Home Lifestyle Things to Do Barcelona’s contemporary architecture
Last update on July 07, 2020
Written by The Culture Trip

Explore the mosaic of Barcelona’s contemporary architecture to experience the city’s famous diversity of modern landmarks.

The contemporary architecture of Barcelona, a city renowned for its culture and lifestyle, is still dominated by the visionary creations of Gaudi, which can be seen in both the cityscape and the architectural character of the city.

Gaudi’s fingerprint

Any journey through Barcelona’s contemporary architecture should make a pit stop at Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece: Sagrada Familia. The church, still under construction and still years behind completion, represents a bridge between ancient and modern architecture, an unprecedented exercise of vision and imagination whose complexity and influence extends throughout Barcelona. The church, a real crown in the heart of the city, is publicly admired by architects like Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright, and is the first defining mark of Barcelona’s architectural landscape and a vivid example of how far the limits of architecture can be pushed towards the path of modernity.

Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion

Gaudi’s heritage set an important framework for the development of a new and fearless approach to architecture that revealed itself in the construction of the Mies Van Der Rohe Pavilion in 1929. The original work, built as the German Pavilion for the Great Exhibition, was demolished after the event to be later reconstructed in the same location as the Barcelona Pavilion in 1986. A key reference point in both the career of Mies Van Der Rohe and 20th-century architecture as a whole, the construction has since become emblematic for its use of natural marbles, onyx and glass, as well as the particular structure and distribution of space, left open through its walls, pillars and roof. Its combination of elements seem to float on the water of its two rectangular lakes, reflecting, both literally and metaphorically, the rise of a new architecture.

The Miró Foundation

The impetus for the expansion of Barcelona’s modern architecture came in 1986, with the plans for the upcoming Olympic Games scheduled for 1992. The city was ready to show to the world its great past and promising future, and the reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavilion was just the beginning of a new era. In the Montjuich area, Catalan architects such as Josep Lluís Sert showed their communion with the modern style in another early example of rupture and vanguardism: the Joan Miró Foundation building. Sert was commissioned by Miró himself to create a centre of research and promotion of the latest contemporary art trends. The museum follows the patterns of rationalist architecture with a white structure of modules organised around a central yard. The foundation opened up in 1975 and revolutionised the conception of both architecture and functionalism and its relation with museography.

Isozaki and Calatrava

The Miró Foundation and the Barcelona Pavilion were two key projects for the future development of the Montjuich area in relation to the Olympics, and they were joined by the Olympic ring complex, which added another international firm of worldwide prestige to the city with the work of the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. His project for an indoor multipurpose stadium named Palau Sant Jordi was meant to be one of the main Olympic venues.

It opened up in 1990 and become a famous installation due to its design, technological achievements and great flexibility to hold all kinds of sports and cultural events. The construction acquired more presence with the completion right next to the venue of Santiago Calatrava’s Telecommunications Tower in 1992. The Spanish architect imbued the complex with special meaning with an outstanding tower symbolizing victory and progress in the form of an Olympic torch. The staggering figure of the tower is based on an inclined shaft that rests on a semicircular base, with a series of waves that the architect coated with the trencadís technique in a declared homage to Gaudi, one of the most notable influences on Calatrava’s work.

Foster’s futuristic landmark

Calatrava’s Telecommunications Tower was one of two towers planned for 1992. The other tower was designed by Norman Foster to crown Barcelona’s other hill, Tibidabo, up north in the Collserola area. The Collserola Telecommunications Tower was designed by Foster with the aim of creating a new symbol for the city, an icon of the new Barcelona to be born with the Olympics. Its futuristic design is an example of high-tech architecture, seen in its exposed structure and technological inspiration, using guy wires for lateral support. Regardless of some heavy criticism, the tower succeeded in providing the city with an iconic symbol thanks to its unconventional design and unique location visible from everywhere. Mainly designed as a TV and radio transmitter, it is now more famous as a monument as it features the best and highest views of the city through its panoramic observation deck located on the 10th floor of the pod. The tower belongs to the World Federation of Great Towers.

The Olympic Port: Gehry and SOM

While Foster’s tower was making its way to the top of the city, another area was also getting ready for the ‘92 Olympics. The next celebrity architect studios to come to the city were Gehry Partners and Skidmore, Owing & Merill (SOM), whose Barcelona Fish and the Arts Hotel respectively added two more icons to the city’s skyline. With growing fame as designers of the tallest buildings in the world, the Chicago based architectural partnership SOM built the Arts Hotel to become Barcelona’s tallest building and the entrance to Barcelona’s Olympic Port. The waterfront is greatly symbolised by Frank Gehry’s golden fish, a huge metal sculpture whose wavy lines and sun-reflective material give the complex a unique character and much needed contrast, as it juxtapositions the modernist formulaic structure of the twin towers. Gehry’s Barcelona Fish echoes one of the main motifs of his work, and is another example of his sculptural style, using curvaceous titanium forms and playing with light and air. The Arts Hotel, together with its twin, the Mapfre Tower (designed by Iñigo Ortiz and Enrique de León) follow the rules of the international style in its simplified and unornamented structures. Nevertheless, the particularity of The Arts, an iron white outer skeleton designed by Bruce Graham, makes it a high tech style building.

Raval: A cultural renaissance

Taking the booming success of the Olympics as an inspiration, and with the aim of keeping the city in the international scene after the event, the following projects that the city had planned were linked to the rehabilitation of the Raval district and the promotion of arts and culture to an international level. This was possible thanks to two new cultural facilities located next to one another: the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) and the future Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA).

The CCCB is a centre that organises exhibitions, debates, festivals, lectures and artistic events dedicated to the city and the phenomena they generate as social, urbanistic and cultural catalysts. It opened its doors in 1993 after the renovation of an old house of charity by the architects Albert Viaplana and Helio Piñón in an effort to match the past with the future of the building. This was achieved by changing only one of the sides of the courtyard and using the basement to improve communication and access. The renewed side is a modern glass wall that reflects the old courtyard and whose top floor provides both an observation deck and a reflection of the city in a stunning metaphor of the centre’s function.

Right next to the historic CCCB building, the New York architect Richard Meier was commissioned to design a brand new building as a new container for contemporary art collections not yet in existence. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona (MACBA) is a nuclear white modern building with a glass facade in the heart of the old Raval district, and looks towards a large square surrounded by old streets and buildings. It was designed following Le Corbusier’s rationalist style with clear lines and a combination of curved and straight shapes. The cross-linked structure that covers the glass facade establishes an ongoing dialogue between the indoor and outdoor light that enters the building, drawing an ever-changing artwork throughout the day. The project, finished in 1995, succeeded in helping revamp the area and its square is curiously a worldwide landmark for skateboarders nowadays.

CaixaForum & EMBT 21st-century Icons

The turn of the century begun with two impressive modern rehabilitation works: Arata Isozaki’s new entrance hall for the CaixaForum Cultural Centre and the EMBT’s new stunning rooftop structure for the old market of Santa Caterina in the Gothic area. The CaixaForum cultural centre opened in 2002 in a restored, old textile factory originally built by the famous Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Isozaki’s new entrance hall would distinguish the renovated centre and attract visitors, hiding in its heart a very Zen outer exhibition space flexible enough to hold live performances, screenings and presentations. The building, located right next to the Mies Van Der Rohe pavilion, also seems to take this proximity as a model. An amazing must see for architecture lovers.

Some years later in 2005, the stunning renovation of Santa Caterina’s Market by EMBT studio was finished: a colourful mosaic deck that covers the old market gates like a wave. The studio of Enric Miralles, who passed away prematurely in 2000, is now led by his partner Benedetta Tagliabue, who continued his work finishing some projects that have become new Barcelona icons, including the headquarters of Gas Natural (Torre Marenostrum) in 2007 and the Diagonal Zero Hotel and the W Hotel, both finished in 2009.

Herzog & de Meuron Forum

Following the lead of the Olympic boom, another event filled the city with renewed architectural enthusiasm: the Forum of Cultures in 2004. Claimed as a success but also known as a campaign to change the face of the Besòs area of the city, the event became the perfect excuse to attract more international firms. Among these projects, the Forum building by Herzog and de Meuron was supposed to become central but it went through a series of misfortunes and was only recently re-launched as a new Natural History Museum (Museu Blau). In truth, the Forum event didn’t succeed in revamping an extremely degraded area, and even if it added some new facilities and modern buildings to the map, it still remains years away from becoming a real business and recreation area.

Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower

The other side of the Poblenou had better luck. Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower, unlike the Forum building, become a real gateway for a new technological area, the so called [email protected] district. Despite some early criticism and a funny nickname, Jean Nouvel’s water-geyser-shaped building, headquarters of the water supply company of Barcelona, added more colours and a new symbol to the city, particularly thanks to its nocturnal lightning system. Nouvel was also inspired by the shapes of Montserrat, a mountain near Barcelona, and wanted to pay tribute to Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, taking some characteristics of its bell towers and turning the inside hall into some sort of temple, particularly evident when the sun shines through the stained-glass window sections. Rumour has it that Nouvel’s design was finished before Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe, also known as the Gherkin, a similar shaped tower erected between 2001 and 2003 in London. Either way, both buildings have become famous landmarks and great examples of high tech architecture.

DHUB: The last piece of the mosaic

The Agbar tower succeeded in becoming not only a famous monument and landmark but the symbol and banner of a new technologic downtown that hasn’t stopped growing. More importantly, it has forced a much needed reinterpretation of the Glories Square as a public space, and not as a simple suburban crossroads. Efforts to improve its connections with the city centre are now underway, as is the pedestrianisation of the square. Meanwhile, more start-ups and technological companies have moved to the neighbourhood, turning its abandoned industrial past into a promising technological future. In this sense, the eyes are focused now on the forthcoming inauguration of the DHUB building, a commission by the Catalan architect Oriol Bohigas, intended to become a design hub and a meeting point for a network of people and institutions which would encourage both research and economic activity.

DHUB is scheduled to open its doors in the last term of 2013, but still, its future remains unknown and full of controversy due to the character of its location, far from the city centre, and also to some friction between historic design institutions like FAD (Fostering Arts and Design) and more recent initiatives like BCD (Barcelona Centre of Design). Moreover, its enormous and intrusive design, with one side looking into the Glories Square and the other looking at the Poblenou district and blocking the view of the Agbar tower, is viewed suspiciously. Popularly known as ‘the stapler’, its cost, construction and size are claimed to be too large, even if the architectural studio MBM defends the eco-efficiency of the building. Time will unveil the fate of this building, seemingly the last example of modern architecture in the city after the cancellation of Zaha Hadid‘s Spiralling Tower campus. Perhaps DHUB could be understood as a metaphor of the economic crisis: A colossal construction which has become an empty space with an unclear future.

All in all, Barcelona’s modern architecture is colourful, rich and harmoniously spread over the city, offering a moderate balance between the past and the future and composing a diverse and appealing mosaic. After all, Gaudi’s forms are part of its DNA.