Le plan Cerdà d’Ildefons Cerdà : l’extension de Barcelone

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A city within a city, Exiample is without a doubt the most original neighborhood in Barcelona, and also one of the most pleasant to live in.(Le plan Cerdà d’Ildefons Cerdà : l’extension de Barcelone)

Cerdà and Gaudi shaped Barcelona for hundreds of years. Ildefons Cerdà is the inventor of Barcelona’s most famous neighborhood, the Eixample. Antoni Gaudí i Cornet is the architectural genius that everyone knows.

Modern Barcelona was born in L’Eixample, a neighborhood designed in the 19th century by the engineer and urban planner Ildefons Cerdà. A city within a city, L’Eixample is probably the most original neighborhood in Barcelona, but also one of the most pleasant to live in. Cerdà wanted to design an open, egalitarian and green city, where all public services were evenly distributed. The Eixample was built during the years of industrialization in Catalonia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. It is the consecration and the engine of contemporary Catalonia, breaking with the medieval past. The central part (the oldest), the Dreta de l’Eixample, is the district of the Catalan bourgeoisie, which introduced a new style, Catalan modernism.

The Eixample is today the center and the architectural symbol of Barcelona. A district where the opportunities to buy real estate have never been so numerous. The word “eixample” comes from the Spanish “ensanche”, which should have been translated “eixamplada” or “eixamplament” in Catalan. In French, it would be enlargement or extension or enlargement … and not example as many French speakers believe.

Barcelona in the 19th century, a health hazard

As a result of industrialisation, the city’s population had grown from 104,000 (1798) to 187,000 (1850). But the city was confined within the same walls as in 1714. It occupied an area of only 2 square kilometres (the present “Gotico”). Barcelona (93,000 inhabitants per square kilometre) had three times the population density of Paris (31,000 inhabitants per square kilometre).

There was no drinking water or sewage system, the groundwater was polluted. The yellow fever of 1821 and two cholera epidemics (1834, 1854) had killed more than 10% of the population, especially in the working classes. Infant mortality was very high and health and hygiene conditions were very poor. Life expectancy was only 36 years for the rich and 23 years for the poor, as in medieval times.

A project imposed by Madrid

In 1841, Barcelona launched a public tender for an urbanisation plan. The first projects were rejected by the government of Madrid. Finally, in 1859, the central government approved the Plan Cerdà, named after its designer, Ildefons Cerdà. Barcelona’s notables, rejecting Madrid’s decision, organised a competition between the most renowned architects in Catalonia. Antoni Rovira i Trias won the competition by proposing a radioconcentric city plan. However, the central government of Isabel II insisted that his plan was much more modern and open. Not without difficulty, he imposed Cerdà’s Eixample project on the people of Barcelona.

Projection of the 10×10 module used by Cerdà for the layout of the main and diagonal roads. In red, some of the old paths that have survived the architect’s layout. ca:user:amadalvarez via Wikimedia

Cerdà has an ambitious plan: to transform the Barcelona of 1850 into a city ten times larger. The architect focuses on the most important needs. Above all, the need for natural lighting (sunlight), ventilation in the homes (he is strongly influenced by the hygienist movement), green spaces close to the population with 100,000 trees planned (an ecologist before his time), proper waste treatment, an efficient sewage system and a possibility for homogeneous movement of people, goods, energy and information.

The project is based on a homogeneous serial repetition of housing blocks. They are large and square (113.3 metres by 113.3 metres) with 45 degree corners. The grid of the city is therefore at right angles.

Cerdà works with “districts” made up of 10 times 10 blocks whose intersections correspond to the main crossroads of the city.

The bevelling of the blocks allows the creation of plazas at each corner and was also designed to facilitate the turns for the “mobile steam engines” that Cerdà imagined. The blocks are called “manzanas”.

The engineer designed his plan around a major avenue that served as a guiding axis: the Gran Via de las Corts Catalanes. He worked with “districts” made up of 10 times 10 blocks whose intersections corresponded to the main crossroads of the city: Plaça des Glòries Catalanes, Plaça Tétouan, Plaça de l’Universitat. Every five streets there is a wider street. These are carrer Marina, carrer Urgell and carrer Laietana, completed fifty years later. These proportions -as a consequence of the width of the blocks- allow him to create wide streets that descend from the mountain to the sea on either side of the city: Carrer Urgell and Passeig de Sant Joan. These are separated by fifteen islets.

A networked city

Most streets are 20 metres wide, but the main ones are 30 or even 50 metres wide. Only a few major roads cross the city without respecting the orthogonal grid, but always in a straight line. These are Avenida Diagonal, Avenida Meridiana and Avenida del Paralel.

Cerdà’s designs show a conception of the concept of the network that was very advanced for his time. His checkerboard street plans, with their identical square housing blocks, are designed to facilitate the movement of pedestrians, cars, horse-drawn trams, urban railways (which were an innovation for the time), the gas network, sewers large enough to prevent flooding, without neglecting the public and private gardens and other key facilities.

The latest technical innovations were incorporated, provided they contributed to better urban functioning. But he also uses his own innovative concepts, such as a logical system of land levelling, which is essential for the successful completion of his project. Cerdà goes beyond the partial visions that “utopian cities”, “cultural cities”, “monumental cities”, “rationalist cities”, etc. represent for him, and dedicates himself to the search for an “integral city”.

A plan amended by speculation

Cerdà’s plans for Barcelona underwent two main revisions. The second version, approved by the Spanish government of the time, is the current Eixample. Cerdá was a precursor of ecological architecture. His general theory of urbanisation begins with: “Let us ruralise what is urban, urbanise what is rural”.

Aerial view of the Eixample and Avenida Diagonal | Alhzeiia via Wikimedia

He planned for large green and open spaces, allowing for pedestrian traffic and light: the square blocks with bevelled corners were initially to be built on only two sides, with only 5,000 square metres of the 12,500 square metres of blocks built. However, in order to resolve speculative land pressures, the politicians modified the initial plan, resulting in the four sides being built to a height of 28 metres and a depth of 28 metres, so that the initial garden imagined by Cerdà was reduced to a square, enclosed inner courtyard. Only one of the two diagonal avenues was built, the present-day Avenida Diagonal.

Cerdà wanted the Eixample to be a place of social diversity. But it was the wealthy classes who lived there. Many Catalan architects of the time opposed Cerdà’s ideas. But they nevertheless ended up designing the key buildings of Catalan modernism there. Antoni Gaudí created many of his works here, including the Sagrada Família, the Casa Milà and the Casa Batlló. But we can also mention the Casa Amatller and the Casa de les Punxes by Josep Puig i Cadafalch or the Casa Lleó Morera and the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.

Cerdà wanted the Eixample to be a place of social diversity. But it is the wealthy classes who will live there.

Cerdà faced many problems, including lack of funding and opposition from a large part of the population of Barcelona. He was never paid for his masterpiece and he died ruined in 1876. Ildefons Cerdà turned a death trap into one of the most beautiful modern cities in Europe.

Street names: The writer Víctor Balaguer i Cirera was commissioned in 1864 to design the nomenclature of the streets of the Eixample. He used the names of the territories of the Crown of Aragon: Arago (Aragon), València (Valencia), Mallorca (Mallorca), Rosselló (Roussillon), Còrsega (Corsica), Sardenya (Sardinia), Sicília (Sicily), Nàpols (Naples), etc. But also Catalan institutions (Les Corts Catalanes, the Diputació, the Consell de Cent) or personalities (Pau Claris, Roger de Lauria, Roger de Flor…).

The neighbourhoods of the Eixample

Today, the 270,000 inhabitants of the Eixample are spread over 6 neighbourhoods and 350 manzanas (blocks) covering 7.5 square kilometres:

La Dreta de l'Eixample.
La Antiga Esquerra de l'Eixample.
La Nova Esquerra de l'Eixample.
Fort Pienc.
La Sagrada Família.
Sant Antoni.

The Dreta de l’Eixample

La Dreta de l’Eixample (i.e. the right side of l’Eixample) is the area of the city where the Cerdà project started. It is the natural extension of Barcelona beyond the walls demolished in the mid-19th century.

The Cerdà Plan was approved in 1859, and a year later Queen Isabel II laid the foundation stone of what was to become one of Barcelona’s richest neighbourhoods. The first group of houses was built at the current intersection of Carrer del Consell de Cent and Carrer Roger de Lauria. The Dreta de l’Eixample was initially home to some important industries, such as the Elizalde factory, one of the first in Spain to manufacture cars.

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Casa Battló is representative of Modernism

Over time, it gradually became the district where the bourgeois residences were located, especially during the artistic explosion of Modernism represented by such outstanding buildings as Casa Milà, Casa Batlló and Casa Ametller.

In addition to the residences, the tertiary economic activity moved in: shops, offices, company headquarters, cinemas, theatres, etc., especially in the most central area (between Lauria and Balmes) and around the axis of the Passeig de Gràcia, which follows the old road that linked the walled city to the municipality of Gràcia. This avenue is still the heart of the city’s economic and commercial dynamism.

The Dreta de l’Eixample, in its western part, is the most chic district of Barcelona.

It should be noted that the Plaza de Catalunya was not included in the Cerdà Plan. This “oversight” has been corrected by the force of facts: its privileged position between the old town and the new Eixample has made it the natural nerve centre of the city. The passage of time has only strengthened it.

Today, the Dreta de l’Eixample, in its western part, is the most chic district of Barcelona, with the most beautiful Catalan modernist buildings, the most beautiful shops and the best cafés and restaurants.

La Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample

La Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample (the old left side of l’Eixample) comprises the urbanised and populated part of the old Esquerra de l’Eixample district from the end of the 19th century. The opening of the Hospital Clínic and the Faculty of Medicine in 1906, the Ninot Market in 1935, and the burial of the railway lines promoted the district and attracted, especially from the 1930s onwards, property developers interested in the construction of residential accommodation, mainly for the middle classes.

Of its more recent history, the complete renovation of Calle Enric Granados should be highlighted, which has reactivated the commercial and restaurant fabric of the area. Nowadays, the Antiga Esquerra de l’Eixample is home to a wide range of commercial, service and restaurant activities. But it is also a place of culture with the University of Barcelona, and of health with the Hospital Clinic, one of the four largest hospital services in Spain. Their presence makes it the most sought-after neighbourhood in the Eixample.

The Nova Esquerra de l’Eixample

The Nova Esquerra de l’Eixample (the new left side of the Eixample), apart from the three large buildings of Can Batlló (now the Industrial School), Modelo (the old prison) and Escorxador (now the Parc Joan Miró), only began to develop in the 1930s. The presence of the railway and the Batlló factory meant that it was not possible to create an urban environment until the latter closed in 1910.

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The factory consisted mainly of groups of scattered huts occupied by people who came to work for the 1929 International Exhibition. It was a quasi-rural settlement which remained so in some areas until after the war.

It was only in 1972-1973 that the railway tracks were buried. And some of the buildings in the area were demolished to build the Avenue Diagonale.

Fort Pienc

Fort Pienc was born as a fortification area. When Felipe V established the city’s surveillance system, he built the Citadel and an advanced fort. Both were demolished in 1869.

La Estación del Norte

The Estación del Norte (North Station) gave personality to a neighbourhood located between the railway and the Gran Via. Many transporters were located around an old exit from the city since Roman times and until the development of the Eixample.

After the closure of the station in the last quarter of the 20th century, the face of the district was transformed. The former railway station became the city’s main bus station. A large urban park was built nearby and, on the other side, a large complex of facilities (kindergartens, supervised flats for the elderly, markets, libraries, etc.) which has become the reference for a new model of integration of facilities and public spaces with the aim of bringing life closer to the neighbourhoods.

There are also very important cultural points, such as the Auditori and the National Theatre of Catalonia.

The Sagrada Família

To the north of the Dreta de l’Eixample, in the upper part, is the Sagrada Família neighbourhood, formerly known as El Poblet (the little village). In the 19th century, El Poblet was a neighbourhood of fields and a few houses. It was not until the first years of the 20th century that the district became urbanised, as a working-class district around numerous industries

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Sagrada Família

What gives it its personality today is the Sagrada Família basilica. The project began in 1881 with the acquisition of a plot of land in the neighbourhood of Sant Martí, in the middle of the fields. The project was first entrusted to the architect Francesco de Paula del Villar. In 1883 it was taken on by a young, then little-known 31-year-old architect by the name of Antonio Gaudí. He took charge of the work while the construction of the neo-Gothic crypt was just beginning. Today, the Sagrada Família is Gaudí’s most famous work. It is the most visited monument in Spain, the sixth in Europe and the twelfth in the world.

In the 19th century, el Poblet was a neighbourhood of fields and a few houses.

Gaudí’s avenue runs through the neighbourhood and connects the Sagrada Família with another major work of Catalan modernism: the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. Both buildings are classified as World Heritage Sites by Unesco.

The Sagrada Família district includes, at its southern end, the Encants district, with the popular Bellcaire market or Encants market. This area will be completely transformed in the near future by the urban redevelopment around the Plaza de los Glòries.

Sant Antoni

The name of the district comes from the convent near the Barcelona wall. When Rovira i Trias built the Sant Antoni market in the period 1872-1882, there were hardly any houses. It was the market of the working-class district of Raval. Little by little, this market and the stalls around it grew into a large fair. They gave personality and life to the neighbourhood that developed around it. This popular commercial tradition is still strong today. The recent rehabilitation and renovation of the historic market building has further enhanced it.

Between each block, more than 2,000 square metres of land can be recovered from the space reserved for cars.

The appearance of the district is also the result of the reforms linked to the 1929 International Exhibition, which led to its urbanisation and the development of access to Montjuïc, with the elimination of the shanty towns between Parallel and Gran Via avenues and the development of Mistral Avenue. This former medieval exit road from the city is now a pedestrian thoroughfare that brings together the life of the district. It is one of the most important shopping and restaurant areas in Barcelona.

The mini-Eixample of Valencia and Lyon

In the 19th century, the Cerdà plan served as an example for other city extensions in Spain and Western Europe. These include Valencia in Spain and the extension east of the Rhône River in Lyon, France. Let’s bet that the ecological approach of the original project of the visionary urbanist Cerdà will be restored in the near future. But with green spaces no longer inside the buildings but in the streets.

Neighbourhood associations in the Eixample are already campaigning to ban traffic in certain streets and turn them into living, leisure or green spaces. Why not imagine giving these spaces back the vocation that Cerdà had intended for them in his initial project? Between each block, more than 2,000 square metres of land can be recovered from the space reserved for cars.

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