>Barcelona’s Bull Market

>Today, residents of Barcelona who have the good sense not to attend this play will have the opportunity to be among the first to visit a brand-new shopping center, built over ground soaked with the bodily fluids of countless dead animals (and a few humans.) The Las Arenas commercial center is a joint effort between the famous British architect Sir Richard Rogers and rising-star Catalan architect Lluis Alonso to convert the old Las Arenas (“The Sands”) bullfighting ring into a mixed-use facility featuring retail and office space, a domed courtyard for special events, a multiplex cinema, sport and health facilities, and a museum dedicated to the history of local rock music. The project has taken years and faced a number of setbacks and infighting among the two architectural firms, as well as requiring a rather spectacular engineering feat of removing the surrounding roadway and supporting the old building on curved steel braces. According to today’s press reports, the building has been leased to nearly full capacity: quite a feat given the economic woes from which the Iberian Peninsula as a whole presently suffers.

In the effort to preserve old structures and convert them to new uses, once they no longer serve their original purpose, architects, city planners, and engineers need to work together to solve the problems that can arise when one is unable to start from scratch. Just getting people to agree on what to do with a vacant or unsuitable old building can be a challenge. I wrote earlier this week about the possibility of converting the Federal Trade Commission headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington into a third wing for the National Gallery of Art, a project spearheaded by Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.) Sometimes the result of such conversions is uneven or even unpleasant, as in the conversion of the chapel of the Dominican Priory in Maastricht into a bookstore, although at least the historic fabric does not disappear behind the wrecking ball and will probably be renovated again.

The effort to convert Las Arenas into newly useful space was an important one given the sheer size of the building and the prominence of its location, but took a great deal of time and effort to bring off. The original architect of the structure, Augusto Font y Carreras, had designed the arena in 1898 in a traditional Moorish style, the look preferred throughout Spain but which is somewhat foreign to Catalonia’s architectural vocabulary. The end result, after it was completed in 1900, is a building which, though large, is neither very original nor very attractive. Perhaps appropriately, as it turned out, it was built adjacent to what is now the Plaça d’Espanya, but which at the time was the location for public hangings.

The Plaça d’Espanya is perhaps the one place in Barcelona where the visitor is overwhelmed by a host of generally uninteresting, but enormous buildings and public spaces which lack any sense of the visitor being specifically in Catalonia. Rather much of the area looks like a generic pastiche of Euro-Mediterranean architecture that could be found anywhere from California to Calabria. Around this massive square all seems very grand and stately from a distance, when the structures and landscaping are looked at as a grouping, but when examined more closely virtually everything is flawed or purely derivative. There are no works of genius other than Mies van der Rohe’s tremendously significant but comparatively small Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, which is tucked away in a corner at the far end of the broad promenade leading from the square to the National Museum of Catalan Art.

Unlike Barcelona’s “Monumental” bullring built in 1914, there is nothing about Las Arenas which speaks of Barcelona’s flowering of Art Nouveau in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even the Monumental, while displaying the preferred Moorish influence, has some of the weird mixture of swooping curves and industrial design characteristic of early 20th century Catalan architecture, a strangeness which gives anyone who strolls through Barcelona such a great deal of visual pleasure. The somewhat dark, dour-looking structure at Las Arenas has none of this; it would look more at home in the provinces of Andalucia or Extremadura, where bullfighting is far more popular an activity.

Bullfighting has of course, never been hugely popular in Catalonia, although the claims of both animal rights campaigners and nationalists that it was somehow forced upon the Catalans by the Spaniards is an assertion of dubious merit. One need only look across the border into the parts of southern France where bullfighting still takes place, and which either used to be part of Catalonia or were under a heavy Catalan influence, to realize that there is a cultural affinity for the activity that is Mediterranean, rather than specifically Castilian, in origin. In nearly every town of any importance around the rim of the Mare Nostrum, Roman ruins attest to the popularity in ancient times of feats of daring combined with blood-letting.

That being said, Las Arenas actually stopped hosting bullfights as long ago as 1977, and eventually went to ruin despite its hugely prominent location. Indeed, with the precipitous decline in the popularity of bullfighting over the past thirty years in Barcelona, and the passage by the Catalan Parliament of a law banning bullfighting by 2012, new uses will have to be found for all of the old bullrings throughout Catalonia. The Monumental, currently the sole remaining bullfighting venue in Barcelona itself, will be turned into a concert arena when it ceases operations. This is a natural development of course, for the building was specifically designed for temporary entertainment.

Whether the conversion of Las Arenas from an entertainment venue into a place to buy Calvin Klein underwear will be successful remains to be seen. It does strike me as somewhat odd that, with the general trend in architectural and urban planning away from building enclosed shopping centers that Barcelona would take this particular path toward the rehabilitation of the old arena. Frankly, it has little architectural significance or merit whatsoever, and really ought to have been torn down. As a city celebrated and studied throughout the world over the last 20-odd years for its architectural, engineering and planning innovations, turning a bullring into a shopping mall seems a rather too-safe, petit-bourgeois choice.

Building the dome over the old
Las Arenas bullfighting ring in Barcelona

>Anti-Catholic Theatre in Catalonia: The Play’s Not the Thing

>A new play is premiering tomorrow night at the National Theatre of Catalonia, in my beloved city of Barcelona, entitled “Gang Bang – Open Until the Hour of the Angelus”. As if the title was not enough of an obvious clue, based on [WARNING: graphic material] the press reports I have seen, the plot is a predictably amateurish and puerile mixture of anti-Catholicism and human degradation, fed through a meat grinder. The director-playwright and the actors claim that it is not an attack on the Church, but rather exploring loneliness and spirituality through unconventional expression. They also joke that there is smoking in the play, which is what the audience should find truly controversial given Spain’s new smoking ban.

Because the production is being funded in part by taxpayer money, it was inevitable that complaints would ensue. The National Theatre of Catalonia is a prominent theatre indeed in both influence and actual size; this is not some off-off-Broadway venue. There are already calls by Christian groups for an investigation, and promises of lodging official complaints and the taking of other measures against the government in Catalonia. As often happens of course, the controversy has led to record advance ticket sales.

Much as this sort of thing disturbs us to some degree, it is also an occasion to reflect on what it means to be a gentleman (or lady) in the present age, not only in framing our response but more importantly in examining ourselves. Regular readers know that Castiglione, the inspiration for this blog, has much to say on how a courtier ought to develop himself. What does he have to say about those who shock for the sake of provocation and notoriety?

In his seminal “The Book of the Courtier” (of which title the title of this blog is a pun), Castiglione explains why it is that those of marginal abilities who are seeking wealth, power, fame, or all three, often resort to shock value to make a name for themselves. During a part of the discussion in the book as to how to behave in public, the character of Archbishop Federico Fregoso describes how people who want to become popular are often so lacking in personal humility as to make fools of themselves. “People like this very often embark on certain things without knowing how to finish,” he says, “and they then try to extricate themselves by raising a laugh. But they do this so awkwardly that it does not succeed, and instead their efforts fall flat and they inspire the greatest distaste in whoever sees or hears them.”

Fregoso goes on to criticize the equally common tendency of the under-talented to try to shock others for the sake of shocking. “On other occasions, convinced they are being terribly witty and amusing, they use filthy and indecent language in the presence of ladies, and often to their face,” he states. “And the more they make the ladies blush, the more they are convinced that they are being good courtiers; they never stop laughing and they pride themselves on the fine talents they believe they possess.”

“But the only reason they behave in such a beastly fashion,” continues Fregoso, “is because they think it makes them the life and soul of the party. This is what they think truly laudable and what they pride themselves on most. And so to acquire this reputation they indulge in the most shameful and shocking discourtesies in the world.”

One feels that Castiglione could just as easily apply such descriptions to Josep Maria Miró Coromina, the writer and director of “Gang Bang”. Mr. Miró hails, appropriately enough, from the provincial sausage-making capital of Vic, where he was born in 1977. Through Catalonia’s generous education system he has managed to earn a doctorate in literature and work his way up to the prominent position of becoming a writer in residence at the National Theatre. He has feigned surprise in press interviews at the controversy surrounding his piece, telling people that if they are worried they will be offended they ought not to come and see the play, and that such complaints are completely foreign to his experience due to his age – an oblique reference to his having been born after the death of Spain’s long-reigning dictator General Francisco Franco, under whose fist censorship held sway.

Of course, Mr. Miró’s is a very old canard indeed: so old its feathers and the bits of beak and sinew have been fed into his sausage-making machine. It is typically waved about by shock-makers as a justification for their actions, since no one likes the idea of censoring the free exchange of ideas. In this case, it is their way of seemingly offering what most people want, i.e. a sense of choice. I do not have to eat the nasty broccoli on my plate, and can instead turn my attention to the mashed potatoes and the sausage.

However the point of course is not that one is free not to see the play, any more than one wants to see how to go about getting the bits with which to make sausages. Rather, the issue here is that public money is being used. Since I do not pay taxes in Catalonia, my money is not supporting Mr. Miró’s sausage festival; I can question his artistic integrity from a financially neutral position. Those who do have to pay for it however, have every right to question why they are being forced to do so: that is no choice at all.

This type of controversy is nothing new, of course, for such controversies over funding happen in this country and in Europe on an almost weekly basis. We have seen such things in New York, in Vienna, and here in the Nation’s Capital in recent months, and fortunately there will always be good Catholics in a position to stand up and complain. Sometimes they will succeed in getting the work removed from the taxpayer’s bill, and sometimes not. At first glance, this play is just another example of more of the same.

However, in considering the context of this particular bit of offal, I believe the fact that Mr. Miró set his play on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal Visit to Barcelona this past November is a more significant one than he lets on. The popular reception which the Pope received when he came to dedicate the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s most iconic building let alone church, and raise it to the level of a basilica, took many of the commentariat in Catalonia by surprise. The fact that Barcelona, cradle of anarchists for the past century or more, and home to the most leftist of leftist intellectuals in the Iberian Peninsula would be inundated with people overjoyed to see the Pontiff, was no doubt itself a shock to those who thought that the Church was just about finished in Catalonia.

And what is likely even more worrisome to such people were the enormous numbers of young people, with no memory of either General Franco, the Civil War, or a time when they were forbidden to speak Catalan, excited to even catch a glimpse of this elderly German priest and to participate in the mass. Indeed, this past November was a likely preview of what is about to happen when the Pope arrives in Madrid this August for World Youth Day. If the Church as it exists in Catalonia today is no longer any real threat to Mr. Miró or those of his ilk, they would not bother to try to denigrate it. The fact that the flame may be burning low, but has demonstrably not gone out, means that the Church is not as weak as believed.

Ultimately, Mr. Miró’s efforts will fail of course. It is doubtful that any devout Catholics will go to see his play. He may succeed in further hardening the hearts of those who loathe the Church as he obviously does, and he may even convince a few unfortunate theatre-goers to go over the edge and join him. Yet one reason why Castiglione makes the point he does about those who seek to put on an uncouth show, is that no matter how much fame, attention, or popularity such individuals may gain, they know in their heart of hearts – even if they do not choose to admit it – that the more they wallow in filth, the more they disappoint those whose approval they desperately want. And in the case of Mr. Miró and others like him who attack the Church, that person is Christ.

National Theatre of Catalonia, Barcelona

>A Monument Restored

>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.

The demolition of the original “Four Columns” monument,
on orders from Primo de Rivera, in 1928.