Monday, September 14, 2009

Less corners, more conversation.

> aerial view of l'Eixample district

It took me a little while to figure it out. I was walking much more than seemed necessary, considering the market was only a few blocks away. But for each small advance I made in the straight line, there was a diagonal detour to get to the crosswalk. I must have had quite a puzzled look on my face as I passed by several elderly men, chatting outside on picturesque little coffee tables with their café amb llet (coffee with milk). That was another thing. How was it possible that every street corner was brimming with chairs, people and conversations?

And then I realized the two were connected. Each block was cut off at the corners, a rectangular octagon rather than a perfect square. This effectively created a lively, open space out of a congested intersection, with four beautiful facades facing towards the middle.

As I later found out, the man responsible for this genius idea of urban planning is Ildefons Cerdà, who designed a massive new expansion of the city in 1859. The Eixample district (where I live!) is the main achievement of his grand Project for the Extension of Barcelona, which laid out his visions of a city based on the values of functionality, equality, mobility, and communication. He was concerned with the crowded living conditions of Barcelona’s old town–unsanitary and isolating–as well as the unequal access to city services by different social classes. His new grid would allow for easier and more efficient transportation (by foot, carriages, and later, railways), and the beveled street corners were intended to provide ample room for public spaces, greenery, and dialogue. His plan even extended to legal and financial regulations, which encouraged mixed-income housing and enabled poor workers to live together in apartments with wealthy families.

Ironically, in a city that loves curves, Cerdà’s grid turned out to be immensely successful. While much of present-day Barcelona is very different from his original plan (for example, many of the green spaces were filled in to accommodate more people and more parking), his urban designs are, literally, around every corner. And his efforts to encourage communication have been quite successful–as evidenced by all the chatter.

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