Lord Rogers failed to cast himself as the hero in his disagreement with the Prince of Wales over Chelsea Barracks last year. Far from being seen as a defender of democracy from authoritarian influence, many members of the interested public saw Baron Rogers of Riverside defending his own patch against the Prince. Instead of being seen as a defender of culture against philistinism, Lord Rogers had his Chelsea Barracks scheme crutinised and found wanting – 15 steel and glass blocks up to ten storeys in regimented form. Even an architect as well connected as Lord Rogers is only listened to whilst his work commands respect.
Nor has his other work in London instilled much respect. So it is a salutary reminder to visit his redevelopment of a historic bullring in Barcelona and remember that Rogers is capable of genuinely inventive, expressive architecture. Here, RSHP have plugged a five-storey shopping mall into a late 19th century, neo-Moorish style bullring. The work done on supporting the narrow courses of bricks in collaboration with the Spanish structural engineers BOMA is nothing short of brilliant and the easy grace with which they have convert a husk of a building – an example of very specific typology – into a very workable shopping centre, without compromising their own architectural vision is truly worthy of praise. Like Madrid’s Barajas airport, it is a building that makes you smile.
Yes, Rogers may be riffing on some of his more familiar stylistic trappings – interior yellow pylons – a communications tower with more than a touch of the Dan Dare about it and one can’t help but feel that his most inventive years are behind him. However, Rogers doing a pastiche of Rogers is still great fun. Better by miles than the fussy, stylised cross-bracing and louvres of his luxury apartment blocks in London. Las Arenas is a great building. Albeit an apparently pointless one.
As Robert Hughes noted in his book on the city, written in 1987: ‘Barcelona has two bullrings, one of them fallen into semi permanent disuse, the other largely kept alive by Andalusian migrants and foreign tourists. Tauromachy has never been an obsession in Catalunya as it is further south’. The first of the buildings he refers to here is Las Arenas, which held it’s last bullfight in 1977 and last one-off concert in 1988. The second building Hughes describes is La Monumental, which still operates, and, which, since it was built in 1914 has dominated its smaller competitor. When the Rolling Stones first came to play in Barcelona they originally planned to perform at Las Arenas but moved to La Monumental because the former was too small.
A smaller version of an unpopular building type, Las Arenas wasn’t even a listed building as such. According to Jan Guell, also an architect for RSHP, Las Arenas wasn’t even listed. ‘We knew that the city wanted to keep the façade, it was placed in a catalogue for potential listing,’ he says. And yet, it had survived in dilapidated state perhaps because the ceramic-clad entrance to its deep brown brick curved façade was an appropriate architectural response to the ceremonial esplanade up to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Even though the bullring is often seen by football-loving Catalans as a cultural imposition by Castilian Spain, quite simply the building was a grand bulwark to the sheer scale of the Plaza Espanya upon which it stands.
Yes, Las Arenas is an exercise in facadism. Imagine the Pompidou Centre being shoved into a smaller circular Battersea Power station. Nothing but the brick course remains of the original structure and yet the way in which the building has been salvaged is a spectacle. Despite the fact that it now contains a 12 screen cinema, top quality retail spaces and a spa, Las Arenas is above all an incredibly complex act of architectural salvage on a façade that was considerably off plumb after two decades of neglect.
The existing brick wall is effectively tied into position by a vertical tension bar stretcing from the top to the bottom of the wall behind the brick pilasters. This pulls together the top and bottom concrete beams to put a load back into the brickwork to increase its strength. One can question what the point of doing it was, whilst still marveling at the skill in doing it. The architecture of Las Arenas is sophisticated and honestly derived from the separate structural systems that hold up the façade and support the roof. A giant steel plate sits on the bullring auditorium walls, supported by four huge pylons, meaning that the fourth floor, which contains both the cinema and the spa, can be column free.
It provides an enjoyable visual experience for us shoppers too. The pylons, which are painted in a bright yellow, provide a strong visual signifier of the relationship between the cruciform atrium, with leisure stacked up on top of retail and the 19th century façade. These pylons ensure that even in a retail space with little natural light, the shopper is reminded that the building he is in predicated on the structure that is holding it up. There is no moral imperative to such a device, but visually the pylons mediate between the retail space and the salvaged building. They also provide a flexible floor plan. One of the joys of Richard Rogers work has been the way his work has pushed at the notions of taste through colour, employing green for all the water pipes on the Centre Pompidou, employing yellow columns at the Madrid Barajas airport and employing Mike Davies, who always wears red.
It isn’t the colour in the interior though nor the retention of the façade that makes Las Arenas a truly exciting building though. It’s the roof space. Above the plate that sits on the walls of the bullring is a shallow grid-shell dome constructed from short lengths of glu-lam timber beams, punctuated by an oculus. A beautiful dramatic interior space, it is surrounded by small cafés and then a wide terrace, which is already a popular spot for a promenade for Catalans, who can view their hitherto foreboding National Art Museum at something like an equal level as well as Montjuic beyond. Even better though is the sprung running track that is suspended beneath it, part of the spa complex.
The only point at which the development ceases to be so adroit is the proximity between the bullring and the Eforum office development, a 5,500 sq m office block that is part of the same development. The six-storey building, a two-storey plinth of retail and restaurants with the four storeys of office above, is divided into two narrow buildings with an oblong plan. The building creates a perfect Barcelona street on the east side; simple office blocks all jazzed up by thin aerofoil-style brise soleils on the office block and coloured cranked tripartite columns. Although it no doubt makes the whole expensive refit of Las Arenas financially possible, the whole block feels too tight to the bullring.
Partly as a means of balancing the project, against this bulk to the east, RSHP has built what it calls the communication tower. It’s actually a column that supports a lift shaft that rises up from the metro station. This has been articulated into a Skylon-esque tower with a rotating sign. It is a fun sculptural moment in which Rogers acknowledges the retro chic of his coloured-duct functionalism. It’s a bit of fun – a gesture to all the miserablists who think buying a jumper from a department store is morally wrong, although it is a sign that Rogers is harking back to the years in which he first practiced – giving us a kitschy vision of 50s futurism. His model for a tower in the Summer Show at the Royal Academy suggests that this Eagle Comic futurism is not a one-off however, and you could imagine the appeal of this aesthetic palling after a couple of iterations.
Still, it beats the stuff he is building in London. Even the fans of RSHP’s One Hyde Park project, of which there were only a few, felt the need to excuse themselves in order to compliment the £500m development. In the current economic climate praising a development in which a 3-bedroom apartment costs £15m is simply not in good taste. Rowan Moore, writing in The Observer noted that: “the bigger question is whether we should be outraged by this defensive enclave for the super-rich.” Moore, decided that he wasn’t going to be outraged, although many where.
The question is set to linger. The first block of the Neo Bankside development: immediately adjacent to Tate Modern has completed, containing apartments that sell within a more modest £1m to £5m bracket. Perhaps this is Rogers only real means of delivering his Livingtone-friendly vision of high-density living, believing perhaps that if he gets the rich to re-populate the city centre in high-rise apartments, the poor will no doubt follow. He’s unlikely to convince many people with his argument given that the Neo Bankside towers are designed almost exclusively to maximise the views of its inhabitants. An architect’s practice says more than his preaching.