Project Miralles Tagliabue EMBT
Photos Marcela Grassi
Text Antonella Boisi

How does Benedetta Tagliabue, an Italian based in Barcelona, an internationally acclaimed architect, at the helm of the studio EMBT since 2000, the year of the death of Enric Miralles, her husband and partner in projects that have left their mark on architectural history, interpret the theme of livability? A look at this recent project, summed up in the title 8 Flats Low Cost Renovation Barcelona, 2013, can be enlightening.

We are not talking about her more famous ‘public’ works, like the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, the restyling of the Santa Caterina market in Barcelona, the Spanish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, a structure in steel clad with wicker panels, for which she received the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) International Award 2010. This is a ‘private’ project, done on a tight budget: the restructuring of a building in the Gothic barrio of Barcelona, the oldest, most evocative and decadent section of the city, to organize 8 housing units of variable size, from 40 to 110 m2, conceived for a dynamic social profile (students, singles, small families). Less complex than other projects, perhaps, but one that communicates something important: “The idea of the house as a place of comfort, welcome, relationships with the outside, because there is no different in the approach to different scales, from the spoon to the city, public to private, the master plan to interiors to furnishings,” Tagliabue explains. “I am not interested in specialization. Architecture, for me, remains a moral need: a process of improvement of what exists, that can produce the result of making the people who use a space, a place, a city, feel better,” she goes on. “Because if we come to better terms with one dimension, we become more refined in terms of perception, taste, moods, openness to the outside world. In the end, public space is an extension of the vital space of the home. And the pacifism of a city coincides with the pacifism of dwelling. The city and the home are both places of civilization.” The slogan “better city, better life” of the Spanish pavilion at the Shanghai Expo sums up the meaning of the challenge for architecture of this designer who believes in an ethical-aesthetic construction based on the interface of innovation and values of memory. This can fully be seen, by analogy, in the renovation of this Catalan building that was in a state of ruin, suspended amidst the labyrinths of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque stones, chipped and layered through various renovations, permeated by a high density of historical remnants inherited from reconstructions are bombings and fires in the city. “The main priority was to bring light into a sequence of spaces. Unlike most projects, this one was almost entirely designed on the worksite: few drawings, a skilled working team, from the mason to the smith, the carpenter to the electrician, optimizing local resources and recouping the value of humble techniques, recycling as much as possible. To restore the identity of a building dense with materials and constructive elements linked to the Catalan tradition. A discovery, and also a divertissement: we found original parts like Gothic arches, fragments of frescoes, ceramic tiles, terracotta floors, wooden beams under layers of plaster.” The renovation coincided with the structural remake of the roof, the cleaning and repair of the stone streetfront, with small iron balconies left as they were, framing glass doors and windows with new casements. The interiors of the eight apartments have been completely redesigned, even in terms of layout, to make them as open and fluid as possible. Space and light were the goals: “as much light as possible, an ancestral yearning in this part of the city.” The strong point of the project: new partitions in wood and polycarbonate that flexibly organize walls and doors with a variable geometry, like light, flexible wings, comparably to true internal windows. Wood (pine, in this case) has also been used to make the essential counters and basic elements of the kitchens. After that, for the choice of the furnishings, everything has been left up to the creativity of the residents. “This overlay of old and new architectural elements becomes very dynamic, because the building acts as a mirror that reflects the signs, forms and passages of time. In the skin of the enclosure. On the walls, white provides order, stripes of color bring the past, its variety, new textures,” Tagliabue concludes. So the colored tiles salvaged from floors speak of Catalan modernism, the richness of tastes and traditions of architecture in Barcelona, a polyphonic city.