From it’s foundation as the Roman of Barcino, Barcelona has always been surrounded by walls to defend the city against her enemies. The Burbonic conquest on the 11th of September 1714 turned these protective walls into the city’s prison. The conquering army feared rebellion from the Catalans and used the city’s walls to control the populace. To further control the citizenry and add insult to injury a great part of one of the neighborhoods was demolished for the construction of a military fort.
By the mid 1850, Barcelona was on the brink of collapse. The city was expanding at a fast pace and was ready to become an European capital. Population density was skyrocketing, 856 inhabitants per hectare (Paris had fewer than 400 at the time), the mortality rates were climbing , higher than those in Paris and London; life expectancy dropped to a mere 36 years for the rich and 23 years for the working classes. The walls were becoming a health risk, almost literally suffocating the people of Barcelona.
The city council opened a public competition for the Barcelona extension plan in 1859. Ultimately, then unknown Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà’s answered the call and put forth an expansion plan that consisted of a grid of streets uniting the old city with the peripheral villages, which later became integrated neighborhoods.
Cerdà’s plan was ingenious and took into account a multitude of important factors. He calculated the volume of atmospheric air one person needed to breathe correctly, then detailed professions the population might do, mapped the services they might need, such as marketplaces, schools and hospitals. He concluded that, among other things, the narrower the city’s streets, the more deaths occurred. Philosophically, Cerdà’s engineering was utopian socialist – core to his design deep sense of equality and a populist ideology.
The original plan consisted of 20 meter wide streets arranged in a grid of parallel and perpendicular streets broken only by wide avenues crossing the plot diagonally. Among the major developments was the octagonal islands, incorporating chamfered corners to facilitate circulation. The maximum height of the buildings should have been 16 meters or four stories building. Originally the plan had a market every 900 meters, a park each 1500 meters, three hospitals, a cemetery, three churches and a forest. Gardens in the centre of each street block, rich and poor accessing the same services, and smooth-flowing traffic were among his then revolutionary, even utopian-sounding ideas – many of which materialized to at least some extent.
In September of 1860 the first brick was settled , officially starting the construction of the new neighborhood, the Eixample (Catalan for wider part). In the subsequent 50 years 150 of these modernist houses were built. In it’s time, the plan was accused of monotony, in creating a city that looked too homogenous. Over the following decades, Eixample grew with magnificent modernist buildings like Casa Mila, Sagrada Familia, or Casa Batllo, all works of Antonio Gaudi, all of which today are Unesco World Heritage sites.
Ba’s created a neighborhood without class divisions where, both for ideological and public health reasons, the population would be spread out equally without exclusive areas for the rich or poor. We could say that Eixample neighborhood is an open air Modernism Museum. A relaxed walk on the streets of Barcelona would allow us to see great works of great architects, but as well works unique in this world, like the famous Sagrada Familia Cathedral.
It is truly amazing how Barcelona’s complex mysteries can be unraveled by knowing her history; secrets that on the surface seem confusing become so simple once you know the whole story. The story of Barcelona’s expansion and interesting layout was something that puzzled me on my first visit but the more time I spent here the more it all made sense. It fascinated me until I was able to learn the history and hopefully in my re-telling you’ve come to appreciate it like I have. Just another fantastic facet of this beautiful city that I love!