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Library and Senior Citizens' Centre by RCR Arquitectes, Barcelona, Spain

RCR Arquitectes’ restrained black gateway building unifies the street with an existing under utilised courtyard. Photography by Eugeni Pons and Hisao Suzuki

When the AR last featured a library in Barcelona, it was an object building set within the medieval grain of Gracia. Situated on the north-west edge of the city, beyond the tyranny of Eixample - Ildefons Cerdà’s distinctive grid - the Jaume Fuster Library (AR June 2006) demonstrated Catalan architect Josep Llinàs’ masterful handling of a rotund form negotiating its place in response to distinct urban adjacencies and complex internal dynamics.

‘By contrast, this library by RCR Arquitectes - a practice based in Olot, north of Barcelona - is anything but an object building, clinging to the edges of its context and lining the interior of one of the city’s distinctive chamfered urban blocks in the south-westerly district of Sant Antoni’

This building serves a new city-wide vision of Catalan urbanism, commissioned by ProEixample, a company formed in 1996 to acquire land in block interiors for public use. So strong is its motivation, the programme was not even the project’s principal driving force. Instead, a break in the continuity of the street generated the project, providing a rare opportunity to fill the gap and give a new use to the courtyard beyond.

The original design competition proposed a relatively generic administrative office. Once the spatial and social opportunities of RCR’s winning composition were understood, however, the client agreed that a public amenity would be far better suited. Thus the library now occupies the gateway building, setting up complementary social dynamics with the senior citizens’ centre, which was part of the initial proposal, at the rear of the courtyard.

Before remodelling began, this block was typical of many in the city: inaccessible to the public and occupied by low-rise light industrial workshops, sheds and occasional chimneys. In her analysis, presented to the Mies van der Rohe Award jury in a public lecture (the project was one of five shortlisted schemes, AR June 2009), practice co-founder Carme Pigem named aspects of the city that had failed to come to fruition. ‘The reality of Cerdà’s plan was different,’ she conceded. Describing how the engineer’s aim was to have a number of open blocks, not impenetrable monoliths, she underlined the need to reopen them for public use. When this project began, a single-storey unit plugged the gap in the street, perpetuating a false understanding of the Cerdà grid as being more about blocks than buildings.

A quiet anxiety was evident in Pigem’s description, identifying the desire to create buildings that read more clearly than the blocks, which explains the bold shift in articulation of the new library against its context.

‘Glazed facades veiled in perforated steel sit conspicuously against render and stone, exaggerating in material expression what the building concedes in form, as it’s stealthy figure quietly finds its place in the city’

In both plan and section, the black form negotiates itself into a very settled state, with a five-storey block sitting within the existing vertical gap and double-height/single-storey wing forming a cranked armature that steps in and around the west and north boundaries.

While the wish to make a more identifiable building may have drawn some to use exuberant forms to create a dialogue between new and old, RCR’s trademark sensitivity to landscapes has been reapplied with skill and restraint here. The plans are logical and clearly arranged, and the section breaks up to bring light into the covered passageway. In terms of material application, however, their restraint fails to add any subtlety to the grain of the townscape.

‘While the ambition to unify street and courtyard is clearly conveyed, extending the application of minimal black surfaces to the library’s interior was perhaps a move too far’

Some may also agree that the armature in the courtyard should have had its own, more distinctive cladding and lining. Moving from street to courtyard and further still into the stacked reading rooms, the spatial shifts are insufficient in making this a truly urban experience. A return trip to Jaume Fuster, with its diversity of interiors and interrelations, underlines this point with potency as the most successful spaces in this new building are those that deal with specifics of context, placing lightwells along boundary walls in the senior citizens’ building. It would seem that the library structure was unable to shake off the corporate undertones of the previously planned office building.

The use of steel also has a problem, relating to the recent addition of a children’s playground in the easternmost corner of the site, on land acquired since these photographs were taken. While providing shade, enclosure and shelter for the cloister, the buckled steel fins serve too well as solar collectors, absorbing the scorching heat of the Catalan sun, to the point where unsuspecting hands or backs get a nasty shock when they brush the surface - another unfortunate consequence of having to retrofit a brief into a predetermined architectural proposition.

Despite this, the experience and amenity offered to local residents is an exemplary model for future ProEixample initiatives. Sitting in the stepped reading room the library certainly provides welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of this vibrant market district, and the building is extremely busy.

Pignon describes Barcelona’s new libraries as ‘cultural supermarkets’, forming an essential part of day to day community life. Here then, despite the slightly topsy-turvy process of retrofitting a function into a form, RCR has produced another fine library for Barcelona, making the city an exemplary destination for any would-be library architects and clients from around the world.

Architect RCR Arquitectes, Olot, Spain
Project team O Gallez, G Tregouët, C Marzo (ProEixample)
Structural engineer Blázquez-Guanter Arquitectes
Cost consultant C Carrasco (GPO Ingeniería)

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