One interesting element of the RCR Library project was its ability to transform the interior courtyard of the block in which it was situated. (images from El Croquis)
By bringing the public realm in the interior of the block the project accomplished two things. Firstly it inspired all the residents facing the courtyard to take better care of their balconies. Secondly it brought about a closer reflection of the original intent of the city plan. This part of Barcelona is part of the Eixample, the large scale expansion of the city implemented in the 1860s.
The original plan, designed by Ildefons Cerda, called for a 400 meter square datum to extend around the old city, with each block an irregular octagon designed to facilitated tram turning radii.
These blocks were designed to be idea proportion of built up development and open space, with most blocks being ‘zoned’ for building on two of the four main street frontages. It is my understanding that this regulation was quickly disregarded for economic and political reasons. Developers wanted to make as much money off the land as possible, and local politicians resented having Cerda’s plan picked by rulers in Madrid, over Barcelona’s preferred choice designed by Antoni Rovira i Trias. The resultant development over the years produced city blocks completely built out, street front through courtyard.
The term ‘contextual’ can be used in a number of ways to describe a piece of architecture. Material choice, scale, type of program, essentially any shared aspect between two buildings becomes the frame with which they are compared. During a study abroad semester in Barcelona I had to look at a public library designed by RCR Arquitectes from Catalonia, looking specifically at how it was situated in context. It strikes a contrast with its surrounding by almost any measure. Rhythm, color, material, fenestration, all work to differentiate the library from the apartments on either side. Given the courtyard layout of the block, this contrast continues to the interior of the block. My initial reaction was negative, colored by personal experience in a high school which was a poorly executed Mies van der Rohe copy. This experience put me off to black galvanized steel modernism. What this example, this library has, which cannot come through in photographs, is a reward for repeat visitation. I visited the building a number of times, and on each occasion picked up on new details such as the creased ribbons adding a delicate touch to the courtyard. Sometimes the best way to respect context is to provide contrast.
A quick walk in Washington DC tonight revealed an absurd sight with preparations taking place by the convention center for imminent demolition and construction.
The two story structure is braced externally by steel, and the windows and doors are boarded up with plywood, plywood that has been pasted over with images of pristine wooden doors and shutters. A storefront around the corner has similar treatment.
Last summer’s G8 Summit in Northern Ireland had a small controversy surrounding similar treatment of vacant storefronts covered with images of well stocked and bustling places of commerce. The label Potemkin Village refers to lore about a Russian general (Potemkin) embellishing conquered cities to further impress the conquest to Empress Catherine II.