Barcelona Field Studies Centre

The Eixample

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 Cerdà.

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 Plaça 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 Cerdà (1815-1875). The Ajuntament had disliked Cerdà's scheme because it ignored the old centre of the city.

Cerdà 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. Cerdà 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.

Cerdà 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 Cerdà, the function of the street was for communication and the movement of traffic.

The most characteristic feature of Cerdà's plan is the 45º 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 Cerdà 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 Cerdà'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 Cerdà'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 today....".

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 assistants.

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 Plaça 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 1842.

The outer part of the left Eixample leads up to the upper-middle class district of Les Corts and Plaça Francese Macia.

Over the past few years the city has begun trying to implement Cerdà'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 recreational use.

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 m² per resident the number has gone up to 1.7 m².

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 Aigües, 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. Cerdà, 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 permission.