Ricardo Bofill

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Ricardo Bofill

The post-modern Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill (born 1939) fused the Classical syntax of architecture with modern building technology to create large scale housing projects recalling the grandeur of Louis XIV.

The son of a Venetian mother and a Catalan father, Ricardo Bofill was born on December 5, 1939, in Barcelona, Spain. He studied architecture at the Escuela Tecnica Superior de Arquitectura in Barcelona (1955-1956) and at the Architecture University of Geneva, Switzerland (1957-1960). In 1960 he founded the Taller de Arquitectura (Architecture workshop), based in Barcelona. The taller has an interdisciplinary approach to architecture and includes not only architects but designers, a mathematician, a musician, a poet, and a philosopher. Bofill became a highly romantic figure who generated the creative and intellectual drive for the team. His romantic spirit was captured in the renovated cement factory in Barcelona (1973-1975), which was the main office and studio of the firm. Other offices were located in Paris and New York.

Bofill's stated intentions with respect to the firm, published in L'architecture d'un homme (1978), were to create dynamic and "magic" spaces using powerful forms to produce distinctive images. Although these intentions are found in all their designs, each was adapted to different local circumstances. Bofill and his taller rejected the tenets of the International Style (particularly the works of Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe), declaring their own work as a "brutal protest" against functionalist modernism. Like many post-modern architects, Bofill accepted the lessons of many centuries of architectural history to create places for human life.

Bofill first gained international attention in the 1960s with two designs executed in the Catalan region of Spain, where the expressive works of Antonio Gaudi have played a major role. The Barrio Gaudi (1964-1968), a public housing project located in Rues, Tarragona (the hometown of Antonio Gaudi), includes an interlocking grid of apartments in a variety of sizes, each with individual balconies, pantile roofs (made of s-curved tiles), and a multilevel system of walkways and plazas. The communal roof garden (a consistent motif in Bofill's work) is a direct tribute to Gaudi. Bofill's design for the Catalan resort of Xanadu in Calpe, Alicante (1969-1983), consists of a seven-story block with cubical living spaces arranged around a central utility core. The design is characterized by vernacular motifs such as sloping pantiled roofs, arcades, and "Mediterranean" windows with shutters. With its swooping curves and figural shapes, Xanadu comes closer in spirit to the expressive work of Gaudi than the barrio which bears his name. Both the barrio and Xanadu display Bofill's continuing interest in creating "garden cities in space." The culmination of these efforts occurred in Spain with the firm's design for Walden 7, Sant Just Desvern, Barcelona (1970-1975).

In the mid-1970s Bofill became involved with several projects designed for the French "New Towns" which surround Paris. All of these projects combine Bofill's interest in baroque spatial organization with a desire to return to traditional elements of urban planning. In these projects Bofill turned from the vernacular architecture of the Mediterranean to the Classical language which characterizes much of the grand architecture in France since the Renaissance. Using reinforced concrete structures and prefabricated concrete panels, he approached the Classical style on a truly monumental scale. His treatment of "concrete like a noble material" is reminiscent of the work of Louis Kahn. The monumental use of reinforced concrete also has precedents in the French architectural tradition with the works of Tony Garnier, Auguste Perret, and Le Corbusier.

Bofill and his taller's design for Les Arcades du Lac and Le Viaduc, in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (1975-1981), located near Versailles, present a monumental arrangement of buildings on the scale of the visionary and unbuilt projects of the 18th-century French architects Ledoux and Boullee. The design is composed of densely massed buildings with orderly façades laid out along rigid axes and placed within formal gardens. The arrangement of the buildings and gardens allude to the Palace of Versailles and have even been described as a "Versailles for the people."

Bofill and his taller explored a more sophisticated use of the Classical syntax in their design for Les Espaces d'Abraxas (1979-1983) in the Marne-la-Vallee suburb of Paris. Abraxas is the word for the Mesopotamian symbol meaning good and evil which roughly translates as "magic." The entire composition creates the impression of a gigantic "theater" and relates to Bofill's statement that "daily life should not be banalized, but exalted to become rich and meaningful." In the design Bofill often stretches and inverts the traditional language of Classicism in a mannerist play of forms. The interior façade of the semicircular amphitheater has a giant seven-story colonnade with attached columns whose shafts are formed by panes of glass (in opposition to the solidity of traditional columns). The arc of the amphitheater is interrupted only by a single large opening, which Bofill refers to as an "urban window," that creates a funneled perspective along the major axis of the composition.

Ricardo Bofill's post-modern sensibilities (rejecting the stylistic and ideological restraints of modernism and accepting the lessons of centuries of architectural history) have allowed him to create heroic public housing with advanced concrete techniques that evoke the splendors of past French rulers such as Louis XIV and Napoleon. He has been the subject of several exhibits, most notably a 1985 joint exhibit with Leon Krier, "Architecture, Urbanism, and History," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1987 Bofill designed and built a public housing complex in New Jersey known as Venice-on-the-Hudson. Taking his inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, Bofill, in conjunction with the architectural firm of Kendall/Heaton Associates Inc. designed and completed the Alice Pratt Brown Hall for the Shepard School of Music at Rice University in 1989. Alongside these successes, Bofill's megalomania has been noted. In Crain's Chicago Business (August 2, 1993), John Jacobs— a fellow architect—wrote that Bofill's 1992 design of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. Headquarters, at 77 W. Wacker Dr. in Chicago, is a design disaster which he refers to as "Parthenon-on-a-Stick". Bofill has alternately been praised and discredited as the creator of mass housing projects for the poor in France in 1992.

In 1976 Bofill founded one of Cuba's major human rights groups, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. This group has been affiliated with several other groups whose common goals include human rights, amnesty, free art, and disarmament. Bofill was exiled to Miami in 1988, after spending 14 years in Cuba as a political prisoner. He became a commentator on Miami radio station WQBA, but was fired in 1990 after voicing his support of Cuban dissident Gustavo Arcos, who had led Bofill's Cuban Committee for Human Rights.

Further Reading

The most complete book on Bofill and his taller is Ricardo Bofill/Taller de Arquitectura: Buildings and Projects 1960-1985, introduction by Ricardo Bofill, postscript by Warren A. James (1988), which also includes an extensive interview with Bofill. An earlier book is Ricardo Bofill/Taller de Arquitectura, introduction by Christian Norberg-Schulz (1985). A book which places Bofill in the context of post-modern classicism is Modern Classicism by Robert A. M. Stern with Raymond W. Gastil (1989). Charles Jenck's Architecture Today (1988) provides a background to this period. Also see "Venice-on-the-Hudson" in New York magazine (June 1987), "Classical Music" in Architectural Record (March 1992) and "Ricardo Bofill" in Architectural Digest (April 1988). □