Oriol Bohigas, the architect of permanent modernity, has died

The architect of Barcelona's celebrated urban planning, he also leaves behind a solid intellectual, civic and political legacy

Ignasi Aragay
5 min
Oriol Bohigas

BarcelonaLucid almost to the end, Oriol Bohigas (1925-2021) has died on the verge of his 96th birthday. In recent times, from a wheelchair, he had not stopped attending cultural events, always accompanied by the architect Beth Galí. He was a key personality of the second half of the 20th century, an essential figure in giving continuity to the golden age of contemporary Catalan culture, that is to say, to the fabulous network of creative impulse, institutionalisation and pedagogical civility that went from Modernisme to Noucentisme, passing through the avant-garde. From anti-Francoism first and, later in democracy, from the recovered institutions, Bohigas projected into the future the ambition of a republican past heir to that brilliant nineteenth to twentieth century, which he knew first-hand for family reasons: his father was one of the architects of the reorganisation of Barcelona's museums in 1930 and the rescue of Catalan art during the Civil War.

When Bohigas was barely 22 years old, he made his debut as a journalistic polemicist in the magazine Destino alongside Eugeni d'Ors, whose friendship he would later cultivate. D'Ors once wrote him this nice dedication: "To Oriol, who makes the sun rise". The ideologue of Noucentism and later a conspicuous Francoist got it absolutely right. Oriol Bohigas, from a Catalanist and cosmopolitan progressivism, for years brought light and colour, renewed airs, openness and risk to the Catalan culture of the late Francoist period, of the democratic opening, and beyond. His adherence to Catalanness was not defensive, in the victimistic manner. On the contrary: he never asked for permission to make Barcelona, and through it Catalonia and its culture, an international capital from which to dialogue with the world, a dialogue that he himself engaged in in the field of architecture with great figures, from Foster to Isozaki, from Gregotti to Aulenti, and so many others.

But, specifically, what do we owe Bohigas? The list is overwhelming. We owe him, first of all, the new democratic Barcelona that came to fruition and made a great leap forward with the Olympic project: that of the recovery of the historic centre, that of the new centralities and the dignification of the neighbourhoods, that of the opening up to the sea, that of the hard squares and green spaces, that of the ring roads. In short, the Barcelona of quality public spaces, clean facades and civic ambition. It was he who led the city's new urban planning with the mayors Narcís Serra and Pasqual Maragall. And it wasn't just him: his influence in the urbanistic and architectural field already came from afar, from the School of Architecture, of which he was the alma mater and director before joining the City Council.

In addition to becoming a point of reference for the new generations of architects, he was also for decades the main point of connection of Catalan architecture – together with names like Bofill, Correa, Solà Morales, Tusquets and a large etcetera – with the world, somehow taking over from the exiled Josep Lluís Sert, the living soul, until his death in 1983, of the historic GATCPAC, which Bohigas and the entire R Group were responsible for vindicating through another figure: Coderch de Sentmenat.

And to all this we must add the work of his office, MBM, with his partners and friends Josep Martorell and David Mackay, which built a very long list of emblematic buildings, from the Meridiana building to the Garbí and Thau schools, including the Palau Nou de la Rambla (the one that reveals the bell tower of the church of el Pi), the controversial extension of the Corte Inglés in Plaça Catalunya or the building of the Design Museum in Plaça de les Glòries, among many others.

More than an architect and town planner

But Bohigas has not only been an urban planner and an emblematic and programmatic architect, which in itself would be enough to go down in the annals of the Catalan 20th century. He has also been a cultural driving force as a man of ideas and action. A lover of music –there are privileged people who remember his piano concerts–, art and reading, over the years he has played a decisive role in institutions such as Edicions 62 (he was its president from 1975 to 1999), the Miró Foundation (president, 1981-1988), the Foment de les Arts Decoratives (FAD) and the Ateneu Barcelonès (president, 2003-2011). Before that, he had already participated in all the outfits of the heterogeneous movement of the Gauche Divine and the transversal anti-Francoism (he took part in both the Caputxinada of 1966 and in the closed gathering of intellectuals in Montserrat in 1970), and finally, between 1991 and 1994, he was in charge of Barcelona's Department of Culture, from where he made the construction of libraries a political priority.

As a theorist and thinker, his vindication of Modernisme was crucial in the 1960s in the book Modernist Architecture (1968), when nobody valued it at all, or his earlier and influential book Barcelona, between the Pla Cerdà and shanty towns (1963). Two works to which must be added, among others, the essays Against an Adjectivised Architecture (1968) and Process and Erotics of Design (1972).

Surely, the Catalonia of the Transition missed out on what would have been a brilliant Minister of Culture, a post-noucentista who would have had Marxist intellectualism on his side, someone who would have united without stridency the meritorious Catalan resistence with the necessary cosmopolitanism. It was not to be. His contribution in this field was limited, despite the great work he had done, to civic action and the permanent exposition of his cultural programme (but also educational: for him politics was synonymous with civility, or pedagogy, as Campalans would say), with thousands of articles in journalistic tribunes, always combative and ironic against all conservatism (including that of the left) and at the same time capable of seducing his staunchest enemies.

The intellectual and politician

And what was the style of this intellectual and political Bohigas? Beyond his flamboyant aesthetics of blazers and colourful ties, beyond the whisky and the after-dinner cigar, the best definition was made by himself in the first volume of his magnificent diaries, Combat of Uncertainties (1989) and Said and done(1992), where he traced his own tics and deep-rooted obsessions back to his childhood stay during the Civil War in Olot, where his father, Pere Bohigas i Tarragó, together with Joaquim Folch i Torres and Joaquim Borralleras, among others, managed to shelter a large part of Catalan artistic heritage. Listening to those intellectuals, he developed "a taste for discussion as an exercise in moving from anecdote to category; admiration for those who know how to rely on the eminence of their own speciality; the priority for general judgements over linear narration; the pleasure of the boutade, especially if it is only intelligible to the second derivative; the stylish confusion between ethics and aesthetics; scepticism as a disguise for an authentic belligerent passion; and tolerance as a shield to be able to continue affirming one's own convictions with violence".

The MBM office, where his daughter Maria worked until its definitive closure a few years ago, has continued to keep Bohigas' legacy alive, as have his architect son Josep and his partner of many years, Beth Galí. Like them, however, there are many who feel indebted, not so much to an aesthetic or to a specific urbanistic and architectural ideology, but to a way of doing things, to a professional and civic commitment, to an inner freedom based on knowledge and on the joie de vivre.

On the day of his death, Bohigas deserves our most sincere and joyful homage. May his republican spirit continue to enlighten us for many years to come.