Architecture has been viewed as an incredibly powerful and romantic (as well as the obvious highly skilled) career, so much so that novelist Ayn Rand created a protagonist and hero whose entire importance revolved around his architecture. In northern Spain, architect Ricardo Bofill and his team have brought the romantic dream of that profession alive. Bofill was born into a family of builders and leads Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, a world-famous architectural company.
Discovering a Lost Treasure
In 1973, architect Ricardo Bofill discovered a cement factory from the World War I era that had been deserted and left to the elements.”I found enormous silos, a tall smokestack, four kilometers of underground tunnels, and machine rooms in good shape,” he said in a statement. “I already imagined future spaces and noticed that the different aesthetic and plastic tendencies that had developed since World War I were present in this factory.”
This cement factory, dating from the first period of the industrialization of Barcelona, was not built at once or as a whole but was a series of additions as the various chains of production became necessary,” says Bofill.
The Work Begins
Bofill speaks passionately about the work he soon began on the abandoned cement factory. “Seduced by the contradictions and the ambiguity of the place, we quickly decided to retain the factory, and modifying its original brutality, sculpt it like a work of art.”
Bofill and his workers covered and layered the exterior with bright expanses of greenery that rushed up to the cement factory and then intertwined with the structure itself, creating a glorious green and stone castle that stands like a fairy tale building, with creeping vine and bush, grass, and small and large leafed trees that bloom from crevices around the building.
Home Sweet Home
“This place is my home. I have lived and worked here for over 40 years.” Bofill said. “It is not finished and it will never be finished. I think architecture can never be finished. It always needs more work. We started this project by doing demolition, destruction, and deconstruction work first. I loved this place when I first discovered it because it was never planned or designed. Instead, it developed over many years, expanding and rebuilding every time new technology was introduced. It was a homage to industry. The factory reminded me of vernacular architecture. It was industrial vernacular that attracted me.”
Bridges to Nowhere
Ricardo Bofill said, ” Also there were so many surreal moments such as stairs and bridges going nowhere and arches and porticos in the most unexpected places… I started with a very romantic idea to bring nature into this industrial place. There are plants everywhere. There is a whole ecological layer planted on top of the original industrial complex.
I have the impression of living in a closed universe, which shields me from the outside and everyday life. The Cement Factory is a place of work par excellence. Life goes on here with very little difference between work and leisure.”
The Vocabulary of Architecture
“Slowly, with the valuable help of Catalan craftsmen, the cement factory was transformed, but it will always remain as an unfinished work. Presently I live and work here better than anywhere else,” says Bofill. “I have installed the Taller de Arquitectura, with the intention, later on, of converting it into a foundation destined to the investigation of form, and the design of the city. It is for me the only place where I can concentrate, associate ideas in the most abstract manner, and finally, create projects, images, and new spaces, and constitute a specific vocabulary for my architecture.”
A Work in Progress
“I have the impression of living in a factory world, the same world that characterized and propelled the beginnings of industrial development in Catalonia,” says Bofill. Bofill is passionate about the idea that his home is not ‘completed’ but instead, an ongoing work of art. “As you said, it is a work in progress. And it will always be a work in progress, absolutely. And I like the space itself here. It is very raw and clean, there is almost nothing decorative here. It is a world within itself. Nothing is really designed here. What I had in mind when I was transforming this place was a monastery, as a perfect place for concentration. From here, I started more than 1,000 projects.”
Architecture as Space and Time
“Architecture is a professional discipline,” Bofill insists. “Fundamentally and artistically, architecture is about space and the relationship between time and space. Architecture needs to have a relation to the genius loci of every place. In other words, to its spirit and DNA. Architecture cannot be translated from one place to another. Architecture should be specific to every place. So what I try to do with this multidisciplinary approach is always to invent new projects, new styles. I want to reinvent myself. I don’t want to copy myself or repeat endlessly certain shapes, like some other architects… I want to adapt to local conditions and traditions.”
Organic and Open Home
Bofill repeatedly refers to the cement factory castle as inspired by monasteries. He wanted his home to have a clean, open and calming feel that would translate into the greatest peace and creativity for himself as he resides and works in his home. “Architecture needs to be open to other disciplines. Architecture can’t be isolated. And since all other disciplines evolve, architecture should maintain a close relation to them to evolve as well.”
“I related to organic architecture, buildings that integrated with nature, buildings that didn’t have any facades; the facades expressed the complexities within buildings.”
Noble and Not Expensive
Bofill explains, “I like the kind of architecture that is simple, based on natural forms, and built of noble but not expensive materials.” This bedroom is the perfect example of ‘noble but not expensive.’ He continues, ” I don’t like excess, luxury, rich forms and materials. I like minimalist and sensual architecture. Architecture is all about the process. Methodology is the key component of the creative process. There is no fixed method. Every project should have its own method. Some projects are based on preconceived ideas, while others are all based on the process. It is important to have engines inside of yourself to provoke change and provoke evolution.”
Don’t Repeat Yourself
Bofill ruminates on the importance of self-critique, and an open spirit of learning. “To be unsatisfied and critical of your own work is very important to keep this internal engine constantly running. As far as my early works in the 1960s and 1970s they were very interesting in their own right, but when I was faced with a much bigger scale of a whole city such as in France or in other parts of the world those early projects were no longer relevant. Again, many architects repeat themselves, they are not critical of their work; they continue pursuing the same project all over the world. They develop a style. They don’t evolve. I don’t like satisfied people. I prefer to be critical with myself.”
I Have My Own Style
Bofill has transformed his approach to architecture over the years. “I still like classical architecture,” he muses. “I like its notions of sequence of spaces, system of proportions, its strive for perfection, even if it is never achievable. Still, this is architecture of culture that fights architecture of barbarians, architecture without rules, architecture of chaos and deconstruction. I like architecture that gives a sense of tranquility and serenity. But today I try to avoid following any particular style. I am not inspired by classical vocabulary, just its spirit. Instead, we incorporate new technology, ecology, and our own history to write architecture like a novelist would write a book.”
Spare and Beautiful
Here is some information on the house from Nowness, who said of the castle, “A grandiose monument to industrial architecture in the Catalonian town of Sant Just Desvern, La Fabrica is a poetic and personal space that redefines the notion of the conventional home.”
Size of the house: 5,000 square meters.Bedrooms and baths: Eight bedrooms, 12 baths.Main building materials: Concrete, ceramic, wood, glass.Year house built: 1975.Oldest item: The furnace, from 1920.Newest addition: A bedroom and a bathroom, in 2010.Ceiling Height (at highest point): 10 meters (The Cathedral).
From Smoke to Greenery
One of the most impactful results of Bofill’s home is how he has taken a cement plant that was enormously polluting the surrounding environment and turned it into a miniature jungle, full of oxygen producing plants and greenery. “This place was transformed into a green space that didn’t let off smoke,” Bofill says. “Where instead of seeing a smoking chimney, you would see a cylinder, a sculpture.”
“But soon I realized that I was really interested in modern architecture as far as such aspects as efficiency and minimalist treatment,” Bofill remarks. The architect who cares as deeply for the world as his creation.
Small Solutions, No Global Solutions
Bofill is focused on creating sustainable living that is also beautiful and considerate of the space around the building. He has become deeply invested in ensuring that his contributions to architecture are always pedestrian and environmentally conscious. “Yes, the whole world is being urbanized at an incredible speed and new mega cities are popping up everywhere. But the qualities we need to be concerned with are what we like our old cities for: being compact, pedestrian, sustainable, ecological, efficient as far as waste management, and so on. But all of these should be local solutions. There should be no global solutions.”
“What you call Post-Modern elements are in fact historicist,” Bofill says. He is interested in allowing all his travels to influence his work. “They all came before Post-Modernism. My idea at the time was to recuperate some of the elements from historical Catalan architecture such as elongated arched windows from medieval times in Barcelona. And you know, every time I travel to such places as traditional towns in Japan or a desert in the Middle East, or Italy, I bring some of those influences back here and you can trace many such references. These memories are very important to me.”
Bofill again returns to the idea of a monastery, discussing how concentration (especially as an artist) is enhanced by this space: peace, great light, no clutter, the volume of walls, windows and carved out spaces for sitting, the greenery: all conducive to concentration. “Constantly. As you said, it is a work in progress. And it will always be a work in progress, absolutely. And I like the space itself here. It is very raw and clean, there is almost nothing decorative here. It is a world within itself. Nothing is really designed here. What I had in mind when I was transforming this place was a monastery, as a perfect place for concentration. From here, I started more than 1,000 projects.”
New Functions For Old Space
Here’s what ArchDaily wrote in explaining the structure of the castle: “Once the spaces had been defined, cleaned of cement and encompassed by new greenery, the process began of adaptation to the new program. Eight silos remained, which became offices, a models laboratory, archives, a library, a projections room and a gigantic space known as ‘The Cathedral’, used for exhibitions, concerts and a whole range of cultural functions linked to the professional activities of the architect. The complex stands in the midst of gardens with eucalyptus, palms, olive trees and cypresses. This project is evidence of the fact that an imaginative architect may adapt any space to a new function, no matter how different it may be from the original one.”
The Real Surreal
On his website, Ricardo Bofill writes of his grand home, “Keeping our eyes moving like a kaleidoscope, we already imagined future spaces and found out that the different visual and aesthetics trends that had developed since World War I coexisted here.”
His ideas include stairs that lead to nowhere and abstract art pieces. Things that serve no purpose other than to spark curiosity and intrigue the mind. Perhaps look at things a different way, and bring back into focus the minimalist idea, that little is needed to serve its purpose.
Though keeping the idea of a monestary close to heart, Bofill kept just as close the idea of perpetual chance, and of course, the bones and beginnings of the place: a cement factory. Cosmopolitan by definition, Ricardo Bofill returns always to the factory, that old industrial building that he never ceases to renew for the past forty years, enlarging and embellishing its spaces as writing the history of his life, a biography in constant evolution.
“The factory is a magic place which strange atmosphere is difficult to be perceived by a profane eye. I like the life to be perfectly programmed here, ritualized, in total contrast with my turbulent nomad life.”
Moss Covered Bones
It is the cement factory history and bones, the sheer volume of the castle, the minimalism, and the greenery, that make it what it truly is. Bofill says on his website, “Once the spaces had been defined, cleaned of cement, it was necessary to provide a green plinth to the remaining volumes; plants would climb walls and hang from the roofs.
The site, largely covered with grass, is bordered by groups of eucalyptus, palms, olive and prune tree, mimosas, and climbing plants that wrap the exposed concrete walls, giving the building this mysterious aspect of romantic ruin that makes it unique and unrepeatable.”