“I’m interested in my own history of errors.”
It is enough to say that Ricardo Bofill is one of Europe’s most famous and prolific architects of the last century. To add any more is to inevitably leave out too much. We like our public figures in snow-globes: apprehensible in their totality, their lives reduced to a byline. This is impossible to do with Bofill. Since the late 1960s, his profile has resembled a dish made from a family recipe: its indefinable singularity is instantly recognisable – at play is always a determined, brazen gall, a commitment to context, an intrepid formal imagination, and a deep penchant for the psychological and surreal – but the exact ingredients, and their ratio, are in constant evolution.
The plainest reason why Bofill’s career is hard to summarise is because he’s done so much: more than 1000 projects designed, over 300 of them built. In his portfolio are furniture designs, city plans, and everything in between. Stylistically, the range is just as wide. There’s social, utopian housing; Spanish coastal vernacular; modular metabolism; Postmodernism; Neo-classicism; and let’s call it ‘business district internationalism’.
Ricardo Bofill was born in Barcelona on December 5, 1939 – a few short months after General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War. Some 70,000 Catalonians were lost to the fighting; about half a million fled to France soon afterwards. Franco controlled Spain, and Catalonia in particular, with systematic and terrorising menace. Initial raids, lootings, public beatings, and rape gave way only to humiliating show trials, incarceration, and work camps. Catalonian autonomy was repealed. Publishing in Catalan was banned by law until after WWII, and for several years after that only works of fiction were allowed. As a young boy, Bofill experienced a Barcelona of growing civic unrest: Taxes were being raised, black-outs and brown-outs anguished businesses, and conspicuous corruption fuelled a sense of injustice.
Bofill never finished architecture school. The Beaux Arts education offered in Barcelona seemed antiquated and the more technically oriented program he found in Geneva was the type that trained architects who were insensitive to what people actually wanted. For Bofill, leaning towards socialist ideals, architecture – the design of buildings and the planning of cities – had to be for the betterment of its inhabitants. His father was a contractor and developer, and the family’s middle-class status afforded Bofill a measure of rebellion. He was against all forms of authority and whatever was decreed from above, he would position himself against it.
In this context, Bofill formed the Taller de Arquitectura (or architecture workshop) in 1960 as a collective concerned not only with architecture but also with urban planning, filmmaking, philosophy, writing, and sociology. Of the original members, only two had degrees in architecture: Ricardo’s sister Anna Bofill and Peter Hodgkinson, who joined the firm in 1966 right out of the Architecture Association in London, and is still one of the partners. The rest of the collective was a colourful mix: Like Bofill, Ramón Collado was mostly self-taught; José Agustin Goytisolo was a poet; Salvador Clotas was a literary critic; Julia Romea an economist; and Manolo Núñez Yanowsky had studied archaeology. As Franco’s regime organised and smothered the joys of daily living, the Taller countered it through its focus on housing design. Even in their earliest buildings, they sought to imbue their spaces with a sense of individuality, sovereignty, and ownership. The apartments on Calle Compositor Bach (1963) look boxy from the outside, but the interior is organised around an angled, light-filled court. The apartment building on Plaza Sant Gregori Taumaturg (1963) and the one squeezed on a tiny lot on Calle Nicaragua (1965) both strive to give their residents maximum privacy and light. The units on Calle Nicaragua fan out so that your neighbours can’t spy you on your balcony.
Projects like the apartments in Sant Pere de Ribes (1968), the Xanadú (1971), and La Muralla Roja (1968), the latter two along the Alicante coast, the Barrio Gaudí housing development in Reus (1968), and Walden-7 (1975) built next to La Fábrica, belong to a body of work that many architects associate most with Bofill and the Taller de Arquitectura. Not unlike Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 (1967) in Montreal, these buildings look impossibly complex – labyrinthine aggregates of geometric forms and spaces that give each community a singular optic, while offering inhabitants a diversity of spaces to determine their own ways of living. Walden-7 made the Taller and Bofill into instant stars. Like an other-worldly mountain range, it graced the July 1975 cover of the prestigious Architecture Design magazine.
When an avant-garde architect switches to Classical architecture midway through his or her progressive career, the reasons, no matter how often asked, are never fully satisfying. Hans Kollhoff’s radical modernism suddenly took on Classical forms in the late 1980s. In the late 1960s, Léon Krier was designing in the style of Modernist Rationalism before he made a permanent move to New Classical. In the early 1980s when Bofill adopted a classical language in all projects – from perfume bottles to city plans – the idea was supposedly to promote the cultural references that contemporary society had lost sight of. In a statement for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (1985), which also featured Léon Krier, Bofill somewhat unconvincingly writes that ‘present civilisation has worked hard toward the compression of time and accumulation and exchange of information, but it has worked very little toward the creation of identifiable spaces, which can contribute to building man’s personality.’ This reasoning for the return to Classical forms is unconvincing because we get no sense as to how he has resolved his earlier distaste for the hierarchical logic of the Beaux Arts school, nor does it justify the aggressiveness with which Classicism came to be applied to his design. The Taller de Arquitectura built Les Arcades du Lac, 389 Neo-Classical subsidised apartments in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside of Paris, in 1980, adding 74 more units that extend into a lake the year after. It was followed by the surreal and monumental Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1982) in Marne-la-Vallée, complete with a triumphal arch-shaped apartment building. Les Echelles du Baroque (1985) forms a Neo-Baroque place in Montparnasse, Paris. The colossal housing development called Antigone (1981), in Montpellier, which stretches out enfilade for over a kilometer, is a fantasia of re-mixed, re-scaled Classical elements. Everyday life was thrust onto centre stage. Regardless of the fact that this strategy was well rehearsed by the Soviets in Russia and East Germany a few decades earlier with mixed results, Bofill was to reshape society by exalting the lives of the masses, ensconcing them in regal palaces.
Geoffrey Broadbent, a British critic who has observed the Taller de Arquitectura since its early days, likened the firm’s turn toward Classicism to Picasso and Stravinsky’s return to traditional forms: ‘The point, of course,’ Broadbent wrote in 1981, ‘is that having shocked people once, if you want to keep shocking them, the most outrageous thing you can do, as an avant-garde artist, is to go back to the Classical!’ There’s probably a grain of truth in this assumption. By the mid-1970s, Bofill had attained such acclaim for his strange geometries and bold hues that he had effectively become a brand. It is hard to be anti-establishment if you are the establishment itself.
Today the Taller de Arquitectura is active around the world, yet after half a century of work, perhaps to its credit, it remains difficult to define the company in a nutshell. The elements of Classical architecture are still there, but the archetypal familiarity of Classical forms doesn’t make for easy brand recognition in the same way that the geometric housing projects did. Perhaps fittingly, Bofill’s practice now includes similar large-scale commissions as his earlier housing estates: airport terminals, company headquarters, hotel resorts.
All of these diverse projects are still masterminded in the same place: the well published La Fábrica (1975), a giant decommissioned and refurbished cement factory in Sant Just Desvern, in the former industrial fringe of Barcelona. La Fábrica can be viewed as the heart and brain of Bofill’s professional and personal life, which seem to intertwine in spectacular ways – in fact, the social entanglements of the Bofill family have frequently overshadowed the architectural practice in the media.
With the renovation an ongoing work in progress, La Fábrica was designed to house the Taller de Arquitectura, but also became the home of Bofill and his then-wife, actress and muse to the Escuela de Barcelona filmmakers, Serena Vergano and their son, Ricardo Jr. Vergano and Bofill later split, but she remained on the premises, eventually marrying one of the firm’s partners, Jean-Pierre Carniaux, who joined the Taller in 1976 and who also moved in. From sometime in the 1980s until around 2000, Bofill lived in Paris, where he had opened an office, and where he met French socialite, jewellery designer and bookmaker, Annabelle D’Huart, and had another son, Pablo. D’Huart remained in France, but in 2009, Pablo, whose background is in business administration, became the CEO of his father’s company. He no longer lives in La Fábrica, but many others do. These days, Ricardo, his current girlfriend and head of the interior design department, Marta de Vilallonga, his ex, Serena, and her husband/his partner, Jean-Pierre, can often be seen having breakfast together.
Mention the name Ricardo Bofill in Spain and much of Latin America, especially Mexico, and the figure that most people call to mind is not Bofill himself, but his son. Ricardo Bofill the younger, sometimes called Ricardito by the tabloids, is now the firm’s president, having worked there growing up, and having studied architecture and real estate at a host of American universities: Rice, Columbia, Harvard. He also graduated with a degree in film studies from UCLA in 2001, and echoing his father’s youth, made some short films thereafter. Born in 1965, he grew up watching his father become one of the most active and celebrated architects. But Bofill fils succeeded in matching and even exceeding his father’s fame, by most accounts, if around kitchen rather than drafting tables. In 1993, the younger Ricardo married Chabeli Iglesias, Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias’s daughter, in a lavish wedding in Barcelona. It is hard to overstate the appeal the Iglesias family has for the Spanish-speaking world, and so Bofill and his free-wheeling demeanour (and lifestyle) was laid bare in newspaper headlines and websites. The news of his split with Chabeli in 1996 was eclipsed perhaps only by the news of his new girlfriend, one of the most popular Latin stars in the world, the Mexican singer Paulina Rubio. In a 2002 episode of MTV Cribs – a television series that takes viewers into the homes of their favourite stars – we see Rubio giving a tour of La Fábrica, offering one of the most elaborate and intimate views of how the Bofill clan lives.
We start in a bedroom in one of the former silos, painted white like most of the other spaces in this part of the building. High ceilings with rounded walls are punctuated by slender windows, typical of Catalonian Romanesque architecture. We see a huge bathroom with a steam room, marble counters, and a view of the main entrance of the company; a home office complete with family photos taken in Egypt, Greece, Kenya, etc. Rubio takes us to the roof garden from which we see Walden-7 (1975), a Piranesian housing development that, to date, is still one of Bofill’s most beloved projects. We then proceed to the glassed-in rooftop spa; the quadruple-height living room carved out of the cement mill’s production floor; up a flight of stairs to the double-height dining area; down a wood-lined elevator to the kitchen; then to ‘the Cathedral,’ the building’s multi-function atrium that occupies the factory’s former packing area, under the silos’ conical hoppers hovering overhead like Brutalist ceiling features. We see Rubio sit on one of Bofill’s prized Gaudí Batllo chairs before taking us to an outdoor dining area amidst thick foliage in one of the vast compound’s unrenovated areas.
Upon arriving at La Fábrica one afternoon in late spring, I was greeted by Bofill Jr. with his confident, jovial, head-full-of-hair way of carrying himself. He would be translating my meeting for his father. Climbing up a set of spiral stairs, we reach a pair of large wooden doors. We enter an ivory-white, expansive, clover-shaped room. Bofill’s desk occupies one of the leaves; light pours in from windows where the curves cleave. His desk is a large square piece of wood. The lamps behind him look like mini stage lamps; on the table is a stack of trace paper and a number of sharpened pencils, neatly arranged.