Ricardo Bofill: Beyond Brutalism
Revisiting His Masterpiece, the 77 Year Old Architect Shares Lessons on Techno, Poetry, and Defying Human Scale
- Interview: Thomas Jeppe
- Photography: Thomas Jeppe
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Taller Bofill
Architecture is a subtle litmus test for society-scale thinking. New constructions, renovations, demolitions—for any iconic building, history is always being edited. Ricardo Bofill founded the Taller de Arquitectura (the Architecture Workshop) in 1963. Beginning with a radical approach that stretched and melded disciplines, he sought core formal principles within and beyond European traditions. The Taller came to global prominence in the breakthrough moment of Postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s, producing some of the biggest developments in France—a Baroque opus in concrete. But this is merely one moment in a longer trajectory, from mud brick to steel and glass, where socialist utopian housing and corporate luxury developments describe a dance between styles that has been on its feet for over half a century.
We find ourselves now in a specific moment, witnessing a shift in the evolving idea of what a building can mean. This flux evidences the malleability of cement. Bofill's Abraxas, a formidable 610-apartment public housing project in the suburbs outside Paris, is one of his most iconic works to date. It has run the gamut of public opinion, from great celebration to narrowly-avoided destruction. The Abraxas is an architectural landmark that has entered popular culture—notably as a film set for Terry Gilliam's Brazil in 1985 and for The Hunger Games in 2014. It is a fundamentally affective entity that continues to inspire. It is a space of re-inscription.
The day before my meeting with Bofill in Barcelona, I made a reverse-chronological tour of three of his buildings. Starting from the W Hotel, a new glass monolith on the absolute waterfront, moving on to the Teatro Nacional, an elegant echo of the Parthenon, and then to Bach 4, a comparatively humble apartment block, where exquisite details punctuate a sober facade.
Bofill and I sat to talk in the head office of the Taller de Arquitectura, a former concrete factory on the outskirts of Barcelona where the architect still lives. Sketches and plans for a new development—they refuse to call it an “extension”—on the grounds surrounding Abraxas are spread over the table. In a stroke of symmetry, Bofill has been invited back to add his signature to a masterpiece.
I would like to start with the legend that you had a writer, a painter, a sculptor, a philosopher, an engineer, and a mathematician all living and working with you on-site in the early times of the Taller de Arquitectura. What came out of this approach?
Even before I started doing architecture, I always regarded categorization as an impediment to knowledge. Breaking knowledge down into different disciplines and artistic spheres is useful for the purposes of specialization, but the world is not compartmentalized in such a way. In order to understand society, and even art, one must break the frontier of the discipline, break the scheme of the category. Architecture was a discipline very cloistered in its own logic. I wanted to open it up and confront my projects with these alternative approaches.
How did you use poetry?
We worked, in particular, with a very good poet, José Agustin Goytisolo. We would mainly investigate the structure of poems—a formal synthesis of the poem and the word. From this, we focused on the ways in which poetry can become architectonic.
Was fantasy—the concept of the impossible—important for you as a young architect?
I don’t know whether to call it fantasy or creativity. Fantasy—the unrestrained flow of imagination—is closer to delirium. Creativity, on the contrary, requires concentration, bringing ideas together into a coherent mechanism. I have been looking all my life for the equilibrium that would allow me to have the maximum personal freedom and the maximum creative freedom. But at the end of the day, total freedom—like absolute pleasure—does not exist. It is like a race of greyhounds chasing after nothing.
Perhaps this is the fantasy: to know the impossible thing. But building a space where people feel free is a possibility that can be understood and reconstructed. Here architecture becomes interesting for its capacity to influence emotion.
I have always worked with a controlled system of emotions, and I live in emotional spaces that I have built myself. In general, I think spaces that awaken strong emotions are those that are closest to excellence. However, sensitivity to space is not a faculty that everyone possesses. People have it or they don’t, like with music or poetry. From an emotional point of view, this sensitivity allows one to understand space. Having cultivated this sensitivity my whole life, I’m truly overwhelmed by the feeling in the middle of the sea, on the summit of the highest mountains, in the vastness of the desert, but also walking up a flight of stairs made by Michelangelo.
You've consistently produced heavily-constructed spaces over the decades. I feel that in these overtly artificial spaces—which, with many bold forms and historical references, do not attempt to hide their artificiality—theatre has been a dominant motif.
I always contemplated life in the city—and life in general, actually—as a theatre. For example, the Rambla de Catalunya here in Barcelona is a site where you find people walking, people observing, and those who walk looking at those observing. That is, it is a space of representation. At a certain moment, one of the trajectories I wanted to follow was to teach others that you can theatricalize urban space. Abraxas, for example, was a very conscious attempt to acknowledge and cultivate this theatricality.
I grew up obsessed with Brazil. Stepping into Abraxas as an adult meant stepping into the space of the film, a psychological space that I knew from childhood. Abraxas is theatrical, but this is different to the theatre of daily life, because it is over-emphasized and superlative. It is exaggerated to the point of becoming a cartoon space—one steps inside and it feels false.
I completely agree with your description. And this is how I wanted this space to be. After many prior experiences, I wanted to do a hyper-theatricalized space, to push this sensation to the extreme end of theatricality. And I wanted, once and for all, to create a space powerful enough to make normal people who know nothing about architecture realize that architecture exists. In this sense, Abraxas is a manifesto. It stands as one of the limits of the possible in architecture. To go further would be taking architecture to aberrant levels.
So it could be that the limit at which Abraxas arrives, as you put it, is also the brink of fantasy. For me this un-reality consolidates Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia—a space between reality and unreality, an unclassifiable space. Stepping into Abraxas brought me into a heterotopic feeling. It was a reification: a conceptual space made real.
When I built this work, I was good friends with Michel Foucault. We would have dialogues about many things, and I was very close to his thoughts and ideas. He was a brilliant linguist and philosopher. I wanted those who would visit and live in Abraxas to experience the strong emotion of the space. For me, even though I designed and thought the place out, and conceived it to be the way it is, the impression is just as strong. There have been many attempts to destroy the building, but no one has succeeded in doing so. I have spoken to many people from France, Africa, China—people from all over the world who live in Abraxas—and they are all immersed in it, they all participate in the theatre. The space has a magnetic effect, and people do not want to abandon it. The residents of Abraxas once organized a party there with the help of the municipality, a gathering that included dancing and performances. People from different social contexts and different cultures were united under this collective sensation. Certain politicians wanted to demolish the place and this party helped to save it from being destroyed.
Formally, Abraxas echoes a Baroque aesthetic. The Baroque was of course an interesting historical period for the theatrical shaping of public spaces. But I also see an Absolutist tendency coursing through your very large projects in the 1980s—Montpellier’s Antigone district comes equally to mind. With your socialist foundations and community-building intentions, what is your thinking around the Absolutist space?
Nobody has described my work in that way before. In what sense are you using Absolutism?
In the sense of an architecture where the entire situation—visually and symbolically— points towards a central embodiment of power. Historical Absolutism would represent an ethically troubling consolidation of power, but its political implications in the current day are far more contingent and ambiguous. A contemporary Absolutism is not implicitly totalitarian, but it does suggest something about a subjectivity within a space, where a public are made subject to this building.
These projects are Absolutist architecture in the sense that they condition the spirit: it is a conditioning space. It is the example of a maximal situation, but not a normative standard of how architecture should be. There are many spaces in the history of architecture that are built around a dominant singular perspective. Monuments were conceived to be this way. But try moving through Abraxas, and you will notice how it changes constantly. There is no one point of focus, no central power per se: the building is dynamic from multiple perspectives. The Baroque saw the introduction of movement into architecture, the flow of time and movement, threaded through space. Abraxas falls under this idea, in the same way as Walden 7. These buildings were made to generate that. I wasn’t looking to do the same thing as Louis XIV, or whoever. I did not conceive them this way.
I visited Walden 7 today for the first time. In this building, I see a blueprint for the ideas of Abraxas. In Walden, there is this maximal approach—being as far as something can be taken in a certain direction—plus the Spanish traditional vernacular. When one comes to Abraxas, it switches to a concrete brutalist realm. At the same time, there’s this labyrinthine Absolutism that runs through both Walden and Abraxas. Walden is a vernacular Absolutism, whereas Abraxas is a concrete Absolutism.
[Laughs] I like this a lot. At a particular moment, I believed that we had to establish a new system to carry out architecture and urbanism, a new way to envision the city. With this motivation in mind, I developed a theory I called “The City in Space,” a utopian theory aimed at formalizing the city to serve the necessities of people and communities. From this theory only a few examples could be built, among which Walden 7 is one.
I understand that Walden 7 was designed to have a certain modularity between its apartments, allowing for flexibility and reconfiguration.
Exactly. But in the end, the people that live in Walden have appropriated the space. They are happy living there, they are content, and they have created their own rules of the game, generated their own community. It is similar to what I had envisioned in certain aspects and, in others, more conservative than I expected.
Do you think the monument means the same thing now as it did thirty years ago?
We are in a complex time. There will always be some kind of movement, back and forth, between the monumentality and the functionality of architecture. They represent the poles of human necessity. That is why the semantics and the interpretations of architecture change. In this particular moment, it is a difficult question. The historical monument, as it was traditionally devised during the Renaissance, can no longer coexist with the idea of the sustainable city. Now, the monumentalization of certain ecological, livable, and participatory spaces is conceivable.
Every architect wants to build monuments, through which they produce a style and reproduce a brand. But I also like the architecture of the periphery—of poverty, of scarcity. The Mediterranean vernacular represents the first interest I had for any type of existing architecture. Early on, before I began to build, I saw that in Ibiza, as in the north of Africa, as in Almeria in the south of Spain, as in Greece—the architecture was basically the same, a primitive architecture of the Mediterranean. After that, I went to explore the origins of this architecture. I went further south, where I ultimately found the architecture of the desert—and the non-architecture of nature. The material is the rock. The energy is the wind. And the wind against the rock produces sand. This was one journey through the Mediterranean to Africa, into the realm of pure minimal elements. This is the environment of the Tuaregs, who construct very simple forms from materials gathered within reach, in the middle of the Sahara, with certain ways of thinking and living. It is a very different philosophy of life than ours. I like this a lot. And it is also, in a certain way, very aristocratic, in the cultural sense of the term. It is very minimal, very simple, and very poor. Because monumentalism is generally associated with luxury. In my belief, luxury and beauty are separate and different concepts.
Can we think about a Tuareg monumentalism?
Do you think it’s possible?
I don’t know. Because the Tuareg modality is one of impermanence, whereas monumentalism has an enduring aspect.
A friend of mine—Rashim, a Tuareg—built his house with his own materials, and you will witness Tuareg monumentalism in these interiors.
He has a permanent house?
It is a permanent house after nomadism. But even when they are nomads, the Tuareg culture also contains architecture in the way they allocate the fire, the camel, the water. It is all geometrically devised. It is never arbitrary. The need to structure time and space makes their existence geometric, and this geometry is also present in natural spaces. That is why I travelled to the desert to understand pure geometry. I have learned more alone in the middle of the Sahara, among nothing but dunes and sand, than in a French palace. And this is precisely my point: the monument could be anywhere. In the small gardens of Kyoto, in a Tuareg’s house, or even in my vacation house, where you can also find the idea. This is an understanding of the ubiquitous monument.
Then monumentality is not connected to scale.
No, it is not. Monumentality begins with the ritualization of life. When life calls for ritualization, the system of monumentalization becomes a possibility. This current epoch is defined by uncertainty, a time of equivocal future. Up until the year 2000, the most well-prepared individuals were capable of making future predictions, or providing prognoses. Since the year 2000, this capacity broke. And it is in times of uncertainty that small gestures—writings, statements, concise and diverse actions—are necessary. Small monuments in a world of flux. These are, in a certain way, the only type of works that can be done today.
It is also at this point that the vernacular becomes so crucial. It’s fluid and resourceful, and somehow quite unselfconscious.
The Ibizan vernacular house was the first project I ever did. It was a house for an aunt. I was one of the first people who came to Ibiza from the outside and discovered it as it was in the 60s. I was living and studying in Geneva, and from there I went with four friends from my architecture class to build this house. Before tourism, Ibiza was totally constructed from local materials, from the rocks, from the wood for the beams, from the algae of the sea for the roof. And with these materials the inhabitants of Ibiza would build a cube and make their first homes. When they wanted to expand it, they would make another cube next to it, and so on. And from the sum of these volumes, you would create a vernacular house that was aesthetically beautiful, minimal, empty, made with the primitive materials of the land, an architecture that responded to the primal necessities of the people living there. For me this had a very strong impact.
This sounds like a model for the equilibrium you've since been searching for.
Yes, and this period of time was also when Ibiza's first parties began to be organized—the party as liberty, as the maximum expression of freedom, where everything was possible. There you would try everything for the first time. The first acid, the first drugs. There was this absolute sense of freedom, and from there all individual liberties were explored.
Was music also important for you at this time?
Yes, and it still is.
It depends on the mental tempo I want to situate myself in. If you are anxious or worried, then Bach’s music has an appropriate structure to ground your energy. I like Bach a lot, but I like vernacular music too—popular music, good techno music. I don’t like dance music, it vulgarizes me too much. [Laughs]
I had an architect student as an assistant who was a techno fanatic. Speaking with him, it struck me that there are strong similarities between these fields—where both techno music and architecture are industrial, rhythmic, mathematic, but calibrated towards the generation and the manipulation of emotions.
Techno is very important for me, also. I am drawn to its mathematic structure. But listen to a Bach partita and try to uncover the structure underlying the tempo—when you can anticipate the sound, you've understood the mathematics. Bach is equally a mathematician of music. I listen to music in two ways. One is passive, letting the music come to me. The other is active, being ahead of the music that I am receiving. These are two different attitudes to face music.
Did you ever design a nightclub?
I did design a nightclub. Many years ago in Barcelona. It was like a theatre. [Laughs]
Of course. What music was played there?
It was 70s, 80s. Disco time.
What were your criteria for designing the club? What did it need to satisfy?
It needed to satisfy the relationship between space and time, between music and architecture. I have constructed many music auditoriums. And I have tried to understand music and its relationship with architecture for a long time. Fundamentally, I see music as the measure of time and architecture as the measure of space. Time and space are the two parameters that condition the human being, and they are unified in the human being as a single parameter.
With so much concern for the human scale, how did you come to work on such dramatically large projects?
I wanted to progress from a smaller to a larger scale for three reasons. First, I was interested in the city and its planning. Second, because in small scale projects the client is always too present, and matters of taste weigh too heavily over the work, and it is difficult to move forward. Finally, for the intellectual challenge posed by the transition to a large scale. The move from small to big requires a mastery over the small and intermediate scales, and I wanted to try this and test my own mistakes in the process. This trajectory is a challenge, and it inevitably arrives at an error. When the scale gets too big, a building is completely de-personalized and the emotion is reduced. Abraxas is the ultimate example of translating the personal into the public scale. Any bigger than Abraxas and it turns into stupidity. But scale was not always the most interesting thing. I became very successful at a young age. I gained recognition and fame when I was around 30, 35 years old, as one of the best-known architects. And from that point onwards, the theme was to look for alternatives, to look for creative processes that were different. I’m not a sectarian. I’m more inclined towards research and change than towards the propagation of a single idea in architecture. I’m more prone to experimenting.
This aspect of sustained experimentation brings some coherence to such a broad variety of production. I imagine at many points that you came close to exhaustion. How do you celebrate the completion of a project?
I don’t celebrate when I complete a project. I celebrate when I conceive of a project. That moment of focus in front of a blank page—at that moment, there is satisfaction. When I manage to produce a logic, a system, and an emotion, I celebrate. But when the project is finished, I only see imperfections. I only see my own mistakes. This is not a reason to celebrate. Subsequently, I’m my own toughest critic. For practical reasons, as well. It is only the critique of my own work that makes the creation of something new possible. The best way to understand my work is to read each building as a critique of the work previous.
You have said that it’s essential to be at the vanguard. What is your position on newness?
To be avant-garde is a moral and intellectual position. It means to participate in the construction of the future. But in itself, an absolute vanguard does not exist. When I was young, I thought building something completely new was feasible. Now I know that if twenty percent of a building is new, that is already a lot. To be at the “new” is a moral position, but one cannot build only with the new. It is naïve to think otherwise.
By this equation, the traditions are inescapable—at least 80% of them. I recall you saying, on this topic, that at one point you made an effort to understand and metabolize the values of the bourgeois, the middle class, and the traditional family, but that you did so in order to pervert these values.
The bourgeois family originates out of economic interests. It is a building block for a certain capitalist society under a fixed set of rules. The problem is that when these tastes are given to everyone, as it happens, the system becomes decadent and corrupted. But historically, the individual has been in every possible type of relation, and the traditional family is just one particular case. With a more cosmopolitan vision, you can see that there are many social configurations, classes, tastes, and associations possible—and necessary. If you break away from these rules with intelligence and energy, anything can happen. The line is very thin, and interesting things in life happen along this thin line. It lies between construction and destruction, between creativity and madness. To walk along this line is the most complicated and difficult, but also the most interesting. I don’t know if doing so is advisable. It’s not for everybody.
I think about many of your buildings in terms of play—play with knowledge, with structure, with architectural histories, with place. Play may be the action of walking that fine line.
And this was not always easy to do. To reach a radical point, there was a need to understand the conservative side, just as there was a need to understand the bourgeois family structure—to know it in order to break it. I lived in Paris for 20 years, and I came to know the system—and I mean the real system—because in France there is one system for everyone and another system for the special people. It is a very impermeable social nomenclature that belongs to the big schools, Les Grandes Écoles, schools created by Napoleon. It is a thoroughly vertical and hermetic hierarchy. And these are the people who rule.
After a while living in Paris I became acquainted with this French nomenclature. One day I was invited to a party at the Élysée Palace by Mitterrand, who was then the president of the Republic, and the Chinese president—where the Chinese and French nomenclature had gathered. They made a dinner, and I was seated just behind the director of a big company. Violins playing, food being served, a huge production. In the middle of the party, after greeting everyone, I asked the director of the company “Why am I here and you there, and this other guy there, and so on?” And he responded “Oh, I am here because I am number 39. You are behind me because you are number 40. And that other guy is number X of the list of French nomenclature.” We were sitting according to the system Mitterrand had done with his team, each one of us were embodied in the hierarchy. And I said, “Oh yeah, well, I’m leaving. I have no interest in climbing up.”
- Interview: Thomas Jeppe
- Photography: Thomas Jeppe
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Taller Bofill