by Aris Roussinos
Saturday, 15
January 2022
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09:22

Ricardo Bofill gave us a vision of an alternate modernity

The architect's death is a reminder that there are other ways of living
by Aris Roussinos
Les Espaces d’Abraxas, outside Paris, “reduces the pedestrians walking through its vast curved plaza to ant-like scale”

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.

La Muralla Roja, outside Alicante

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.

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Tom Watson
Tom Watson
6 months ago

Not totally convinced, but it’s better than a spreadsheet block of flats at least.

Tobias Langley
Tobias Langley
6 months ago

Alternative not alternate. The former means, ‘a choice of one or other,’ the latter, ‘following each other by turns’.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
6 months ago
Reply to  Tobias Langley

Don’t get me started on “societal” when we already have “social”, “comedic” when we already have “comic”, and “construct” when we already have “construction”.
Most superfluous words are coined by ignorant people wanting to sound smart.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

“What can it be like to live in? The question is almost beside the point: it is a monument designed to overawe the beholder,”

Is it beside the point? There is an anti-human quality about it. Like a avant-garde fashion designer making a simulated fur coat out of broken glass, barbed wire, and thorns. Still a coat….maybe striking and even with some kind of beauty…..

“the postmodernist vein of architecture he pioneered”

When ever I see ‘Post’ attached to some School of thought, Philosophy, attribute, I know it means to be against all which that thing actually represents. It does not have to be without attractive points, but is more ‘death of’ than ‘re-born’.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
6 months ago

I’ve always loved and admired Sr. Bofill’s work; modern but with heart. There are a few I’m not so keen on, though, Taller d’Arquitectura for example, but the rest are wonderful; I especially like the Montpellier building (Communauté d’Agglomération), it is less modern looking with its distinct classical overtones, but is designed to fit into the surroundings.

stephen archer
stephen archer
6 months ago

He designed a bow formed apartment complex in central Stockholm (Södermalm) similar to the ones in Paris and Montpellier, totally out of keeping with the rest of the architecture in the district but creating what I think of as an oasis of space and style. I’m no authority on archictecure but it’s an inspiring place to walk through and a h*ll of a lot more elegant than all the other monotonous “high density” apartment complexes built since, including some really ugly monstrosities. What it’s like to live in I’ve no idea, but I’d guess the appartments are fairly sought after and at least you get to see the sky from the windows which is more than is possible from the lower floors of the above mentioned apartment complexes.

Last edited 6 months ago by stephen archer
Penny Mcwilliams
Penny Mcwilliams
6 months ago

To my mind, judgements about the aesthetic merits or otherwise of large scale housing developments really cannot and should not override the crucial considerations of ‘what is it like to live there?’ Le Corbusier failed on that one, and while I am not a student of architectural history, I believe the Paris banlieux were a failure too

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
6 months ago

The fate of Pruitt-Igoe rather supports your point. The idealistic Japanese architect was utterly aghast at how people lived in it.