L’Eixample, the greatest unknown
Author: Glòria Serra Coch
“Where are you from?”
“Wow, I love Barcelona, it is an amazing city!”
This is one of the possible very similar outcomes every time I am asked where I am from. Do I feel happy about it? Do I feel Proud? Yes, of course, immensely. A huge smile is suddenly over my face although, at the same time, I feel the kind of embarrassment as if I had been told I am pretty. Is it stupid? Probably.
In any case, the fact that so many people have an opinion about Barcelona is clear evidence that the city is in the maps of people’s imaginary. Not only that, I would even say it is placed in a quite high spot in the list of cool cities to visit. However, even if Barcelona is having a period of immense success, it cannot compete with the more traditional queens of the city league, like Paris, London, Rome or New York, which have an immense background and centuries of history as main urban centres to stand for them. Therefore, sometimes I can feel clearly the ephemeral nature of Barcelona’s celebrity. This sensation is enhanced when I realize how little tourists know about the urban pattern of the city. Gaudí? Of course, Picasso museum? Sure, Even the Gothic neighbourhood, the Born, Raval and maybe Gràcia are known by the ones that have spent a longer time here. However, when you tell them about the Eixample the puzzled expression is invariable painted in their face. “Where is that?” “Well, where we are now, and where you will be the 90% of the time you go around Barcelona”
So, what is this unknown entity that seems to be everywhere?
On the second half of the XIXth century, the city of Barcelona was being suffocated by its walls. The protection system had become a belt that was strangling the urban centre and its inhabitants. The Industrial Revolution had been attracting more and more people to cities, a rural exodus that, as a consequence, had brought also agglomeration and unhealthiness. Epidemics started to develop more and more regularly: plague, yellow fever, cholera… bringing with them thousands of deaths. Life expectancy was around 36 years for the upper classes and 23 for the lower ones.
The obvious consequence of this situation was a general claim to demolish those hated walls and become free to expand. Articles were written to point out the expected measure and extension plans started to be considered. Although, at first, the central government of Spain did not like the idea of losing one of the most important fortresses in the country, the conclusion was unavoidable.
This situation was not specific to Barcelona, at the same time, many urban centres in Europe were also looking for systems to expand and respond to the agglomeration issue. The general ideas of expansion in those times were mainly a reaction to the problems of the existing cities. Therefore, hygiene and sanitarian systems were considered fundamental, as a consequence of the general unhealthiness. On the other hand, the idea of regularity and organisation was also a main aspect to address in contraposition with the existing intricate medieval tissues. Finally, low densities were considered as being the right way for achieving healthier environments, as a reaction of the agglomeration hubs that cities had become.
While in northern countries the solution of creating new urban centres detached from the existing cities was the main direction taken to solve the situation, with the subsequent contribution of Ebenezer Howard and his garden city concept, in southern areas expanding the existing with extension plans was the common outcome.
However, the Catalan city had one special feature that made its expansion plans very different from other cases: the available space around. In 1714, after the war of succession, the city was punished with diverse decrees for having resisted the Borbonic troupes. One of these laws specifically forbid to build around the walls in a distance of one shot of cannon length. As a consequence, this situation offered a vast extension of land around the city ready to be transformed into a new urban centre.
Nevertheless, when the moment of starting to plan arrived, the Central Government and the Barcelona City Council did not agree about which organism would be responsible of transforming this idea firstly into a project and afterwards a reality. The City Council decided to organize a competition, while the Central Government had already chosen a candidate: Idelfons Cerdà. His project was eventually imposed by royal decree.
Josep Fontseré. 1859. Second place. Articulation of different urban patterns and Juxtaposition with the existing fabric present in the surrounding urban centres : Sants, Sarrià, Sant Andreu, Gràcia, Barcelona… Arxiu Històric de la ciutat de Barcelona
The project of Cerdà is truly modern compared with the candidates of the competition. Indeed, it considers all the main issues that were starting to be discussed at the time, like the hygienic problems, regularity, etc. and applies them into a practical project, answering the real demands of the moment with a perspective other participants could not even imagine.
The extension of the grid is much bigger than most of the other project but, most of all, it achieves an entity by itself, responding to the existing and the surroundings but, at the same time, being based on its own logic and reasoning and creating a whole new structure.
Although Idelfons Cerdà is now considered as one of the most important urban planners of all times, at the moment he was disregarded by Catalan society during his whole life and forgotten after his death. It was not until some years ago that his leading figure was recovered and his work started to be appreciated for the first time. The fact that his project was imposed by the central government by force was never forgotten and he paid a very high price for it.
Idelfons Cerda’s success was based on two main axes: an exhaustive analysis and a very solid theory based on this research. To start with the analysis, he worked on a topographic plan of the surroundings of Barcelona, but he also made a statistic monography of the working class, a sociological economics practice never applied to urbanism before. Finally, he studied many existing cities and their functioning before writing a book, Teoría general de la urbanización, which condensed all this knowledge and the main guidelines of how a city should be planned. From this theoretical background he was able to examine Barcelona and develop a practical project.
The result was a huge grid made of an extension of orthogonal roads, ten times the size of the existing Barcelona. The idea of their own city being expanded in such an incredible way in a very short time lapse was probably highly confusing for the inhabitants. It has been said that residents of Paris were unable to recognize their city after Haussmann’s operation. Even if the intervention was not situated in the existing centre, the change of scale of the urban surroundings and their consequences in the social sphere must have been very disturbing for the citizens.
The transportation system was planned to have a regular section with 20m width and 16m height with some bigger avenues of 30m, 50m or even 100m. All the crossroads were designed with chamfered corners to allow a better visibility conditions and circulation fluidity. This measure shows a concern for future traffic, which was not yet present in the existing cities and, therefore, a very innovative position regarding transportation. Cerdà considered that the regular grid was the most democratic system of organizing the city and, consequently, the most appropriate one for a new expansion of the existing.
Some main metropolitan axes were superposed to the regular orthogonal grid: Para·lel, Meridiana, the already existing Passeig the Gràcia, Diagonal and Gran Via, offering the city the possibility to function in two scales simultaneously and to connect with the surrounding territory.
The orientation was also an aspect that Cerdà took very seriously. In the end, he decided that each corner would be oriented towards a cardinal point, as he claimed it was the best way to reduce mortality. Nowadays, we know that this scheme guarantees an equal distribution of radiation in the façades and, therefore, it can be considered as a democratic system of orientation.
Finally, the urban planner also systematized the organisation of the blocks, by distributing the needed public buildings and green spaces, at the same time that arranging the residential buildings in two stripes in each block that left the rest of the space free for other uses: parks, orchards or gardens.
To make possible the construction of such an ambitious project, the conjunction of several circumstances was needed. First of all, an investment of a colossal urbanisation project: the outline and building of streets, the signage of slopes and lining ups, the definition of infrastructures and implantation of public services… Secondly, the superposition of a sanitation plan to the gird, developed by Pere Garcia Fària in 1891. The introduction of urban services, like public lighting, fountains and trees was also crucial to give the impression of a “real city” to the inhabitants of Barcelona. To enable the management of the project, new systems of administrating plots and buildings needed to be created together with an adaptation of the existing. At the same time, the introduction of a new typology of residence provided a basis for a new social organization; classes were distributed in vertical, with higher incomes in lower levels, instead of by areas. Finally, the existence of Passeig de Gràcia as an axis that related Barcelona city with Gràcia, was used as a backbone to start occupying the first plots and, from there, growing progressively.
However, there is a big gap between Cerda’s plan and reality. This circumstance is due to two major factors: firstly and foreseeable, the speculation and secondly, the rejection of Cerda’s plan by Catalan society. This situation made it easier for speculators that did not want to follow the ordinances of the plan, as the city council did not pay much attention to their observance. Architects, land owners and politicians made all the possible efforts to rebel against the plan to make clear their opinion about its imposition.
The height regulation of 16m was highly exceeded, together with the construction depths maximums. Many streets were built narrower than in the project and most of the public buildings and green spaces planned were never made real. Finally, and probably the most important, the two residential stripes of the plot were not respected and the four sides of the plot were built, with the result we can see nowadays with the crown shape typical of this Barcelona tissue.
The changes inflicted to the original plan were atrocious; however, it kept working outstandingly without losing any fraction of its powerful entity. How was it possible? How IS it possible? The high density and the compacity of the Eixample tissue are now considered a positive attribute of the district, when it was originally a result of a terrible deformation. The area is now used as an example of the positive effects of diversity and complexity when its grid was originally criticized for being monotonous and boring.
The solidity of the original plan allowed its transformation without the loss of its core identity. This circumstance makes it a clear example that a plan based on a theory and analysis is able to bear many changes and evolution with grace. Its capacity of adaptation and flexibility of use is what makes it more robust and allows it to evolve through time without losing the original sense, and… what would a city be if it was not able to evolve through time?
Idelfons Cerdà: el hombre y su obra. Adolf Florensa (Barcelona, 1959)
Barcelona, del Plan Cerdà al Área Metropolitana. Martorell Otzet (Barcelona, 1970)
Cerdà/ Ensanche. Manuel de Solà-Morales (Barcelona, 2010)
Cerdà i la Barcelona del Futur. AAVV. (Barcelona, 2009)
Cerdà i el seu Eixample a Barcelona. AAVV (Barcelona, 1992)
Deu lliçons sobre Barcelona. Manuel de Solà Morales (Barcelona, 1895)
El acceso solar a la escala del tejido urbano. Alessandra Curreli. (Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya. 2015)
La ciudad de los prodigios. Eduardo Mendoza (Barcelona, 1986)
L’eixample, 150 anys d’història. Lluís Permanyer. (Barcelona, 2008)
Paràmetres urbanístics del districte de l’eixample de Barcelona, Pilar García Almirall, Montserrat Boix Berguedà (Barcelona, 2009)