Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish architect behind some of the world’s most sensational buildings, died Friday at a hospital in Barcelona. He was 82.
The cause was Covid-19, his son Pablo said.
Among the most famous works of Mr. Bofill included public housing projects, most of which were built in France in the 1980s, with vastly exaggerated classical elements, derided as both kitsch and hailed by critics as the long-awaited middle ground between historicism and modernity.
He started his career with a series of smaller projects in Spain that followed geometric rules to sometimes mind-boggling extremes. Designed in 1968 and completed in 1973, in the coastal town of Calpe, La Muralla Roja rediscovered the North African casbah as a bright pink collection of walls and stairs as if arranged by MC Escher.
Another housing project from the same period, Walden 7, outside Barcelona, consists of 22 towers grouped around five courtyards, their exterior facades painted earthy ocher and their courtyard facades dark aqua.
But it was more than just aesthetic research that motivated Mr. Bofill. His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest price you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk through endless corridors and where different population groups can be part of one. community.”
In the 1980s, Mr. Bofill began using historical details as surface decoration – a hallmark of the style that came to be known as Postmodernism. And for much of that decade, it served him well.
In 1985 the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted an exhibition of his work, including color photographs of a number of housing projects in and around Paris. The first to be built, Les Arcades du Lac, was a gigantic version of a 17th-century French garden, with blocks of flats as hedges.
Another, known as Les Espaces d’Abraxas, rediscovered and repurposed classical elements in disturbing, otherworldly combinations; it features huge columns made of reflective glass rather than stone. That project was often described as a kind of ‘Versailles for the people’. But the shocking juxtapositions made it seem dystopian—and it served as the perfect backdrop for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film “Brazil” and the last of the “Hunger Games” movies.
Paul Goldberger, then architecture critic for DailyExpertNews, wrote in 1985 that it was Mr Bofill’s gift “to be able to unite the French instinct for monumentality, which has slumbered since the days when the Beaux-Arts ruled French architecture, with the the country’s more current tendency toward populism.”
Mr Goldberger visited four Bofill projects which he collectively called “the most important architectural work built in Paris in a generation.” He was particularly interested in The Scales of the Baroque, a 300-unit development in the ruined 14th arrondissement, classically detailed and arranged around tightly composed public spaces. He described it as important to Paris as the Center Pompidou.
But the impact of the project turned out to be limited. Postmodernism was short-lived and Mr. Bofill returned to conventional modern work.
“As postmodernism became accepted and popular in the United States and worldwide, it also became a style,” Mr Bofill told Vladimir Belogolovsky in a 2016 interview for the website ArchDaily. “And over time it became ironic and even vulgar. It no longer interested me.”
Ricardo Bofill Levi was born on December 5, 1939, months after the end of the Spanish Civil War, to a prominent Catalan family in Barcelona. His father, Emilio Bofill, was an architect and developer. His mother, Maria Levi, was a Venetian who became an art patron in Barcelona.
Ricardo developed an interest in architecture when his father took him to job boards. But when he thought of a career in architecture, he immediately felt inspired and inhibited. He grew up under the dictator Francisco Franco, he explained in an essay in 1989: ‘You dream of freedom and great travel. I left as soon as possible.”
That happened after he became a student — and student activist — at Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona. During an anti-Franco demonstration in 1958, he was arrested and expelled from school.
He moved to Geneva to continue his architectural education. While there, he told Mr. Belogolovsky: “My real passion was ignited when I discovered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. I was dealing with organic architecture, buildings that were integrated with nature.”
In 1960 he designed a summer house for a relative on the island of Ibiza, a modest stucco building that seemed close to nature.
In 1963 he founded his company Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura in Barcelona. In 1975, the company — and Mr Bofill — moved to La Fábrica, a 32,000-square-foot former cement factory outside Barcelona, where it remained a habitable ruin for decades.
Five years earlier, he had proposed a Madrid housing project, the City in Space, an endlessly extensible structure with turrets and battlements and, in some renderings, a wacky quilt of colorful patterns.
According to Pablo Bofill, the project led the mayor of Madrid, an ally of Franco, to tell Mr Bofill that he would never build in Spain again. Mr Bofill decided to start a new life in Paris where he won the contract to replace the markets called Les Halles. His plan was already underway when the mayor of that city, Jacques Chirac, fired him from the project.
Still, his innovative public housing had made Mr Bofill a star of the French architecture scene by 1985. But over the years, the projects outside of Paris became symbols of violence and misery, and a move arose to demolish Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Residents, however, stopped the wrecking ball.
In an interview with Le Monde in 2014, Mr Bofill said: “My experience in France has been partly successful and partly unsuccessful.” He has succeeded, he said, by introducing new styles and new building methods. But, he added, he “failed because when you’re young, you’re very utopian, you think you’re going to change the city, and in the end nothing happened.”
In addition to his son Pablo and another son, Ricardo Emilio, who run the Bofill studio together, there are four grandchildren and Mr Bofill’s longtime partner, the industrial designer Marta de Vilallonga. Mr Bofill never married, but he had three previous long-term partners, Pablo Bofill said.
Mr. Bofill completed three buildings in the United States: the colonnaded Shepard School of Music at Rice University in Houston and two office towers in Chicago. His firm’s work also included offices for Shiseido in Tokyo, academic buildings for the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco, and a W Hotel in Barcelona.
In an unexpected twist, Mr. Bofill in the 21st century new fans. “Westworld,” HBO’s sci-fi series, was partially shot in La Fábrica, and “Squid Game,” the Korean TV juggernaut, featured sets that closely resembled La Muralla Roja.
Those Bofill buildings and others became well-known Instagram backdrops—or in the words of Manuel Clavel Rojo, a Spanish architect and educator, “His buildings became pop icons right at the end of his career.”