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Banking on architecture.

A bank for architects may seem to be a bizarre idea, but whatever its merits as a financial institution, this bank associated with the Colegio de Arquitectos in Barcelona shows a delicate understanding of the nature of banking transactions, light and materials.

The new seat of the Caja de Arquitectos (architects' Bank) in Barcelona is in the old Barri Gotic quarter of the city, and occupies five floors of an irregularly shaped building (by Josep Rosello Til), constructed amid controversy last year for the Colegio de Arquitectos. This institution also occupies part of it. The Barcelona practice of Sunyer Badia, commissioned to design the bank's interior, was faced with the problem of finding a popular image for a modern financial institution in a historic city more attuned to the excitements of night life. Returning for inspiration to well-loved tradition, to the richly ornamented and generously proportioned interiors of old apartments in the city, the architects have extrapolated the richness and reinterpreted ornament to create an interior of great sensuality.

Considered against the exuberant background of Barcelona the work of these architects stands somewhat soberly apart from that of the city's exponents of minimalist brig. They work, like the best of their compatriots, within the Modernist canon; and in their deployment of pure form and surface, Sunyer and Badia acknowledge the influence of Ando and Shinohara, Souto de Moura, and fellow Catalans such as Eduard Samso. But their own finely crafted expression of Modernism has at heart the celebration of material. Fastidious attention to and enjoyment of detail (and this excursion into ornament) suggest Viennese influences -- in particular Hoffmann; but the concern for craftsmanship has very local origins. In regarding the lustrous planes of wood in the Caja de Arquitectos, you are reminded that Sunyer is the son of a jeweller, the grandson of a famous painter (himself painted by Mirb); and that he worked for a period as a jeweller.

Accommodation in the bank is disposed over two basement levels, and ground, first and second floors. Archives, not open to the public, are in the basement. There is a shared reception area and a banking hall on the ground floor, offices for staff are on the first floor, and executive ones with board and meeting rooms are on the second. Throughout this scheme, each component plane -- floor, wall, ceiling -- has been treated as something precious. Within an irregular and deep plan, and a dark interior with a narrow pattern of fenestration on two meandering sides, the architects have rendered positive what is so often negative in office design.

Sumptuous use of wood everywhere conveys richness and presumably -- by extension -- prosperity. Except at ground level and in circulation areas, where black granite and slate have been variously used, floors are wooden, as are walls and austere furniture. Ceilings, always difficult in large expanses of office, are ingenious. In staff offices, wiring is concealed by a sycamore canopy -- in itself a tribute to exquisite craftsmanship -- that is suspended overhead against a darker ground; elsewhere grooved wooden panelling has been contrived with almost Japanese restraint. Lighting is imaginative. Illuminated panels span the width of the space between the narrow windows so that a perfectly functional enclosure has been transformed into long walls of light. The panels are fitted with shelves but the staff have preferred to leave them empty. A series of gilded light boxes set into the ceiling of the reception area sheds warm light over wall panelling and the green slate floor -- and over columns burnished with gold leaf. Such ornament as there is depends for effect, without mimicry, on the intrinsic beauty of material and form.
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Title Annotation:design for new Caja de Arquitectos office in Barcelona, Spain
Author:McGuire, Penny
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:606
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