Set within one of Barcelona’s most notorious slum districts, this new film theatre has ambitions to catalyse cultural and civic renewal
The New Film Theatre of Catalonia, designed by Josep Lluís Mateo, is a cultural beachhead in the ongoing battle for Barcelona’s Raval district. One of the densest and most degraded medieval slums in Europe, El Raval is an infamous red light district, home to the city’s poorest and most marginalised residents. So far, the city authorities’ campaign to reform the neighbourhood has resulted only in spotty gentrification.
Following a 1985 masterplan, the city has brought in a host of cultural institutions to attract outside visitors, including Josep Lluís Mateo’s Film Theatre, which will formally open later this year, and Richard Meier’s 1995 Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). In the streets around the theatre, the city has cleared entire blocks to create new plazas and subsidised housing.
These efforts have been followed by luxury condos, hotels and trendy restaurants, spilling over from the nearby Gothic Quarter across La Rambla, the famous pedestrian thoroughfare. The clash of high culture, luxury commerce and the neighbourhood’s traditional seediness could not be more jarring.
Josep Lluís Mateo is a Barcelona native, and the urban strategy and material texture of his Film Theatre are well-attuned to El Raval’s tough character. While Richard Meier’s neo-purist composition, a few blocks north, could not be more alien, Mateo’s building is constructed of board-formed concrete with a rough texture he compares to nearby peeling walls. ‘It has no skin, no ornamentation. It’s all material, mass, the basic structure of the building,’ he explains.
In his competition-winning design of 2004, Mateo minimised the building’s volume in order to maximise scarce outdoor space. Working with a site facing the existing Plaça de Salvador Seguí to the east, he set the visible portion of the building at the back of the lot to the west, bringing it hard up against the existing street wall behind it. The long, narrow superstructure, five metres deep, houses offices and the archive’s library.
He left the rest of the site open to merge into the plaza, and buried the two theatres, seating 200 and 400 people, under it. Mateo designed the footprint of this building chiefly with an eye to defining this urban room. The ground-floor lobby, framed either side with uninterrupted glass walls and paved in cobblestones, visually extends the plaza through the building.
Cantilevers at either end further articulate the urban space. One opens over a narrow intersection on the ancient street Carrer de Sant Pau, one of the main approaches to the Theatre from La Rambla. The other covers a more protected corner, spanning 10m to shelter the outdoor terrace of the café. The resulting pattern of open spaces plays off the courtyards and gardens of adjacent public housing to create diagonal paths and lines of sight. The urban fabric around the building has thus become more porous and complex, more habitable and inviting, and more visually secure.
Another aspect of the design that responds directly to El Raval are the screens that cover most upper-floor openings of the building. Facing the plaza, the windows of the library and offices are screened by a mesh of stainless-steel wire coated in white lacquer, with a weave of different densities that Mateo likens to a film screen that dissolves at its edges.
Windows on facades facing into narrow streets are covered with denser screens: punctured Corten steel overlooking Sant Pau, and a perforated and expanded steel sheet, galvanised in a brass-like hue, on the street behind. ‘You are so close to the neighbours you have got to filter the views,’ says Mateo.
Mateo compares these filters to those used for cameras and lighting on a film set, an association that he develops in a number of rather unconvincing directions. This is the thinking behind the use of coloured panes of glass in the ground-floor window walls, otherwise a bit mystifying, though pleasing when they reappear in the office partitions on upper floors.
With their varying densities, the perforations in the Corten screen outline typical window openings, and those of the galvanised steel trace an early film clip of a bird in flight, but the viewing angles on both facades are too tight to perceive either. There is no harm done on either account, while the variations in density are attractive enough.
In a similar bit of tracery worthy of Peter Eisenman, the acoustic perforations in the timber ceiling of the film theatres outline the foundations of the 17th-century women’s prison uncovered on the site (archaeological excavations, such as the discovery of Neolithic remains, delayed the project for two years). This dizzy under-over spatial juxtaposition, placing filmgoers in a situation analogous to underwater divers looking toward the surface, underscores a dialectic that Mateo develops between the telluric descent into darkness of the underground theatres, and the ascent into light of the escalator rising to upper floors, marked by a skylight well above.
My greatest doubts about Mateo’s architectural rhetoric concern the structure itself, which is designed like a bridge spanning between four pylons, with the addition of its powerful, asymmetrical cantilevers. The ground floor and third floor are completely free of intermediate columns or beams, so the floors above them are hung from tension cables, which descend from crossbeams that span between the front and back walls. The concrete is post-tensioned, and Mateo makes the plugs covering the cable ends a design feature, giving the assembly a snap-together, Lego-like quality.
But the structure lacks a spatial dimension and a sense of enclosure. The two planes of its front and back walls are not knitted together visually, and the two spaces carved out of the interior for skylight wells do not bear any direct relation to the pylons or other structural cues; they are simply voids in the floor decks. The non-structural enclosures on the end walls contribute to this planar quality, which in places appears as fragile as a house of cards.
Evoking the Neo-Brutalism of, say, Paul Rudolph, the concrete disappoints, while the design as a whole is closer in spirit to the High-Tech architecture of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, for example, a language of free spans and floor-to-ceiling glazing that the hefty presence of the concrete undermines.
Moreover, the need for such structural calisthenics for a simple problem of offices and a library is questionable, while the truly representative and public element of the project, the film theatres, is invisible and underground. José Luis Guerín, a local filmmaker whose documentary on the transformation of El Raval, En Construcción, was an important source of reference for Mateo, observed precisely this confusion in an interview published in Mateo’s book Occasions.
He also pointed out the missed opportunity for actually projecting films outdoors on the plaza in the summer, an old tradition in Spain. In the 1930s, film palaces in Madrid were equipped with open-air theatres on their roofs. Why not here?
Finally, one annoying detail was probably the client’s decision: only one escalator descends to the theatres, which means either that it must be reversed for exiting filmgoers − a tricky proposition with two theatres running simultaneously − or people must walk back up to the street. Why not use some of the funds spent on the structure for a double run of escalators?
The client also decided to occupy the handsome free-span space intended for the library on the third floor with its offices, including an executive suite with a balcony overlooking the café terrace, and sent the library down to the more compressed second floor. The new library location is more convenient, and the people who spend their working days at the centre now have classier digs, two facts that once again point out weaknesses in Mateo’s design, despite its notable strengths in urban terms.