Grit and Glam

[Originally published in DETAIL magazine 5.2021]

There is no mistaking old from new in this adaptive reuse project by Baas Arquitectura for the Oliva Artés Museum of the History of Barcelona. The original building, a run-down, hundred-year-old brick and iron shed appears almost unchanged for the most part. By contrast, Baas’s recent intervention upon both the interior and exterior of the shed consists of the addition of a series of abstract sculptural forms crafted from steel plate finished with a golden hue. The result resembles a minimalist art installation, one for which the weathered texture of the industrial shed serves as a character foil at the same time that its artfulness elevates the shed to the status of a museum. Precedents that come to mind are Donald Judd’s transformation of an old army base into his studio and foundation in Marfa, Texas, as well as Herzog & de Meuron’s transformation of London’s Bankside power station into the Tate Modern.

In reality, Baas’s “sculptures” are of course functional architectural elements: an inclined rectangular bar-shape attached to the rear of the building is, in reality, an exterior fire stair addition; a pair of concentric helixes in a corner of the museum turns out to be a stair; a horizontal bar-shape suspended between two mezzanines forms an elevated walkway across the central nave; and an abstract box-frame at the front forms a generous entrance porch that moreover shape-shifts into a lateral lift tower. This piece-by-piece design strategy is permitting the renovation project to be realized more economically in phases, with the remaining third and final phase consisting of new windows for the shed.

Baas’s intervention illustrates beautifully how our reception of art as art depends almost entirely on context, especially when it comes to minimalist art and its post-industrial display paradigm, or what art critic Brian O’Doherty calls “context as content.” But it also illustrates, albeit somewhat obliquely and at a more urban scale, Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour’s “decorated shed” theorem, except that here the shed is old and industrial instead of new and commercial, and the “decoration” addresses the more pedestrian context of Parc Central del Poblenou (by Jean Nouvel) instead of the Las Vegas Strip. Baas’s front porch and tower intervention even works as a “sign,” both in the museum-logo sense as well as –more interestingly for a history museum— as a sign of the times, encapsulating both Barcelona’s grimy industrial period, when it was known as the “Manchester of the South,” and its post-industrial contemporaneity as a design and leisure tourist destination. The knife-sharp contrast between the rough shed and the gilded decorative art mirrors Barcelona’s yin yang unity of grit and glam; of Biutiful and Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona.

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