The Eixample ('extension') is the vast new quarter of the city begun in 1859, when Barcelona was finally allowed to grow out of its old walls. This is where you'll find the banks, the department stores, the rail stations and the offices, on broad, booming boulevards and unique eight-sided city blocks. This too is where the city's home-grown architectural revolutionaries got their big chance to build, and their works contribute much to the Eixample's electric buzz.
Wonder is what one feels in the Eixample – wonder and the realization that it really is impossible to see the world as the Modernistas saw it. It is this same wonder that surrounds Knossos or Machu Picchu or any historical and geographical one-off. Like them, the Modernista masterpieces of the Eixample speak of a season never to be recaptured, a rare combination of a blank slate, talent, skill, quirkiness, imagination and money, with Anarchist bombs providing a restless basso continuo in the background and Gaudí off in his corner trying to save their souls with his Sagrada Família.
The Eixample’s highlights will take most of a day to see – walk straight up the Passeig de Gràcia to the Diagonal, passing some of the great Modernista monuments, including Gaudí's Casa Battló and La Pedrera, Puig i Cadafalch's Casa Amatller and Domènech's Casa Lleó Morera.
To see more requires perseverance: even if the Modernistas get under your skin, you’ll keel over trying to see everything at once. Try exploring by bicycle, especially on Sundays when there's less traffic, to see the area’s lesser-known architectural gems.
By the early 19th century, Barcelona was going crazy, bursting at the seams of its walled straitjacket. The city fathers endlessly petitioned the government to demolish the walls and allow the city to expand; Madrid always refused, fearing among other things that a bigger and perhaps even badder Barcelona would escape the firing range of its cannons on Montjuïc and in the Ciutadella.
At last, in August 1854, during one of Spain’s brief interludes of liberalism, permission was granted. When word reached Barcelona, wild celebration filled the streets as every man, woman and child started hacking away at walls, even with their bare hands. The Bourbon wall was made of tougher stuff than the Berlin wall: it took 34 years to dismantle; but it was so despised that not a single block was left in place. You will find stretches of Barcelona’s Roman and medieval walls, but Bourbon, never.
Now that the lid was off, the city in 1859 sponsored a competition for the plan of the new ‘widening’, or Eixample. The finalists were both Catalans. Most Barcelonans preferred the plan of municipal architect Antoni Rovira i Trias, who proposed exciting prospects and boulevards fanning out of the Old City, similar to what Baron Haussmann was creating at the same time up in Paris. (you can see the plan engraved by his statue, in Plaça de la Virreina).
Madrid had the final say, though, and imposed the seemingly eccentric scheme of a Socialist civil engineer named Ildefons Cerdà, who designed a plan that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Old City, a modular grid of uniform wide streets, with distinctive bevelled or 'chamfered' corners (xamfràs, or chaflans in Spanish) at the intersections to allow the new steam trams to turn more easily and lend a touch of grandeur to each intersection.
Unlike most grids, Cerdà’s intention wasn’t to create lots to buy and sell as easily as possible. His visions were utopian: his pure abstract plan would eliminate social classes – there was no reason why one block should be better than another (the same arguments were made for the 1811 grid plan for Manhattan). Cerdà won because his plan was so much more than just an aesthetic layout of streets. He had thought of everything. There would be gardens in the centre of each block, with light, air, windows and good drainage for all. Markets, parks, hospitals and social services would be distributed at equidistant points.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Cerdà, who spent his life and entire fortune on his vision but remains rather unappreciated to this day. The visionary who coined the term 'urbanism' has never really got the credit he deserves as a father of planning. In Barcelona, he never got a statue like Rovira, and the only thing named after him is a ghastly traffic intersection.
The fact is that few city plans have had their intentions dragged so disdainfully in the mud. Barcelona quintupled in size over the next 50 years on the lines of the Pla Cerdà, but little more than the xamfrans survived its designer’s dreams, and the speculators would have dumped even those as wasteful had Madrid not kept an eye on the map. The other elements of Cerdà’s plan – the height and density restrictions, the parks and social services – soon went by the wayside; buildings and car parks filled in the blocks instead of gardens.
Nor did Cerdà’s ideas on equality make it off the blueprints. Just as Paris has its Right and Left Banks, so Barcelona has its Right Eixample (Dreta de l’Eixample) and less desirable Left Eixample (Esquerra de l’Eixample), divided by C/ de Balmes, where the tram ran until the 1920s. On the Right, Modernista architects created fabulous palaces for their wealthy clients. If the Barri Gòtic is Europe’s largest medieval neighbourhood, the Dreta de l’Eixample (or to be more precise, the 'Quadrant d’Or' between the Barri Gòtic, Diagonal, C/ Roger de Flor and C/ Muntaner) holds the greatest trove of 19th-century architecture, with over 150 listed Modernista buildings.
The Eixample was neglected and disfigured under Franco, but over the past decade the Ajuntament has sponsored a massive programme to restore, polish and preserve this unique legacy; in some cases, even Cerdà’s gardens have been planted in the heart of the blocks.
Images by: PD Art, Alhzeiia