‘It was clear to me that the contemporary architecture in the area was unsuccessful. It ruined it. The buildings have a certain mass and density that makes them seem fragile and uninteresting in the wider context. All these appear totally lost and boring.’ Architect Josep Lluis Mateo, sat in his office in a northern suburb of Barcelona, is speaking of the developments in the El Raval district of the city, immediately to the north of his most recent building – the €12m Filmoteca de Catalunya (Catalonia Film Institute).
‘While under construction the buildings are nice, once they are completed, they are ugly,’ continues the head of practice Mateoarquitectura. ‘Pouring the concrete, placing the steel, digging holes, it is exciting. When the building is completed the architecture is ugly and unpleasant.’
El Raval was, and in some areas still is, an area notorious for its vice trade. Streetwalkers, drug dealers and junkies populated the dark winding lanes of the area that evolved outside the historic city walls. Geographically, El Raval sits to the north of Barcelona’s port, its limits defined by the main streets La Rambla to the east and Avinguda del Parallel to the west.
‘I knew very well it was, and still is, an interesting place, a very interesting place to put a new building,’ says Lluis Mateo. ‘The area has always lacked monumentality. It is a working-class district with factories. It was dense and lacked centrality. It has always been a problem.’
In an attempt to improve the area, the Rambla del Raval, completed in 2000, was ploughed through slum housing to create a wide urban boulevard that would provide a new focus within the maze of streets. Work is also underway to overhaul the Mercat (market) de Sant Antoni, a perplexing cruciform building that would have a far more dominating presence in another context, and on the insular MACBA by American architect Richard Meier, to the north. The area still remains a labyrinth of streets that skirt the now redundant coal-powered factories and fed the slum housing that filled the neighbourhood.
‘There was a struggle with the modern logic of building in El Raval. It was an insane, unhealthy place with no light and no fresh air, so the solution was a reductive process to the urban scale,’ says Lluis Mateo. ‘The modernists started to make interventions in the Thirties and made holes in the urban area, but the site for the Filmoteca building was made by a bomb during the civil war.’
The Filmoteca de Catalunya is, at first glance, a brute of a building – the younger, angrier Spanish cousin of the Hayward Gallery in London, maybe. The massive concrete walls barge up to the neighbouring residential buildings and glower over a sizeable public square. It is an unsubtle statement of permanence that exerts control over an area that lacks urban coherence. ‘I was not happy with the existing plan to improve the area – I ignored it. It’s not very exciting, it’s peripheral and boring normal housing,’ Lluis Mateo laughs. ‘It’s not easy to add a piece in a generic way to the area. So there was a square and I had to build into it. We had to convince the building to make the square.’
Lluis Mateo has made a defiant gesture to the other architects who have built in El Raval of late. Having won an open competition in 2004, beating more than 50 other entries in the initial stage and six others in the second, Lluis Mateo set about designing a building that not only served the functions of the film institute it was to house, but began to provide a sense of order to this contentious piece of the city. The building’s rough-and-ready appearance belies its purpose – this brute has a heart.
The longitudinal facades are an expression of pure construction; its crass materiality appears assured and fresh compared to the crumbling plaster on the tired facades that surround it. The concrete surfaces are like the po-faced glare of a nightclub bouncer, surveying the activity before it with an authoritarian stare. The building picks up the line of the street to the south and east, but is a storey lower than the surrounding buildings. At each end, Lluis Mateo has reduced the mass of the building by adding two cantilevers that open up the streetscape and provide a place to shelter from the sun or rain. ‘It’s a rectangular building, but on the short sides there are two special moments,’ says Lluis Mateo. ‘The building is around you protecting you, but you are connected and open, the building is opening up the area.’
The parallel facades act as massive beams that are tied together through a series of steel beams that support the floor plates. This allowed Lluis Mateo to keep the ground and second floor free of columns, hanging the structure from the walls-cum-beams, which in turn allows spaces within the building that are airy and open – quite an unexpected ambiance considering the density of the exterior. Gouged into the massive concrete surface are a series of parallel grooves that undulate across the length of the building. These help break up the monotony of the monolithic scale of the building and are actually a visual expression of the movement of the forces that are being transferred through the structure. The end of the beams tying the parallel walls together are left exposed on the exterior too, their black caps framed by a recess in the concrete surface. ‘It is my dream to make a building that is pure construction,’ says Lluis Mateo. ‘The savage energy of construction is something we should embrace.’
On all but the north-facing elevation the windows are screened to reduce glare and solar gain. It is here, and in the coloured glazing that appears on the ground floor and internally, that Lluis Mateo has succumbed to the use of cinematographic trickery. ‘The coloured glazing and the perforated screens work as filters and lenses,’ he says. ‘From inside the building we are framing and distorting the reality of what is outside.’ On the south facade the building is clad with perforated Cor-ten steel that inverts the pattern of the windows on facing buildings. This is for privacy, but also turns the busy street into an intriguing blur of soft focus activity. Facing the square, a white steel screen hangs from the facade like a ragged cinema screen – the perforations pull tight over the windows and spread out, where it only reveals the ever-present concrete behind.
Inside, the basalt stonework of the public square bleeds into the entrance lobby, an attempt to make the building more welcoming and embedding the interior into the immediate environment. From here, visitors can proceed to a modest cafe that sits under the enormous northern cantilever, or travel up and down the utlitarian escalators that enforce a strict circulation pattern.
Lluis Mateo has carved out a fractured atrium that chicanes through the floor plates, allowing visitors to ascend from the bowels of the building to the office space on the top floor. Top-lit by a vast skylight, mirrors and light materials are used to reflect light through the building into the basement.
Contained within the 7,500 sq m building are two cinemas, the cafe, library, seminar rooms, office space and an exhibition space. The cinemas, one with 360 seats and a smaller 184-seater, have been placed underneath the public square, freeing up the external space. Here, the metaphorical foundations of the Filmoteca become the physical foundations of the building. ‘They are nothing spaces,’ says Lluis Mateo of the auditoria. ‘They are acoustically treated with some seats. It’s not relegation – it needs to be dark.’
The Filmoteca de Catalunya is a culmination of influences that Lluis Mateo has toyed with throughout his earlier buildings and a manifestation of his teachings as a professor at ETH in Zurich. His previously feted works such as the Borneo housing development in Amsterdam and the remodelling of the Banc Sabadell headquarters in Barcelona have had a rich tectonic presence and strong social purpose. With the Filmoteca, Lluis Mateo has stripped the building back to its essence and laid bare the structure, largely avoiding the superficial trickery of the medium it celebrates.
‘My role has to be to do something real, not a stage set. In this sense, the films are pure stage and unreal,’ says Lluis Mateo. ‘But this building was a conscious way of reacting to the existing strong reality of El Raval, with an extra dose of tectonic reality.’
All photographs by Adria Goula