The architect's death is a reminder that there are other ways of living
We do not live in an age of giants: no wonder then that the loss of a cultural giant like the Spanish-Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, who died yesterday aged 82, strikes us as so profound. A visionary of the spectacular, Bofill worked with a sense of grandeur and ambition so rare today that his buildings appear to us like the monumental structures of some alien civilisation.
Indeed, the outpourings of praise his death has occasioned highlights the fact that the postmodernist vein of architecture he pioneered is currently undergoing a critical revival. Viewed just a decade ago as the worst sort of kitschy excess, the playfulness and monumentality of postmodernist architecture now seems resonant and thrilling. We are today starved of ambition and daring in public buildings: and no-one was more ambitious or more daring than Bofill.
Perhaps Bofill’s work best known to the ordinary public is his monumental Les Espaces d’Abraxas housing project outside Paris, the dystopian qualities of which saw it serve as a backdrop to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and the final “Hunger Games” film. It is a project easier to love than to like: a Piranesian dreamworld of oversized classical pillars and pediments wrought from pre-cast concrete, which reduces the pedestrians walking through its vast curved plaza to ant-like scale. What can it be like to live in? The question is almost beside the point: it is a monument designed to overawe the beholder, transgressively totalitarian in scale and form. Like his parallel Antigone project in Montpellier, its scaled-up classicism unapologetically deploys the architectural language of fascism or Stalinism towards humanist ends.
Fascinated by the vernacular architecture of North Africa, Bofill deployed its motifs in his spectacular Spanish apartment blocks Walden 7 outside Barcelona and La Muralla Roja near Alicante, both of which rise above the modern cities enclosing them like psychedelic casbahs rising from some desert plain. Both projects seem somehow better suited to our own tastes today than those of the 1960s and 1970s when they were built, as if designed for Instagram: La Muralla Roja’s lurid millennial pink exteriors hiding maze-like Escherian staircases overlooking the blue Mediterranean Sea, and Walden 7’s earth-coloured walls and projecting concrete oriel windows enclosing cool turquoise-tiled courtyards, like some ancient quarter of Marrakech folded and recombined on top of itself, reaching heavenward.
Like the genre of critical regionalism generally, Bofill’s work captured the spirit of premodern architecture more resonantly and meaningfully than any mere pastiche. His Les Arcades du Lac housing project summons up visions simultaneously of medieval bridges crowded with dwellings, Renaissance chateaux, Mughal tomb complexes and Roman aqueducts, and all for the humble purpose of housing suburbanites in precast concrete apartment blocks. His own home, the repurposed cement factory La Fabrica, was a medieval castle for the future, its vast concrete walls dripping with greenery, its round turrets and high windows projecting grandeur and mystery from the humblest and most reviled of materials.
Through forcing traditional motifs into futuristic directions, Bofill created alternate modernities, visions of paths not taken. His death comes as a reminder that there are other ways of living, and of building than we have come to accept: that scale and ambition are still possible, and that we can still construct monuments that will awe future generations, if we only dare to.