Ricardo Bofill: the outsider architect who turned 1960s Spain into science fiction

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Ricardo Bofill: the outsider architect who turned 1960s Spain into science fiction


A a dazzling pink castle perched atop the coastal cliffs of Calpe, near Alicante in southern Spain, its pastel turrets standing like an outcrop of coral above the shore. The high fortified walls hide inside a vertical maze of staircases and terraces, painted in shades of sky blue, lilac and red, opening onto the sparkling waters of hidden rooftop pools.

This citadel of candy-colored holiday apartments is the work of Ricardo Bofill, the Catalan maverick architect who died at the age of 82. He has spent his life conjuring up otherworldly buildings, which now stand as monuments to a future primeval sci-fi civilization. Half a century after they were built, his fantastical creations have inspired a whole new generation, serving as futuristic movie sets and influencing the aesthetics of everything from the Monument Valley video game to the cult TV show Squid Game, which he designed. stairs.

Completed in 1973, La Muralla Roja was a spectacular arrival on this sunny coast, otherwise dotted with traditional whitewashed villas and generic concrete apartment buildings. Both ancient and modern, it echoed the dense kasbahs of traditional North African towns, with their labyrinthine layouts of narrow lanes, courtyards and tall adobe towers, translated into a dizzying world à la Escher. Today, it’s teeming with selfie-taking influencers and music video scouting, an alluring pastel backdrop for the Instagram era.

Ricardo Bofill in Paris, 1989. Photography: Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Bofill was a glamorous star of postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s, enjoying international fame and a playboy lifestyle, but as fashions changed, his expressive work fell out of favor. When I met him in 2017, he was delighted that his projects were rediscovered by a new generation hungry for color, fascinated by his psychedelic and sculptural universes.

“When I was 35, I was the most fashionable architect in the world,” he tells me, with characteristic shamelessness. “But I’ve always been an outsider, never fitting into the architectural culture. After being expelled from the Barcelona School of Architecture for his Marxist views, when General Franco was in power, he founded his office in 1963 as a multidisciplinary collective, bringing together poets, sociologists, philosophers, writers and filmmakers. He has set up his home and studio in a former cement factory on the outskirts of Barcelona, ​​a theatrical place of a Bond villain’s hideout, with white leather sofas in stark concrete silos, all dripping with greenery lush. He lived and worked here for the rest of his life, and it’s where his two sons, Ricardo Emilio and Pablo, continue to run the business.

Inside La Muralla Roja (Red Wall) in Calpe, Spain. Photography: Guillermo Avello/Alamy

A self-proclaimed outsider, Bofill initially eschewed the architectural canon and instead turned to the study of vernacular buildings during his travels around the Mediterranean and North Africa. “I never liked architectural theory,” he told me. “So, from the beginning, I always looked at traditional and vernacular buildings. Fascinated by the tight villages of Ibiza, where stairs are integrated into the facades of houses, forming hillsides of houses and terraces in an organic and jumbled whole, he traveled further south to try to find the origins of this type of primitive dwelling. “I learned more in the middle of the Sahara, between nothing but dunes and sand, than in a French palace,” he said. Combining what he learned from the mud-walled buildings of the Tuareg people, with high-tech ideas for “plug-in” modular architecture envisioned by radical 1960s groups such as Archigram, he developed a style which belonged to him.

His Walden 7 residence, a monumental terracotta termite mound on the outskirts of Barcelona, ​​looks as radical today as when it was built in 1975. The 450 apartments are arranged in a dense 14-storey complex, grouped around five courtyards, of bright azure tiles and connected by bridges and balconies, creating a dramatic three-dimensional matrix of views and enclosures, crowned by rooftop pools. This vertical hive was an experiment in Bofill’s vision of a utopian cooperative community, his modular system intended to adapt to the changing needs of the family. “It was about breaking free from the traditional family structure,” he told me wistfully. “I was supposed to be accessible to everyone, and each resident would have their share. Now it’s gotten a bit more bourgeois – the price has gone up and the community is a bit insular. They don’t want to let anyone in. “

Walden 7, building of Ricard Bofill.  Sant Just Desvern, Catalonia, Spain.
Walden 7, building of Ricard Bofill. Sant Just Desvern, Catalonia, Spain. Photograph: Juan Bautista/Alamy

His plans didn’t always turn out the way he hoped, with utopian rhetoric sometimes failing in reality. His series of monumental housing estates built on the outskirts of Paris in the late 1970s and early 1980s have become synonymous with the excesses of bloated postmodernism. Resembling a Stalinist Disneyland, his Espaces d’Abraxas project was neoclassicism on steroids, encircling large civic spaces with gigantic fluted columns and heavy concrete pediments. It featured in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil and more recently provided a dystopian backdrop for The Hunger Games. But, much like his work in Spain, the buildings have enjoyed renewed appreciation as part of the ongoing pomo revival, fueled by their appearance in pop culture, with fans reveling in the overwhelming architectural power. As Bofill said, “I wanted, once and for all, to create a space powerful enough for normal people who don’t know anything about architecture to realize that architecture exists. “

Mediterranean coast in Calpe.  Cove of the manzanera.  Xanadu.  Alicante, Spain
Mediterranean coast in Calpe. Cove of the manzanera. Xanadu. Alicante, Spain Photography: Guillermo Avello/Alamy

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