>Today the city of Barcelona dedicated a monument whose original, by one of Catalonia’s most important architects, was destroyed by a Spanish dictator 82 years ago, marking one of the last elements of recovery of its urban heritage following decades of cultural repression by Madrid. As a 50% Catalan and an 100% architecture fan, it is great to see that the people of Barcelona can still find ways to recover some of what they have lost architecturally over the years. At the same time however, the rebuilding of this monument raises certain architectural issues with respect to landscape and planning, that are worth the reader’s general consideration.
The “Four Columns” monument was designed by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and erected in 1919. Puig i Cadafalch was one of what we might call the “big three” of Catalan Modernist architecture, alongside Antoni Gaudí i Cornet and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Puig i Cadafalch is perhaps most famous for the Casa Martí, a building whose ground floor contains “Els Quatre Gats”, the exuberantly decorated tavern near the city’s Cathedral where the young Picasso and other artists would gather, and for the Casa Amatller, an equally elaborate structure on the luxurious Passeig de Gracia which stands alongside buildings by these other two legendary architects. The resulting juxtaposition is often referred to as the “Block of Discord” because of the way each building competes with the other to be the most over-the-top structure.
The “Four Columns” memorial refers in stone to the Catalan flag, which features four vertical stripes on a gold background; in this case, each pillar stands for one of the stripes. The monument was originally constructed not with stone, but brickwork coated with plaster, reflective of the love of Barcelona’s innovative architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for taking humble materials and using them in unexpected ways. See for example Barcelona’s Arch of Triumph located on the Passeig de Sant Joan, constructed in 1888, which is built of complicated brick, iron, and stone patterns and sculptural elements, rather than the usual marble; Domènech i Montaner’s 1905 Palace of Catalan Music, which employs similar methods; or Gaudí’s beloved serpentine park bench at the Park Güell, made of concrete and broken glass, tiles and porcelain.
Originally the “Four Columns” monument stood in a central location on the slopes of the mountain of Montjuïc, in the SW corner of the city, which my readers may know was the site of the Olympic Games in 1992. Puig i Caldfach envisioned a great hall on the top of the hill, with esplanades and boulevards leading down to a central plaza at the bottom. At the time the pillars were erected however, these structures had not yet been built, and the end result of the urbanization of the area was not exactly what the architect had intended.
The location for the monument was just below the site of the National Palace, the large domed exhibition hall which is now the National Museum of Catalan Art, and close to the site of Mies van der Rohe’s highly influential Barcelona Pavilion, both of which were built for the World’s Fair held in Barcelona in 1929. In the lead-up to the fair, the then-dictator of Spain, General Miguel Primo de Rivera, thought that the columns were too incendiary in encouraging Catalan nationalism, and had them dynamited and torn down. On the spot where they used to stand, a huge fountain basin was built, which is now a favorite excursion spot for tourists in the evenings; the “Magic Fountains”, as they are known, dance and change colors while classical music is played.
Debate began a number of years ago on the reconstruction of this monument, and early this year new columns to Puig i Caldafach’s original design – but made of more stable concrete rather than brick and plaster – were erected just above their original location. The hope of both the city government and the Catalan government is that the newly rebuilt monument will allow the vast open area around them to serve as a public gathering point for Catalan celebrations, particularly “La Diada”, Catalonia’s National Day, and provide better access and facilities for those who wish to attend such events than the more cramped location further up the hill where these events have been marked up to now. It was disappointing to read that the Spanish national conservative party, the Partido Popular, which originally voiced its support for the rebuilding of this monument, has now come out against it; as anyone familiar with the history of Catalan politics knows however, this kind of two-faced reaction is not to be wondered at.
The problem from a purely architectural perspective, however, is that the site has changed since the monument was originally put up. The surrounding buildings, completed in the 1920s, are now at least somewhat dependent visually on the fountain as a sort of wheel around which they rotate. Some architectural critics have pointed out – not entirely without cause – that the placement of these columns as close to their old position as possible has had a negative impact on the sweeping vistas of the place; the eye seems to halt at the columns rather than naturally following the stairs and terraces up to the museum on the top of the hill.
This raises the question of whether everything that is torn down should be rebuilt, even if it is possible to do so. There is obviously a very big difference between rebuilding four columns to look as they were and, say, rebuilding Canterbury Cathedral to look as it was. Cost is certainly one factor, but in this particular case the landscape has changed considerably since the monument was built, as well as since it was torn down.
That being said, taking into account the fact that I appreciate the landscape design of the present assemblage of buildings, fountains, terraces, and so on, I do think that the restoration of the monument does more good than harm. The “Magic Fountain” is little more than a giant concrete saucer, rather than a confection of statuary and architectural elements, and the fact that the surrounding landscape architecture features classical statuary, balustrades, and grand spaces for promenading leads to the conclusion that we do need some sort of a vanishing point for the space, rather than simply staring into the side of a hill.
What would be infinitely better, in my opinion, would be if the city would tear down the ridiculous pair of towers which stand at the entrance to this esplanade area, which are copies of the campanile of San Marco in Venice. They serve no purpose whatsoever, and the fact that they are such blatant copies of an existing structure, when Catalonia has never been at a loss for creative and talented architects, makes them seem a bit tawdry and more redolent of Las Vegas than the Veneto. But we shall leave that question for other armchair architects to consider.