There is nobody in the uk even remotely equivalent to Oriol Bohigas, one of the men responsible for the regeneration of Barcelona, for which that city has won this year's Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. He is a distinguished architect and urban designer/planner, who made a landmark contribution to the latter discipline when in charge of urban projects for Barcelona's municipality, and continues to do so in his private practice, mbm.
He is also, among other things, an educator, politician and author: his 19 books and numerous articles are mainly about history and theory, but include two autobiographical volumes that have received literature awards. Though many of these achievements are his alone, they have always been with the unstinting support of his partners in mbm, Josep Martorell and David Mackay, whose involvement in architecture and urbanism also extends to being educators and authors. The relationship between these three remains exceptionally warm and close, and they still make all decisions and design everything together.
Bohigas was born in Barcelona in 1925. On graduating from the local architectural school in 1951 he set up practice with Martorell. That year they founded Grup R (which included such established and distinguished architects as J M Sostres and, briefly, J A Coderch) to foster local debate and establish contacts with architectural thinkers abroad. This Catalan group's collective project was to revive the spirit of pre-Franco Modernism, that of architects like J L Sert and gatepac, and to extend their example in creating a regionalist architecture, while also drawing on such developments as Italian Neo-Realism and British New Brutalism.
This led to designs such as Martorell & Bohigas' sober brick urban housing, such as the Pallars (a sort of proto-Neo-Vernacular, 1958-59) and Meridiana blocks (1959-65), and the Garbi School (1962-73). These early projects already showed Bohigas to be committed Modernist, yet critical of its rootlessness and anti-urbanity. Mackay, who had worked for Martorell & Bohigas as a student, joined them in 1961 to form mbm.
Already, in this early part of his career - he gained his doctorate in architecture in 1963 - Bohigas was writing, both polemics outlining the position of Grup R and award-winning history books. After also teaching both locally and abroad, he became head of the Barcelona architectural school between 1977 and 1980. His resulting familiarity with the up-and- coming architects and students was to prove invaluable when Narcis Serra, Barcelona's first post-Franco mayor, brought him into the municipality to take charge of urban affairs.
Barcelona had survived the Franco era with its historic fabric largely intact: but it was run-down, desperately short of public amenity and fringed with dismal new housing. There was already an ambitious masterplan for the city, proposing new motorways and infrastructure that were needed but impossible to fund. Bohigas and Serra thus decided to invert the conventional planning process and work up from the local level. They started by seeking out opportunities for cheap, quickly implemented projects that, besides improving neighbourhood life and morale, were highly visible and of such design flair as to attract attention, both local controversy and international plaudits. Thus was initiated the opportunistic strategy that was taken over by the successors to Serra and Bohigas and that snowballed to gather up the Olympics and eventually transform the whole city, realising even the ambitious proposals (though in much-improved form) of the original masterplan.
Architects report that Bohigas was the perfect patron while in charge of urban projects: he matched architects to projects astutely, giving opportunities also to the talented but untried; he was a tough and critical client in the initial phases, but once satisfied with a design, he backed it to the hilt thereafter. It was Serra who originally proposed capturing the Olympics to speed up Barcelona's transformation.
But by the time this process started in earnest, Bohigas had already left the municipality to continue only as an advisor to Pasqual Maragall, Serra's successor. This left mbm free to be the urban designer of the Olympic Village, Nova Icaria, and architect of some of its key buildings. Nova Icaria is one of the exemplary models of turn-of-the century urbanism. Seamlessly extending the fabric of the old city to the sea, it is a hybrid that combines the traditional urban block and its contained streets with modern architecture's concerns with open space and optimum orientation.
Barcelona's regeneration and the masterplanning of Nova Icaria have led to Bohigas and mbm operating on an increasingly international stage. They have participated in several urban-design competitions for uk cities, winning those for parts of Cardiff (1993) and Glasgow (1997). Last week the practice landed the commission from the Borough of Newham to be urban designer for part of Stratford in East London (aj 1.4.99).
Charismatic and cultured, Bohigas is unafraid of confrontation. A staunch Catalan, he can enjoy provoking Castillians. On the opening of the Centro Reina Sofia in a converted eighteenth-century hospital he complimented Madrid for finding a building almost as big as and even uglier than Spain's revered El Escorial. He has also shocked colleagues by criticising them to their face and in public, and by then continuing to be equally ruthless about his own production. But this is because he cares passionately about architecture and its impact on the city, its culture and society. He even served as the elected Socialist city councillor responsible for culture in Barcelona between 1991 and 1994. And as well as initiating the regeneration of Barcelona, he also led the movement of professionals back into the old city core when he and Beth Gali, a fine architect in her own right, took up residence in the then still dangerous and drug-infested Placa Reial adjacent to the Ramblas. Later, mbm moved to splendid offices on the same, now salubrious square.