Barcelona – late starter with city expansion

With Munich and Vienna we have already seen two European cities where the abolition of fortifications marked a major turning point in their urban development. However, the most impressive turn can be observed in Barcelona in the middle of the 19th century. Since the Spanish state had forbidden the city to build outside its walls, in order to avoid a strong competitor, Barcelona was one of the lastes European cities to give up her fortified status. The smaller towns of Gràcia, Sant Martí and L’Hospitalet existed as independent municipalities not under the control of Barcelona – another move from the monarchy to prevent the city’s growth as a separate power.

Being a ‚late-starter‘ Barcelona in 1859 developed an even more amtitious urban expansion plan than any other European city: created by engineer, politician Ildefons Cerdà.

Click on map to enlarge

Cerdà’s plan increased the size of Barcelona dramatically – the development of L’Eixample alone expanded the city’s size by 10 times – and it was developed with a seemingly limitless scope. His plan offered an unlimited area of expansion. Cerdà’s plans facilitated Barcelona’s expansion, equipping it with enough space to house the large numbers of immigrants arriving for work.

The following maps depicting Barcelona in 1859 and Cerdà’s plan as overlays on todays roadgrid demonstrate the impressive scale of the expansion plan.

Barcelona 1859 on present layout
Barcelona 1859 with Cerda’s expansion plan on present city layout – click on map to enlarge

The magnitude of Cerdàs plan becomes even more obvious when we set it against e.g. Sckell’s expansion plan for Munich of 1808 – implanted on Barcelona at the same scale:

Barcelona in 1859 with Munich’s Maxvorstadt (red) mounted beseides it on present city layout – click on map to enlarge

The reason for Barcelonas ambitious urban project lies at one hand in the fact that planning for the expansion of the city came very late – e.g. 50 years after Munich – on the other in a great economic revitalization, linked to the Industrial Revolution  – especially the textile industry -, which in turn brought about a cultural renaissance. The population grew, especially thanks to immigration from the rest of Spain, reaching 400,000 inhabitants by the end of the century.

The Industrial Revolution consolidated rapidly in Catalonia, being a pioneer in the national territory in the implementation of manufacturing procedures that began in Great Britain in the 18th century. In 1800 there were 150 textile factories in Barcelona, among which El Vapor stood out. In 1849, the La España Industrial complex was opened in Sants. The textile industry had a continuous growth until the crisis of 1861, motivated by the shortage of cotton due to the American Secession War. The metallurgical industry was also gaining importance, boosted by the creation of the railway and steam navigation. In 1836 the Nueva Vulcano Foundry was opened in La Barceloneta and, in 1841, La Barcelonesa started, the predecessor of La Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima (1855), one of the most important factories in the history of Barcelona.

The Cerdá plan (plan for the environs of the city of Barcelona and the project for its improvement and expansion, 1859) introduced an orthogonal layout between Montjuic and Besós, with a system of rectilinear streets running northwest-southeast, 20 meters long, intersected by others with a southwest-northeast orientation parallel to the coast and the Collserola Mountains. Thus was delineated a series of square blocks, 113.3 m on each side, of which Cerdá wanted to build only two sides, leaving the other spaces for gardens, although this point was not reached and in the end practically all buildable land was used.

The buildings were designed with an octagonal plan, characteristic of the Eixample, with cut corners that favor traffic. The plan called for the construction of several main streets: Diagonal, Meridiana, Paralelo, Gran Vía and Paseo de San Juan; as well as several large squares at their intersections: Tetuán, Glorias, España, Verdaguer, Letamendi and Universidad.

Construction of Gran Via

It also envisaged the opening of three major avenues in the old town: two that would connect Ensanche to the coast (Muntaner and Pau Claris), and another in the vertical direction that would connect the citadel to Montjuic (Avenida de la Catedral).

Also a series of new roundabouts were considered that would surround the old town in the place left vacant by the walls: the San Pablo, San Antonio, Universidad and San Pedro roundabouts.

Click on map to enlarge

Cerdá’s project was quite innovative for the time, particularly in terms of the delimitation of green spaces and service areas, taking into account both functional aspects and recreational and welfare aspects. The buildings had to be 16 meters high (ground floor and four floors) and 10 to 20 meters deep. The extension of the Ensanche would include sectors of 20 x 20 blocks divided into 10 x 10 districts and 5 x 5 neighborhoods. Each borough would have a church, civic center, school, kindergarten, nursing home, and other support centers, while each borough would have a market and each sector would have a park.

Cerdà designed for the development of the blocks different variants. The most common variant saw merely two its four sides being built to make room for green spaces of different shape:


The building should have a depth of 24m and four floors do not exceed works. So he wanted one create, be, green and wide Barcelona The aim, as he emphasizes, was to bring the rural into the to bring town. With the withdrawn Building density should be optimal hygienic conditions are created and a thorough green and ventilated area arise in communication and health compared to the deficient in this respect old town are promoted.

It also had industrial and administrative facilities, and on the outskirts were a slaughterhouse, a cemetery, and three hospitals. However, most of these stipulations were never implemented due to opposition from the city council, which was annoyed that Cerdá’s plan was prefered to the plan by Rovira in the tender, and also due to real estate speculation that led to build the blocks on all sides and not only on the two planned by Cerdá.

His grid plan avoids any social gradation. Everyone who residents will be informed in this regular geo- equivalent to the metric system.

Cerdà had drawn up an ideal plan in which it does not involve the implementation of any particular aesthetics but the most efficient design of a city. He wanted a modern, ideal city that adapts to the new challenges of a humane environment and a new understanding of equality in urban society.

The implementation of the plan

After his plan was approved in 1860 by Queen Isabella II the development of the new area started only hesitantly. In economically difficult times frightened by the distance to the center and the still missing infrastructure the investment was slow. In addition, there was  major disagreements about the necessary parcellingin in the city administration. Especially the legal basis for land expropriations were missing. Only with the economic boom of the 1870s the development of the still largely empty Eexpansion area took off. Barcelona’s Eixample drove from this point on an explosive growth with massive construction activity going up to 1885. The population of Barcelona doubles during this time. During the economic boom, more and more towards the original plan Areas that are actually used for parks and infrastructure structural facilities were provided, built. The often unrestrained activity of Investors and lack of city intervention for the Cerdàs plan also led to that the grid is now defined by closed blocks was agreed, built on all four sides were, although Cerdà was originally only a building on two sides4. From this follows there is a significant change to the plan, precisely because of its low density and the Green spaces noticed. Despite all the changes of Cerdà’s original plans all new buildings are aligned with the vanishing lines adhere to the official plan approved in 1860, whereby his plan with the octagonal blocks the urban structure of Barcelona continues to lich coined. Around the turn of the century, the development of the area finally reached point when the Catalan bourgeoisie discovered Eixample as a place of residence and started representative apartment buildings in the style of the to erect obstacles.