Editorial Gustavo Gili Headquarters (1954-1960). A building for publishing
In 1960, Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. moved into a new building in the interior of a city block of Barcelona's 19th-century Cerda Eixample. Designed and built by the architects loaquim Gili and Francesc Bassó between 1954 and 1960, awarded the prestigious Foment de les Arts Decoratives (FAD) prize in 1961, and maintained in pristine condition over the years, the building is one of the finest examples of that significant moment of re-encounter between Barcelona architecture and the modern tradition, in a difficult cultural climate that was more conducive to classicist revivals of whatever kind than to the creative invention of a particular response for each specific situation. The complexity of the scheme proposed reveals the maturity of the architects, who with this building arguably attained their richest and most fully developed work. At the same time they acknowledged that a project on this scale would not have been possible without the supporting presence behind it of a minority but resolute cultural current unambivalently committed to the profound change that modern art and architecture signified in that situation.
In our own time we are once again faced with what appears to be the excessive ingenuousness of the innovative talent or the doubtful unity of the avant-garde project. We have had time to appreciate their multiple facets, their limitations, that ideological character by no means always favourable to social emancipation. But we should be misled if we were to fail to understand the conditions in which works such as the one we are considering here were inscribed within their time.
The plot chosen as the site for the new Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. building suffered from a problem that has beset virtually all of the constructions in the interior courtyards of the regular Cerda plan block, almost from the beginning. These spaces were originally envisaged as gardens for the surrounding housing, the built fabric of the block, and the subsequent construction of warehouses, workshops or garages covered the interior squares, measuring approximately 50 x 50 metres, under the flat or sawtooth roofing of industrial and commercial premises. On those few occasions where the interior courtyard has retained its original function as a garden, it is usually because the residents of the block itself are able to afford the luxury of renouncing the potential income from exploiting the space and conserving the pleasing presence of a landscaped interior.
Gili and Bassó, the architects of the future building, could hardly have been indifferent to this paradoxical state of affairs, above all if we consider that their formative years as students were those of the GATCPAC and the Spanish Republic, and that the early fifties and the reappraisal of Cerda 's achievement, its rationality and urban efficacy, constituted one of the shared references through which an operational and egalitarian urban design and the ideas of the modern tradition found a mutual point of connection.
The first decisions taken as the basis of Gili and Bassó 's project set out to make the construction of a service building in the interior of the city block compatible with a commitment to providing open spaces, gardens and a formal complexity far removed from the habitual construction of a continuous roof covering the whole of the usable surface.
One of the first decisions affecting the form of the building was therefore the siting. On the one hand, it was necessary to occupy the courtyard in the centre of the block; on the other, the scheme sought to divide this occupation in such a way as to generate a system of internal open spaces that would serve to restore to the block the idyllic quality of a landscaped open space.
The first parti of the project is its tremendous dynamism. Growing outward from within and leaving free an internal access court and two gardens, one to the side and the other in front of the building, the architects opted against occupying all of the available area, with the scheme evolving in typically modern fashion from the inside out and stopping short of the neighbouring properties in order to produce its own facades. Despite its situation in an interior courtyard, the building does in effect have facades, in that it does project the various interior functions out onto the exterior: entrance and vestibule, as main facade, but also a facade that is intimate and domestic for the management offices and luminous and tranquil for the staff dining room.
This tension between the necessary interior and the impossible exterior is equally crucial in the case of what we have called the main facade. As I shall consider below, this is in great measure an interior building, essentially introspective in its organization. But is it desirable for a commercial building to have no facade? Thefacade is, and has been since the Renaissance, the supreme site of decorum, of the dignified presentation of what takes place in the interior. For this reason the plan and the whole general organization of the building are in tension between an internalized vocation and what might be termed a more classical composition that makes the street front the first moment in the ritual sequence of inward-flowing spaces that leads from the outer gate to the open courtyard, to the doors and the large windows with their external brise-soleil screens, and in to the great central vestibule around which the entire building is articulated.
(It is interesting to note how the series of subsequent modifications, up to and including the latest, still in construction, have taken account of the significance of this episode of physical approach to the publishing house.)
The reference to a system of three parallel volumes with 'which the architects themselves sought to explain the organization of this building and justify its external expression in three volumes is ultimately too simple to do justice to the complexity of intentions that come together in the organization of the primary spaces. The dialectic between the modern conception of the building growing out from a spatial nucleus in all directions here comes into confrontation with the problematics of the interior of the Cerda city block and the architects' desire to transcend the typology of the industrial building under a uniform roof as a space spreading out to the boundaries of the plot.
Of course we also need to understand what kind of building was called for in the brief given to the architects. The programme can be schematically summarized in two principal functions: offices and warehouse. With the printing activities located elsewhere, these were the two basic functions the project was required to resolve. One of the decisive factors in making the new Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. offoces a complex building was the capacity of its architects, and of the client, to provide it with a wider and more articulated programme.
As we saw above, other commentators have remarked on the presence here of three clearly identifiable volumes: those of the vestibule and offices, the warehouse and the management offices. The particular handling of the translation of these three parts is what elevates the primarily functionalist interpretation. We have already seen how the division into three blocks took on a greater complexity with the siting of the building and its relationships with boundaries and exterior spaces. We should also, however, observe that this apparent division into three parts is in fact authentic when we come to consider the system of interior spaces. Both the modular regularity of the uniform structural grid and the continual transgression of these three closed compartments constitute a principle of flexibility that extends far beyond the purely schematic division of functions into isolated buildings.
At this point I think a decisive part is played by the reference to the Johnson Wax office buildings in Racine by Frank Lloyd Wright; this emblematic fifties work, widely publicized and admired in Spain and throughout Europe, would undoubtedly have been an inescapable referent in the process of designing a corporate building. For an office complex that could not easily escape its interior condition, the Miesian model, with its regular plan and glazed perimeter looking out on the landscape, was inapplicable. Although there are important differences in many aspects, it is evident that the closure, the sense of its interior condition, developed by the Johnson Wax building, together with its capacity to create an interior landscape, made it a fundamental reference in the conception of the Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. project. An interior landscape that was, in the first place, entirely consonant with the ideals of the personalized environment and of clean work that industrial sectors such as publishing played a leading role in promoting. Secondly, an interior that in assuming the condition imposed by the characteristics of the site made the company's industrial activity its own image, in the representation of a production process in which comfort, interdependence, fluidity and communication were taken as ascendant values from the industrial as well as the aesthetic viewpoint.
There are other points of contact with Wright's building: the ordering value of the structural system; the play of the two levels of illumination, overhead and local; the curvilinear forms contrasting with rectangular spaces; the fluidity of the various departments; the dual level of activity around a great atrium, itself productively occupied; the detailed attention to design on even the smallest scale; the unity of the furnishing, etc., etc.
The likelihood that Gili and Bassó had Wright's building in mind is, from the historical standpoint, virtually beyond doubt. There is no need to repeat that in terms of external surface the lohnson Wax building is quite different; nevertheless, I feel it is necessary to take it as the key conceptual reference, alongside the problem of the Cerda plan, because I believe that these references, in clearly reflecting the preoccupations of the time, help us to understand much more completely the project's key decisions; references more illuminating than those frequently detected debts to Alvar Aalto or Le Corbusier, whose importance is in any case more on the stylistic than the conceptual level.
Joaquim Gili (1916-1984) is recognized as one of the founders of Grup R, the team of architects that came into existence in losé Antonio Coderch's studio in 1951 and dissolved in 1958. Together with Pepe Pratmarsó, Antoni de Moragas, Josep Ma. Sostres, Coderch and Manuel Valls, Gili was one of those whose eyes were first opened to architecture in the thirties, at the euphoric height of GATCPAC rationalsim, and who underwenton one side or the other - the traumatic experience of the Spanish Civil War. Francesc Bassó (1921), on the other hand, was one of the younger generation who immediately involved themselves in this innovative group, alongside Oriol Bohigas, losep Ma. Martorell, Manuel Ribas and others.
The recent book on Grup R by Carme Rodríguez and lorge Torres has drawn attention to the heterogeneity of its different members, and to the heterodox variety of references they each employed. It would be a mistake to think of Grup R as a unitary group, with a well defined set of ideas and formallanguage. It asks to be understood, in the sordid cultural panorama of the postwar period, as the multiple echo, struggling to make itself heard, of what was then the beginnings of the great plural outburst of European reconstruction. We should take note that the group's intellectual lifeline drew on sources as diverse as Alberto Sartoris, Bruno Zevi or Nikolaus Pevsner, and that Cerda, Antoni Gaudí and the GATCPAC were equally significant local references, while Aalto and Wright were the contemporary architects analysed with greatest respect; there were many, too, whose fundamental references were Gio Ponti or Ignazio Gardella.
In this potpourri Gili and Bassó represent the current most closely connected to the rationalist tradition. As much for the attention to the technical components in all their projects as for a constant sobriety in the solutions employed throughout the work, this team, who began their partnership in 1953, can be characterized by something that was perhaps less prevalent in most of the other Grup R architects.
When we today set out to draw the outline of the construction activity ofthefifties in Spain we find that, over and above the cultural importance of Grup R and its agitation against conformism, the work of its component parts was often very diverse. In the case of Gili and Bassó, it is hard to discern parallels between their work and that of, say, Coderch or Moragas, although it is evidently closer to the early schemes by Bohigas and Martorell, prior to the Pallars house in 1958, or to the Galician José Bar Bo or the Madrid architects Francisco Cabrero and Rafael Echaide and César Ortiz Echague.
But these characteristics of rationalist clarity, technical rigour and linguistic sobriety seem to reach new heights in what can now be seen as their supreme achievement. Quite clearly, the Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. building is a total work, in which, no doubt thanks to the vision of their client, Gili and Bassó found the ground cleared for an incomparably rich and complex achievement.
This fluid interior, in which the limits of the three parts seem to dissolve, revolves around a centre in the form of the great double-height space of the vestibule under the exposed structure of a double span roof supported on concrete columns. The surrounding offices, management area, services, dining rooms and dispatch areas connected to the warehouse form a system of concentric rings that, over the two levels, tends to incorporate all of the work and activity areas of the company in a fabric of deliberately diffuse limits.
The references in the detailing are particularly varied, and demonstrate how these architects' voracious appetite for new languages inevitably led them to a comfortable eclecticism. A virtual inventory might be made of the influences in certain gestures, of the multiple stylemes in the balustrades and stairs, in the carpentry, in the partitions and the furniture, in the lights and the lighting.
But we must remind ourselves here that it would be inappropriate to judge this eclecticism harshly. First of all, on account of its genuine intrinsic quality in most cases, irrespective of its variety of origins. But also, secondly, because in the context of the nineteen fifties this multiplication of references and quotations had an evident programmatic value as an alternative to the stale provincialism of the solutions then in general circulation. Setting aside for the moment the specific sources and procedures with which we today might undertake a purely philological exercise, what remains here as a complete operation is the considered response, the commitment to innovation, the conceptual clarity with which the lighting or the colour, the circulation or the spaces, the comfort of the workplace or the corporate identity were resolved at that historic moment when the humanization of work, the modernization of the company, the exactitude of the various processes and the overall image of the collective enterprise sought to make themselves visible by means of an architecture whose principal concern was, without a doubt, to present itself as unmistakably modern.
Ignasi de Sola-Morales
Complete text of "Exterior and interior. The Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. headquarters by Joaquim Gili and Francesc Bassó (1954-1960)" by Ignasi de Solà-Morales, appearing in Editorial Gustavo Gili S.A. A building for publishing (Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1996, edition not for sale).