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Cultural Dialogue Between Past and Present: The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art

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The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, or MACBA) is situated on a previously monastic enclave near the historic Casa de la Caritat, in the Plaça dels Àngels, in El Raval, Ciutat Vella, in Barcelona. It was designed by Richard Meier & Partners (1987-1995).

The building’s architectural style has strong references to Modernism. Exposing some of the most extraordinary architecture seen in Barcelona.

Creatively Modernity is one of the most important components of our culture: it has made its self manifest in the fields of architecture, literature and music MACBA came into being with the intention of bringing Catalan’s rich culture and heritage together. Expressing the international vocation of artists in a building that Richard Myer has built around the Mediterranean light, which has had so much influence on Catalan art and artists.

Barcelona is a city of architecture, with a history strongly related to art. It has a rich architectural heritage and also a good contemporary architecture.

Architecture is a mirror which reflects the changing direction of the city. The first thing noticed about the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art is the contrast it makes to the surrounding city. Approaching the museum from the tight streets that lead in from Las Ramblas, to the east, the sudden exposure of the vast grid of granite pavement that covers the new Plaça dels Àngels, with its brilliant southern orientation, comes as a shock. The vast white wall of the pristine museum and its array of forms, heightens this moment to a dramatic, dazzling spectacle.It has a dazzling, monumental presence in the dense urban texture of Barcelona

24 years ago Barcelona regained municipal democracy. Before that the city had been subjected for many years to real estate speculation, governmental negligence and urban oversight. But then a new generation took charge of the municipal affairs, with the necessary and ambitious reconstruction of Barcelona.

In hoping to help and revitalize the neighbourhood a series of cultural facilities were provided. In the past this too has worked in other European cities. It was thought appropriate to involve some of the most prestigious architects of the time in this process of urban renewal. MACBA was nick-named “the Pearl of the Raval”, because of its immaculate whiteness and its imposing presence.

The museum is situated in the centre of the Raval area. The Raval barrio was one of the poor parts of the old part of the city before the museum was built, but now the area is experiencing a renaissance – trendy shops, bars and cafes open all over Barcelona’s Raval was historically the red-light zone and a slum of Old Barcelona. Raval has a rich ethnic mix and the area to the south is often referred to as Barri Xino (Chinatown) However, it’s quickly becoming the city’s new “in” area.

In my opinion, this brilliant work by Richard Meier captures and embodies the richness of the artistic and cultural dialogue between past and present, between tradition and new creation. It also represents the need and fruitfulness of the collaboration between the public and the private sector – in a common search for a common good. MACBA possesses both the virtue and integrity of the 3 major defining characteristics of the process of urban renewal: 1. Location – this site was chosen in a place neighbourhood in the downtown area of Barcelona, which has problems of aging and marginalization. 2. Was the decision to choose high quality architecture 3. Is creating a resource the city needed: consolidating its cultural life: projecting its self beyond its own limits

MACBA embodies great hope of producing a positive effect on the area. This gleaming white building rises above the charmingly old-fashioned Barcelona neighbourhood of the Raval Quarter, in Old Barcelona. MACBA has been the catalyst for the urban regeneration this district of central Barcelona. It is massive, bright, white, pristine and inviting – it is intended to help regenerate.

This large white building, with a longitudinal cuboid volume with a base measuring 120 x 35 m; combines straight lines and curves in a continuous dialogue between the interior spaces and the light outside. The building has much of its southern elevation glazed, providing the visitor with views across the plaza, allowing natural light into the interior.

With its enormous glass windows and strongly geometric architecture, the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art is in itself a work of modern art. The entirely white interior and exterior, combined with a system of windows & skylights; flooding the building with natural light giving the impression of being a place thoroughly dedicated to the modern.

The museum opened to the public on 28 November 1995. All the art dates back from the late 20th century onward. There are three periods of modern art represented: the first one covers the forties to the sixties; the second spans the sixties and seventies; the third period is contemporary.

The collections focus on post-1945 Catalan and Spanish art, although some foreign art is also represented. The permanent collections from nationally recognized artists like Paul Klee. The collection’s real strengths comes from its collection of Catalan artists like Antoni Tàpies, one of Barcelona’s most famous artists. ‘A Sudden Awakening’; one of the only pieces of art on permanent display is Antoni Tàpies’ deconstructed bed (1992–3), with its bedding flung across the wall in disarray. Its presence to the right of the main entrance underlines Tàpies’ importance as a key player in the world of Catalan modern art. Miguel Barcelo’s famous painting ‘Season of Rain no. 2’ hangs on the second floor, amidst work by some of Barcelona’s the finest contemporary modern.

The art collection revovles around the gallery from time to time. The permanent collection comprises of over 2000 – mostly European – modern artworks, 10 per cent of which are on show at any one time. All major contemporary artistic trends are represented. MACBA also displays an interesting diversity of temporary contemporary exhibitions. The ‘raison d’etre’ of MACBA is this flexible area showing the best in contemporary art. Past exhibitions have included Zush and acclaimed painter Dieter Roth.

The MACBA Collection has been put together from the collections stored in the museum by the three institutions that make up the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona Consortium: the Catalan Government, Barcelona Council and the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona Foundation. Consequently the collection, which includes pieces by Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock, Johns and Warhol, is one of the largest and most impressive of modern art anywhere in the world.

As well as holding exhibitions throughout the year, the museum also holds lectures, discussions and workshops on various themes. All of this is housed in this stunningly modern building. It includes La Central library, specialized in art books and publications. Pleasant and unusual features of MACBA are the white leather sofas between the galleries, usually next to a shelf of relevant books and a set of headphones, these spaces provide the perfect resting spot to contemplate – and learn more about the art. At ground level it houses the museums store and restaurant and above provides 2 gallery and 7 office levels.

Connected by a bridge, the initial space flows uninterrupted into the main structure, providing curved spaces which counter balance some of the rectangular spaces activated by the ramping system. The curving walls of the office block and of the reception and circular galleries vary the north sides geometry when viewed whilst crossing the bridge. This is Meier’s geometry – fully realised.

Three long halls, running the length of the museum, morph in form: from circular to rectangular. The underneath the walkways of the 2 upper halls have been paved, in sections, with glass blocks, to allow light through. It is also possible looking up, from underneath, to see the other visitors feet as they walk past. These glass paved halls channel the visitors into the main gallery spaces. These galleries are exposed to controlled natural light from 3 sides and on the top level: also from a huge skylight. These rooms are the most flexible and account for the majority of its exhibition space. These spaces are fitted with movable interior walls partitions, which are scaled to the museums permanent walls.

The ground level of the museum responds to the labyrinthine nature of the existing paths across the site, these routes continue within the building. Out side locals visitors can pass through and under the museum – moving from the plaza to garden, through the pedestrian passageway that parallels the main entrance. The atrium which gives spectacular views of the new piazza. As you go up the ramps, an ever-widening panorama of the surrounding medieval city is revealed. Space and light are omnipresent in the walkways between floors. Looking through the glass panels onto the Plaça dels Àngels gives the visiter a myriad images before even entering the gallery spaces.

The transparent ramp hall ramps orients the visitor, offering views onto the plaza and the city beyond – mediating ones mind between the difference and simulaeties of the old of the surrounding area, and the new of the building. For visitors the ramps are a visual avenue into and out of the museum enhancing their experience of mobility within the building, whilst being able to view the movement and life outside on the Placa del Angels.

The surrounding square and architecture outside of the museum is among the most well-known and respected places for modern skateboarding. Together with the surrounding places in Barcelona, it is a common place for youth culture, due to its international popularity in the world of skateboarding, photography and cinema. Entrance to MACBA from the Placa del Angels is along a long, low ramp that runs parallel to the façade (and internal ramps).

The ground level of the museum responds to the labyrinthine nature of the existing paths across the site, these routes continue within the building. The sculptural elements of the main façade, show themselves to full effect in the Mediterranean sun, in the square. Opposite this main museum stands the medieval Convent ‘dels Àngels’ (the square’s namesake), which includes a chapel converted into a separate exhibition area known as Capella del MACBA, with regular video art performances. Entrance to this part of the museum is free. Another contemporary art museum; Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), is adjacent to MACBA, and accessible both from the street and from the inner patio.

El Patio de les Donnes/CCCB; This courtyard off Carrer Montalegre forms part of the neighbouring CCCB. An ultra-modern prismatic screen provides a mirror reflecting the 18th-century patio – a magical juxtaposition of different architectural styles. Angled in such a way that the viewer can see the sea and surrounding area – reflected over the near-by roof-tops.

Unlike MACBA, exhibitions at the CCCB tend to be more theme based than artist specific. Home to both a festival of cinema shorts (September) and the Sònar techno festival (June), the CCCB always manages to be at the forefront of the latest cultural trend. The CCCB serves as a crossroads of contemporary culture with cutting-edge art exhibits, lectures and film screenings.

Set against the splendid azure-blue Mediterranean sky, Richard Meier’s creation, of MACBA, for the clarity and abstraction of a sublime whiteness can be nowhere more appropriate than in Barcelona.

Meier’s architecture is based on a manifest, clear rationalism, with allusions to the masters of the Modern Movement and to Le Corbusier in particular, combining straight lines and curves in a continuous dialogue between the interior spaces and the light outside, which penetrates the building into the galleries and through large skylights. Combining elements of contemporary American architecture with the Mediterranean rationalist tradition.

Its interior paths of turns, straightaways and meanders collaborate within its structural frame, its penetrated screens, folded walls, clear and screened windows, light wells, circular stairway and arterial ramps – all producing a field of both free flowing and directed movement.

MACBA is highly charged architecture. It is the product of Richard Meier’s vision for moving visitors through its composition of hidden and then revealed forms and spaces exposed by natural light.

The geometric forms, physically static, perceptively shifted in the continuous play of the visitors activity and of light and shadow. In this geometric architecture the windows break open the box and cylinder and visually lighten the weight of the concrete walls. The flexibility of movement and light inside and the museums interlocking geometry – this interior is as much a part of the spectacle, it is a part of the city, as is the exterior. This container for art itself becomes a work of art. The viewer the walker recognises the simultaneity of art within art, by the continuous shift of focus between what is being displayed and the environment it is displayed in.

The origins of the urban framework for the Barcelona Museum for Contemporary Art lie in the urban design policy of Oriol Bohigas and his Catalan colleagues, which established a series of small-scale initiatives for the renewal of the decayed city fabric (as opposed to a larger scale masterplan), following the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.

Bohigas’s policy included the establishment of new small-scale piazzas and the revision and rehabilitation of significant buildings such as churches and convents within the fabric of the former monastic cloister and the labyrinthine of paseos and buildings of the Barri Gòtic.

In 1987 the museum commission was awarded to Richard Meier in a flamboyant gesture by the Mayor of Barcelona, Pasqual Maragal. The typology is Meier’s favourite – a contemporary art museum. It presented him with the most complex and demanding urban fabric in which to place his inevitably startling and pristine project. The Barcelona museum is Meier’s most monumental to date, within the European context. It is both assured and heroic.

Meier describes this response; ‘The museum creates a dialogue between the quarter’s historic urban fabric and the contemporary art within. The labyrinthine nature of the site’s existing paths and routes is reflected in the building’s organisation, most notably in the main entry, which is paralleled by a pedestrian passageway between the museum’s rear garden, and a newly created plaza in front of the museum. This paseo will join a pedestrian network running throughout the old city. The gentle fold of this circulation path emphasises the centrifugal movement of the cylindrical lobby and describes a fifth facade, connecting the geometries of the museum to an urban context characterised by skewed intersections and the domes of ancient churches.’

The site is not level, so the building sits upon a wedge like base, as if it is elevated onto a massive plinth and the structural diagram, in particular, reveals the supremacy of the planar geometries which both define the plan and the major systems of movement and space. Meier has said that ‘The whole formal basis of the Modern Movement, fostered a new kind of volumetric exploration, one that still seems to hold many possibilities. I am still taken with the poetics of Modernism’. “It’s a museum, a cathedral of our time…Today a museum is more than a container for works of art…It’s a place where people come together, a social place, as well as a place for contemplation.”

Richard Meier explains that; ‘Traditionally resonant materials, such as granite paving and stucco, describe the public signposts of the plaza, sculpture garden and sculpture gallery, while gently reflective materials such as glass, wood flooring and aluminium panels are used to encapsulate areas characterised by motion and light.’ MACBA is a composition of highly resolved forms and spaces acting in tightly controlled unison. Its beauty is its simplicity.

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