Octogonal blocks and wide streets forming a grid. This is what the city of Barcelona looks like when you see it from above. The urbanisation of Eixample, known as Pla Cerdà,which took place more than 150 years, has outlined the city as it is today and has become one of its symbols.
In the mid XIX century, Barcelona needed to grow as a city. The urban nucleus, today’s Gothic Quarter, Born and Raval, was surrounded by walls which prevented the expansion in construction. Outside the walls, there were ample spaces of uninhabited land, a bit further, scattered independent towns (today’s districts of Gràcia, Sarrià, Les Corts, Sants, Sant Andreu and Sant Martí). To expand the city, the first decision was to tear down the Old City walls and design a plan to make the city grow and finally link it to the small towns. This was how today’s outline of Barcelona’s Eixample was born.
The Plan for Rerform and Development in Barcelona, designed by Ildefons Cerdà in the middle of the XIX century, is considered to be a pioneer project in the evolution of modern urbanism. Cerdà aspired to create a city which would be articulate with wide streets and green spaces. The engineer designed a grid plan ruled by the strict geometry of parallel and perpendicular streets, interrupted only by the large avenues passing through the area diagonally, The octagonal blocks incorporating chamfered corners to facilitate traffic flow stood out among the main novelties
The Cerdà plan of 1859 accounted for a street with of 20 meters and was going to build on two sides of each block only, leaving an interior green zone open for public use. The maximum size of a building was to be 16 metres, the equivalent of a four-storey building. The plan provided for a market every 900 metres, a park every 1.500, three hospitals, a cemetery, a wood and 31 churches. Large industry would be located next to the two rivers (Llobregat and Besòs) that serve as natural boundaries of the city, with small and medium sized business distributed throughout the city. With regard to infrastructure, the engineer designed a system for recollecting water and introduced rail and road transportation. This was a design by a man with a view based on the utopian socialism, who planned a city to be lived in, where everyone was guaranteed a home with light, proper hygiene and a place to breathe fresh air. What continues to surprise us today is Cerdà’s capacity to predict the protagonistic role which public transport would play in the city, a factor that permitted Barcelona to adopt the profound changes brought about by time, as he had actually expected them 150 years ago.
The idealistic Cerdà’s plan wasn’t finally carried out entirely. The truth is that, according to the initial plan, Eixample would have been fully occupied by 1900 and the construction fever and soil speculation, contributed to a progressive reduction in green spaces and facilities. In the end, all four sides of a block were built upon, and the height and the surface of the buildings was also increased. Nevertheless, Barcelona still has in the octagonal urbanization of the Eixample one of his characteristic features and a landmark of what started to be a modern city more than 150 years ago.