Puig i Cadafalch (pooji cadafalk), the same architect behind Casa Batllo’s overlooked neighbor, Casa-Museu Amatller. Batllo is by Gaudi who is to Catalan modernism what Beyonce was to Destiny’s Child. Imagine being in that kind of shadow posthumously.Anyway, Cadafalch incorporated multiple elements of Catalan craftsmanship: glass-making, brick-laying, metalwork. The overall goal was to strengthen Catalan institutions and identity while adding a medieval twist and Gaudi’s trencadis technique (using broken glass). And one of Cadafalch’s signatures is the use of dragons, an emblem of the Kingdom of Aragon. You can find one over the door at the base of the Casaramona tower. Take that, Dany.
The factory closed in 1919 and was a police station for about half a century after that. As of today, it is an amalgam of Art Nouveau and industrial architecture because of the expansion on the existing structure. La Caixa Foundation, the charitable leg of La Caixa bank, stepped in to refurbish and create CaixaForum in 1997. Due to UNESCO Heritage Site rules, they were forced to expand the only way possible: by going underneath the building.
Arata Isozaki, a Japanese architect, designed the white limestone entrance and the tree glass sculpture over the escalators that take you to the front door. The limestone allows for light to be reflected into the underbelly of the space. There’s also an abstract “garden” which is an empty rectangular room with water running under it so there’s a trickling water sound effect in a white box. It’s supposed to give the illusion that you’re in a garden. I’m not a fan of this kind of rationale when it comes to art – it makes me think Isozaki smoked all the grass that should’ve been in that garden.
Repurposing old buildings of architectural significance seems to be a theme in this city. They’ve managed to give a meaningful second life to many structures that are survivors of their historic past. There are some case where the same is happening back home but let’s hope for more past in the future.
BONUS FUN FACT: CaixaForum is located at the base of Montjuic between the trade fair precinct and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Both of which were designed by Cadafalch too. BOOM. Mic drop.