Barcelona-born architect Carlos Ferrater started his career in the early 1970s. His first project was fifty-four dwellings in Sant Just Desvern, a town on the outskirts of Barcelona. Completed in 1977, the brick housing complex was designed with architect José Antonio Coderch in mind—to Ferrater the last great maestro. Single- and multi-family homes as well as civic and sports facilities followed in the next decade.
Ferrater left an important imprint on the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. After winning public competitions, his office designed four key projects for the Games, one in each of the four Olympic areas in the city: three city blocks, in the Olympic Village, that housed the referees; a housing complex in Vall d’Hebron that accommodated the journalists; the Juan Carlos I Hotel on Diagonal Avenue; and the Botanical Garden in Montjuïc that, while it would not officially open until 1999, was used for the cross-country race in front of the Olympic Stadium.
Over his now nearly five-decade-long career, Carlos Ferrater and his office, OAB (Office of Architecture in Barcelona), have designed a wide range of projects, from housing, offices, and hotels to train stations, airport terminals, waterfronts, and public spaces. Today, the award-winning work of OAB can be found not only in his native Barcelona but also across many other Spanish cities, and countries like France, Italy, Turkey, Morocco, and Mexico, to name but a few.
In 2006, MAS Context editor in chief Iker Gil (who had previously worked with Ferrater) curated the exhibition Synchronizing Geometry at the historic S. R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The exhibition showcased a selection of his key projects at a moment of transition, when the office of Carlos Ferrater became OAB. His son Borja Ferrater, daughter Lucía Ferrater, and his son-in-law Xavier Martí-Galí joined him in the new partnership, with Nuria Ayala becoming Project Director.
This past February, Iker Gil sat with Carlos Ferrater in his office in Barcelona to talk about his career, focusing on five built projects from across the decades. Selected by Ferrater, these projects represent key breakthroughs in his career, defining new directions for the office.
Estartit Yacht Club
Estartit, Girona, Spain
Building: 1,000 square meters / 10,764 square feet.
Total area of intervention: 1 hectare / 2.47 acres.
In the 1970s, I started my career by designing small and intimate domestic projects. They were small houses located in Barcelona and L’Estartit, a coastal enclave in the Costa Brava area in Girona.
I then won two competitions: one to design a sports pavilion in Torroella and another, a yacht club in L’Estartit, both in the province of Girona. From a fishing town, L’Estartit became a touristic town in need of a yacht club, and the location chosen was a remarkable site that had been reclaimed from the sea.
Winning that competition was very important for me as it allowed me to define a new way of approaching architecture. At that point, I was working on my own in the studio, assisted by two or three people. I was designing Mediterranean houses located by the sea that were very successful. I was labeled as a Mediterranean architect who paid attention to details, classical composition, layering, the horizontal plane, the sea, and in-between spaces. All those aspects were true, but the yacht club had a different approach.
The approach was to design a container defined by a structure and a void. It was a structure with a roof and a façade that appeared in a new pier. In this project, like in all the ones from this first period of my career, you can see the reference to architect José Antonio Coderch. In this specific case, it relates more to his 1951 Ugalde House in Caldes d’Estrac: more organic, free, and removed from the urban context that define some of his other projects. Similarly, there was no city in my project, no place—just an area reclaimed from the sea. That gave me a similar freedom towards design as it did to Coderch with the Ugalde House.
The whole complex was built on a podium that presented its inhabitable areas as protruding from it. Under the podium, a concrete hull rests on the foundations at the water-table level and forms a series of accessible underground chambers that house the networks of cables, plumbing, and overall infrastructure. Above this hull appears a new structure that is neither a yacht like the ones moored in front of the building nor the traditional houses found in the town. It is an open structure that relates with the mountains on the back and the Medas Islands on the front, renowned for their rich and beautiful underwater wildlife.
The building was organized into two pavilions that define a pedestrian walk along the waterfront. The main pavilion, which has a triangular plan, houses the yacht club’s offices, small nautical library, and bar. The second pavilion houses the bathrooms, personal quarters, transformer room, antennae, etc. Each pavilion has an independent roof, and the void between them becomes the open atrium of the club, the place that articulates the two volumes.
All the building elements, including the pavement, finishes, and furniture, contribute to integrating the architecture with its context while establishing an ambiguity between the land and the sea.
For the project, I developed a construction notebook as a kind of logbook, as it was built directly with the different trades and with no general contractor. I did hand drawings for the whole project, from the Miesian shapes and the corners to the bathrooms and mechanical systems.
It is a building that was very important for me at that moment, as I changed from being an architect of houses, of details, of pergolas into a different kind of architect: one who was working with marine plywood, metallic roof-cladding, aluminum frets made in France, and an altogether new approach to architecture.
IMPIVA Technology Park
Castellón de la Plana, Spain
This project represents a second key moment for the office. It is a project located in Castellón and designed for IMPIVA, the Institute for Small and Medium Industry of the Generalitat Valenciana.
The brief for the project was fairly simple. They wanted a building that was around 2,000 square meters to host small industrial spaces, laboratories, workshops, and offices to provide rental space to incubate innovative tech companies. I worked on the project with two local architects from Castellón, Jaime Sanahuja and Carlos Bento. It was a project with which I was very involved, constantly going to the construction site.
I divided the program of the project into five different boxes. The boxes were organized with stepped setbacks to follow the shape of the site, located on the outskirts of the city, by the road that connects the city to the sea. It was a chaotic area of the city, with the orange groves in front and the mountains behind. Each box is an autonomous piece, but all the pieces are connected through light and circulation, becoming an organism of a superior order. It is a system of interconnected autonomous pieces that now work as a complex organism. I separated the boxes in order to create interstitial spaces where vertical circulation, such as the stairs, was located, allowing the boxes to maximize their façades. In a way, it reminds me of a Donald Judd sculpture. These ambiguous interstitial spaces became the essence of the intervention, connecting all the parts of the program irrespective of any particular hierarchy. The organization also helps to provide independent access to each of the boxes.
In this project I applied aspects first studied in the yacht club in L’Estartit, mostly conceiving the façades as an abstract whole. The boxes had a different material: metal cladding, wood paneling from Prodema, and white bricks. They were chosen depending on the program that the box contained and its insulation needs. The end views are static and monumental, the interstitial spaces are ambiguous and transparent, and the side views, with their superposition of different planes, convey a dynamic quality to the complex.
From a fairly banal program on a site located on the outskirts of the city, we were able to create a unique and very successful building. It received a lot of national and international recognition through both the press and with awards. For me, it was another evolution in my work: I discovered the concept of a system that I later used in projects such as the Catalonia Convention Center, the Auditorium and Convention Center in Castellón, and the Science Museum in Granada, to name a few.
Three Housing Blocks in Cerdà’s Ensanche
81,265 square meters / 874,729 square feet
Josep Mª Muntaner
The third project that I have selected is the three housing blocks for the Olympic Village, designed for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. The project asked for 560 housing units to be located on the site of the former Torras factory that used to manufacture steel structures. The three blocks are located between Ramon Turró Street, Llull Street, Zamora Street, and Àvila Street.
From the moment of the project’s inception we took into account that it could become a guide for future interventions in an area that was transforming from an industrial into a residential area. I thought that this was an extremely important project for the city, and I wanted to engage with an interlocutor to explore the possibilities for the project. For that reason, I worked with architect and critic Josep Maria Montaner, who would later become the Barcelona City Councilor for Housing. I also had multiple conversations with architect and urban planner Joan Busquets, who was the head of the Urban Planning Department of the Municipality of Barcelona during the preparations for the Olympic Games.
At that time, some of the housing proposals that were being done for the Olympic Games were exploring open blocks, with houses placed inside and with strange shapes—all experiments contrary to the Cerdà Plan. Taking a different approach, we wanted to study closely the traditional block of Barcelona, with the chamfer corners, that came out of the Cerdà Plan, and, after studying it, optimize it. But in Barcelona, Ildefons Cerdà was not the only person who had been thinking about the design of the city; we also had the Macià Plan, proposed by GATCPAC (the Spanish branch of CIAM), Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret. There had been a lot of thinking around the city and the waterfront, and we wanted to pick up these modern ideas that tried to change the city and see how they translated to the present in this area in transition.
As we had three blocks to work with, we wanted to make them individually autonomous but also internally connected so that they became a superblock, leaving the existing streets intact while providing a new pedestrian pathway that connected all three blocks. Zoning allowed for a ground floor plus five floors above. We designed a ground floor that was slightly taller than three meters to create spaces for local commerce that could face the street and the gardens inside—that way people could see the gardens from the street. There was a canopy facing the street so there was shade for each of the shops, which are slightly removed from the edge. We wanted to differentiate the south façade, to react to its orientation. As the late architect David Mackay, of the architecture studio MBM, said when he saw the project, the buildings have an identity, an orientation, a face. It is not a building with four equal façades.
The buildings are 13.5 meters deep, so the units have front and back façades. This was also a break from the Cerdà block, where some of the building had become 25 meters deep. The 13.5-meter depth plus the 1.5 meters of the sidewalks on the interior of the block provide the optimum 15 meters for the parking spaces located at the perimeter of the block. We designed for three regular floors and then two floors above as duplex units. The duplexes have access to the roof, which features terraces, which are typical of Barcelona and also of the modern ideas of Le Corbusier.
The frontage facing the sea includes the towers, which also comprise a ground floor plus five floors above; but instead of 3-meter-tall ground floors, now they have ground floors almost 6 meters tall. This variation provides the project with a clear urban presence. The whole project followed the zoning rules, but by rethinking one parameter—in this case, the height of the ground floor—the project was able to achieve a distinct, variegated volume.
Another aspect that we worked on quite a lot was the typology of the units. Banca Catalana was the developer and was very happy with our decision to use 5-meter modules. With two modules, you have housing units of 10 meters by 13.5 meters that, excluding the space for the patios and stairs, are about 100 square meters (1,076 square feet) in size. The bedrooms face the interior garden, and the kitchen and the living room face the street. If you combine three modules, you have a width of 15 meters for a three-bedroom unit. The duplex has four bedrooms and also the rooftop. The rooftops have what are now known as the “butterflies,” the sloped roofs over the stairs that give access to this level. With all these configurations there is a richness in typology.
For the façade, we used prefabricated concrete panels, unlike in Vall d’Hebron, where we used GRC (glass-reinforced concrete). Between the Olympic Games and placing the units on the market at the culmination of their use for the Games, the only thing that we had to do was to incorporate the kitchen; all the mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems were ready for the transition. We worked a lot on all the small-scale details of the project.
This was the first collaboration with the late landscape designer Bet Figueras. (After this project, I worked with her on the Botanical Garden in Barcelona, and the last project we worked together on was the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Barcelona, when she sadly passed away.) I contacted her to design a new type of landscape in the interior of the blocks, with the grids, the Populus deltoides that connect all three blocks, plazas within plazas, reflecting pools with a water depth of a mere one centimeter, and the benches. We even designed the streetlights in collaboration with Pete Sans. Here kids can walk down the stairs and go out from the lobby of the buildings directly to the garden, so there is no need to go out into the street—their parents can see them from above.
I was lucky to work on four key projects for the Games, one in each of the four Olympic areas in the city, each won through public competition: three city blocks, in the Olympic Village, that housed the referees; a housing complex in Vall d’Hebron that accommodated the journalists; the Juan Carlos I Hotel on Diagonal Avenue; and the Botanical Garden in Montjuïc that, while it would not officially open until 1999, was used for the cross-country race in front of the Olympic Stadium. This was an important project for the city, for the Olympic Games, and for my studio, which, at that time, hadn’t yet become OAB.
Benidorm West Beach Promenade
18,000 square meters / 193,750 square feet
Xavier Martí Galí
Sofia Machado dos Santos
PONDIO, Juan Calvo
The first decade of the twenty-first century was the busiest one for us, as we worked on such projects as the Zaragoza-Delicias Intermodal Station, the Science Park in Granada, and the Mediapro Building in Barcelona, to name just three of many. They were prolific years and also marked the transition of my office into OAB. My children, Lucía Ferrater and Borja Ferrater, and my son-in-law, Xavi Martí, were working in the office, and, in 2005, we formed OAB. We worked on a series of large-scale projects, and, among them, I want to talk about the West Beach Promenade in Benidorm.
It is an urban project, a landscape project, and a place of transition between land and sea. It is the waterfront of a city of half a million people, much maligned by some but one that I find very interesting, with its small footprint, the skyscrapers that follow the topography, water that still reaches the sea—everybody is ten minutes away from the beach; there is no need to have a car. It is a city that is occupied twelve months a year and has an extraordinary cultural, economic, business, and leisure density. It is a city that is more sustainable than you might think.
What was missing there was a public space. There was a terrible promenade, with balusters, with a 4-meter drop between the land and the beach, solved with small stairs. Our project covered about 1.6 kilometers and addressed the urban area of the west beach. We removed five lanes of traffic, so we had a width of a little over 30 meters to work with. We couldn’t take any space from the beach as it is the main destination of Benidorm and considered sacred. So, what we did was to overhang it. In that 30-meter-wide area we left a lane for emergency cars, a lane for bicycles, and the rest for pedestrians. That width and that length create almost 5 hectares of new public space in a place of privilege: a place hung between the land and the sea, between the city and the beach. The promenade is not understood as a hard edge but as an intermediary space rendering this transition permeable.
We started the project by doing sinuous shapes using computers. The sinuous interwoven lines were evocative of the fractal structure of a cliff, as well as the motion of waves and tides. We didn’t have a software like CATIA, and there was a moment during which the project was going faster than us. We stepped back from the computer and started working with physical models. They were 1-meter-long models made out of foam-core that were connected to form a model of the whole project, which extended over 20 meters in length. We would cut the foam-core with an X-ACTO knife to create the sinuous shapes, and then, using pins, we would connect the layers and document it through photos. We would digitize each layer and create a 3-D model of the promenade that we could adjust as needed.
From that, we created the ramps, the stairs, the location for the vegetation, the upper promenade, and the lower promenade, and we incorporated an old section of the existing wall. At that point, we went to a town close to Benidorm to visit a traditional shipbuilder so that he could build the wooden molds for the different sections, which we could then combine.
We made a 12-centimeter-thick shell made out of white concrete and stainless-steel rebar that is very strong structurally. The shell generated two voids: one is the void behind the shell that, with a series of structural ribs, supports the upper promenade, which is made out of colorful tiles and under which all the mechanical systems are placed; the other is the void in front of the shell that provides shade to the lower wooden promenade, at the level of the beach. An older couple from Benidorm told me once that they always walk on the lower promenade and that, due to the undulating shape of the shell, they can hear the sound of the waves from back there. With the colorful tiles you can define specific areas within this long intervention and identify where to meet with someone. This project has been very successful, both as a public space and as a way to increase the economic return around it.
It was a key project in the office and one that helped solidify the new structure under the name OAB. At this point, Borja was instrumental in providing an international vision to the office—now we work all around the world thanks to that global vision; Xavi and I are more local in that sense.
There is a drawing of the project that Lucía and I did with lipsticks of different colors. Until that point, we had never done any projects with colors. We took some risks with this project. It was kind of a crazy project, but I think that in architecture, if you don’t take some risks, you don’t push enough to get to your best work. You have to be on the razor’s edge. We accepted a risk and we thought that if there was a place to do a project like this one, it was here in Benidorm.
We also didn’t have sinuous shapes in any of our early works, but if you see the Botanical Garden in Barcelona, with its deformed grid applied to the Montjuïc mountain; the fractal shapes of the Juan Carlos I Hotel; the folds of the Confluence Museum in Lyon; or the topography of the Science Museum in Granada—at that point we were exploring a series of geometries that we captured in the book, Synchronizing Geometry, that we presented in Chicago, in the exhibition you curated. Benidorm is perhaps the project that best captures that effort and that moment in the office, with its open, flexible, and non-hierarchical geometry. The promenade left nothing to chance but grew out of setting up a number of specific laws, a geometrical ground plan, and modulation. An established design logic secures the project in case there are to be future changes or additions. In the end, we try to bring the culture, the traces, and the traditions of the places in which we design, and we do that through geometry. In Benidorm, that is the sea, the sun, vacation, celebration, and hedonism.
Office Building in Guadalajara
Xavier Martí Galí
For the current decade, I have chosen the office building that we have recently completed in Guadalajara, Mexico. It is an interesting project, as it addresses local and global conditions. On the one hand, we needed to design an iconic building that could become an international referent, but, on the other hand, we needed to take into account cultural and environmental demands so that we could design with a clear understanding of vernacular traditions as well as design with geographic and cultural specificity.
In Mexico you have had great architects who understood the vernacular context, like Luis Barragán, Francisco Artigas, and Ricardo Legorreta; but there are also a lot of new buildings that could be placed anywhere: repetitive towers and skyscrapers employing generic curtain walls that disregard climate, orientation, and location. Ours is not what I would call a franchise building that can be placed anywhere; it understands the local conditions.
The site was quite complicated, with an irregular shape, located at the intersection of Patria Avenue and Americas Avenue, two major roads. It has three primary orientations, and, as the building grew and rotated, we wanted to maintain one façade parallel to one of the orientations.
We wanted to design a building with a certain autonomy but also one that was generated with an understanding of the role of the car, which is quite important in this area. As we could not design a conventional parking lot due to the size and shape of the site, we decided to build a continuous helicoidal ramp that could adapt to all the odd shapes of the parcel. We made the ramp as long as was needed to fit the number of spaces that was required, which was over fifty.
Structurally, the building has a central core and a series of columns on the exterior that adapt to the shape of the site, adjusting their location to the allowable building area for each floor while freeing the internal space of any interruptions. The depth of the columns allows us to include a continuous glass façade on the interior; this façade is operable to ventilate the space and can be easily cleaned through a small catwalk. On the outside, we placed a deep latticework of squares made out of GRC (glass-reinforced concrete) panels, locally built. Each square in the lattice is 60 centimeters by 60 centimeters, with the size of the full panel being 3.6 meters square. The panels don’t touch, leaving a small gap between them. The latticework creates a porous tectonic image of the building. The area for the mechanical spaces and stairs is covered with microperforated metal mesh.
The façade provides an extraordinary light to the offices and is good thermally and also acoustically, which is important given the location of the tower next to a high-traffic area. We used metal deck for the floors, without providing a dropped ceiling. We also left open to the tenants the possibility of deciding the material of the floor, from a raised floor to carpet. That flexibility allowed for different price points when renting the space.
All this generated a very Mexican building, very sustainable environmentally and, in a way, related to Barragán, with its latticework. Once the daylight disappears and the interior light becomes more prominent, it becomes a building without a scale: a pixelated object—a digital element that turns into a global icon that could be in Texas, Shanghai, or Dubai. The latticework relates the local aspects and traditions to a global context.
This building helped us understand how to approach a local context that is not our native Barcelona and is already influencing projects that we are currently working on in other cities abroad, like Beirut, Dubai, Montevideo, and in Kazakhstan. This project represents a new phase for the Office of Architecture in Barcelona.
This interview was conducted in Spanish. It was translated and edited by Iker Gil and copyedited by Lance Patrick Sy.