>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.