If you look at the city of Barcelona today, a peculiar pattern stands out amongst other cities’ layouts. The medieval core of Barcelona is a tangle of winding narrow streets and alleys. Beyond it, however, the majority of Barcelona stretches out in a uniform grid layout. The unique feature of Barcelona’s grid is the shape of each block. The individual blocks are each a sort of octagon, the normal rectangular grid has been modified with a small slice cut off at each corner. The neighborhood that contains the majority of this layout is known as L’Eixample, or “The Extension”, and was designed by visionary urban planner Ildefons Cerda. Cerda drew up his plan for L’Eixample in the 1850s, and it worked so well that it formed the model for Barcelona’s growth for the next century.
Barcelona, like many European cities in the 19th century, was experiencing an unprecedented period of growth and urbanization. The city, constricted to the size it had since the Middle Ages, had become crowded, especially in the poorer sections of the city, and prone to disease outbreaks. An outbreak of yellow fever struck Barcelona in 1821, likely arriving from Cuba via the city’s port. The outbreak killed an estimated 20,000 people, almost one sixth of Barcelona’s population at the time. Diseases such as yellow fever, typhoid, and cholera became common in larger cities like London and Paris at the time as population growth vastly overwhelmed their resources and poorer neighborhoods became extremely dense. The need for planned expansion of cities and development of surrounding land was clear. In 1850, Barcelona authorized the dismantling of the city’s medieval walls and held a competition for a long term plan for the city’s growth. Cerda, like his Parisian contemporary Baron Haussmann, saw the need for wider streets to accommodate increased traffic and a desire to provide open and green spaces to improve the quality of living for the masses. However, while Haussmann accomplished this through expanding existing streets and demolishing many existing medieval neighborhoods, Ildefons Cerda had the opportunity to lay out the L’Eixample Plan from scratch and orient it however he wished.
Cerda’s plan at its heart is a grid system made up of octagonal blocks. The use of octagonal blocks instead of square ones had multiple reasons. Cut off corners at each intersection increased visibility and ventilation at intersections and to broaden the roads without having to make the entire road wider. They also were originally implemented to allow for a wider turning radius as Cerda had the foresight to allow for the adoption of personal motorized vehicles in the future. Today, many of the octagonal corners allow for short term or truck parking without the stopped vehicles potentially blocking or slowing traffic. While this part of Cerda’s plan was implemented, one of the other main aspects has been sadly discarded as the city developed.
The original plan for each block in L’Exiample only had buildings developed on either two or three sides of each block. Each block has an inner courtyard, and this was intended to make every block contain a public open space. Cerda’s plan was to make these plentiful smaller spaces open to everyone and replace the larger public parks that could be difficult to get to for poorer residents. Unfortunately, over the century of L’Eixample’s development, the public spaces became fewer and development on all four sides of each block enclosed the spaces into private gardens or patios. The enclosure of the interior courtyards not only cut off the spaces from public access, but also hampered the openness of the plan in terms of sunlight and ventilation of the blocks. The orientation of the grid in a southwest-northeast layout allowed a maximum amount of natural sunlight to enter the buildings and courtyards. The sloping roofs also provided the greatest amount of sunlight to reach street level. While this part of Cerda’s original plan was not followed during the stage of development, some blocks have recently begun to reorient their courtyards as open public spaces as Cerda intended.
Today, Cerda’s plan encompasses a large part of the city of Barcelona. L’Eixample’s grid layout developed the space between the old core of Barcelona or Ciutat Vella and former surrounding towns such as Gracia and Sant Andreu that have now been annexed into Barcelona. Unlike other long-term urban plans, implementation of Cerda’s plan is remarkable in that it was not discarded midway through development. Even in the face of the First and Second Spanish Republics, the Spanish Civil War, and Franco’s regime, Barcelona continued to grow largely along the lines laid out in Ildefons Cerda’s vision. Today, the two main diagonal avenues that Cerda envisioned have been constructed, although their full completion was only in the final stages of L’Eixample’s development. The east-west axis, Avinguda Diagonal, was laid out in the late 19th century and became one of the main thoroughfares in Barcelona after its growth out from the city center. More recently, the Avinguda Diagonal played a central role in Barcelona’s hosting of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Four of the Olympic venues were located on the avenue. The other axis, Avenida Meridiana, only began construction in 1954. Avenida Meridiana runs north-south from the center of Barcelona to the outlying district of Sant Andreu. While it never became the central axis that Cerda intended it to, it is still heavily trafficked and serves as one of the main highways flowing into and out of the city. Additionally, the intersection of the two axes at the Plaça de les Glories Catalanes has not become the main central plaza of Barcelona, but it is still one of the more important intersections in the city. The main sight of the “Glories” plaza is now the Torre Agbar, a skyscraper completed in 2004 that is the fourth tallest building in Barcelona.
Few urban planners have defined the cities they made designs for as much as Ildefons Cerda has for Barcelona. The grid layout and distinctive block shape encompassing so much of the city today are as much a recognizable element of Barcelona as the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. Cerda’s visionary urban planning was ahead of its time, and sadly one of the most visionary elements of hsi plan has been lost in the decades of development of L’Eixample. However, there are efforts to reclaim some of the courtyards in L’Eixample as public spaces and gardens, and a little bit of Cerda’s ultimate vision is returning to the area.