An emblematic work of modernist architecture, an ethereal and lyrical edifice with no other purpose than to be an ideal tranquility zone, the Barcelona Pavilion is an enticing masterpiece and one of the most influential buildings of its times. Made as a pavilion without a real program and for no practical use, it laid down some of the basic modernistic principles in architecture.
It has become an important object in architectural history, functioning almost as a big sculpture or a meticulously designed phenomenological journey for its visitors.
The Barcelona Pavilion was designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1929 for the International Exposition of modernist architecture in Barcelona. For the purpose of the exhibition, the Pavilion was used as a place for the official reception of the Spanish king during the opening of the event. Despite its effortless appearance and stark simplicity, it is a very complex project. Mies van der Rohe managed to design and build the pavilion in about six months, with the help of his assistant Lily Reich.
An architect that is famous for his laconic quotes that “less is more” and that “God is in details” made a building that is a complete epitome of these phrases. Since it was made only for the purposes of the exhibition, the pavilion was disassembled in 1930. However, as it became a key point of reference and touted as a modernist masterpiece, it was reconstructed in accordance with original plans and sketches in 1986. Since then it has been open for visitors.
Rohe was extremely careful and radical with choosing every detail in this project. He refused the first planned position of the pavilion and instead chose a site that was quiet but that led to the Spanish National Pavilion, Poble Espanyol. It was perfectly integrated into the path of the exhibition. The building was set upon a travertine base which was put on a podium, in order to create a sense of grandeur to visitors as they arrived to a completely different landscape. This position reflected the building’s and modernist’s cultural roots in ancient architecture by resembling a Greek temple.
The whole pavilion consists of a front yard, the central structure, and a backyard. It was designed to be a play of perception and reflective adventure for the visitor from its first glance, a dynamic and active experience through its labyrinthine translucent and opaque surfaces.
The structure of the Barcelona Pavilion is basically asymmetrical, but the symmetry of materials and components, as well as the mirrored symmetry of reflected walls, pools, roof plates, pavers, and windows, create an aesthetic sense of order and regularity. In that sense, this dissonance highlights the composition of the structure and gives it consistency. It is one of the most famous modernist buildings for being constructed as a free plan, meaning that there are no interior bearing walls. The low position of the roof creates a weightless sense of floating, at the same time narrowing the view and forcing it to specific frames.
The walls, on the other hand, are used as spatial dividers that are meant to manipulate the cyclical movement of visitors through the space. Their role is purely aesthetic. But the specific use of materials such as glass, marble, water, steel, onyx, and travertine has a crucial role in the play of reflections. The polished, translucent or reflective surfaces altogether blur the limits of the outside and the inside and the lines are dissolved in their own reflections. A strange mise-en-abyme feeling of chasing your own apparition happens upon entering.
The reconstruction used the same specific materials from Mies van der Rohe’s original plans in order to recreate the magical effect; Roman travertine, a block of golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains, green marble and the ancient green marble from Greece were carefully sourced. Rohe included a black rug and a red curtain, which were placed near the beige marble wall, creating a political statement by using the colors of the German flag. In addition to the polished surfaces, the use of glass and water in two pools adds immensely to the reflective qualities.
Not only walls were used to force the visitors to follow the chosen route and meander through space. A sense of discomfort upon lingering in the space was created by the conceptual arrangement of the furniture present in the whole project from the beginning. The later famous Barcelona Chair was a custom designed piece for this occasion by Rohe and Reich and became an icon of modern design. It was inspired by a Roman stool used by the aristocracy.
Last but not the least, there is one more aspect of this Pavilion that is praised for it marvelous conceptual solution. Namely, the bronze sculpture of a graceful young woman in a reclining posture called Morgen or Alba (meaning dawn) done by George Kolbe. Mies chose to place it in the backyard pool and by doing so made it a focal point not visible from the exterior. In that way, he created a specific atmosphere that singles it out and creates tension in this austere structure.
One can say that less certainly works as more in this alluring work of architecture. It cannot be denied that there are many more details than meets the eye. Indeed, the Barcelona Pavilion is “an ideal zone of tranquility”, just as Mies van der Rohe wanted.