Els Encants Vells, Barcelona

Els Encants Vells from Jardin de los Elsines

Els Encants Vells from Jardin de los Elsines

There’s been an open air, general and for a lot of the time unorganised and unregulated market in the area of Las Glories of Barcelona for centuries. Even though I’ve been to Barcelona many times over the last 20 plus years I’ve never made it to that place until this year (2015) – which might be a shame (in retrospect) but then shopping and markets ave never been my thing and my experiences of walking through the Madrid Rastro (never with any serious negative consequences (it’s a pickpockets and general thieves paradise) but coming away wondering why I had gone through the experience of jostling through thousands of people when there was never anything I might have wanted to buy). But I was glad that on my most recent visit to Barcelona I made it an effort to go to Els Enacants Vells, at Plaza de Las Glories.

Not that I am any more interested in the market itself. There might have been a bit of twisted ‘romance’ about walking through a dust ridden, rubbish strewn, unorganised and chaotic location designed to extract the greatest amount of money for the smallest amount of value but I had missed that (no tears) and have to relate to the building itself. Which, I consider, to be a minor architectural marvel.

By all accounts the remit of the tender was to provide a modern environment for an ancient market and I think that the architects (b720 Arquitectos, based in Barcelona but with offices in Madrid and also in San Paulo (Brazil)) have provided what was asked for in spades.

What they have basically produced is a very interesting roof, supported by slender metal columns (new technology allowing for some innovative ideas to be brought to fruition) and underneath an environment that takes into consideration the original, in a field, in the mud when it rained, shabby and chaotic environment of a street market of yore.

Now, I have no doubts that there were many people who didn’t like this change of venue – it moved across the Las Glories huge roundabout – or the introduction of regulations. There are, at the very bottom of the building, more or less in the basement, the same sort of stalls that would have been common in the ‘traditional’ market, i.e. all the bits and pieces up for sale on the ground, getting dirty and losing value every time they came out of the box. But they are in the minority. The overwhelming majority of the stalls are of a semi-permanent type and some are no different from the shops you might encounter on any (dying) local town.

And that’s a problem, especially when you consider the genesis of the idea of a flea market. That was a market where anybody could go and sell what little they had. Now there’s a problem with that sort of heritage. Many people went to these types of markets in the past to sell what they had to eat or pay the rent. It’s a mark of disgrace on our western societies that that situation is still with us in the 21st century.

It also meant that those not too honest people, the thieves and robbers of old, could dispose of their ill-gotten gains quickly, providing the unscrupulous poor of a way of acquiring those goods that had been stolen from their even more unfortunate peers.

The new ‘old market’ is now a place for the up and coming petite bourgeoisie. The poor have been even more marginalised in selling their chattels and the profit goes to the middle-man. Rents here will be, undoubtedly, much higher than before and would have excluded all but the more prosperous thereby making a mockery of the idea of continuing the tradition of a ‘flea market’.

Does that make the new building ‘classless’? Probably not. There’s a mix of small, pod-like shelters which can be locked up a night, next to which are basically shops, some big some not so big, but at least permanent. It’s only on the lowest floor where there is space for ‘arrive on the day with all the goods you want to sell’ space. If the poor are waiting for the state and other official capitalist institutions to bring them out of their poverty they will wait forever, and we’ll see no cultural advance, proletarian or bourgeois.

To the structure itself.

It’s a light-weight, yet must be very strong, metal roof structure supported by relatively thin, yet also strong, pillars which provide shelter for the stalls beneath but still allows for the impression of it being an open market, their being no walls.

This roof I consider to be an amazing structure. It’s made of reflective metal but it’s also fractured and in that way, each time you look up, and move even a short distance in any direction, the reflection is different. The roof is not complete in that there are areas where the sky is visible but they must be overlapping otherwise even ‘cheap seats’ in the basement would get the rain on occasions, which would create a certain amount of animosity.

How that metal doesn’t tarnish and therefore mitigate the reflection is (at present) a mystery to me. Barcelona is on the coast and Les Glòries is not that far from the Mediterranean and I would have thought that the salt in the atmosphere would have had an effect, but 18 months after opening the reflective capabilities of the roof seem unaffected.

The structure was officially opened for business on Wednesday 25th September 2013 and it cost €52,659,814, which seems a lot for a roof and a few pavements, but it’s nice work if you can get it – and as it’s the public who are paying then, obviously, money is no object. We all know that land speculators, banks, and even environmentally friendly architects are suffering in the present climate of austerity.

The roof is the most interesting aspect of the structure but the way the different floors seem to merge into one another is also unique, almost creating one of these optical illusions where you are on an endless road. You can get an idea of this from the maqueta.

Els Encants Vells - Maqueta

Els Encants Vells – Maqueta

Now to the details.

It is the result of the work of a group of architects known as ‘b720 Arquitectos’, headed by Fermín Vázquez. (The number 720 comes from the way in which architectural materials are codified – I know, I’m not really that much the wiser either.) This promotes itself as being, more or less, a collective where all ideas are considered equal but as the practice has been involved in a number of really big, multi-million Euro/Dollar projects, in Barcelona and other parts of Spain as well as Brazil, I would have my doubts about that.

The practice has an ecological principle and seeks to design buildings which are in harmony with their surroundings as well as sing locally sourced materials. Among the other projects they have completed in Barcelona are the Torre Agbar (Barcelona’s smaller version of what is known as ‘The Gherkin’ in London – which I’ve never seen in reality), the Hotel Santos Porta Fira in L´Hospitalet de Llobregat (a seemingly top-heavy structure which is situated mid-way between Barcelona’s airport and the city itself) and an office building at Avinguda Diagonal 197.

Torre Agbar from Els Encants Vells

Torre Agbar from Els Encants Vells

How to get there:

Les Glòries is a stop on the Barcelona Metro, on L1, Les Glòries, Encants station on L2 is not that far away. You can also get there by Tram on line T5.

Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, Barcelona

Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

If, after a few days in Barcelona, you’re suffering from a surfeit of Modernism (too much Gaudi or Domenech i Montener) then you could do much worse than visit the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion in the exhibition and conference area, between the Plaça de Espanya and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Many, many thousands of people walk close-by but the overwhelming majority of them – unless they are specifically looking for it – won’t even know of the existence of this building or know of its importance in the development of 20th century architecture.

The German Pavilion and the International Exhibition of 1929

The present building is on the same spot as the original (designed as the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition) but for more than 50 years nothing was there, just an empty space, an even more extreme example of minimalism.

Although it appears to be a house there’s no accommodation, kitchen or bathroom. I don’t understand why, it just wasn’t part of the requirements of the commission. I would have thought that creating a realistic living environment would have been more useful in promoting the Minimalist argument but Mies didn’t think so and just created ‘a space’ through which the people visiting the pavilion couldn’t just use it as a shortcut to the Pobla Espanyol, they had to see all of it.

The structure followed those tenets of Minimalism established a few years earlier: angular in appearance (no ‘softening’ of the structure which was taken for granted by the Modernists); a flat roof supported by simple iron columns; large, plate-glass windows – virtually forming the exterior walls; and limited, and purely functional furnishings.

When the exhibition finished attempts were made to find a buyer for the structure, and there was even a proposal to establish a restaurant in the location, but that all fell through and the German government decided to sell the iron for scrap and sent the travertine, marble, onyx (the types of stone used in the original) and the sculpture of a female nude (Der Morgen, ‘Morning’), by George Kolbe, back to Germany.

‘Less is more’ – the Mies van der Rohe motto

The Minimalists arose as a reaction to the over decoration that had been a dominant force in European architecture and was heavily influenced by traditional Japanese design. The Minimalists sought to reduce buildings (as well as objects and art) to their necessary elements, eschewing decoration that was over and above what was used, in a practical manner, to achieve the desired result. In the Mies Pavilion this is shown by the use of colourful and imaginatively pieced together slabs of marble and onyx for the walls or the travertine used on the floor.

Entrance - Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Entrance – Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

The Bauhaus – the inspiration for Mies

Mies van der Rohe was one of the triumvirate of Minimalist architects which were to have a considerable impact upon the architecture of the 20th century, although this is not always that obvious. The other two were the Swiss Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, but always known as Le Corbusier, and a fellow German,Walter Gropius.

It was Gropius who had designed the Bauhaus in Dessau, in the Weimar region of Germany, which was completed in 1926. This established some of the ‘ground rules’ for Minimalist architecture with its angularity, use of iron columns, concrete and a lot of glass, as well as dividing the building up (it originally functioned as an art and design college, together with accommodation for students and staff) so that the design reflected the use of each section.

However, the Bauhaus complex exposed problems (I’m not going as far as to say failings) of the Minimalist approach, something which the Pavilion in Barcelona never would as it was never ‘used’ in a real life context, only ever being an exhibition space, a concrete realisation of the ‘idea’.

To some extent these problems arose due to the use of glass and the openness that this implied. In the Bauhaus, aligned as it was to make maximum use of natural light, the students would be cooked as the sun shone through the windows in the summer – if the Bauhaus had been constructed in Britain this would not have been a problem. In order to survive the ‘solution’ was to put up curtains, a total anathema to Minimalist thinking. In the winter the problem was the reverse. Any heat created inside the buildings just dissipated through the not very insulation efficient windows with their iron framework.

Privacy perhaps wasn’t a major issue for the classrooms but it was for the teachers in their homes, situated a short distance from the college building – or at least for one of them, the Russian born painter, Wassily Kandinsky.

It seems he didn’t like living in a ‘goldfish bowel’ and painted over the glass windows to his house. He also didn’t like the minimalist decoration of the house where the walls were painted in plain colours to reflect the function of that particular space. He was reputed to have used a palate of hundreds of colours in counteracting the original, simple selection.

This situation, didn’t, couldn’t and will never arise from the Mies Pavilion as it has no real function, perhaps yet another ultra-minimalist statement.

The Pavelló Mies

After the death of the Fascist Franco the Barcelona Municipality decided to attempt a reconstruction and as all the plans, together with photographs of the original, were to hand the project was completed and the ‘new’ building opened on 2nd June 1986.

The statue of Morning, by Kolbe, had found a permanent home in a public square in the Schöneberg district of Berlin so a copy was made and that now stands where its original had in 1929, on a plinth in the small pool.

'Der Morgen' - Morning - George Kolbe

‘Der Morgen’ – Morning – George Kolbe

The Barcelona Chair

Minimalists tried, when at all possible, to not only design the building but all the interior fittings within the structure. At the Bauhaus, for example, Gropius designed the light fittings, power sockets, door and cupboard handles to mention just a few. In this way they were very similar to the Modernists the result of which can be seen in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, at the top of the steps above the fountain a few minutes walk from the Pavilion.

For Mies this resulted in the design of what is still known as the ‘Barcelona Chair’, a simple padded chair for one person based upon a tubular steel structure. This is still made and bought in their thousands today and is one indication of the longevity and reach of Minimalist ideas which might not be recognised by those who sit in those chairs – which are said to be quite comfortable. Don’t try that at the Pavilion or you’ll be thrown out on your ear.

'Barcelona' Chair - Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

‘Barcelona’ Chair – Mies van der Rohe Pavilion

Just as an aside, another well-known everyday design from that period of the 1920s is the anglepoise lamp.

A breath of fresh air?

Although in no way as extensive as the Modernist buildings in other parts of Barcelona and Catalonia the Mies Pavilion is still worth a visit but it might be worthwhile doing a little bit of research before a visit so you know what you are looking at and the intentions of the architect. At the same time only a real aficionado of Minimalism would be there for more than a half an hour – if that.

Location and contact details:

Pavelló Mies van der Rohe

Aviguda Francesc i Guàrdia 7

Parc de Montjuic

08038 Barcelona

Tel: +34 93 4234016

Internet: The Mies van der Rohe Foundation

How to get there:

The nearest Metro station is at Plaça de Espanya – this is also a major bus intersection. From there take the exit directing you to the Palau de Congressos and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. Walk along the right hand side of the avenue, go up the first set of escalators and then turn right alongside the sandy park space. The building is just in front of you but remember it’s minimalist so you have to look hard.

Opening times:

Everyday between 10.00 – 20.00

Entrance: €5

(At 10.00 on a Saturday a free guided tour in English is advertised. You still have to pay the entrance but there was no information of having to book in advance.)