THE COURTYARDS OF THE EIXAMPLE              By Swati Sen Gupta 

THE EIXAMPLE doesn't at all look like what its designer, Ildefons CerdÓ envisioned 140 years ago. He had planned a green and clean new city with a lot of fresh air, the opposite of the miserable living conditions in the old city. But, because of real-estate speculation by greedy promoters, and an uncommitted city government, the only parts of his plan scrupulously carried out were the outlines of the blocks of buildings (manzanas), with their famous chamfered corners.

All the other aspects of his plan were modified for the worse. Buildings were constructed on all fours sides of the block, rather than only two. Instead of 16 metres, the buildings went up over 24 metres. And, all of the planned private and public gardens in the interiors behind the building blocks were covered by single-storey structures. The result was an extremely densely-built neighbourhood.

Over the past few years, the city has begun trying to implement CerdÓ's idea for green public spaces behind the buildings of the 520-square block Eixample. The organisation responsible for this project is Proeixample S.A., a joint venture of the city of Barcelona and Catalan banks. Jordi Carbonell is the director and he describes his method of working as, "waiting for opportunities". When a part of a manzana becomes available, for example because of relocation of a business, Proeixample takes initiative. The design and lay-out costs of the parks are paid by development and sale of the remainder of the soil for apartments or public services. The advantage of this method is that it doesn't cost any money. The disadvantage is that it's a very slow process.

At the moment, eight squares have been laid out and another ten are planned. The ultimate goal is to create one patio-garden for every nine blocks. But in order to achieve that another 20 inner courtyards must be recovered. It is unlikely that so many will become available in the near future. The patio-gardens contribute only modestly to the increase of public space in the Eixample. From 1.6 m2 per resident the number has gone up to 1.7 m2. Not very impressive numbers, agrees Jordi Carbonell. But, he adds, every square metre is used very intensively.

Unlike the squares that made Barcelona's urban design famous, the transformed inner courtyards are not particularly interesting from an architectural point of view. The emphasis is on the needs of the users, often elderly people and children. There are playgrounds with patches of grass, and sections for benches with trees to provide shade. The overall appearance is quite stoney. Each square has its own curiosities. For example, Casa Elizalde and Escola Carlit are joined with public services, Escola Carlit also has a petanquealley, at Torre de les Aiges the watertower from 1867 has been maintained and a little swimming pool added, and Palau Robert still has the appearance of a palacio garden from the end of the last century.

The patio-gardens are little surprise oasises away from the noise, pollution and traffic of the street, intimate spots, ideal for an hour in the sun, a chat with the neighbours and a safe place for playing. CerdÓ, who was disappointed by the outcome of his plan, would find consolation knowing that, at last, the residents of the Eixample are receiving a little bit of the air, light and space he had planned for them.

Torre de les Aigues
entrance: Roger de Ll˙ria, 56 
Casa Elizalde
entrance: Valencia, 302 
Palau Robert
entrance: Passeig de GrÓcia, 105 
SebastiÓ Bach
entrance: Rocafort, 87/Entenca, 62 
Cesar Martinell
entrance: Villaroel, 60 bis 
Escola Carlit
entrance: Roger de Flor, 162 
Montserrat Roig
entrance: Rosellˇ, 488-490/Provenza, 535-537 
Manuel de Pedrolo
entrance: entrance: Diputaciˇ, 459

    ę 2001 - Swati