Walden 7: Architecture Inspired by Social Experiment

Walden 7 social experiment

Rising like a termite mound out of the suburb of Sant Just Desvern, Walden 7 has long been considered an epic achievement in design failure. Every day groups of student architects form in its shadow, furiously scribbling in their notebooks as they try to make sense of it. A clay-red, curving, 'vertical labyrinth' consisting of 18 towers, with apartments made up of one or more 30 square metre modules accessed via a vertiginous maze of inner stairwells and patios, the building was inspired by a science fiction novel by the behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner.

Skinner's novel Walden Two was about an experimental, self-governing society whose participants lived a fulfilling, creative, interactive - utopic - lifestyle through the Walden Code, a socio-political manifesto which benignly manipulated social behaviour and communal will.

Skinner's book had inspired several social experiments in communal living in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Walden 7 would be an attempt to bring the experiment to Spanish soil. Its conception would be unique. It would be designed in a collaborative effort not only by architects, but by a group of engineers, psychologists and philosophers.

As its bedrock Walden 7 would use the prevailing architectural concept of rationalism - the idea that structure should be defined by materials and purpose, not traditional aesthetic ideals.

Its 'purpose' would be infused with the intellectual spirit of May '68 - an enormously influential left-wing anti-capitalist rally held in Paris, when five hundred thousand students and workers had marched through the streets occupying factories and universities. The movement of May `68 had spawned a social, philosophical and artistic revolution across Western Europe, and its disciples were known as soixante-huitards.

The group responsible for conceiving Walden, Ricardo Bofill and his Taller de Arquitectos, were committed soixante-huitards and viewed Walden 7's potential residents as collaborators in a social experiment.

Thus the building's inhabitants would come to be known as Walderites.

Not just any person could purchase one of Walden's modules. Walderites were interviewed and hand-picked by the Bofill soixante-huitards with one clear, dominant requirement. They had to be non-conformista.

This led to the building being a unique space where the 'Gauche Divine' of Barcelonese society could express itself during the twilight of the Franco regime and dawn of the exciting 'Transición' years. Speaking in 2013 in an article in La Vanguardia, one of Walden's occupants in those early days, Ton Ardevol, said:

'It was like a big commune where everyone knew each other and in every house there were activities....we were all pretty much the same, the same age, non-conformists hoping to live a different way.'

Mirroring the utopic society glimpsed in Walden Two, residents visited each other's homes for concerts, political debates, workshops, cultural groups, and parties. If Le Corbusier's buildings were 'machines for living', then Walden 7 was a self-sufficient 'continent of life', where inhabitants could satisfy all their necessities; social and cultural activities, shopping, recreation, politics.

Compared to the brutalist tower blocks - unadorned 'streets in the sky' - being built in a rage across Europe throughout the 60s and 70s, Walden 7 had a more organic appearance. Brutalism had reacted with a rugged, naked muscularity to the light, frivolous character of early 20th Century architecture. Walden 7 in turn took brutalism's modular forms as a guideline, and then gleefully deformed them out of all proportion. In contrast to the grim exposed concrete of brutalism, it was covered almost entirely in a terracotta cladding of tiles and its inner corridors were a bright turquoise. Instead of staring out in rigid terraced rows, windows peaked irregularly out of every curving corner of the building in turrets.

However, on a practical level, things did not go as planned. Originally, the design comprised of three tower blocks around a central patio. Due to major funding problems, only one was built. This building, when it had been completed after long delays, began to present numerous problems. Floors and walls began to crack, tiles began to fall off (between 1980 and 1995, millions of pesetas would be poured into stripping away tiles from the facade and replacing them). Walderite residents complained of the long shuttling staircases, awkwardly-placed windows shielded from light and damp walls. Simple requirements such as removing rubbish were an odyssean task.

Most of the shops which once dotted its ground floor closed down, devastated by the economic crisis. Some were tranformed into offices, which were closed off from the building's interior - it had always been the idea that all businesses in Walden 7 be accessed from inside the community, as well as from the street.

Buying interest, which had been huge from the outset thanks to its affordable prices (in the late 70s a 30 square metre flat could be had for 1800 Euros), dwindled. Increasingly flats were placed on the rental market, most commonly for students, creating a sense of transit within the building.

By the mid-80s, the party - and the Spirit of May '68, it seemed - were over. Many of the original Walderites left, replaced by a new wave of occupants who didn't share the communal ideal. Many saw Walden as just another tower block with a cheaper than usual rent.

Now over 40 years old, the building has long given up the ghost of socialist autogestión.

Ricardo Bofill, the head of the Bofill Taller de Arquitectos, would go on to work on live-in monuments such as the Espaces d'Abraxas in Noisy-le-Grand, France, and 'integrated urbanism' projects such as the extension of Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana and construction of Barcelona Airport's T1.

One of Bofill's most striking buildings however would be right on Walden 7's doorstep. It's a converted old factory. Cement-grey and castellated, with neo-Gothic windows, clad in ivy and surrounded by cypresses, olives and palms, it creates an eery backdrop, at once industrial and mythical, to Walden.

It's called La Fabrica, and today it's still the site of Bofill's studio, as well as his living quarters.

Whether viewed as a success, a curiosity or what the Prince of Wales might call a 'carbuncle', Bofill's creation, Walden 7, catches the eye and remains in the memory. It brings to mind a passage by the philosopher Alain de Botton:

'There is no shortage of reasons to be suspicious of the ambition to create great architecture. Buildings rarely make palpable the efforts that their construction demands. They are coyly silent about the bankruptcies, the delays, the fear and the dust they impose. A nonchalant appearance is a frequent feature of their charm.'

But there is nothing nonchalant about Walden 7. It speaks to us confessionally of a dashed spirit of social experiment, as well as of fallible, impractical design. That's why, hoy en día, it has cult status, and is as instantly recognizable as it is mocked and maligned.

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