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Els Encants Barcelona

Overdesigned or Mindblowing?

By Brian Gallagher / Fotos Rafael Vargas 20.02.14

A building is merely a shell when uninhabited, a building becomes a work of architecture when it transcends its mere functionality in order to acquire a different register, a cultural resonance. With the occupation of the Encants Vells de Barcelona a shell becomes one of the most exciting architectural projects of recent times. While the removal of this Barcelona institution from its semi-abandoned surface location on a piece of waste ground must have sounded alarm bells for anyone weary of Barcelona’s tendency to over-design its urban environment the final result is a triumph of seemingly contrasting concepts, order and chaos, modernity and tradition, culture and commerce.

The architecture is like a 1960s conceptual project made real (see the British avant-garde movement Archigram), a faceted gilded canopy elevated over a ramped ziggurat structure within the open air that accommodates a series of kiosk and stands which line the perimeter, a vertical extrusion of the pavement into the skies above @22. The structure is solid and robust with fussy detailing kept to a minimum. The main commercial area is the ground floor triangular shaped central space, located slightly below grade (which changes along the perimeter of the building) where the stands are merely marked out on the surface. The kiosks or the stands are free standing aluminium clad cubicles like toy soldiers stand to attention as they climb upwards.

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    This is about as far removed from a ‘shopping centre’ as its possible to get, rather than the Stepford Wives artificiality this is reality on speed, in place of muzak there are kids screaming and running wild, goods of all types from stray glass beads belonging to antique crystal chandeliers to running shoes, suites of furniture to spare buttons, books, Cds, electrical goods, etc. etc.. Bartering is the order of the day, there is a constant buzz and energy here that is almost a more hyper version of the previous Encants.

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    Moving around is akin to being in a three dimensional puzzle, that involves ramps, lifts and stairs all connecting with the various levels that kick off with the underground car park and culminate with a triangular prow like observation deck with restaurant seating. People, stuff, old things, new things scream for attention and yet this is not a stressful experience, rather it feels like a 21st Century version of a souk with genuine intrigue and hours of fascination behind each cubicle door or each stand.

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    Perhaps the most impacting aspect of the project is the roof, reflecting the city when observed from within and the market when seen from without. Its golden hue at twilight or at dawn acquires an ethereal quality that converts the city and its traffic, the sky above and the constantly evolving surroundings into a canvas that perfectly captures that elusive quality of place. Specially here at @22 which is the great tech hope of Barcelona where a lot of public money is being invested right now in order to cater for the hoped for technology industries that will set up here hopefully cheek by jowl with Encants and its gritty, noisy and hypnotic charms.