Monday, 2 January 2012

Barcelona, Eixample

The Eixample is the largest city extension project of the nineteenth century. It is a fascinating story involving politics, science, aesthetics, engineering, medicine and the confrontation between late nineteenth-century utopianism and cash. In this blog I gather together some material which should help anyone wishing to explore this particular aspect of BCN. First, notes derived from the excellent Catalan radio show En Guàrdia. Then some links to other English language sources. And finally some Spanish / Catala language links.

The Eixample (meaning ‘expansion’, Spanish ensanche) is the major extension to the old city of Barcelona, and still represents the largest area of the metropolis today. It was the biggest European city planning project of the nineteenth century (the next biggest were Paris, redeveloped by Hausmann, and Vienna, extended from the old city into the Ringstrasse).  The plan of the Eixample is best understood historically, while its construction and later development are indicative of changing concepts of urbanisation.
In the first half of the nineteenth century Barcelona went through a rapid process of industrialisation: the first textile factory to use steam power opened in 1832; street gas lamps were introduced (1842); and the railway arrived with the line between Barcelona and Matarò in 1848. The industrial revolution brought population growth: a city population of 111, 000 in 1787 had grown to nearly 190, 000 by 1860. This population was squeezed into a city still bounded by the medieval city walls, dating from a time when the population was some 35, 000. This density, coupled with poor housing and low conditions of public health, was extremely dangerous: there were regular epidemics of yellow fever (8850 deaths in 1821) and cholera (1834 – 3500 victims; 1865 - 4000). In 1841 the Barcelona doctor Pere Felip Monlau, having seen new hygiene practices originating from London being used in Paris, published a pamphlet simply called Abajo las murallas! (Down with the Walls!)
Within Barcelona there was general agreement that the walls had to be demolished: for those versed in the latest science, this was an opportunity to build a modern, scientifically planned metropolis; workers saw a possible escape from feudal oppression; while for the business class it was an opportunity to profit from prime real estate. Bounded by mountains to the north and south, Barcelona had to expand inland, into the plain which was still countryside at this time. Opposition to demolishing the walls came from the conservative government in Madrid, and in particular the military, who had a permanent base in the Ciutadella (Citadel). They regarded Barcelona as a military fortress. It was not permitted to build on land which was within the range of cannon from the city walls (the so-called ‘zona polèmica’).  Furthermore, Barcelona was regarded as a dangerous source of republican unrest. The City authorities, however, decided on a rupture with Madrid, and in 1853 arrived at a three-point plan: the ‘eixample’ would be unlimited; the walls would become municipal property; and the walled perimeter would be replaced by a tree-lined passage. Barcelona could not proceed without authorisation from Madrid, however, as enlarging the city meant building on districts which were outside the city’s jurisdiction. Federal approval was therefore legally required. This became possible in 1854, when a progressive government took over in Madrid in a coup. Demolition of the walls started in that year.à 
The designer of the scheme which has become today’s Eixample was Ildefons Cerdà. Born to a wealthy rural family, Cerdà went to Madrid to study the engineering involved in large structural projects. He joined the Spanish army as comandante of the national militia of engineers. Cerdà was fascinated by urban development, and elaborated the new science of ‘urbanism’, involving the study of all elements of urban space (health, housing, transport, communications etc.). Cerdà saw the ‘Eixample’ project as an opportunity to bring the city into modern times, and construct a living space on strictly rational grounds, based on the newest scientific research into hygiene. In 1855 he presented a plan for the city extension. It is notable for strong concerns over health. At that time, before modern bacterial science, it was assumed that infection was carried through the air. The plan specified space between houses for light and air. Living space was based on a calculation for 6m cubed of space per person as a hygienic requirement, plus 40m squared of living space. The grid plan was inspired by the model of Buenos Aires . There were height limits for buildings, and extensive green areas. Along the grid were ‘illas’( islands), in which housing was built around a central green space. The corners of each ‘illa’ were chamfered, to allow horse-drawn transport to turn. The grid was intended to produce autonomous districts, each with its own nearby facilities (schools, hospitals etc.)

The Ajuntament (Town Hall) opposed Cerdà’s plan, which was favoured by Madrid. The Ajuntament decided to hold a competition to decide. This was won by an alternative radial plan designed by Rovira i Trias, with long avenues coming into the six possible entries to city. This plan took up less space, just about coinciding with municipal limits, allowing Barcelona to act with autonomy. It presents a fan-shape extension of the city, with principal avenues / boulevards extending outwards from old city. Streets in this plan are 10m wide (In Cerdà’s they are 20m). These streets would not have coped with modern traffic, but in any case Cerdà’s proposal was favoured by Madrid, and was developed into a full plan in 1859.
In 1860 a decree authorized the construction of the 1859 plan. The first permit to build was given to a landowner, and Queen Isabel II came to Barcelona to inaugurate the project.  Existing landowners were given permits to develop their land. But in return they had to cede (without compensation) some land for roads and accept limits, for example regarding how much land can be built on and the height of buildings. Calculations for each dwelling were based on the space shared by a married couple. In the old city, this was between 25% and 50% of the ideal. In the example, 50% of living space was for bedrooms. The ideal house is a cube, open to four winds and surrounded by green. But this ideal also makes it expensive. The socialist utopian city soon became marked by class, with high-status houses (none more notable than Gaudi’s) for the wealthy in the fashionable areas.
As construction continued, plans were frequently revised, and the population became more dense than originally planned. The building of the Eixample coincided in the 1860s with the growth of Barcelona into an international metropolis, and various other iconic building projects: there was the University (1868), housed in the old Convent del Carme. This was the first large building project in the new city to be financed with public money. In 1872 the Ciutadella was converted into a leisure park. In this scheme, the shortcomings of Eixample being recognised: it was  not representative of the whole population, with many workers being priced out of the housing market, and planned green spaces were being built over.
The story of the Eixample is one of increasing density and disappearing green space. The original prescription was for 67,200 square metres of building on each  ‘illa’. A century later the approved volume had increased to 295, 000 metres.

Now for some more sources. A lot of these (sorry) and covering the same ground (obviously) so selection advisable.
English language links (public domain):
English language links (restricted):
For (much) more detail, here are JSTOR citations to two academic studies:
'Ildefonso Cerdá's General Theory of 'Urbanización'
Arturo Soria Y Puig
The Town Planning Review , Vol. 66, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 15-39
'Constructing a City: The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona'
Eduardo Aibar and Wiebe E. Bijker          
Science, Technology, & Human Values , Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter, 1997), pp. 3-30

Inevitably, there is much in the home language of Catalan. The notes above were based on this episode (no. 235) of the Catalunya Radio show En Guàrdia:

To follow this, here is one of Gencat's educational videos on the art and architecture of the area:

Tucked away in the vaults of TV3 there is an account of the whole story by Lluis Permanyer, 'Cerda, un visionari maleit' (available until 2015, for some reason not embeddable).

Here's a debate on the Eixample and its fortunes, also on TV3:

This programme went with a 2009 exhibition at MUHBA.