The fragmented, verdant structure of this semi-subterranean library creates a different kind of public space in Barcelonaʼs urban milieu
Building underground is a familiar strategy for architects, planners and engineers seeking to minimise the impact of new architecture and infrastructure on the scarce open spaces of a city. But what usually happens to the trees? Few are willing to go to the trouble and expense of burying new construction deep enough, and with a structure hefty enough, to support the mass of earth required for the growth of mature trees. The result is often the sun-struck ‘hard plazas’ popularised by Barcelona urban planners in the 1980s and now found all over Europe. Even when adorned with pavers and street furniture, they are often dreary, empty stretches of baking hard landscaping, impossible to use on a hot summer’s day.
For the Joan Maragall Library in the Barcelona quarter of Sant Gervasi, the local firm of BCQ Arquitectura challenges this approach head-on, folding the building into the retaining walls that separate a small raised public park from the surrounding neighbourhood, and converting its roofs into planters that are voluminous enough to permit trees to grow to maturity, as well as supporting other vegetation. At the level of the park, the slightly raised planters meld seamlessly into the existing walks and grounds. The outcome is a building that blends into its surroundings, adding sectional complexity and interest to the encounter of the raised park with the street below it, through a series of planted piers set at different angles and levels, and alternating with sunken light wells dropping below ground.
Sant Gervasi was one of several villages engulfed by Barcelona in its growth over the past 150 years, and now lends its name to the over-developed upper-class district that occupies the slopes above the city centre, beyond the northern limits of Cerdà’s Eixample. In the mid-20th century, under the negligible planning controls of the Franco era, multi-storey apartment buildings replaced the area’s original villas and chalets, leaving only two or three open spaces. City authorities chose one of these spaces, located in the heart of the former village, as the site for the new library: the grounds of the Villa Florida, a surviving masía (the typical farmhouses of prosperous Catalan landholders). Originally dating back to the 16th century, the building was transformed in the early 20th century into a handsome villa with Modernista-style flourishes on its main facade. It occupies a high point in the surrounding terrain, and over time, with the grading of the surrounding streets, its grounds were delimited by retaining walls on three sides, a common strategy for hilly urban settings in Spain, offering both a mark of distinction and a protective barrier. A decade ago, after years of neglect, the city took over the property and converted the villa into a local civic centre, and in 2007 it organised a competition for the library, which opened in June of this year.
In the open competition for the project, BCQ were the only architects to propose a building entirely below the level of the park. Toni Casamor, main partner in the firm together with David Baena, explains, ‘For us, the problem was not to make a pretty building, but to resolve the place.’ The new 3,000sqm library occupies the east side of the garden, with its entrance on the corner where the largest difference in level occurs, roughly five metres between the pavement and the upper garden. It is structured around a series of protruding fingers of blind walls along the street, like battlements, which are staggered between deep, completely glazed light wells that drop to the lower level. The fingers are finished in the same recessive, pale yellow stucco as the rest of the wall enclosing the park, and employ a contrasting palette of dark metal mullions for the continuous window walls that envelope the light wells. ‘The building doesn’t have a facade,’ says Casamor. ‘Instead, we open and manipulate the enclosing wall to create the library.’
The protruding fingers are topped at park level with planting beds trimmed with limestone copings. Several of these are 800 to 1,200mm deep, capable of accommodating the roots of full-size trees, and large enough to supply them with sufficient water and oxygen for growth. The extra expense of the excavation was compensated for by the simply finished concrete structure.
The main entrance, another deeply recessed alcove along the street wall, is given prominence by an external stair that connects the street and the park on one side, and by a high pavilion, rising to park level, on the other. With its slightly pitched roof covered with vegetation, this pavilion gives the building a modest, somewhat domestic presence in the park itself. Set on the corner of the site, it houses a small exhibition space, and has a small terrace looking back to the street. It can open directly to the park, but is accessed principally from the library below.
The original competition scheme was a good deal more radical. BCQ proposed to save all the existing trees on the upper platform of the site, excavating around them. The retaining walls enclosing their roots in ample piers were to have extended down through the two floors of the library, where they would supply the main structural support for the building. In their brief, the architects called these thick piers ‘earth patios’; actually solid masses of earth that, in the building’s interior spaces, would contrast with the ‘patios of light’ facing the street. Casamor traces this dialogue between patios of earth and light to Aldo Rossi’s Modena Cemetery.
In the course of developing the design, complications and cost forced the architects to the fall-back position of deep planting beds. They intended to temporarily transplant the existing trees and then return them to their original locations, but only one of them survived and others were substituted. One trace of the original scheme endures at the building’s northern end, where the architects pulled the foundations out of line to preserve the roots of the park’s largest tree, a monumental eucalyptus. Through this strategy of starting from an impractically radical position and then pulling back to a more ‘reasonable’ premise, the architects succeeded in gaining ground, so to speak, in an important issue on urban amenity − a useful lesson perhaps in any battle against entrenched bureaucratic resistance.
Inside, Casamor and Baena sought to create a domestic atmosphere, incorporating areas with upholstered armchairs and floor lamps, as well as conventional reading tables. ‘Libraries are no longer storage spaces for books,’ Casamor maintains. ‘They should be comfortable places for enjoying knowledge.’ So book storage takes a back seat to the ample reading spaces of the fingers, which overlook the sheer glass walls of the light wells, with views between them and protected views of the street.
Books are housed in a strip of stacks at the back of the site, along the circulation spine that joins the fingers, and in a few small individual rooms, freely open to circulation, that float amid the open spaces of the fingers. Reduced in size and now filled with books instead of earth, these rooms are the remnants of the original scheme’s earth patios, their solid concrete walls integral elements of the structure. In places, wall planes are lined with rasilla, the textured, low-fired non-structural ceramic units used for partitions in Spain as a low-cost alternative to plasterboard. They are usually finished in plaster, but here the architects leave them exposed, with varying reddish-orange hues. Casamor observes that the clay works well acoustically and absorbs excess humidity, while the raw ceramic finish subliminally brings to mind the rough clay of flower pots and damp earth, though the execution is so immaculate that their presence functions more as a visual symbol or cue than as a sensuous, poetic association.
Interiors are otherwise open and institutional in ambience, with white walls, floors, tables and chairs. The domestic scale that the architects seek remains elusive, especially with the relatively high ceilings − just under four metres − and lack of warmer colours. On the exterior, one might also cavil at the contrast of dark metalwork with pale stucco. But these are minor caveats in a design conceived to blend in and reinforce the strengths of its modest locale, rather than to stand out as an exotic formal statement.
This contextual approach aimed at ‘resolving the place’, as Casamor puts it, is central to BCQ’s philosophy. Founded in the early 1990s, the firm has applied this methodology to other projects, such as their 2003 rehabilitation of the Plaça de la Vila de Madrid in the heart of the Gothic Quarter. Working around the archaeological excavation of a Roman cemetery, they created a miniature landscape of grassy berms that preserve and protect the plaza’s existing trees. For the recreational marina of the Barcelona Forum in 2004, they sought to ‘convert the port into a place’, in the words of Casamor, humanising a scheme developed by engineers with more fluid landscape forms to provide shade, views and other amenities. The scheme focuses around two pavilions finished in Corten steel that float over the water in the heart of the port, ‘like old foundered ships’, says Casamor. ‘They present an image that functions like photographs of a landscape, a point of reference.’
In the aftermath of Spain’s current economic crisis, BCQ’s contextual stance, adapting architecture to concepts of place and landscape, is looking increasingly attractive. Six years after the meltdown of 2008, the frenzy of icon-building of the previous decade, with its waste and poor planning, is forever associated in the public mind with the political corruption scandals that are now the daily fare of Spanish news media. As Spain slowly emerges from the worst of the crisis, architects are trying to find a new legitimacy. Projects such as the Joan Maragall Library, modest and local in impact, may help to show the way.
The success of BCQ’s project stands in dismaying contrast to the fate of another library in a park designed by Zaha Hadid for the University of Seville during the same period. With great fanfare, city authorities ceded a site in the Prado de San Sebastián Park for the building in 2006, but neighbours challenged the project in court and won. In 2009, Spain’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that the building, already under construction, had to be demolished. The project’s backers, the court ruled, had not presented sufficient evidence for why the library couldn’t be built elsewhere.
In Sant Gervasi, Baena and Casamor presented their design to neighbourhood civic associations, and offered to modify the project if objections were raised. None were. Casamor observes, ‘If people feel they are losing something, like views into a park, they react. You have to go beyond what is simply legal, and understand what’s really important to them.’