The architecture of housing differs fundamentally from the architecture of other building types in that it is never a purely qualitative consideration: unlike a singular custom house, “housing” raises issues of standardization, modular repetition, aggregation and urban morphology. With housing, especially the kind that is affordable to a majority, architectural quality must relate to an economy of means; to questions of quantity and efficiency. Invariably, the housing question comes down to: how can the most be achieved with the least?
This question was taken seriously by the architects of the GATCPAC group (Grup d’Artistes i Tècnics Catalans pel Progrés de l’Arquitectura Contemporània), specifically Josep Lluís Sert, Josep Torres Clavé and Joan Baptista Subirana, when they were commissioned by the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Catalan government) to come up with a solution to the problem of affordable housing in Barcelona in the early 1930s. The 207 unit apartment building that resulted from their research, Casa Bloc, still stands to this day and can even be visited (by appointment: an excellent guided tour by El Globus Vermell that includes entry into a meticulously restored apartment-museum).
What amazes me about Casa Bloc every time I visit it (I tend to take my students there every term) is how it is still exemplary nearly a century later. Employing construction methods that were relatively new at the time, Casa Bloc set out to rethink the design and construction of housing in order to achieve the highest quality possible at a relatively low cost. Unlike the more heroic avant-garde architectural movements of the 20th century, the GATCPAC was unusually practical and realistic in its commitment to find solutions to social problems. The group was also more attuned to local rather than global factors, such as the cultural way of life of the people it was designed to house, the Mediterranean climate and its relation to the use of space at different times of the year, and the rapid growth of Barcelona at that time due to rural-urban migration. In the local context, Casa Bloc was also motivated by the search for a more rational alternative to the typically very deep apartment buildings between party walls of the Eixample, the urban enlargement of Barcelona planned by Ildefons Cerdà in 1859; the intention being to do away with the need for light-wells in order to improve daylight penetration and cross-ventilation.
Casa Bloc is essentially a long, rectilinear S-shaped building forming two partially open courtyards. At seven stories, its height is no taller than the typical Eixample building of the period. The building mass is partially raised on Corbusian pilotis, creating courtyard gardens that are open and accessible but still enclosed enough to create a micro-climate. Stair and elevator cores located at the four articulations of the squared S-shape provide vertical access to “street-in-the-sky” galleries on every second floor that in turn provide access to two-story “maisonette” dwelling units. These galleries are always positioned on the shady side of the building so that the living-dining rooms of dwellings are situated on the sunny side.
Standardization allowing flexibility is a major innovation of Casa Bloc’s design. The standard two-story dwelling in Casa Bloc was planned so that a pair of side-by-side units could divide a total of six upstairs bedrooms either evenly into two 3-bedroom units or, if necessary, unevenly into one 2-bedroom unit and another 4-bedroom unit merely by repositioning the door of one bedroom, providing a degree of flexibility that was unprecedented at that time. Designed as a new housing prototype and not merely as a singular object, Casa Bloc is the outcome of an architectural rigor that ranges in scale all the way from door handle to the metropolis.
By virtue of its linear organization and its aspiration to become a modern housing prototype (which it never did due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing dictatorship), Casa Bloc is comparable with the unbuilt Immeuble Villas by Le Corbusier, whom Sert had worked for some years before. Casa Bloc, however, was designed much more with affordability and efficiency in mind when compared to the Immeuble Villas relative utopianism, representing, arguably, a concretization of and an improvement upon Le Corbusier’s ideas.
Considering the societal crossroads at which architecture finds itself in these times, and considering the increasing bifurcation that is occurring between architectural form and function, it might be a timely idea for contemporary architecture to revisit Casa Bloc.