Rationalism: the style that brought Barcelona to modernity

Barcelona aims to recover rationalist architecture, a style that brought the city into line with the great European capitals.
The Catalan capital aims to recover rationalist architecture, a style that took firm root and brought the city into line with the great European cities.

Ninety years ago, Barcelona aligned itself with the architectural avant-garde. Rationalism took root with great force during the Second Republic, thanks to a group of young people who sought to change the world through building, with the help of the Group of Catalan Architects and Technicians for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture (Gatcpac). Its most prominent members were Josep Lluís Sert, Francesc Fàbregas, Ricardo de Churruca, Germán Rodríguez Arias and Josep Torres Clavé, among others, and the organisation spread to the rest of Spain under the Gatepac initials.

The defeat of the Republican side in the Civil War led many of its members to go into exile in a context in which the simple forms and social approach advocated by this group clashed with the academicism and historicism proposed by the early Franco regime.

However, at the end of the post-war period, rationalism flourished again. "In the 1940s, hardly any construction took place; in the 1950s, the situation changed, and the opening up and improvement in the economic situation helped to make the new materials accessible," explains Susana Landrove, director of the Iberian section of Docomomo, an international foundation dedicated to modern architecture.
The Montbau neighbourhood was built during the 1950s
The Montbau neighbourhood was built during the 1950s
One of the most emblematic buildings of this second rationalist wave has just been acquired by Barcelona City Council. It is the headquarters of the former Gustavo Gili publishing house, a complex made up of three buildings inside a block in the Eixample district, which is accessed from a landscaped courtyard.

The operation helps to put on the map an architectural style that, despite leaving a very extensive legacy, is still largely unknown to both locals and tourists. "It happens in other European cities, people visit some clichéd buildings, and in the end, rationalism catches their attention", explains the journalist and essayist Tate Cabré, author of the manual "Route of Rationalism in Barcelona. El Gatcpac and the architecture of the 1930s", published by the city council in 2018.


Barcelona Townhall
El Pabellón de la República
The College of Architects: a metal and concrete structure in front of the Cathedral. In the heart of the old town, the concrete and metal structure of this building contrasts with the surroundings, including the neo-Gothic façade of the Cathedral. The most unique element is the sgraffito work based on drawings by Pablo Picasso.
Photo by Daniel Barton https://www.flickr.com/photos/danielbartoll/
Cabré is a specialist in art and architecture and organises routes and tours of Barcelona, focusing on its heritage. He recalls that this style was characterised by the use of prefabricated or mass-produced materials, which made it possible to reduce costs and industrialise building, which until then had a strong artisan component.

The Gatcpac architects did not simply copy what Le Corbusier or Mies Van der Rohe were doing in other countries, but adapted their forms to the Mediterranean context. "In addition to glass, concrete and iron, they also used brick", a material very common in southern Europe, Landrove added. Precisely this trend continued in the second wave of the 1950s, as evidenced by several residential projects by José Antonio Coderch and Antoni de Moragas. The latter was one of the catalysts for the return of rationalism, through the R group, founded in 1951.

According to Cabré, the main singularity of this second wave is that it is "purer". "In the 1930s, rationalist architects had to adapt to what their clients asked of them, which meant that the same professional could design an eclectic building and a rationalist one in the same year", adds Cabré. In contrast, during the post-war period, modern aesthetics were more widely accepted.

5 picture - The work of art that popularised rationalism. Barcelona hosted the 1929 World's Fair and Germany commissioned Mies Van der Rohe to design a pavilion that introduced rationalism to the city. In the 1980s, a replica was erected. Now it houses a centre dedicated to modern architecture.

Social architecture

Barcelona Townhall
Barcelona Townhall Photo by Joe Lewit https://www.flickr.com/photos/jozioau/
Both Landrove and Cabré state that rationalism cannot be understood without the strong social component of the architects who championed the movement.

Mass-produced or prefabricated materials made it possible to build homes for the working classes which, despite being small, are well ventilated and well lit, with the design seeking to maximise space and give a feeling of comfort.

10 picture - A synthesis of modernity in the north of the Raval. The Anti-Tuberculosis Dispensary opened in the midst of the Civil War maintains its sanitary uses. It synthesises the postulates of three of the most prominent members of Gatcpac. Sert, Joan Baptista Subirana and Josep Torres Clavé.
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