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    Tarragona

    emmettzeifman Aug 22 '10 0

    If Cabrero's Trade Union Building (http://www.archinect.com/travelblogs/entry.php?id=100059_0_58_0_C) signifies the re-introduction of the modern into the official architecture of Spain, Alejandro de la Sota's Civil Government Building in Tarragona (1957) is its full-fledged acceptance. It is arguably the most significant work of the Franco years, and de la Sota, as much through his teaching as his practice, the period's most influential architect.

    In the provinces, and especially in Catalunya, official commisions were carried out by architects from Madrid, with only private commercial and residential architecture open to local architects. That is not to say that what we see here is the product of a Madrid school, for no such consistency existed. But it can, I think, be distinguished from the Catalunyan architecture of the period for its lack of vernacular or regional attributes.

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    Terragni is the first name that generally comes to mind when discussing the production of modern architecture within a Fascist state. And this building, more than any other significant work that I know of in Spain, shows a strong relationship to Terragni's Casa del Fascio, with which it is often associated. It diverges in notable ways as well, however (I make these comparisons not to suggest that the Spanish architecture that I'm studying is derivative but rather to contextualize it within a body of work that is more familiar and to produce something which works at the level of the associative as well as analytic).

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    Apart from the general situation--official building in small city showing a distinctive facade to a plaza, modernist architecture and fascist government--there are particular formal similarities worth noting. First, however, the primary difference, which is the overall massing of the two buildings. Where the Casa del Fascio is a rectangular prism capping a rectangular urban block, de la Sota's project occupies an irregular trapezoidal block, which is produced by the intersection of radial streets and a circular plaza. This particular urban situation is quite common in Spanish cities (and indeed any that make use of traffic circles). I will later discuss a number of other projects that occur in such situations. De La Sota's response is to sit a rectangular prism at the front edge of a podium that better conforms to the shape of the site. The use of multiple masses differs significantly from Terragni's project, and produces a consequent ambiguity in the reading of the building as one moves around it.

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    The strongest point of comparison is in the two side facades of de la Sota's building, which, like the side facades of Terragni's, make fenestration into a game of permutations within a grid. Even here, however, a second major difference between the two architects emerges. Terragni uses the grid as a three-dimensional structure, through which he passes planar surfaces, such that the two--grid and surface--are always at play against and transforming into one another. De la Sota (in a manner closer to that of Moretti, to stretch the Italian association), meanwhile, uses taut surfaces to produce volume, without the presence of a second formal component. De la Sota's facades are not therefore as deep as Terragni's, and there is far less ambiguity in terms of the interior/exterior threshold.

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    Incidentally, I happened across an office building on the main road that leads the Civil Government Building on my way from the train station that also makes good use of this serial form of fenestration, and, with its thickened and recessed mullions, perhaps comes closer to the Terragni style. I'm not sure yet who designed it.

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    But back to de la Sota. The front facade is the most notable of the building, and it is in the front and rear facades that this work deviates most clearly from Terragni. The composition of the front facade occurs within a clear proportional system. The whole composition, which de la Sota's sketches show was a work of real deliberation, is perfectly balanced. Space, 1.5, 1, 1, Space, 1.5, Space. I've been trying to think of something analytic or at least clever to say about it, and I can't. It's beautiful, and it's strangely unlike anything I've seen before. It is what ultimately makes this building perhaps the most memorable of the period in Spain. The play of symmetry and asymmetry, and the slip of one opening past the next. The material and detailing of the balconies is lovely. Etc. Etc.

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    As mentioned earlier, this site is a familiar one, and over the course of the past two months I've seen a number of other buildings that respond to it in various ways, which I thought I'd briefly discuss here.

    Xavier Busquets's Colegio de Arquitectos de Catalunya (1958) on a lot facing the Cathedral in the old centre of Barcelona, places the private functions of the building in an unremarkable office tower, set to to the back of a large podium that occupies the footprint of the site, seeming to jut towards the plaza. A drawing by Picasso is etched into the stone surface that wraps the second level of the podium, floating above a glass gallery. On the interior, the floor is sunk to one below the street level, allowing pedestrians to peer down in to the architecture galleries.

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    These last two projects come after the era I'm looking at, but I thought they were worth putting up for both the sake of comparison, as well as for being exemplary of the formal and material continuity that marked much Iberian architecture. Gabriel Ruiz Cabrero's Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos (1976) in Sevilla builds up in its massing towards the primary facade, which is a simple off-center grid of windows in the yellow brick. The building's complexity reveals itself as you move around. A passage is cut immediately behind the facade, forming an odd, blind arcade on Calle Imagen, the major street. While the west facade of the building meets the major facade at a right angle, the east facade, with its tall openings facing a park, comes in at maybe fifteen degrees past that. The main mass of the building is angled back from this facade, producing an unexpectedly large, glass-faced entry court, shaded beneath a parasol.

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    Alvaro Siza's small commercial project in Granada (1993), which incorporates an existing house in the rear, has an overall massing similar to Cabrero's. While Cabrero made no use of the podium, bringing his planar facades directly to the ground with material consistency, Siza introduces a material change, and a disruption of the flat front facade. The building steps down along the east side, towards the existing house. The front facade begins to split into two short towers. Much Siza detail ensues. I like Siza, a lot, and a lot more after this trip, but as I remarked to a friend in an email earlier in the summer, there is always about ten percent too much manipulation of angles, fenestration, materials, etc.

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About this Blog

His research is focused on the diverse and shifting positions of architecture within Francoist Spain (1939-1975). It pursues a number of related questions, examining the relations between institutions of architecture and the regime, the function of architecture at the intersection of totalitarianism and an increasingly free market, and the evolution of architecture in Spain in the void left by the post-Civil War rejection of international modernism.

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