Ricardo Bofill is one of Europe’s most prolific and provocative exponents of Postmodernism in architecture.
In 1975 French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing described Bofill as the “world’s greatest architect” for his award-winning design for Les Halles in Paris. In the following decade, a series of international exhibitions and monographs confirmed his position at the forefront of the modern classical revival. However, despite being celebrated for the manner in which he has rejuvenated the classical and baroque traditions in architecture, it is also an appreciation of geometry and the interrelation among social, spatial, and technical systems that define his work.
Bofill was born in Barcelona in 1939, and between 1955 and 1960 he studied at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona and the Université de Genève in Switzerland. In 1960 he founded the multidisciplinary team Taller de Arquitectura (Architecture Workshop), and since that time he has worked with them in close collaboration on all his designs. Bofill and the Taller have been based in Barcelona and Sant Just Desvern in Spain since that period, but they have also opened offices in Paris, Algeria, and New York.
Bofill describes both his childhood in Catalonia and his travels with his family as being strong influences on his architectural career. It was while growing up in Barcelona that he developed a great fascination for the architecture of Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) and for traditional Catalan craftsmanship. During his later travels throughout Western Europe and North Africa, he also cultivated an interest in the manner in which spaces shape social interaction. All of these themes suffuse his early architectural works, including the Plaza San Gregorio Apartment Building (1965) and the Nicaragua Apartment Building (1965) in Barcelona, as well as the Barrio Gaudí (1968) in Reus. All three of the buildings are constructed of simple industrial materials that are applied in traditional ways, and all feature elaborate, variegated roofscapes and richly textured and decorated facades.
Bofill’s work first came to international prominence in the early 1970s, when the Taller de Arquitectura produced a series of brightly colored, and enigmatically titled buildings throughout Spain. All these projects, including Xanadu (1967) on the bay of Sitges, Walden-7 (1975) in Sant Just Desvern, and Kafka’s Castle (1968) and Red Wall (1972), both in Alicante, display a similar theme; they share a preoccupation with the manner in which geometric systems can generate forms that are complex yet conducive to social interaction. Kafka’s Castle is a resort, and is generated from a series of equations that govern the siting and distribution of cubic rooms and castellated balconies. One equation generates the number of room capsules that plug into the stair towers, and another determines the height of each spiral progression around the stair. Rather than resulting in a bland or repetitive building, the overlaying of these simple geometric rules produces a rich and evocative environment. In Walden-7, a monumental 17-story apartment complex, this same method is used to accommodate different-sized groups of people in cellular spaces. Both of these flexible-use living areas are connected by vast atriums, upper-level bridges, and roof gardens. Bofill describes these early works as being an intuitive response to issues of design and local culture that have since been termed critical regionalism. For Bofill such projects attempt to solve modern problems (mass housing) using modern materials, while retaining some essence of the region’s natural complexity. However, in the years that followed, Bofill began to gradually revise this approach to design, arguing that it was becoming increasingly important to express historical and regional characteristics as well as geometric ones.
In 1975 Bofill’s design for a large public park ringed by baroque colonnades won the international design competition for Les Halles in Paris. The design was already under construction when the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, ordered that it be abandoned. Despite this setback, Bofill successfully developed a number of similarly monumental and historically themed projects in France, including Les Arcades du Lac (1981) and Le Viaduc (1981), both near Versailles, Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1983) at Marne-la-Vallée, Les Echelles du Baroque (1985) in Paris, and Antigone (1985) in Montpellier. Bofill describes Les Arcades du Lac and Le Viaduc as “Versailles for the people.” These buildings (the latter over an artificial lake) incorporate a giant rhythmic system of precast-concrete pilasters, arched windows, and classical pediments. Below the symmetrical piazza with its classical fountains and balustrades, are cavernous parking lots. Les Espaces d’Abraxas, a development for more than 600 apartments on the outskirts of Paris, is similarly boldly derivative of French architectural history and geometry. Les Espaces d’Abraxas comprises three historic building types: a semicircular theater, an arc (a habitable arch), and the palace (a U-shaped block that frames the arc). Each of these buildings is between 10 and 15 stories high and is clad in an elegant, precast-concrete panel system. The exterior of the theater features a series of gigantic Doric columns, each the full height of the building. The inner courtyards are lined with mirror-glass Corinthian columns, each surmounted by a triple molding (actually a series of balconies) and a cypress tree. These buildings, along with Les Echelles du Baroque and Antigone, confirmed Bofill’s reputation as designer of extravagant, monumental, and theatrical buildings.
In the 1990s Bofill and the Taller continued to design buildings for clients in the United States, China, and Europe, despite society’s growing rejection of the exuberance of Postmodern classicism.
By the time that Bofill’s designs for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were completed, the approach to architecture that had once earned him great praise, now drew mostly criticism. Despite this rejection, it is Bofill’s appreciation of the relationship among geometry, space, and society that remains his greatest strength.