Motor of Modernity
Grup R. Architecture, art and design
The exhibition Motor of Modernity. Grup R. Architecture, Art and Design analyses the impact and shock generated in Barcelona by the presence of Grup R, when they became a catalyst in both Catalan architecture and aesthetic culture for the recovery of a lost modernity in the years after the Civil War. The group countered the official styles with other resources, and astutely assimilated European architectural trends. But when they reached it, the consensus represented by the CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture), directed by Le Corbusier, was already out of favour for the young architects of Team X, whom Grup R saw as models. Individualism became the norm in Europe and as a consequence the group disbanded in 1961.
Architects, organisers of exhibitions and lectures, the members of Grup R achieved a synthesis between architecture, art and design in the dark decades of the Franco regime in the postwar years. The group represented a major impetus to ideas of modernity, providing a sensible, coherent and ongoing programme in our country.
The forties in Spain were characterised by the rejection of rationalist architecture, considered ‘red’, and the search for an ‘Empire’ style, in imitation of the German Third Reich. On the one hand, the capital, Madrid, found a role model in the classicism and historicism of the Escorial and Valle de los Caídos. On the other, the rebuilding of the town of Brunete became an example of the pastiche of the popular and classical that dominated fascist architecture and art.
In Barcelona, the journal AC. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea, published by the GATEPAC from 1931 to 1937, covered issues such as Mediterranean architecture and its relationship with Europe since the modern movement. Its subscribers included the then students Francesc Mitjans, Josep Maria Sostres and other architects born in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a result of the influence of rationalism, in the forties Mitjans abandoned the official style with the construction of two residential buildings – one on Carrer Amigó and another on Carrer Balmes – that rejected the historicism imposed by the regime. In the latter Mitjans adopted classicism in its street facade, but countered it with a functionalist rear facade.
In 1949, for the first time, the National Assembly of Architects was not held in Madrid, but in Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Valencia. On this occasion, an exhibition of Ibero-American architecture was organised in Barcelona’s Saló del Tinell, attended by many contemporary architects from Brazil, Dominican Republic, Peru, Uruguay and Chile. The event was an opportunity to approach the problems of contemporary architecture. On visiting the exhibition, the invited architect Gio Ponti discovered the work of José Antonio Coderch and proposed him as curator of the Spanish Pavilion at the 1951 Milan Triennale. This initiated the international contacts that led Coderch to take part in the meetings of Team X, while consecrating him nationally as an architect of reference for the new generations.
The Assembly also provided the first contact for young architects around the figure of Francesc Mitjans. Antoni de Moragas, Antoni Perpinyà, Josep Antoni Balcells, Josep Maria Sostres and Ramon Tort, along with Mitjans, came together to participate in a competition designed to solve the problem of affordable housing in Barcelona, sponsored by the Colegio de Arquitectos. More than a work of town planning or architecture, they proposed an analysis of the situation of workers’ housing and an economic and sociological study. They won the competition and prompted the City Council and other government agencies to put in place, in the fifties, the creation of tower blocks such as those built on the occasion of the 1952 Eucharistic Congress and later the Montbau housing estates.
The competition resulted in the formation in 1951 of the Grup R, consisting of Antoni de Moragas, Josep Maria Sostres, Oriol Bohigas, Josep Maria Martorell, Joaquim Gili and Josep Pratmarsó, together with José Antonio Coderch and Manuel Valls. Later came Manuel Ribas, Josep Antoni Balcells, Francesc Bassó, Guillermo Giráldez, Pau Monguió and Francesc Vayreda. From 1952 they held four exhibitions: the first, devoted to the work of members of the group, officially opened their doors to the Catalan intelligentsia. The second focused on the relationship between industry and architecture, putting them in touch with the industrial world. The third and fourth presented works by students and members of the collective.
In parallel with the exhibition programme they organised seminars on economics, sociology and town planning and, more importantly, positioned themselves in the organs of opinion of Catalan architecture, design and culture: the journal Cuadernos de Arquitectura, the governing body of the Colegio de Arquitectos and the FAD. An approach to the artistic world began through the journal: Juan Eduardo Cirlot and Sebastià Gasch were among its editors, publishing for the first time articles and pochoirs on the work of Eduardo Chillida, Antoni Tàpies, Josep Maria Subirachs, Antonio Saura, Moisès Villèlia and Modest Cuixart, among others.
Members of Grup R created the FAD architecture prize in 1958 and founded the ADI-FAD in 1960, under the inaugural presidency of Antoni de Moragas. In this way, in addition to addressing the problems of contemporary architecture, they managed to introduce their new ideas in the field of design. From 1962, the Colegio de Arquitectos, led by former members of the group, became simultaneously the focus for architecture, art and industry.
At the 1959 congress of Team X (Otterlo, Netherlands), Ernesto Nathan Rogers, representing the architectural studio BBPR, presented the Torre Velasca project, a skyscraper located in the heart of Milan. His revisionist style sparked controversy and opposition from architects Peter Smithson and Jacob B. Bakema who were against the formalism and historical revivalism that this project embodied and in favour of the continued renewal of the modern movement. The controversy was also reflected within Grup R with two opposing buildings: the one in Avinguda Meridiana by Oriol Bohigas, with its Italian influence, and the N Building – by Subias, Giráldez and López Iñigo, and influenced by Bakema – in the Montbau housing estate. The opposed position of these two projects was symptomatic of the dissolution of the collective. They managed to catch up with modernity, but the profession had become individualistic. In Europe, unity and agreement on the way forward no longer existed.
Within the diversity of Grup R, the photography of Francesc Català-Roca created a style, with his choice of details and points of view. In the words of Oriol Bohigas, ‘the artistic and advertising qualities of the photos – contrasting black and white, abstract objectivity, critical definition of the environment and fidelity to the legacy of rationalism – became so common that, little by little, many architectural projects began to take as their point of departure some of the aesthetic prejudices of Català-Roca’.
Far from conveying the idea of a closed club that embodied modernity, this exhibition shows how Grup R, through the occupation of the centres of opinion and the use of the media, journals and prizes, created a web of influences that would eventually determine the modern style.