Building Communities

Vallcarca. Photos Adrià Goula. 
Building Communities, Rehabilitation and Housing in Barcelona, FS20

Building communities implies creating relationships that hold together people and things from different backgrounds and different times, a community between new and old neighbours, between new and old fragments of a built city in which, in the end, everyone, people and things, live in a new unity.

When we talk about building communities we are thinking about the community that is built with the city that exists, adding to the as-found, inviting new neighbours to interact with those who already live there. The challenge of architecture today is to work in disarticulated or abandoned contexts in cities, valuing the social and physical structures that we find as the basis of our work. We understand urban rehabilitation as the balance between the recovery of a physical fabric and a social fabric.

To recover the social fabric of a neighbourhood is to recover the memory of hundreds of civic, cultural or personal relationships that the neighbourhood has built over time and still remain invisible but latent. But not only people contain the memory of a neighbourhood, the buildings are also loaded with memories of the uses of the place: we are interested in observing the built fabric as the reflection of a social behaviour. Although it is in bad condition, it speaks of a way of using the ground, the sky, of a way of inhabiting, because it contains the gaps, the courtyards, the distances, the meeting spaces, the volumes...

The rehabilitation of the physical fabric of the neighbourhood will help the recovery of a social fabric, both complement each other and work at the same time. To read the memory contained in buildings and in people is to think about a future that counts on that past.

The Studio

With the aim of building a community, we propose to work with a collective housing program but also with a community centre or small theatre, which will help to make a change of scale to a larger community, where more people now enter. The new program should be inserted in this place in the way that each student thinks is most useful, and therefore used as an argument to act in the place by interacting with it.

The studio proposes a trip to Barcelona, to walk the city and to collect data by drawing the existing and meeting the neighbors on site.

The new program should count with the as-found, it needs the existing fabric, both on a physical and social level, as much as the existing fabric needs the new program that comes to give new energy to the place. Between the two, what arrives and what exists, a community must be built: of new and old neighbors, of new and old constructions, but also a community in time, of new people and constructions that count with everything that exists: the memory of the place.

The studio works with two parallel objectives:

1. The recovery of a fragmented urban fabric, studying the possibilities of rehabilitation from the insertion of new programs, where housing will be the main but not the only one. The concrete tests of physical transformation of existing structures for the incorporation of houses or other complementary programs, within criteria of sustainability from the rehabilitation of obsolete architectures, will be the main working material of the studio.

2. The definition of the typology of house and its grouping – the community – adapting it each time to the area of the city where it is located.

Working area

We will work in a very fragmented area of the city of Barcelona, an area of discontinuity between urban fabrics: the Vallcarca district, in the surroundings of the valley formed by the hills of El Putxet, Creueta del Coll and Muntanya Pelada at the back of Park Güell. An area mainly defined by the strength of the topography, which marks the positioning of the buildings following the rules of slopes and level jumps.

The constant descent of the streets into the valley and to the sea provokes that the constructions make an effort in their positioning on the territory, grouping built areas into urban fragments with constant changes of orientation and direction. These turns leave empty spaces that allow the sight to cross long distances. Often these long views end in natural mountain and forest fragments, traces of the original geography of the site, with its outskirts character until a bit more than a century ago.


But these large vacant spaces are not only a result of the topographic character of this neighborhood. Also, the recent demolition of old residential buildings and workshops has left clearings and too long distances between buildings, resultinginalackofintermediatescalesinthe transitionbetweenbuilt-upareas and large empty scapes.

These extensive demolitions in a neighbourhood of precarious and small scale constructions have led to progressive sociological and physical degradation. Rehabilitation seems to be the necessary thing to do, studying the various typological structures that still coexist, with a positive attitude regarding the future of this fragment of city.

Topography, gardens, streams and rocks

The steep slopes in Vallcarca produce significant discontinuities in the urban fabric, in the form of walls or fences to level the floors and seal areas, something that the single building cannot do.

In Vallcarca, we still find narrow streets, with a certain village air, with ground floor houses combined with small industry workshops, and new blocks which break the old appearance of the historic quarter, mainly in the lower part of the stream.

This forms a city where the urbanization appears in large pieces of cons- truction (bridges, walls and buttresses, ramps and slopes, stairs, railings...) with great presence of vertical planes, which constitute the characteristic elements of the strong volumetric image of this neighborhood.

The topographical jumps of the leveling of the old orchards translate into a neighborhood segregation that, despite being easily accessible, is sometimes almost impossible to cross, leaving behind dead ends which are now places of opportunity.

Photos: Adrià Goulà

Observing historical maps

Observing historic plans during the design process expresses an interest in considering the current city as a place in evolution, with changes and reconstructions, understanding time as a design tool. This will allow to have more freedom in continuing to modify the territory and in incorporating personal interests as the project evolves.

At the beginning of the exercise, one can decide at what point in the evolution of the site to start working, at what time of its chronology should we locate, and what is the nature of the site at this particular time: are the fields or streets worth more?

Looking at the historical plans of Barcelona, we see the importance of pre- existing roads and water courses, which explain the way that neighbours such as Vallcarca would take over time. Indeed, a distinguishing feature for understanding the morphological evolution of this neighborhood is its topographic uniqueness: this urban complex is densified but not compacted.

The presence of the torrents and hills causes that the growth is carried out in an unrelated way, result of the rules of the topography in which it is implanted.

At the end of the XIX century, the north hills of Barcelona provided a more quiet place to spend a few days in the Summer.

Vallcarca. Plan of Barcelona.
Municipality of Barcelona, 1930-1940
Each building was related to a garden, something very rare in a city as dense as Barcelona. In this area, buildings were not taller than trees. Houses could be orientated to more than just two sides.

Historical photographs of Vallcarca, 1900

Interests of the Studio

1. To recognize the qualities of the built fabric. The exercise will focus in recuperating existing urban structures, and therefore a key aspect will be to observe carefuly its physical and spatial qualities, beyond the use for which they were built. Themes to reflect in the studio will be: the reuse of existing buildings as a possibility to incorporate new occupancies; the definition of sustainability criterias, based on the obsolescence of certain structures and programs; the consideration of the design process as an action that can be both additive and subtractive at the same time.

2. To intensify the city. Considering collective housing as an activator, an intensifier of the city and trusting in its capacity of adaptation, this program will be incorporated into existing urban systems in order to prevent social exclusion and be absorbed into the actual dynamics of the city.

3. To understand the project as research. The studio investigates and questions on the basis of the design, considering this as a research and experimentation tool to recognize the limits and possibilities of the material with which we work.

4. To study the program of housing. Study which are the limits of housing, considered not only as the area that is within the house itself, but in the sequence of spaces that join it with the city.

5. Assess collective housing with its ability to generate community.
Taking this aspect into account will allow the design of meeting and social areas, understanding the community as the place that will help its members to gain confidence.

6. The typology is always specific. Housing typology and its variations are always linked to the urban, social and historical form of the urban context in which it is inserted. Understand the ability of variation of the housing typologies according to urban, solar or social orientation, the size and relationship with the common spaces, is the basis of the project of collective housing which creates community.

7. The limits of the project. Define the area of influence of the project, its scale, limits and position, always in relation to the conditions that we find and that we want to care. The quality of the future project is implicit both on the selection of a working area and the way of occupying it.

Vallcarca 2015. Photos: Adrià Goula


The design studio is a combination of individual and group work. In the first part of the studio, a general Master Plan proposal for the area of work including a collective housing and a community centre / theatre program will be developed in groups of three students. Later, each student should develop a part of the housing program, sharing with the other two team members the proposal in order to agree in an overall idea of community. Both scales of the project for a community -the housing and the aggregation of them-, should be coordinated and worked on in correspondence.

Tracing paper over historical plans.

Periods of work in classroom are combined with periods of work in the street.

1. Classroom. This is where the students will get introduced to the site at the start of the semester, from documents and cartography of the city, readings and data with which to find and relate themes...

2. Street. Subsequently, the site is visited to observe it directly, physically, and find neighbors who explain the everyday and contribute with opinions... To observe and to know a fragment of the city of Barcelona through a physical contact with the different realities that make up the space of work, be it a constructed, social or historical reality... Only when incorporating the complex and multiple condition of the place will it be possible to understand and define a project that can be truly inclusive.

Observational Cartography.

3. Collect data from historical maps, photographs, site visits, neighbors’ comments... in order to incorporate the multiple qualities of the place into the project, synthesizing them into a proposal which does not lose the intensity and complexity of the reality.

4. Scales of work. Every thought has a graphical scale to develop. Work at various scales in order to understand the site and the program as a whole.

5. Documentation and discussion. Documents collected by the different students will be shared and discussed in class, paying attention to the value of the documents. Collect and present the documents with which things are done recognizing its material character, identical at any time of a process.

Neighbours and Students. Data collection in the streets of Vallcarca.

6. Representation techniques. Investigate and experience how different representation methods of can be relevant to each aspect of the project. Use different techniques for the development of the project. Hand and computer drawings, models, collages, short filming...

7. Visits. Travel to see examples of collective housing which build communities of varied social and cultural groups. Approaching directly the issues proposed by the project, taking data in situ through drawings, films...

8. All the documents produced in the design process are already presentation material. The material of work has an own value, independent of any further use. A project is also the sum of all these, and thus the project can be narrated through all the documents that form its evolution.

Observing Vallcarca. Angela Volken and Yuki Minami

The program in two objectives

Objective 1: Rehabilitation

The studio proposes the option that the new housing program could be placed in an existing structure, in any physical state, or in a vacant plot, or a combination of both. In any case, the decision of the location of the new program must involve activation of the existing urban fabric.

The total area of the new or renovated dwellings will be of about 9.100m2, distributed together or scattered depending on each project:

1.200 m2 of dwellings for 1 person, approx. 40m2 each.
2.800 m2 of dwellings for 3 people, approx. 70m2 each.
2.000 m2 of dwellings for 5 people, approx. 100m2 each.

The type of housing will vary according to the social profiles we will meet in the zone, designing them in order to respond to these profiles: single seniors, artists or craftsmen alone, single parents families, families with young children or with adults, groups of adults, people who work in the house...

1000 m2 in workshops linked to some dwellings.

Twenty of the dwellings will be linked to a workshop which can be attached or detached from it. Workshops will be of around 50m2 each.

Common uses: To invite the inhabitants to meet each other, it is important to organize shared uses such as laundry, library, kindergarten, kitchen...

Summer Workshop at the Sala Beckett in Poblenou. Fotograph: Nani Pujol.

Objective 2: Building communities

One of the objectives of the program coincides with the title of the studio: the dwellings proposed should invite to build a community.

One first stage to build a community will be inside the collective housing itself: the exercise has to develop with special interest the qualities of the spaces that are for communitarian uses, spaces of circulation, of gathering, or spaces to just stay, which invite neighbours to casual encounters, a salute, a short talk... to get to know who lives around you.

There is second stage that the design should take care about, which is the relationship of the new building with the neighbourhood around. The outdoor spaces surrounding the project, the doorways to the street, the sequence of accesing the building, the orientation of the openings in its facade, not only in relationship to the sun, but also to the urban situation...

And there is a third stage in this circle of communities. The proposal will also include a space of higher dimensions, a big room where the actual and new neighbors can meet each other. It will be up to each group to define which activities will happen there. This communal space will have an area of approximately 900m2.

︎Brief FS20 to download


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