Urban Design At Its Best


It’s a pity Ildefons Cerda wasn’t more famous.

That was my conclusion as I strolled along the streets of his chef d’oeuvre, the Eixample (ay-SHOM-pla) neighborhood of Barcelona. The Catalan city planner created such a singular masterpiece of urban design that professionals the world over make pilgrimages to this elegant district, drawing inspiration from its sunlit angles and human scale.

Cerda, who created the master plan for the northern “extension” (“eixample”) of Barcelona’s medieval core, was reportedly never paid for his efforts and died a pauper. But his vision endures of a progressive urban alternative to the narrow, dark warrens and choked tenements of the Old City, where sunshine rarely enters.

In Cerda’s Eixample, the streets are just wide enough to feel breathable, but intimate enough that you might wave to neighbors across the block. Facades please the eye with Art Nouveau curlicues and gracious bay windows; sidewalks offer the shade of lush green trees. Most significantly, every intersection features buildings cut on a diagonal to form an octagon, a design that invites light and a feeling of spaciousness into the urban grid.

Cerda’s civic legacy is today the most iconic and fashionable district of a city awash in both icons and fashion. The best-known of the architectural icons are smack in the heart of the Eixample: two buildings by the famed architect Antonio Gaudi, Casa Battló and Casa Mila, whose fanciful, undulating exteriors grace prominent blocks along the boulevard Passeig de Gracia.

These are the most obvious of the Eixample’s attractions. But as a good day of strolling reveals, the Eixample has plenty more treasures in store. Amid the graceful blocks named for Mediterranean cities — Corsica, Naples, Valencia — you can slip into the rhythm of modern Barcelona while savoring its vintage charms.

And while the medieval zone, with its antique synagogue and museum, is home to Barcelona’s historic Jewish quarter, uptown is the center of gravity for modern Jewish life — an eclectic, fluctuating community of Latin American expats, Sephardim from around the Mediterranean rim, and visiting Jews from America, Israel and beyond.

A second kosher restaurant, Kosher Club, recently opened on Carrer Diputació in the Right Eixample (the Eixample is charmingly divided into “right” and left” zones, corresponding to east and west). Many of the patrons are reportedly Israelis who fly in to catch a game of the fabled Barcelona soccer team. Until now, the only kosher eatery has been the airy, chic dining room at the glatt kosher Delicias, which is uptown in the Sant Gervasi district; now kosher diners have a more centrally located option.

I met a friend for café con leche at the Velodromo, a stylish café at the Eixample’s northern edge. Velodromo is a favorite not for its menu, which is standard and unexciting, but for its vintage Art Deco ambiance: light streams in through the double-height windows as bowtied waiters scurry with trays of Spanish tortillas.

Strolling down Carrer Muntaner, my next stop was a newer addition to the Eixample food scene. Cremeria Toscana, on a particularly picturesque corner, is an Italian-owned artisanal gelateria whose flavors— amarone and fig, for instance — epitomize the local bent toward fresh fare.

I continued along Aribau, a major thoroughfare of the Left Eixample and the unofficial center for Barcelona’s gay scene. Although I’ve heard the zone referred to over the years as “the Gay-xample,” apart from a few hotels and bars sporting the rainbow flag, the district never struck me as being particularly gay. After dark, Aribau throbs with the beat of bars and dance clubs, where students crowd into tiny parlors to drink beer, and flamenco guitarists take turns at open mikes.

But the Eixample is not just about consumption. All along Consell de Cent Street are upscale galleries reminiscent of those in Manhattan’s East 70s. If you tire, as I do, of the predictable array of Picasso and Miró in Barcelona’s touristy museums, these more refined spaces offer a refreshing rotation of first-rate art.

Whether you like the art inside the Fundació Antoni Tapies, on Arago Street, depends on your appetite for the avant-garde. Tapies was a beloved artist, writer and Catalan nationalist who died two years ago; his own production is, for me, eclectic and somewhat forgettable. But the building — with its bird’s-nest facade and glorious roof deck — is worth a visit in itself, as are the frequent concerts of so-called new music, a bargain at just seven euros.

In the wry, experimental spirit of Tapies, the current exhibition is a retrospective of the American-Jewish artist Allan Kaprow, who coined the noun “happening” a generation ago. Kaprow’s legacy — drawings, assemblages and social provocations — feels right at home in Barcelona, a quirky city where artistic happenings are apt to break out in plazas.

Back on the Passeig de Gracia, plenty was happening. A mime in head-to-toe silver paint was entertaining a crowd of Japanese tourists. A limousine pulled up in front of Santa Eulalia, a very tony ladies’ boutique, and let out a half-dozen Middle Eastern women in full religious garb. From around a corner, a small crowd of protesters emerged whistling, clapping and waving signs against healthcare cuts.

Kaprow would have been proud. So, surely, would have Ildefons Cerda.