Brutal Underground

Europa – Fira metro station on the soon-to-be completed L9 line in Barcelona.

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #54]

Barcelona has a problem: too many motor vehicles occupy too much space and fill the densely populated inner city with too much exhaust and noise, causing gridlock, smog and, for many, nearly unbearable stress. The problem is not limited to Barcelona, of course, but traffic nuisance in the Spanish city is exacerbated by urban density and a local culture that worships fast cars and motorcycles, as well as by public areas that have to accommodate a rapidly growing number of tourists.

To remedy the problem, for years the city has been encouraging motorists to switch to alternate means of transport, using every method imaginable. In the early 2000s, for example, hundreds of kilometres of bicycle lanes were introduced into a city where almost nobody rode a bicycle: it was considered suicidal for cyclists to share the streets with Barcelonan traffic. A public bike-sharing system that was inaugurated soon afterwards, however, is now one of the most used of its kind in the world. Cycling has become so hip that bikes have even been spotted in the window displays of upscale fashion boutiques. Current efforts include a new network of BRT (bus rapid transit) routes and, consequently, the creation of ‘superblocks’ that are closed to through-traffic; as well as a ‘smart city’ initiative scheduled for implementation in 2016 which offers passengers a flexible transit fare: an official smog warning automatically means a 50 per cent discount. Cut fares are sure to appeal to the notoriously stingy Catalans.

Architecture is another part of the city’s aim to stimulate the use of public transport, not least in the design of new metro stations in outlying areas, where many people still hop in their cars when they leave home. The result of competitions won by local and international architects, the new stations are bigger, airier, brighter and more cheerful than the dark, claustrophobic spaces of past decades, making the metro a more enticing mobility option. An increase in the use of public transport translates into a greater frequency of service, reduced waiting times and a more attractive alternative to the family car. Think architecture that rocks, for trains and buses that roll.

Barcelona’s expanding metro system features a new, 48-km-long driverless line that, when completed – it’s an expensive project that’s suffered delays – will stop at 52 stations in five municipalities, strategically linking many significant destinations: airport, seaport (logistics zone), food-distribution market, Camp Nou (stadium), Polytechnic University, industrial parks, office districts, and residential areas representing a wide range of income levels. Set to become the longest metro line in Europe, L9 is a social condenser if ever there was one.

A line with so many stations makes a sense of architectural identity – even individuality – important. Three L9 stations designed by local firm Garcés – De Seta – Bonet exemplify what might be called a ‘museological’ approach to architecture. And I’m not referring to the tiresome ‘iconic museum’ trend. Far from it: there is nothing less iconic and less object-like than a subterranean building. What I’m trying to point out is the ability of architecture to contextualize or expose things by putting them ‘on display’, thereby ennobling them.

In the case of these metro stations, what the architects have ennobled are the technological imperatives of complex works of underground infrastructure and the seemingly slapdash construction methods used to build them. What they have effectively done is to ‘curate’ the art of civil engineering. Thus underground structural elements normally hidden behind panels or tiles, such as diaphragm walls and temporary tiebacks, are here left unclad to striking architectural effect.

The result is a series of spaces that reveal and revel in what is typically seen as a structure to be covered up with ‘design’. What Garcés – De Seta – Bonet has glorified is the messiness of slurry walls, not to mention the very accidents and imperfections of cast-in-place concrete. But the architects went beyond mere exposure. At the Mercabarna station, large voids dug to allow machinery to be lowered underground were left in place to serve as lightwells, making this the only new station to be illuminated by daylight. At the Europa Fira station, concrete tieback beams initially installed for the temporary stabilization of diaphragm walls during construction also remain in place. Acoustic reverberation in the raw concrete ‘bunkers’ is dampened by large sound-absorbing panels that are framed and mounted on the ceilings at regular intervals, establishing a rhythm for conduits, ducts, pipes and light fixtures. Standard metro signage and furnishings are similarly fastened to the rough concrete of exposed diaphragm walls or interior steel-sheet partitions.

This is not the first example of architettura povera to emerge in Barcelona, of course. In his design of a café and restaurant for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner exposed all brick and iron structural components. Previously, industrial materials like these had been seen only inside factories or warehouses, and certainly not in prestigious public buildings. Hendrik Petrus Berlage followed suit in his design of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange (built between 1896 and 1903). What was considered radical a century ago has of course become commonplace today in the many urban loft and café interior renovations that fetishize century-old brick partitions. Garcés De Seta Bonet’s metro designs are significant for doing so with new, non-architectural engineering construction. Brutalism doesn’t get any rawer than this.

When the stations open next year, not everyone will appreciate the firm’s underground brutalism, but public-transport architecture is not about pleasing the crowd. It is about enhancing the experience of transit and, while we’re at it, paying tribute to the elements, processes and materials that make it all possible.


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