A much-needed refocusing

​L’Edifici Atalaya, la Casa de la Meridiana d’Oriol Bohigas i l’Illa Escorial, a Barcelona; i el Walden 7 de Ricard Bofill a Sant Just Desvern

It often seems that Barcelona’s urban landscape is the product of the plan developed for the 1992 Olympic Games. Although this is somewhat true, the reality is that the city’s modernisation began during the 1950s, within the period known as developmentalism. Architect Paolo Sustersic analyses this modernisation process in his rigorous study Barcelona brutalista y tardomoderna. La construcción de un paisaje a escala metropolitana (1953-1976) [Brutalist and Late Modern Barcelona. The Construction of a Landscape on a Metropolitan Scale (1953-1976)].

By means of this book, Sustersic sheds light on a period that needed to be thoroughly examined and put together, and which has received very little attention and dissemination. This is perhaps due to its connection with the troubled period of Franco’s dictatorship, which, also – as the author states with apparent surprise – has not been explored in relation to Brutalism and late-modern architecture, despite its numerous influences in the Barcelona area. The purpose is, therefore, to refocus and offer a new reading of the period, which is a superb case study of the complexity of the construction processes of the urban landscape.

The urbanist Francesc Muñoz has penned an indispensable introduction, the perfect preface to situate the reader in the context of the period addressed and guide them through the book’s contents. Encouraged by his approach, and starting out from the focal point of the construction of the landscape, Sustersic wanted to “offer an interpretation that relates the visible environment to the processes situated in the realms of politics, architecture and urban planning, which usually remain hidden or whose memory is lost”. It could be said that this is a purely academic aim, which understands that every object is the materialisation of a series of circumstances and factors that must be carefully considered in order to reach critical conclusions based on objectivity. However, the seriousness and commitment to rigour that especially set this work apart are of particular value at this time, given that it is increasingly difficult to shake off the inertia of ideological dogmatisms, based on a lack of knowledge, which lead to simplifications that are as clumsy and biased as they are misrepresentative.

Sustersic’s study is divided into two parts. The first is a detailed analysis of the chronological period, delving into the political and social complexity to understand the changes that took place in the city. On the one hand, there was a desire for modernisation – which provided the city with low-income housing in an endeavour to obliterate the shack settlements resulting from the influx of migrants, as well as cultural, sporting, religious and health infrastructures; on the other, the pressure of the real estate market – evident in the controversial buildings on a monumental scale that dramatically redrew the city’s profile. The second part of the book offers a comprehensive cataloguing of the buildings constructed during this period in Barcelona and its metropolitan area, classified according to their uses. A complete selection that shows the power of architecture as a transformative agent of the city and its transformation into a metropolis. The description of each building has been painstakingly compiled, both in terms of the explanatory text and its graphic illustration, and is complemented in many cases by a series of bibliographical references. Dozens of residential developments, some stand-alone houses and a considerable number of industrial, institutional, cultural and service buildings are included. From the Illa Escorial, winner of the 1962 FAD Architecture Prize, to Ciutat Meridiana, Ricard Bofill’s Walden 7 in Sant Just Desvern, the Casa de la Meridiana by Oriol Bohigas, Josep Maria Martorell and David Mackay Goodchild or the Atalaya Building on Avinguda Diagonal, winner of the 1970-1971 FAD Prize, to name but a few.

This approach makes the volume essential reading for anyone wishing to learn about the construction of Barcelona’s architectural landscape, prior to the city’s overall giant leap towards “a supra-municipal reality, first as a county and subsequently extended to a larger unit defined as a metropolitan area”. It highlights the achievements and failures of the architectural and urban planning policies and decisions of this period, which was undoubtedly pivotal to the development of modern Barcelona and fundamental for considering the challenges facing the city and its area of influence. Or, perhaps to put it differently, to have an earlier past to go back to clearly understand the real city and its difficult complexity, beyond the artefacts and iconic developments of recent decades, which constitute not only a failed but also a superficial layer of this city.

Book: Barcelona brutalista y tardomoderna. La construcción de un paisaje a escala metropolitana. Paolo Sustersic. Àmbit Serveis Editorials and Ajuntament de Barcelona, 2022.

Another of the book’s main themes is the prominence of concrete and the propensity to show it exposed and exploit its full potential during this period. The language of New Brutalism, which emerged in Britain and was consolidated in the architecture of Alison and Peter Smithson, was immediately adopted by Barcelona’s architects. The book can also be regarded as a strong endorsement of this material, one of the fundamental materials of twentieth-century architecture, which today, due to certain radical environmentalist positions, is being challenged and pushed into the background.

Thus, in times that are increasingly leaning towards banality, Sustersic takes the exemplary decision to go against the tide and delve into a very delicate period in recent history, whose way of thinking and acting is harshly criticised today. Many of his ideas and attitudes are clearly considered taboo by the often authoritarian political correctness that insists on dictating the directions that critical reflection should take. Developmentalism was committed to a form of progress that today is perceived negatively; however, Sustersic aims to situate, as objectively as possible, this definition of progress within the context that gave it its raison d’être. Something that can provide the reader with the chance to compare and contrast it with the intentions and ideologies that are involved today in the construction of the urban landscape.

Barcelona brutalista y tardomoderna. La construcción de un paisaje a escala metropolitana.

Paolo Sustersic

Àmbit Serveis Editorials and Barcelona City Council, 2022. 420 pages

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