On a recent football-related visit to Barcelona (they’re playing the game like it’s never been played before, but that’s another story), I came across a housing tale of tragedy and hope. The literally named Casa Bloc is about three miles north of Los Ramblas in the Sant Andreu district. At first glance, the 200-home complex is reminiscent of thousands of housing estates in the UK and around the world that are simplistically tagged as ‘brutalist’ or ‘modernist’, but Casa Bloc is the origin of the species. It was built between 1932 and 1936 during the short-lived optimism of the Republican era crushed by the Civil War. Walking around Casa Bloc, it’s possible to be reminded of the enlightened, progressive thinking that inspired much 20th century public housing and is too easily dismissed by architectural, aesthetic and class prejudices. Casa Bloc was designed to provide spacious, light and practical housing for working class families who had previously been living in slums, in the case of Barcelona, virtual shanty towns thrown up to accommodate a rapidly growing urban population mirroring that of industrialising English cities in the 19th century. In response to squalid housing let at exorbitant rates by private landlords, in 1931 a mass rent strike took place in Barcelona that increased the pressure for reform, but Case Bloc was not just about physical improvement. Josep Lluis Sert and other Catalan architects from the GATCPAC movement shared the vision of building places that addressed social, cultural and functional needs. This is typified by what has provided another canard for the anti-public housing lobby, ‘streets in the sky’, but at Casa Bloc it’s easy to see the good intentions that lie behind the communal balconies that are generously proportioned, well-maintained and (perhaps crucially in comparison to UK counterparts) open to the warm Mediterranean air.
Like many of its successors, Case Bloc incorporated other uses, including shops, workshops and a school arranged around a large landscaped area.
The influence of the arch-bogey man of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, who was an associate of Sert and co. is evident in the now perennial elevated ‘ground’ floor, but like Unite d’Habitation in Marseille (1947 – 1952) or the soon to be demolished Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar (completed 1972), Casa Bloc prioritised spacious living accommodation on a scale well-beyond the pokeyness of much of what has come since, particularly in the UK.
Fetishising or romanticising a particular architectural movement is futile, but the fate of Casa Bloc dramatically illustrates how the best-laid plans can go astray. Not only were the original design standards truncated, but homes intended to provide a new standard for workers’ housing were appropriated by the fascist regime and used to accommodate Franco’s military and police forces. Thankfully, Casa Bloc (like Spain) has been rescued from such infamy and stands as a well-preserved example that housing can be better when it’s removed from political and economic tyranny.