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“Architecture is the victory of man over the irrational.”
Beloved and renowned Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill Levi (1939 – 2022), the influential hand behind the avant-garde residential landmark of Walden-7 and the timeless, candy-coloured citadels of La Muralla Roja in Spain, passed away at the age of 82 in Barcelona, on January 14, 2022. The news was announced officially by his own interdisciplinary firm, Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura (RBTA). With more than 1,000 projects spread across 40 countries, the maverick architect was known to question the mainstream, his works entrenched in innovation, risk, generosity and expressive postmodernism.
STIR remembers Bofill's distinctive life and legacy of works that continue to uphold boldness with form and colours, all expressive of architecture as a universal language.
Born on December 5, 1939, to a family of the Catalan cultural bourgeoisie, Ricardo Bofill's endeavours in architecture were supported from an early age, his father Emili being a local property developer and builder himself. The young Bofill travelled to Andalusia where he was fascinated by vernacular Spanish architecture which lay routes, abstract, simplified and otherwise, into his edifices later on, as the founder of Taller de Arquitectura, established in 1963 when he was 23.
“Like any language, architecture must continually enrich its vocabulary, create new forms let its grammar develop. It sees complexity as a living organ. Architecture must then, be brought up to date, be modified by each speaker.”
With over 80 years and three generations of architectural practice reflective of an enduring exploration of diverse cultures and stylistic approaches, Bofill was successful in epitomising and developing a primal vocabulary to organise space centred on the human scale. La Muralla Roja, Kafka’s Castle apartment building, the Gaudí District, and more recently, the campus of the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University figure among the most notable examples of this approach. Traditional patterns and local forms were rediscovered and refreshed in a modern setting by him, challenging established dominant thinking in architecture. “To define architecture as the organisation of a space is, therefore, to distinguish it from simple construction,” he remarked.
“The path of Ricardo Bofill finds its starting point in a two-fold rejection. First, of a certain international architecture in fashion after the Second World War, blamed for having killed cities and their social fabric with its soulless functionalism. Secondly, of the oppressive reality of Francisco Franco’s rule, during which he was expelled from the Universitat de Barcelona in the framework of general political unrest. He would then go on to complete his studies, graduating from the École des Beaux-Arts of Geneva, Switzerland, and to rediscover the vernacular Catalan style and the minimalist architecture of North Africa,” states the award-winning firm.
“I wanted, once and for all, to create a space powerful enough to make normal people who know nothing about architecture realise that architecture exists.”
Most accomplished for his monumental housing projects that can be described in essence, as Baroque in concrete and surreal realism, Bofill characterised forms in modest qua patterned lines and articulated corners, appearing majestic and larger-than-life, organised internally with communitarian spaces linked by reiterating staircases and patios. Cubic volumes observed in Ibiza and North Africa formed the basis for the City in Space concept that came alive as the 14-storey Walden-7 social housing in Spain clustered around five courtyards. Similarly, classicist composition and the Renaissance became an impetus to some more of his social housing developments, layered later on by modern spins on classical forms and geometry, championing colour and composition.
Walden-7, named after Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, saw 450 apartments arranged spectacularly as a vertical beehive, in a dense 14-storey cluster placed around five courtyards. The iconic urban and mixed-use development features varicoloured balconies and a complicated network of footbridges that link each floor of the building, to create a dramatic three-dimensional matrix of vistas and enclosures, topped with pools and lined with bright azure tiles.
The labyrinthine La Muralla Roja (The Red Wall) was created as an embodiment of the popular architecture of the Arab Mediterranean, in particular, to the adobe towers of North Africa, and reinterpreting the Kasbah. The geometric, constructivist structure sits near the sea as an ensemble of interconnected patios that provide access to the 50 apartments adorned with roof terraces fitted with solariums, a swimming pool, and a sauna. Colours signify intention here – red dresses the skin to create a stark contrast with the landscape, while shades of indigo and blue cover the patios and stairs, to optically blend with the sky and water. The layered complex is also rendered greater illusion and dynamism by playing with the intensity of the applied colours, and the way the sun hits them.
Clustered geometry reigns supreme in the navy hued Kafka Castle, a 90 apartment building built as a homage to author Franz Kafka, and was one of the earliest projects by Bofill that got the firm international recognition. The fragmented assemblage of the prefabricated cubes is not random, but is indeed, accounted for – each unit and its placement is dictated by mathematical equations - one decides how many modules connect to the two core circulation shafts, while another determines the height of the spirals of units wrapping around the shafts, and so on.
Utopian when built and in essence, his projects, including the heavily geometric Gaudí housing development and the Montràs House, a summerhouse designed for the architect’s parents, often reference the vernacular, emerging as carefully layered concrete and brick forms, as altars for light and space. Often typified by rectilinear massing adorned with geometric elements like semi-circular balconies and myriad steps that sometimes lead nowhere, his works grew with the inclusion of vaulted ceilings, curves, glass and steel, as seen in the Meritxell Sanctuary in Andorra.
Bofill's most famous works in postmodern architecture have regained traction and found wide-eyed, young admirers in recent years, going on to inspire surreal neo sets in films and tv shows such as Netflix's 2021 South Korean TV series, Squid Game.
“What separates us all, ultimately, is our approach to space. Space, the infinity which surrounds us, and of which only lines can make us aware. A horizon, a cliff, and yes, even the design of a house gives form to space. Space as we see it: like the interplay between solid matter and the void.”
Redefining the notion of the conventional home, perhaps in true Bofill fashion, his dwelling and workshop called La Fábrica, a repurposed, former brutalist cement factory of epic proportions on the outskirts of Barcelona, is theatrical with its concrete silos opened with geometry and awash in greenery and natural light. Since then, he lived and worked there, and it is where he and his prolific firm is survived by his two sons, Ricardo Emilio and Pablo.
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