The Barcelona Ensanche: Mapping Geometric Eccentricities

An Urban Study about Streetscapes, as part of the Environmental Design Studio, University of Calgary, Barcelona Term-Abroad Program, Autumn 2010

Cerdà’s Ensanche plan projected an imaginary grid over the medieval city’s outskirts: a rigid system of repetitive blocks contrasted with an irregular topography. An aggregation of identical blocks clashed with a pre-industrial system of small rural settlements, meandering paths, pastures and agriculture land. A nasty geometry was laid out to fight uncontrolled urban growth for an overcrowded city: geographical orientation became the criterium to guide Barcelona’s extension, while meridians and parallels became important axes or the famous Ensanche plan. Positivist principles won the battle from site specific concerns: mobility and hygiene were the first thing s Ildefonso Cerdà had in mind when he traced the lines that made the city plan so famous. For this engineer, air had to flow easily, while people and vehicles had to move through the city in the most efficient way.

The decision to use a regular orthogonal grid to plan the city’s growth had many consequences: the existing land had to be redivided into regular parcels, forcing a complex process of exchanging property. Besides that, the chosen sun oriented grid became geometrically problematic when it coincided with parallel, diagonal or meridian avenues (Diagonal Avenue, Mistral Avenue, Pere IV,…). Similar cases occurred when the grid had to transform in existing neighborhoods or natural resources: the edges were difficult to solve as the coast line did not obey the positivist laws, as the higher situated mountains did not absorb the rigidness of the plan, as the Besòs and Llobregat rivers did not respond to this orthogonal geometry.

The Environmental Design Studio starts from the idea of leftover spaces or parcels, as a result of imposing the Ensanche’s geometry.  Within the city’s urban fabric, many small lots, weird angles, absurd lot divisions can be spotted. Some of the triangular leftover spaces were left unbuilt, others became subject of smaller unique urban projects. In a way, every corner of the Ensanche’s blocks is characterized by triangular divisions, creating strange but interesting spaces inside as well as outside the buildings.

Mapping Geometric Eccentricity

A similar phenomenon of geometric eccentricity can be detected when looking at the some of the block’s courtyards, often used or seen as pure leftover spaces, guarding an unexploited potential for the city’s future. Offset strategies, were parallel lines define the building block’s depth, defined rectangular or triangular spaces, sometimes inaccessible from the street, creating unique urban landscapes.

In the early 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark discovered that the City of New York periodically auctioned off “gutterspace” unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion. He purchased fifteen of these lots, fourteen in Queens and one in Staten Island, New York City. Over the next years, he collected the maps, deeds, and other bureaucratic documentation attached to the slivers; photographed, spoke, and wrote about them; and considered using them as sites for his unique brand of “anarchitectural” intervention into urban space. When Matta-Clark died in 1978 at the age of 35, ownership of the properties reverted to the city. ( see

This particular interest for space as a result of geometry-based land division will be the starting point of the studio project: the first part of the project will exist of mapping leftover geometries within the Ensanche grid. In other words, studying the irregularities of the city’s grid by checking out obsessively satellite images, by wandering through the city, focusing on the consequences of imposing orthogonal geometry on an irregular territory.
Each group will explore the plan and the city and map graphically and photographically the uniqueness of these spaces. This broader study is seen as a critical review of the plan’s layout and will be the base for the further project: experiments, some on site, some hypothetical will be carried out to test the flexibility of the plan and reach for possible alternatives. At the end of this mapping phase, each group will choose a specific site and develop the project. To be continued…

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