Modern Architecture

Modern Architecture in Barcelona

City guide to Barcelona's Best Modern Buildings

Barcelona, Spain
Kasper Christiansen
Text & photos: Kasper Christiansen
2. April 2021 (revised version)

Since the construction of Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion for the World Exhibition in 1929, Barcelona has been at the vanguard of modern architecture in Europe. The building by Mies van der Rohe is one of the first so-called modern buildings in Europe. It came out of the Bauhaus school and brought with it a whole new way of thinking architecture.

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The change in style is especially significant in Barcelona. Until the 1920's, Barcelona had been completely dominated by Art Nouveau (called modernisme in Catalan and modernismo in Spanish). With functionalism came a style that was at the same time classic and modern, but first of all was radically opposed to the baroque and ornamented style of Art Nouveau.

However, even though early functionalism is closely linked with Barcelona, it is not until recent years that vanguard modernism "came back to" Barcelona. Of course, there are exceptions (one significant one is the Fundació Miró by Josep Lluis Sert, a Catalan architect that worked with Le Corbusier in Paris around 1930).

Mies van der Rohe Modern Architecture

The Olympic Games and its significance for Barcelona

In many ways the celebration of the Olympic Games in 1992 meant the beginning of a new era - also in the field of architecture. Out of the Olympic Games in 1992 came a new and more attractive city. 10.000 apartments were built, the beaches were cleaned up, three new highways were constructed and many green areas and parks were designed. Today, Barcelona is a modern and dynamic city.

In the years up to The Olympic Games Barcelona entered a process of construction that really hasn't stopped again. Old industrial areas were rehabilitated, new parks were designed and a total of more than 300 new buildings were planned by approximately 150 architects.

Since then, new interesting, modern architecture has continued to come up in Barcelona. Today, Barcelona offers an overwhelming amount of fascinating, modern buildings that have changed the urban landscape of Barcelona radically. To name just a few: Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers as well as local architects like Enric Miralles and Ricard Bofill have been building in Barcelona over the last two decades.

Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry's Fish sculpture in the Olympic Port from 1992.

14 modern highlights

To help you choose a few of the most interesting of Barcelona's modern buildings, here is a list of some of the best works.

1. Hotel W by Ricard Bofill

A beautiful building that is home to one of the best hotels in Barcelona. The building looks like a sail, thus the nickname 'Hotel Sail' (Hotel Vela in Spanish), in comparison to the famous Burj Al Arab in Dubai.

Hotel W has several interesting restaurants and bars, among these the eclipse bar on the 26th floor, and the Restaurant Bravo on the first run by local gourmet chef Carles Abellan. The building rises towards the sky from the marina in the southern part of Barceloneta. The building has been criticized for being too close to the sea by environmental associations, but it is also acclaimed for being one of the most interesting works of architecture in Barcelona over the last years.

The architect Ricard Bofill is also the designer of the Terminal 1 and 2 in the Airport of Barcelona and The National Theatre (Teatre Nacional de Catalunya). Abroad he has among other things built the wine cellars of the acclaimed Château Laffite Rothschild.

Hotel W
Hotel W in Barcelona

2. The Communication Tower by Santiago Calatrava

Santiago Calatrava had his breakthrough in Barcelona with this beautiful communications tower. Calatrava rose to fame and was seen for the first time during the Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona. Since then, he has turned into an international superstar in modern architecture, building New York, Zurich and Venice.

The communications tower is a both unique an aesthetically close-to-perfection structure on the Montjuïc Hill in Barcelona that looks like a white dart being thrown at the sky. It can be seen from most points in Barcelona and is today one of the main architectonical attractions of the city. Early drawings and sketches from Calatrava's hand show that the inspiration comes from a kneeling woman.

The base of the antenna can be seen as a tribute to local architect Antoni Gaudí. It consists of a mosaic of broken tiles in the style of Gaudi's trencadís  found in so many of his works: (the rooftops of Palau Güell, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà and in the famous, meandering bench in Park Güell). The Communication Tower changes perspective from different angles, so when you visit it, be sure to walk around it.

Calatrava rose to fame and was for the first time seen as a coming superstar in architecture. Since then Calatrava has been building in New York, Zurich, Venice, etc. The idea of the complex structure of the roof comes from the school designed for Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudí. The structure has the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid, one of the favourite geometrical forms of Gaudí.

Calatrava Torre
Torre Calatrava, The Communication tower on Montjuic, designed by the Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava

3. Mercat Santa Catarina by Miralles/Tagliabue

The Santa Catarina Market, close to La Seu Cathedral, was the first covered market to be built in Barcelona (1848), using the space left by the demolishment of the Santa Catarina convent. In 2005 the market was completely renovated by Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue from EMBT.

The idea of the complex structure of the roof comes from the school designed for Sagrada Familia by Antoni Gaudí. The structure has the form of a hyperbolic paraboloid, one of the favorite geometrical forms of Gaudí.

Calatrava Torre
The tiled roof of the Santa Catarina Market

4. The Museum of Modern Art (MACBA) by Richard Meier

The American architect Richard Meier built the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona in 1995. Before the construction of the museum this area was a worn down quarter but after the building process finished, new cafés, restaurants, hotels, etc. began to thrive close to the museum. Also, an open space was made in front of the museum on the Plaça dels Angels.

The museum is a characteristic white building, typical of Meier's other works (for example the Ghetty Museum in Los Angeles). The building is also used for other purposes than exposing art, here among the electronic music festival Sonar.

MACBA - the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, designed by Richard Meier

5. Torre de Gas Natural by Miralles & Tagliabue

This building made from steel and glass surprises many visitors in Barcelona with its controversial structure. A long "arm" of glass comes out from the main tower and looks like it is suspended in the air. It was built in 2007 by two of the most popular architects in Barcelona over the last decades. The buildings are used as headquarters of Gas Natural.

Calatrava Torre
The Gas Natural building by Miralles & Tagliabue

6. Torre de Collserola by Sir Norman Foster

Norman Fosters Communications tower on Tibidabo is located on top of the Tibidabo Mountain and visible from most places in Barcelona. The tower is 288 meters high, being the highest structure in Spain. A panoramic viewpoint with splendid views of the city of Barcelona is accessible.

Norman Foster's Communications Tower on Collserola
Norman Foster's Communications Tower on Collserola

7. Torre Agbar by Jean Nouvel

Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar is without a doubt one of the most spectacular buildings in Barcelona. 140 meters high. In the night, the building lights up with led lights in many different colours. The building has been used as offices by the water supply in Barcelona but will be turned into a luxury hotel over the next years.

Torre Agbar
Torre Agbar, designed by Jean Nouvel

8. Les Arenes by Sir Richard Rogers

The Arenes, an old bullfighting ring, has been lifted 5 meters and converted into a modern shopping mall with restaurants, shops, cinemas and a museum. You can enjoy spectacular views from the roof. Richard Rogers was the head architect who led the project.

The Arenes Building

9. The Forum Building by Herzog and de Meuron

This triangular building that seems to be hovering over the ground without any support (just a few pillars support its weight) was the main building designed for cultural festival Forum 2004. It is a spectacular triangular building in blue inspired by the Mediterranean Sea. It is designed by the two Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron.

Forum Building
The Forum Building by Herzon & de Meuron

10. The Mirror hotel & other works by CGA Arquitectos

CGA Architects is an interesting architecture company based in Barcelona who have been designing many interesting buildings in Barcelona over the last decades. The company was founded in 1986 by Josep Juanpere and Antonio Puig and they are behind projects like Torre Puig, Mirror Hotel, Quatrecasas Abogados headquarters. For the Mirror Hotel they won the European Hotel Design Award in 2012 for best architecture.

Calatrava Torre
Architecture by CGA Architects

11. The Telefonica building by Enric Massip

The 110-meter-high Diagonal ZeroZero Tower by Enric Massip Bosch from 2011 is one of the most interesting buildings that have been built in Barcelona over the last years. The building has 24 stores. It is often compared with Toyo Itos famous building in Tokyo Tod's Omotesando

Telefonica building
The Telefónica building

12. Bac de Roda Felipe II bridge by Santiago Calatrava

Another interesting project by Santiago Calatrava that goes all the way back to the Valencian architect's beginning in the  1980’s. The bridge was designed in 1987, and even though it may not be as spectacular as other structures by Calatrava, it is still worth a visit. It is located in a dull housing area in the outskirts of Barcelona.

Bac de Roda
Bac de Roda Modern Bridge by Santiago Calatrava

13. Porta Fira Hotel by Toyo Ito

The building designed by Toyo Ito (with help from the design studio b720 Arquitectos headed by Fermín Vázquez) is 110 meters high and one of the most intriguing structures of the Hospitalet suburb of Barcelona. There are two towers as a tribute to the two Venetian Towers at Plaza España. Toyo Ito designed more buildings in Barcelona - if you liked his hotel, remember to check out the Suites Avenue on Passeig de Gracia.

Calatrava Torre
The Porta Fira Hotel

14. Frank Gehry's Peix d'or

The Peix d'or (Golden fish) is designed for the Olympic Games in Barcelona (1992) by a superstar in modern architecture: Frank Gehry. The structure is located right in the middle of the Olympic Village. The structure resembles later works like the Walk Disney Music hall and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry's Fish sculpture in the Olympic Port from 1992.

More modern architecture - The Diagonal Mar Zone and the 22@-area

The Diagonal Mar (also called the Forum Area) is the area in Barcelona with some of the most interesting modern architecture to be visited. The area is ideal if you are short on time and do not have a car to get around.

You can start with the main building in the area, the Forum Building (see above) by the Swiz architects Herzog & de Meuron. Close by, you will find Josep Lluís Mateo's Centre de Convencions Internacional de Barcelona (CCIB) and the Diagonal Zero Zero Tower by Enric Massip Bosch (see above). For this area Zaha Hadid designed the spectacular Torre Espiral, but the building will not be built, since the economical crisis made the proyect non-viable.

Closer to the sea you will see a beautiful structure arise, the Photovoltaic Power Plant by Martinez Lapeña - Torres Arquitectos, providing electricity to more than 1000 houses in the area Diagonal Mar Area. If you continue up the Diagonal Street (in the direction of the city center) and you will see the funny looking Diagonal Mar Park designed by Enric Miralles on your left hand.

The Photovoltaic structure by Martinez Lapeña - Torres Arquitectos

Further up Diagonal Mar...

If you continue along the Diagonal street you will get to another parc, designed by Jean Nouvel. Not many people visit this, but it is still worth a visit. In this area you will also find the Can Framis by Jordi Badía, that combines architecture and garden design.

In the same area you will find the MediaTIC building by Enrique Ruiz Geli from 2010. Also visit the university nearby, UPF - originally a textile fabric from 1877, but in 2009 turned into university (Placa Guttenberg & Edifici Roc Boronat) by the architects Josep Benedito and Ramon Valls, workshops by Carlos Ferrater and Patrick Genard and the building on C/ Tànger by Frederic Crespo.

Can Framis by Jordi Badía
Can Framis by Jordi Badía

More modern architecture and new buildings to come

A little further up the Diagonal street you will come to Hotel Me by Dominique Perrault, a design hotel with lounge music and trendy restaurants. At the top you can visit the Dos Cielos restaurant (1 Michelin Star). Since now you are getting to Glories, you can easily reach Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar (see above) and the brand new Barcelona Disseny Hub by MBM (Martorell, Bohigas & Mackey), both located at the Glories roundabout.

The future - new buildings to come in Barcelona

A project to look forward to is Frank Gehry's La Sagrera Station, a spectacular building project - however it is in the freezer since the constructor is short on money.

Read about our Tour to the modern architecture in Barcelona. Visit buildings and structure by Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava in Barcelona with a private guide.
Modern Barcelona in the Glories district
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