In some ways, MAIO Architects’ new apartment block is a conventional slice of Barcelona architecture. It slots in easily into the middle of one of the planner Ildefons Cerdà’s famous city blocks and its street façade is characterised by a grid of individual balconies. A subtly inscribed pattern in the plaster refers to the ground floor’s historic accommodation of a glove-maker, the marks mimicking the texture of fine-grained calfskin. But in fact this is an innovative and unusual experiment in planning for an uncertain future.
Most apartments and houses feature a more or less deterministic plan. There is a domestic hierarchy that sets out which spaces should be used as living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms and so on, and these are linked by circulation spaces — halls, lobbies and corridors — that divide them from each other. These provide an extra layer of complexity and determined routes but have no other function.
In this block, however, each floor features four apartments of five rooms each, and each room is designed to be anything its owners want it to be. There are no circulation spaces; instead the rooms flow into each other in a kind of staggered enfilade in a diagonal from opposite corners.
The bathrooms remain in the heart of the apartments — by virtue of their plumbing — and, at the moment, the kitchens too are in that central core. Otherwise every other room has the potential to become something else. Why not all bedrooms? Or all living rooms with sofa beds? As children leave home, their rooms can be seamlessly subsumed back into a bigger living space, or as babies arrive the enfilade rooms can be sectioned off to accommodate them.
The idea is a response to changing living conditions. An apartment like this, situated in the city’s dense but elegant Eixample district, would historically have been aimed at a bourgeois family — a father, a mother, children and perhaps some small accommodation for servants. But as that nuclear model represents a decreasing portion of society, apartments need to adapt to some of the myriad other models, which is precisely what these apartments do.
A central courtyard means that all rooms, except the space at the centre of each dwelling, receive natural light and ventilation, further reducing the hierarchy. Rooms are connected by large openings (double door-sized), which can be left open or supplied with sliding or hinged doors, depending on the tenants’ lifestyles and needs.
At the rear of the site a rather surprising garden stretches right into the heart of the block with a swimming pool, which has become a kind of interior public space, almost like a mini city square. That sense of an interior urbanity is heightened by a truly remarkable entrance hall. Picking up on the tradition of marble-lined lobbies as spaces of representation, dressed to impress, the architects have created a kind of postmodern playground, an architectural menagerie of archetypal forms.
The lift sits inside a chunky stone pyramid; the stairs appear as a pink abstract sculpture (with a dash of Mexican master Luis Barragán), and natural light and air are brought in through a semi-circular skylight, its rim draped with ivy. Tints of gold, grey, blue and pink reflect a pastel-hued, rather retro interior, which looks seductively luxurious.
This is an intelligent and elegant response to the unpredictability of life and the way it might be lived in the future. It eloquently illustrates how a radical idea can be accommodated in a structure which respects and reflects the city that surrounds it. Continuity and change can be subtly radical rather than revolutionary.
Photographs: MAIO Architects; Jose Hevia