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B720 Corners the Flea Market

Barcelona flea market by B720. Photo courtesy Iñigo Bujedo Aguirre.

With its beginnings dating back to the 14th century, Barcelona’s flea market La Firade Bellcaire (also known as Els Encants) is one of the oldest and tradition-steeped of the 43 markets in that city. Recently, this institution moved from a collection of ramshackle sheds it occupied over several decades into a flamboyantly expressive piece of purpose-built infrastructure. In fact, La Fira de Bellcaire’s new accommodation is the result of an architectural competition, possibly the first in history to be held for a flea market.

The challenge faced by B720 was to design a facility double the area of the old market, but on a sloping site only half its size. The outcome is a ramp gently spiraling upward around a sunken courtyard. “The best way to address a slope is with a ramp. But we had to convince the city that a ramp would not pose a functional problem, which we did by measuring the gradient of street markets all over Europe” explains Fermín Vázquez, principal of B720.

Every morning, trucks crammed with surplus merchandise and castoffs pull into the central courtyard, where their loads are auctioned off --a ritual that is as old as the market itself. On the street-like ramp, vendors hawk their wares to throngs of shoppers. Highly reflective stainless steel panels cladding the underside of a spacious canopy create a kaleidoscopic mirrored ceiling that, says Vázquez, “reflects the city in the market and the market in the city”.

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #48]


What's in a Name?

image courtesy
How should we name an important temple after it undergoes a complete religious change of use, but only a partial architectural transformation? And what if that temple is, moreover, known around the world because of its original use? Cordova's cathedral was built, after the Christian 'Reconquista' of Al Andalus, in the very middle of that city's sprawling mosque, leaving a significant part of the Moorish monument intact. Yet very few people today refer to it as "la Catedral de Córdoba". Colloquially, it is called "la Mezquita".

Indeed, when I first saw a current petition titled "Save the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordova", I briefly thought for a split second that the building was being threatened with demolition. It turns out, in fact, that the petition is against the official re-naming of the building solely as "Cathedral" some years ago, before which is was referred to as The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordova. What needs to be saved, then, is the historical memory of the building.

Nobody doubts that the building is a cathedral. But for many centuries before that it was a mosque, a fact that cannot be ignored. Today, the vast majority of tourists lining up to visit it do so in order to see its impressive forest of columns supporting horseshoe arches and its mihrab. The Christian interventions, though very impressive, are less interesting. Though ironically, the Christian appropriation of the mosque as the site for a cathedral in its day may have actually been the very thing that saved the mosque from total demolition, as some historians have argued.

So what, then, should this building be named? To refer to it exclusively as the Cathedral, as the Diocese of Cordova is doing, may be technically correct, but that only speaks to a dwindling minority of practicing Christians in this country, while ignoring the very element that makes the building unique in the world. To refer to the structure exclusively as a mosque would also be misleading, since Muslim orations have not occurred there for centuries (though there have been two notable exceptions, in 1974 and 1977, when the first and second international conferences of the Amistad Islamo-Cristiana were held in Cordova).

Perhaps, taking a cue from a certain rock star, the place could be officially named: "The Building Formerly Known As The Great Mosque That Is Today A Cathedral". For short, the authorities could also revert, once again, to simply naming it Cordova's "Mosque-Cathedral". Much more unique-sounding than just another cathedral, which it is not.
Reflected ceiling plan of actual Mosque-Cathedral of Cordova, courtesy


Generic No More: Toronto Modernism in Denis Villeneuve's Enemy

Canadian cities such as Toronto or Vancouver are often used by Hollywood to represent either generic modern cities that could be anywhere, or else to act as substitute locations for specific American cities, usually New York or Chicago. An example of the former is The X Files, in which the Vancouver in which it was filmed represents no city in particular, while an example of the latter is provided by the movie Chicago, which was filmed entirely in Toronto (minus the stock footage establishment shot at the beginning). The reason Canadian cities make good substitute locations is precisely because they are so generic and unremarkable for the most part. (The low value of the Canadian dollar in the 1990s and the availability of subsidies also made it very attractive for Hollywood to shoot in Canada)

It is therefore interesting when a film comes along in which a Canadian city is actually itself, with modern architecture being used to affirm urban identity rather than to erase it. The film Enemy, directed by Denis Villeneuve, does just that. In the opening establishment shot, Toronto's CN tower, designed by architect John Andrews in the late 1960s, is shown in the very centre, so there's no mistaking where this story takes place. (Then again, since Toronto so rarely represents itself on film, many non-Canadian viewers --especially Americans-- may mistake the image for a US city. Not to worry though: Canadians are used to dealing with being mistaken for Americans)
Enemy: establishment shot.
Interestingly, Enemy's portrayal of Toronto does not include, at any moment, that city's pre-modern architecture, such as the vernacular Victorian rowhouses that are slowly disappearing in the current construction boom.  Instead, we see almost exclusively concrete and steel architecture that dates from the 1960s onward, such as the béton brut megastructure Scarborough College (also by John Andrews), St James Town apartment buildings, or the 'Marilyn Monroe' twin condominium towers in Mississauga by MAD. 

Enemy: generic modern apartment buildings (St James Town, Toronto)...
... and generic modern office buildings (downtown Toronto). 
The major role played by modernist architecture in Enemy inevitably invites comparison with Jaques Tati's Playtime, even though these films are separated by over half a century of time as well as an ocean of distance, not to mention that Playtime is comical while Enemy is a creepy psycho-thriller. Like Enemy, Playtime's architecture is exclusively modernist, yet in both cases fleeting appearances by monuments --in Playtime the Eiffel Tower makes a brief appearance as a reflection in a glass door-- serve to situate the story in a real place. Another remarkable comparison is how both films use subdued colour tonality to create a certain ambiance --sepia-tone in the case of Enemy and a blueish, semi black-and-white tone in Playtime-- that is consistent with modernist architecture's general lack of colour.

Whereas Tati had to construct elaborate sets at great expense to create a high-modernist Paris that didn't exist yet, Villeneuve was able to use Toronto's abundant, repetitive modernist buildings to great effect in his disturbing film: the plot revolves precisely around a college professor who discovers another person (both roles are played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who resembles him exactly. 

Enemy: Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal) at Scarborough College (all images courtesy


From Bauhaus to Vitrahaus and Beyond: a new Meme?

'Bauhaus' building supply store, Barcelona
Vitrahaus by Herzog & de Meuron.
Image courtsey
Tokyo Apartments by Sou Fujimoto.
Image courtesy
Inntel Hotel Zaandam by WAM Architecten.
Photo by Roel Backaert courtesy 


Architecture and Status-Anxiety

A recent advertisement in El País 

Ever wondered why luxury products are advertised so heavily in mass-circulation media, even though the market for such products is only a small fraction of the readership? I have, and I think I've figured out why: It's because advertising for a luxury product is never intended to sell the object itself. Instead, what is being sold is the reassurance, through the very mass-advertisement of the brand, that its exclusivity will be recognized by the rest of us slobs.

Luxury advertising is thus aimed at rich and poor alike, albeit with two subtly different messages. To most of us, it says: "when you see this brand of car (or shoe or handbag or Swiss watch or whatever) that is well-beyond your reach, you must show respect and move your jalopy out of the fast lane, for its owner is well-above you in the capitalist pecking order, capito?!" while to the potential owner, it says: "when you buy this product, you are buying, above all, social status and respect through our brand's universal recognition. Our massive advertisement campaigns see to that."

It is thus mainly social status that the rich are buying through expensive luxury products; social status that is socially-engineered through the art of advertisement copy, which of course does not come cheap.

Architecture is also a conveyor of status. But artists' and architects' brands are never blatantly advertised in the mass media as such. That would be too crass. Instead, there is a whole slew of uncritical magazines and articles in Sunday supplements that, along with a slew of uncritical museums, 'advertise' art and architecture to the masses, making sure that we are capable of recognizing a Koons, a Gehry, or a Zaha when we see one (and behave accordingly).

In the above advertisement for a famous brand of German car, it is canonical architecture (Barcelona pavilion, albeit heavily photo-shopped) that is being used to confer status to a brand; status that is in turn available to those motorists who can afford it. And the job of the rest of us is to take careful note of that. Amen.


Tourism versus Terrorism

(courtesy user jrbrubaker)
(courtesy user noahi)
¿Is tourism a form of terrorism?

Some Barcelonins seem to think so. All over the city --especially near tourists sites-- slogans such as "tourism = terrorism" or "tourist, you are the terrorist" can be spotted stenciled or spray-painted on urban surfaces. Interestingly, as any image search will confirm, these graffitis are themselves a favorite subject of photography and commentary by tourists.

Among the very few industries that has actually grown during the now seven-year long economic crisis in Spain, tourism is increasingly dividing Barcelona's citizens. Those whose livelihood depends upon tourism (including myself, since I earn my living teaching courses to foreign students participating in study-abroad programs together with writing articles about architecture, which is ultimately a tourism commodity) are willing to put up with the inconvenience of busloads of gawkers blocking sidewalks and causing traffic congestion. Besides, I also like to travel abroad whenever I have the time and of course some spare pocket money to spend.

But tourism is viscerally despised by others who critique it as a non-productive industry offering only temporary, part-time seasonal work under usually humiliatingly exploitative conditions; a sector which is controlled by a powerful lobby that is increasingly setting the political agenda of our governments. These detractors see every local family business that is being driven out by a Starbucks or a MacDonald's; every residential dwelling that is converted into a tourist apartment, thereby driving up rents; and every Asian or African immigrant working for peanuts in a restaurant, as being squarely the fault of tourists.

Tourism is big business, and big business is unscrupulous and utterly devoid of ethics --we know that much already. But is it equivalent to the violent assassination of innocent people in order to instill a climate of fear in the population?

A group of 'terrorists' admiring the architecture of Casa Vicens by Antoni Gaudí


Perspective is Everything

Same place seen from different viewpoints (Pas de la Casa, Andorra). 

Neon duty-free stores selling discounted liquor and cigarettes to ski bums already high on oxygen and speed, causing interminable traffic queues at border crossings back into Schengen-land.

If tax havens are the scourge of the planet (and their bankers the scum of the earth), 
how did they ever get away with occupying its most beautiful corners? 

Selling useless goods tax-free is arguably just a pathetic way of buying acquiescence. 
But I guess it ultimately depends on your point of view, doesn't it?