The buildings that define the edge of Barcelona’s busy Plaça de Francesc Macià have subtly curving façades to create the circular spatial effect which characterises this capacious roundabout. Except one. The elevations of Francesc Macià 10 also curve, but the wrong way.
This striking and unusual building was designed by Swiss architect Marc-Joseph Saugey (1908-71) as offices for Winterthur Insurance in the 1960s. It’s a bit of an outlier not only for its counter-curving site but for the oeuvre of Saugey himself who, in most of his work, was a quite severe modernist fond of simple lines and rigorously geometrical blocks.
Controversial from the moment it was designed, the building has settled into the cityscape and the civic consciousness, to the extent that it is now listed and fondly regarded as an eccentric, elegant and oddly fashionable-looking structure in one of the city’s most prominent places. And now it has been reborn as the site of Barcelona’s swankiest and most impressive upmarket residential developments.
The Catalan capital is not short of well-built, spacious apartments and Francesc Macià 10 is just across from the elegant neighbourhood centring on Turó Park, (described to me as ‘Barcelona’s Mayfair’) which is crammed with generous apartments with big floor plates above chichi boutiques, florists and interiors showrooms. Perhaps that generous supply was why the kind of super-prime, super-spec contemporary properties that define the top end in London or New York never quite took hold here even as Barcelona’s popularity grew. Now though, with the transformation of this mid-century block by Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan and his office MK27 for developers Squircle Capital, the top-end has truly arrived.
The building’s intriguing plan, effectively an eye-shape (curving at back and front), might not be a developer’s first choice. But Kogan was immediately taken. The architect argued against subdivisions and for keeping the apartments as one floor each, using the whole, theatrical sweep of the panoramic windows to the city as one curving 55m-long room, a section of a circle that wraps around the core and embraces the city outside.
Kogan’s architecture in his native Brazil is characterised by a deliberate obfuscation of the edges of the dwelling. There is an uncertainty to the confines of the house, broad eaves and endless windows that bring the landscape into the interior and project the inside outwards. Working within the confines of a listed building on a roundabout, the architect clearly hasn’t been able to indulge in those same effects in Barcelona but he must have seen, in those wraparound windows, something of the same spirit, an interior which pushes itself out into the hills surrounding the city whilst drawing the sky inside. And in the curious, arched window hoods, perhaps Kogan saw some of that same notion of an interior projecting outwards, beyond the sharp line of the window frames.
The show apartment is planned so that the living space spreads through various seating areas to a kitchen and dining space with the rear wall treated as a kind of inner skin. Kogan has drawn that skin taut in a veneer of American black walnut, occasionally receding into display units, cupboards and shelves.
Behind this membrane lies the buildings core of services, lifts and so on and then the line of bedrooms and more private spaces including a little interconnecting study area. The finishes are elegant but not fussy. The rich figuring of the black walnut is everywhere, making the interior a kind of carefully-crafted cabinet with a touch of drama in the thinly-veined black Bamboo marble which can’t help but recall the surfaces in Mies van der Rohe’s minimal and ethereal Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. The bathrooms are wrapped in milky marble and the kitchen sinks carved from creamy Carrara.
There are only eight apartments here, including one two-floor penthouse with a wraparound terrace and, with the one exception, they are being offered as shell and core, with the wise idea that whoever moves in will be stripping everything out and starting again anyway. But Kogan’s version shows quite what can be done in these spaces.
As there is only one apartment per floor, the oval lift lobbies become private entry halls, similarly wrapped in walnut. The entrances are all interesting in their own ways. The ramp down to the subterranean parking is bordered by walls of sculptural, board-marked concrete which lead to a glazed waiting lobby. This is where the block’s new interior aesthetic is introduced, with its eclectic mix of mid-century modern furniture, taut veneer and subtle light. The main entrance lobby from the street is lifted by a specially-commissioned light fitting by Michael Anastassiades, a meticulously-balanced brass piece with a single globe hanging like a ripe fruit from its end. The lobby already established the geometry, the sweeping curve that characterises the interior, framed in a wall of patinated brass rods.
There’s a pool, with surprising city views (as opposed to the more usual underground version), a spa, gym, a wine cellar, the usual accoutrements of top-end luxury, but it doesn’t feel excessive. There is no sense that this is a symbol of outrageous wealth shoved into the face of the city, rather that it restores a modern landmark with real finesse. An internal shopping arcade that was part of the original plan has been lost but the ground floor, which curves (the right way) around the Plaça has been cleaned up and restored to accommodate a new retail store or restaurant so the building is being brought back into the public arena. It’s an unusual project, clearly one born of a love for Saugey’s unusually expressive piece of Swiss sculptural modernity by all involved. The restoration of the concrete, which has a whiff of Brutalism about it, the striking curves, the remade eyebrow window hoods and the standout modernist design amid bourgeois blocks and dull office towers have made a once controversial building an unmissable landmark.
Photographs: Adrian Gaut and www.francescmacia10.com
Edwin Heathcote travelled as a guest of Squircle Capital.