Alister Houghton, designer at Ryder, recently enjoyed a secondment opportunity through the Ryder Alliance with Ravetllat Ribas Arquitectes in Barcelona. Al discusses the cultural and architectural differences between his newly adopted home in Newcastle and native Australia.
People always ask me why I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne from Sydney. Things like my six week secondment to Ravetllat Ribas Arquitectes (RRA), members of the Ryder Alliance in Barcelona, are why. The opportunity to work with them on the stunning Sant Antoni market project is why.
In Newcastle, it’s taken me a year to get over seeing an 800 year old castle every time I leave Cooper’s Studios, the home of Ryder. In Barcelona, my walk to work took me past Roman ruins older than Jesus - talk about architecture!
Australia’s oldest building is little over two centuries, Alastair Cook does that in a day on the cricket pitch – though we do have the oldest continuing culture on the planet, ironically, due to the distinct lack of ancient ruins.
Barcelona was an architectural and cultural feast, like a long lunch of tapas in the shade of a neo gothic cathedral. It is the only city to ever be awarded the RIBA Gold Medal for Architecture (1999). I got an inside look on why. Ever since Hannibal marched 30,000 elephants through a fishing village which he humbly dubbed Barkeno (his last name was Barco) in 218 BCE, Barcelona has been the gateway between Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, putting the associated riches to good use.
It’s never really been destroyed by war or cultural revolution, despite more changes of management than Sunderland FC, so the historical architectural record is as old as it is impressive. Of course, there’s also Gaudi, the most popular architect in the world by numbers through the doors - receiving 3.2 million to the Sagrada Familia each year alone.
In the modern era, the ’92 Olympics set the city up as a tourist mecca. It is the third most visited city in the world and unsurprisingly the economy is largely based on tourism, hence the city is impeccably restored and presented.
The Ayuntamiento City Council of Barcelona, lead from the front and are progressive and experimental in their approach. RRA in conjunction with Zaga Architectura, founded by former RRA employee and Ryder Alliance coordinator Nicolás Markuerkiaga, has been engaged by the Ayuntamiento to design and build a housing scheme for senior people. It will be the first Passivhaus certified building in Spain, a German based rigorous, voluntary standard for low energy buildings. It is ongoing efforts like this which are maintaining Barcelona’s reputation as an architectural wonderland.
I worked with RRA for four weeks. They have been working and winning competitions in and around Barcelona and Catalonia for decades. Founders Pere Juan Ravetllat and Carme Ribas hand pick the top students from the School of Architecture of Barcelona. They mentor them through an ever growing list of beautiful projects, that always, no matter the scale, exude a considered and hand crafted character.
This hands on approach makes the office feel more like an extended family than a workplace. The atmosphere is something out of an architecture school fairy tale where models are stacked high on any available flat surface, a full collection of Spain’s excellent but expensive El Croquis magazines, an atmospheric renovated 1800s apartment with a sunny rear terrace, highly professional architects who are close friends outside the office, ubiquitous Barcelonan nose rings, task lighting and the guiding hands of two highly esteemed Barcelona architects. With practices like this the RIBA Gold Medal legacy is surely safe.
But it’s not only the work environment that was so appealing. The method of working is informed by the Catalonian sense of how to live a full and happy life. Every day we’d take a morning tea break as a team, everyone takes a long lunch and everyone in the city sits down to eat, evidenced by a lack of fast food joints.
I know what you are thinking, but it’s not all siestas, long lunches and salsa, they work just as hard, it’s just that la buena vida is highly valued here. It all leaves you pondering why you’d ever eat lunch at your desk again.
I saw plenty of the famous nightlife. Nicolás chaperoned me on several night time site visits to a bar he designed for a friend. The tables turned, Nicolas had adopted the role of a valued client, always with a cheer when he walks in the door. Though now I think about it, that happens with most rooms he walks into - he’s a big personality.
Barcelonans in general are about the most genuine and unaffected people I’ve ever met and I’ve seen a good chunk of the world. They don’t jay walk, which I’ve always found to be a sign of a relaxed city. Everyone from my workmates to the person on the street showed me every kindness, despite not always having a lot themselves.
The 2008 economic crisis casts a long shadow in Spain. The economy is still sluggish and the construction industry has suffered. Talking to locals about this period you see the pain in their eyes. Then you have people like Nicolás, his eyes light up with an entrepreneurial sparkle. Zaga have had to work hard, stay agile and ahead of the curve to create a successful company in this climate, amassing an impressive and diverse body of work, such as the heritage listed apartment block at Carrer de Balmes currently under restoration. As Zaga are frequent collaborators with RRA, I spent a fortnight working on this project, which deepened my love for Spanish terracotta hues and ceramics. On my last day in town, I found myself in an antique shop basement haggling for a handful of beautifully decorated seventeenth century tiles that I’ll include in my future home. I got a good price because I pointed out the pound was so weak due to Brexit, she empathised, saying Catalunya wants a ‘Spexit.’
Now, of course, when Brits ask me the question I opened the blog with, what they really mean is ‘the weather in the UK is terrible, what were you thinking?’ Yes, the weather is better in Australia. But there’s just no substitute for the opportunities and culture in this part of the world. In Newcastle, Barcelona or any number of other cities, architecture, history and politics are on a scale not seen down under. The opportunity to live and work in a city like Barcelona with companies like RRA and Zaga is one I’ll never forget and compensates a thousand times over for a little bit of rain.