In the 1850's, Barcelona was able to expand both physically,
with the long-awaited demolition of the walls, and psychologically, with
economic expansion and the cultural awakening of the Catalan Renaixenca. The
stage was set for it to spread into the great grid-iron plan for the Eixample
(Ensanche or Extension), of Ildefons CerdÓ.
Once Barcelona's walls were down, a plan was needed to develop
the land beyond them and connect the city with Gracia and the outlying towns.
The Ajuntament (Council) held a competition for projects in 1859. They actually
preferred one by Antoni Rovira i Tras, for long straight streets radiating out
fan-like from Plaša Catalunya. For reasons that have never been explained,
orders came from Madrid that the plan to be adopted was that of another Catalan
engineer, Ildefons CerdÓ (1815-1875). The Ajuntament had disliked CerdÓ's
scheme because it ignored the old centre of the city.
CerdÓ had surveyed and drawn the city's first accurate plans
in 1855. He was also influenced by the problems of El Raval, concerned with the
cramped and unhealthy conditions of workers' housing and the high death rate and
crime that he saw resulted from this. CerdÓ surveyed the working-class way of
life in the 1850s and found that a diet of bread and potatoes, enhanced with the
odd sardine, was all an average family could afford. Observers blamed the
cholera epidemic of 1854, which claimed 6,000 lives, on overcrowding in
unsanitary conditions. Disorder, disease and riots were a regular feature of the
long hot summer of 1854.
CerdÓ loved straight lines, and his idea was to place two of
the Eixample's main avenues along a geographic parallel split by roads crossing
perpendicularly. His central aim was to overcome social problems by using
quadrangular blocks of a standard size, with strict building controls to ensure
that they were built up on only two sides, to a limited height, leaving a shady
square or garden in between. This recreational open space with open sides to the
blocks was to guarantee the houses the maximum amount of sun, light and
ventilation. The housing blocks were to be orientated NW-SE to ensure all
apartments received sunshine during the day. Each district would be of twenty
blocks, containing all the community shops and services. The sides of the blocks
measured 113.3 metres and covered 12,370 square metres, of which at least 800
square metres were to be gardens. The regular streets were built 20 metres wide.
Gran Via was 50 metres wide and Passeig de Gracia was as much as 60 metres wide.
For CerdÓ, the function of the street was for communication and the movement of
The most characteristic feature of CerdÓ's plan is the 45║
angled corner of each block (chaflanes). The idea behind this was to
ensure more fluid traffic in all directions, above all for public transport: it
was mainly the steam tram that CerdÓ had in mind, and it was its long turning
radius which determined the angle of the corners of the buildings.
In the event, though, this idealised use of urban space was
scarcely achieved, for the private developers who actually built the Eixample
regarded CerdÓ's restrictions on their property (and profits) as pointless
interference. Buildings - 520 square blocks or 'manzanas' - went up
to much more than the planned heights, and in practice all the blocks have been
enclosed, with very few inner gardens surviving. Today, most of the inner
courtyards are occupied by car parks, workshops and shopping centres.
While CerdÓ's more visionary ideas were largely lost over
time, the construction of the Eixample did see the development of a specific
type of building: the quality apartment block, with large flats on the lower Principal
floor, (i.e. the first above the ground), often with glassed-in galleries
for the drawing-room. The top floors contained apartments with roof gardens.
Although world-famous as the first-ever model of ideal urban
planning, the Eixample has not pleased everyone. Caries Soldevila says: "We
are not going to try and hide the fact that we Barcelonans tend to speak very
badly of the Eixample. We hate it above all as being monotonous. The rigorous
parallel streets, the unvarying width of 20 metres between the blocks, the
perpendicular crossroads that all look identical, the total absence of squares
and gardens, the impossibility of finding an outstanding building as a landmark,
buildings with four sides that totally shut people out from the centre of each
block, the difficulty of crossing the roads that carry huge amounts of very fast
traffic, the location of the pedestrian crossings that make it an exhausting
journey just to cross from one block to the next, the street corners that were
meant to be open spaces, not packed with double-parked vehicles as they are
The larger blocks today have been converted into offices and
multi-family dwellings. Old-time residents of the district have to mix with
newcomers such as bank employees, hotel staff, office personnel and shop
The Rambla de Catalunya and Passeig de Gracia make up the heart
of the Eixample. Both streets belong to the right of the Eixample (see below).
Passeig de Gracia connected Barcelona and the town of Gracia before the city
walls were demolished. The Rambla de Catalunya is more recent and lies on the
former River Malla which has been covered over.
The right of the Eixample contains most of the more
distinguished architecture since it was the first area to be developed, with
many 'palaces' designed by Gaudi for the wealthy textile merchants. Many flats
have ceased to be family homes and are now given over to professional offices,
banks, museums, main shopping avenues, modern bars and restaurants. The great
avenue of the Passeig de Gracia forms a linear extension to the CBD stretching
north from Plaša Catalunya.
The outer Eixample to the north of the Diagonal is mainly a
middle-class residential area.
The left of the Eixample was built slightly later than the
right and is more residential and even working class in places. It is more
liberally sprinkled with general city services such as the Hospital Clinic, the
Escola Industrial, the 1905 Model Prison, etc.. It quickly became the new area
for some activities of the city that the middle classes did not want to see on
their doorsteps. A huge slaughterhouse was built on the extreme left of the
area, and was only knocked down in 1979. The area has two very large markets,
the Nonot and the Mercat de Sant Antoni, touching onto the Raval. This is also
an area for academic institutions, including the Central University, set up in
The outer part of the left Eixample leads up to the
upper-middle class district of Les Corts and Plaša Francese Macia.
Over the past few years the city has begun trying to implement
CerdÓ's idea for green public spaces behind the buildings. The organisation
responsible for this project is Proeixample S.A., a joint venture of the city of
Barcelona and Catalan banks. When part of a manzana becomes available, for
example because of the relocation of a business, Proeixample takes the
initiative. The design and lay-out costs of the parks are paid by development
and sale of the remainder of the land for apartments or public services. The
advantage of this method is that it doesn't cost any money. The disadvantage is
that it is a very slow process.
An alternative method is to agree to requests for planning
permission for developments within the blocks, such as car parks, as long as
they are built underground and the surface opened up as a park for public
At the moment, eight squares have been laid out and another ten
are planned. The ultimate goal is to create one patio-garden for every nine
blocks. But in order to achieve that another 20 inner courtyards must be
recovered. It is unlikely that so many will become available in the near future.
The patio-gardens contribute only modestly to the increase of public space in
the Eixample. From 1.6 m▓ per resident the number has gone up to 1.7 m▓.
Unlike the squares that made Barcelona's urban design famous,
the transformed inner courtyards are not particularly interesting from an
architectural point of view. The emphasis is on the needs of the users, often
elderly people and children. There are playgrounds with patches of grass, and
sections for benches with trees to provide shade. The overall appearance is
quite stony. Each square has its own curiosities. For example, Casa Elizalde and
Escola Carlit are joined with public services. Escola Carlit has a
petanque-alley. At Torre de les AigŘes, the water tower from 1867 has been
maintained together with an urban beach complex complete with palm trees, sand
and pool. Palau Robert still has the appearance of a 'palacio' garden from the
end of the last century.
The patio-gardens are little surprise oases away from the
noise, pollution and traffic of the streets, intimate spots, ideal for an hour
in the sun, a chat with neighbours and a safe place for playing. CerdÓ, who was
disappointed by the outcome of his plan, would find consolation knowing that, at
last, the residents of the Eixample are receiving a little bit of the air, light
and space he had planned for them.
Sources: Swati Sen Gupta, Metropolitan Magazine, with kind