>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
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Chain, Chain, Chain

Last evening I watched the rebroadcast of a somewhat disappointing PBS documentary on the building of Gothic cathedrals which, while not quite as eye-rollingly ridiculous as your standard Conspiracy Channel – aka History Channel – piece, still had some rather bad bits to it. This is, as always, based on a lack of understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and an unwillingness or invincible ignorance on the part of the filmmakers either to educate themselves or their audience. Among other curiosities for example, the generalized assertion was made during the film that a cathedral could not have been built without the invention of the pointed arch. However cathedrals, with and without pointed arches, existed both before and after the period in which Gothic structures were built.

Any Catholic knows (or ought to know) that what makes a cathedral a cathedral is not the style or the size of the building, but rather the fact that a cathedral is the seat, or “cathedra”, of a bishop. Thus the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, while the largest church in the city, is not the cathedral, for it is not the seat of the Archbishop. Similarly, the Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Stephen in Speyer, Germany, is a Romanesque building, and the Cathedral of St. Matthew, here in Washington, is a Neo-Byzantine building. The former predates the Gothic era, and the latter postdates it: neither of these has a pointed arch in sight, but each is still a cathedral.

A more interesting part of the film dealt with the issue of height and how the effort of builders during the Gothic age to build impossibly tall vaults often led to disasters. The Cathedral of Beauvais is perhaps the most famous example, and it was astounding – indeed, quite frightening – to see the present state of the Cathedral there, with horrific bracing and scaffolding trying to keep the whole thing from collapsing. I have written about Beauvais recently as regular readers will recall, but to see mass being celebrated amidst terrifying structural supports was truly a skin-crawling moment.

In examining the Cathedral of Amiens, the documentary showed how the vaults are both caving in and pushing out, using laser-guided computer modeling taken at the site. Many of my readers may not be aware that probably the only thing keeping this beautiful structure from tumbling into ruin is a massive, wrought-iron chain. It was installed, red-hot, around the triforium of the crossing in 1497, and down the length of the structure. The hope was that, as it cooled, it would pull the walls and columns of the building back into place and hold them there, which it has done successfully for over 500 years now.

The use of chains as integral engineering design or post-construction patchwork to support tall structures is not unique to Amiens; in fact historically, the use of enormous iron chains proved particularly important for domed structures. For example, inside the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren wrapped a giant wrought iron chain to keep the sides of the dome from spreading and causing the structure to collapse. A similar design was used by Brunelleschi when constructing the iconic dome-within-a-dome of the Cathedral of Florence, as well as in restoration of the dome of the Hagia Sophia in present-day Istanbul, and even in the restoration and support of Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

As the film moved on, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the documentary’s review of the decoration of the great French Gothic cathedrals was what I believe to be a missed opportunity to consider their facades. In addressing the aesthetics of these churches the filmmakers focused on the stained glass, naturally enough, and presented a bit on the design of a cathedral portal, although this latter was particularly unsatisfying. The filmmakers thought it odd that Ancient Greek philosophers and scientists would appear, sculpted in stone, on a cathedral facade. Again, as in the case of what makes a cathedral a cathedral, the film shows only a cursory understanding of the Church. We know that many theologians in the Scholastic era of the Church looked back to the preserved knowledge of the ancients for clues as to the Mysteries of Creation and the Incarnation.

So for the enjoyment of my readers, I wanted to show an image of what the exterior decoration of Amiens originally looked like. Our ancestors in the Faith were a far more colorful and interesting people than the stark, sometimes imposing, present-day condition of their churches would in certain instances lead us to believe. In this sense, there is a conceptual chain which links them to the classical past, which itself was not the blindingly white world that modern interpretations of classical architecture, such as the monumental core of Washington, D.C., would otherwise indicate.

As you may be aware, the Greeks and Romans did not build the white-washed temples that we see today, but decorated their facades with brightly, often garishly painted sculptures. The decoration of the facade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art gives us some notion of what the Parthenon, for example, must have looked like in its heyday, before the effects of weather, war, and decay bleached it to its bones. Similarly, the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages loved color on the exterior of their buildings, as much as they loved it on the interior; the latter aspect is more familiar to us as exemplified in the stained glass windows and altarpieces which have come down through history.

When the Cathedral of Amiens was being cleaned in 2000, researchers came across multiple traces of polychrome decoration on the sculptures of the West Front, underneath centuries of dirt, grime, and pollution deposits. The carvings themselves were completed between c. 1230-1240, a remarkably short period of time, meaning that they have a wonderful harmony of design. Using their findings and computer imaging, experts were able to come up with an overlay projection of the original decoration of the facade. This is now projected on top of the West Front in the evening during summer and at Christmastide; a photograph of one of these illuminations is reproduced below.

If this writer is ever fortunate enough to make his way to Amiens on pilgrimage, he is hopeful that it will coincide with one of these displays, for it no doubt will be an awe-inspiring thing. Certainly I would like to see the great chain that keeps the entire thing from going the way of Beauvais, but I would also like to see this projection as a kind of chain in and of itself. For after all, Christianity is not a break with the Ancients, but rather the final, missing link of centuries of human yearning for something more, beyond the hedonism of pagan times.

The West Front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Amiens,
with an approximation of its original polychrome decoration
projected onto the facade.

Oopsie: Moral Lessons in Failed Architecture

Today the Church marks the Dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter and of St. Paul in Rome. Thinking in an architectural vein, I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to consideration of some aspects of building from which we can draw important lessons about ourselves. Certainly when looking at a beautiful church, we are inspired to reflect on matters Divine, or when observing a monument to a fallen hero, we reflect on honor, self-sacrifice, and so on. Yet what ought we to think about when the structure under consideration is one which has failed?

Readers in the Washington metropolitan area may already be aware that yesterday afternoon a 50-pound chunk of concrete fell from the ceiling of the Farragut North station onto the train platform. The underground stations of DC’s subway system, commonly referred to as the Metro, feature coffered, vaulted ceilings that have become iconic examples of mid-20th century modernism. Road repair workers on Connecticut Avenue, which runs just above the station hall, apparently got a little too aggressive in their debris-removal efforts, and caused the damage. Fortunately no one was injured, though if the accident had taken place just two hours later, one shudders to think what might have happened on the crowded rush-hour platform.

Throughout the history of architecture, there are numerous examples of human actions, intentional or otherwise, which have led to disaster or near-misses, and many have served as teaching points in Christian thought. For example, in the Bible we read about Joshua, in his eponymous Book, and his troops bringing down the walls of Jericho; Samson also comes to mind, as he brings down the Temple of Dagon in the Book of Judges. Christ Himself warns about bad construction methods in His parable about the man who built his house upon a foundation of sand, and in last Sunday’s Gospel readings He warned of the destruction of Herod’s Temple, which occurred in 70 A.D.

Perhaps the most famous architectural destruction of the Middle Ages was the collapse of the choir at the Cathedral of St. Peter at Beauvais, which in itself is almost a reminder of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Work began on the structure in 1225, but the vaults collapsed in 1247. This should have been a warning to the architects and the diocese that they were striving a bit too much. Yet never let it be said that human beings, in general, learn their lesson.

After the collapse the bishop of the day asked the architect to not only begin rebuilding, but to add an additional 16 feet to the height of the choir. This reads either as an act of defiance or stupidity against the forces, natural and otherwise, which brought down the cathedral in the first place. The resulting new, 154-foot tall choir would become the tallest choir in Europe at the time.

This new choir was completed in 1272 but – quelle surprise – the new vaults collapsed in 1284. There is still a great deal of debate and conjecture among experts as to why this took place. In all frankness, this armchair architect would speculate that part of the problem was the hubris of the diocese and the architects in over-reaching their architectural abilities.

Rather than learning from its mistakes however, once again the diocese ignored the lesson it had twice earlier been taught, and in 1569 completed a gigantic, 500-foot tall tower over the crossing of the cathedral. To give some sense of the scale of this massive structure to the reader, this is about 20 feet taller than the Great Pyramid at Giza. At the conclusion of the High Mass for Ascension Thursday on April 30, 1573, the bishop, concelebrants, acolytes, choir and congregation had all just left the cathedral to walk in procession, when the tower collapsed; fortunately no one was killed or injured, but imagine if this had taken place in a structure packed with worshipers in the middle of the celebration of the Eucharist.

While it is very easy to look back on these events, long before the advent of modern construction methods, and comfort ourselves by saying this would not happen today, the truth is that such things always have and always will occur. Whether it is a relatively small-scale mess, such as occurred in the Metro station yesterday, a major catastrophe like the fatal design flaws of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, or a terrifying near-miss such as the near-collapse of the overly-ambitious CitiCorp Tower in Manhattan, there is a long list of examples for the reader’s consideration. All of the technology, wealth, and know-how we possess here in the United States does not preserve us from potential calamity when the structures that surround us fail.

In some respects the construction of a grandiose, very tall building is at times evocative of blasphemy. An act of blasphemy is really always a childish, futile act, like throwing a pebble at the sun – or indeed, as in a film I recall from childhood, shooting an arrow toward Heaven from the top of the Tower of Babel. Yet blasphemy can lead, easily enough, to the far greater sin of causing scandal. And similarly, in the case of overly-ambitious construction, ill-advised construction can lead to the injury and death of others through sloth, egotism, or both.

Humanly-built structures are subject to two potentially deadly opposing factors which, when working in tandem, spell disaster: human error and human ego. Nothing lasts forever, of course, though a well-built building will last longer on this planet than any of us will (whether there are any well-built buildings currently being raised by most of the world’s current crop of popular architects is a separate point of debate.) In the end, man’s desire to tame the universe and bend it to his will is ultimately a futile one, as he struggles against forces such as gravity, erosion, seismic shifts, and his own mortality, which he cannot ever hope to fully control.

“The Building of The Tower of Babel” by The Bedford Master (c. 1423)
British Library, London.