Designed by Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer, The Cerda Plan was the first step towards the extension of Barcelona. In order to improve mobility and transportation, Cerdà intended to cut chamfered or rounded blocks for each corner of the block, planned very broad street widths of 35 m and included large avenues 50 to 80 m wide at the city’s main ports and gates. The streets, one for vehicles and one for pedestrians, were divided into two parts. Cerdà concentrated on increasing the green spaces and gardens in every block of the city, in addition to hygiene and transportation, much like the compact garden-city model.

1. Design

The Cerdà Plan is an urbanistic synergy of a populist ideology, a successful swing for social equality, and a well-planned architectural renewal of a city’s layout. Barcelona in the mid-1850s is almost on the bridge of collapse, not so much because of an economic downfall, but as a city. As a non-efficient place to live in, breathe or exist in general. In the 1850s, social classes and their different steps on the economic pyramid were of utmost importance. This place determines where you will live, how you should dress, which streets are yours to freely walk through, and which are not so much forbidden, but you’re simply “not welcomed” to use, or “it’s not safe”; you get the point. In Barcelona, in the 1850s the living situation was beyond resolution, which ensued with a peculiar picture of working classes, bourgeois society and factories all co-existing in the same space. Eh, you would say, it’s not weird, and I agree with you. But, for them, at that time, oh, it was an outrage. The outline of the city borders was filled up, there was not a place where you can build anymore, all resolutions, and tactics, and inventions /projects/ were exhausted. Crammed up living in housing dwellings of several storeys with retreating facades-making the house front to extend out in the street as the building rose. The second and the third storey of every house were widened until almost touching the opposite building, thus this prevented air-circulation and the practice was banned in 1770. Until the mid-1850s people were just surviving in the outcome of this practice, I guess. Because of the cramped up living, houses were also built on arches, which were situated in the middle of a street. This “design” messed up the breathable air, the overpopulation of the city attributed to it, and the pure lack of hygiene. Well that was “the final straw”, as people would say respectively, and that brings us to the Cerda Plan.

Because there wasn’t a real blueprint of functional urbanism until then, the Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà decided to avoid already familiar and used techniques, that did not quite work as an efficient part of an efficient city and made a comprehensive study of how different social classes, especially the working class, lived in the old city. Because of the high mortality rate of the people in the old city, 36 being the age for people of better social stances, and 23 for people of the working class, he decided to change the life expectancy for the better with an urbanistic plan. Talking about courageous and innovative. 

His project was based on the decision of equality, a neighbourhood without social class division living in octagonal blocks, with cut off corners, with an internal yard, with equally spread population, and without “exclusive areas” for the rich or poor. A major component of Illdefons Cerdà’s design plan was also the idea of dealing with traffic. Granted, cars weren’t invented yet, and the traffic was based solely on horse-drawn vehicles, carts, or wagons; however, this type of traffic contributed significantly to the un-hygienic state of the old city, and the fact that the narrowest street was 1.10m wide, and the rest were barely 3m across in width. 

His solution was a grid of streets, strongly associated with the Roman grid (streets are positioned at right angles to each other), and three wide and long avenues. 

Also, Illdefons Cerdà discovered railways and realised that there would be some type of small machines moved by steam, allowing each driver to stop in front of their house.  This played a major part in the design of the streets and the octagonal blocks.

The Cerdà Plan will come to exist as Eixample, an area almost four times bigger than the old city.

The Cerdà Plan by Illdefons Cerdà: The Extension of Barcelona - Sheet1
Plan of the Eixample development in Barcelona (1859), by Ildefons Cerdà. ©Illustration: Archives of the Kingdom of Aragon, Barcelona/ Ministerio de Cultura


2. Materials/ Construction 

The Cerdà Plan at first was met with criticism by Illdefons Cerdà’s peers, or rival architects. However, the public opinion was considered more relevant, and the people supported the plan, especially the bourgeoisie. Well, some of them. Part of them benefited from building and real estate in the new district, and the other part commissioned prominent architects such as Antoni Gaudi to design their homes. 

Illdefons Cerdà’s initial plan was based on the 19th-century hygienist theories. According to it, the city blocks were designed as 113.3 by 113.3 m2, optimal space allowing 6 m2 volume of air per person. And to increase street visibility, mobility and well-organised transportation, the corners of the blocks were to be cut in a chamfer or rounded. The streets were large, divided into two parts, pedestrian and vehicle one, with a width of 35m, and the avenues measured 50-80m in width at dominant points of the plan, such as main ports and gates of the city. 

Later on, his plan changes, due to economic reasons and hierarchical disputes of the initial plan. The street’s width is reduced to 20m, instead of 30-35 m, the special housing facilities for workers were no part of the plan anymore, the regular distribution of green zones (parks, internal yards) and other public facilities was non-mandatory, and the depth of the buildings was extended to 20m. The permit for initiating the realisation of the plan was given after these modifications. 

The Cerdà Plan by Illdefons Cerdà: The Extension of Barcelona - Sheet2
Image 2 – Barcelona built environment in 1977 ©National geographic Institute 1977

However, the realisation took longer than expected, mostly because of a lack of regulation and the constant imposing of government officials into its development. These factors influenced the accelerated development of some parts, such as the zone around the Passeig de Gràcia, which became an upper-class location, although was not planned as such in the initial plan. Following with land values and housing prices variation based on the proximity to this zone. And subsequently, the right side of the extension, resulted in the development of a faster rate and higher quality than the left side of the extension all because it was nearer to Passeig de Gràcia. Also, the zones dedicated to greenery, public buildings (schools, markets, social centres) were used for housing, commercial buildings, and industry. And it took almost fifty years to build only one of the main avenues from the plan.

Subsequently to this, the building bylaws were not in accordance with what Ildefons Cerdà had set out to do in his plan. By 1890, 70% of the land surface was used on housing blocks, opposing the expected 50%. The blocks were built on four sides, instead of the intended two. By 1958, the building volume of the block reached almost 294,771 m3, and in The Cerdà Plan 67,200 m3 were intended for block surface coverage.

3. Sustainability

Barcelona in the mid-1850s was an industrial city, with a considerable increase in population density, due to the industrial revolution, the busy port, and the successful development of the textile branch. Because of the city developing at a faster rate than the rest of Spain, it was evident this city was to become a European capital. And Illdefons Cerdà made sure Barcelona looked like one. He made thorough and meticulous research for designing a modern city that would aspire to become an efficient cohabiting space, sustainable environment as a base for an urbanised grid, and provenance of wellbeing. Needless to say, his idea was not fully brought to life, for many reasons mentioned beforehand in the article, but it did change the layout of the city as a successfully envisioned and accomplished European city. Also, The Cerdà Plan did make a change in a more organised, safe, and better place to live in. Whilst designing his plan, the foremost importance of its structure was the people. He made a detailed research of the air volume a single person needs to breathe correctly since this was a major concern for the old city. He calculated the width of the streets and the optimal safety measures of its corners and positions, to lower the rate of fatalities, which was an every-day occurrence due to the narrow streets in the old city. He even considered and planned the professions the population might do and positioned the services and the public buildings the people might need, accordingly. Need for natural light, greenery, ventilation, and certainly good sewerage were marked as key components of his plan, since he was driven and influenced by the sanitarian movement. 

Ildefons Cerdà is a god-father of the term “urbanization” and a founder of modern town planning. 

The Cerdà Plan by Illdefons Cerdà: The Extension of Barcelona - Sheet3
Street example ©The Cerdà Plan

Viktorija Vitanova is a fifth-year student at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Architecture, Slovenia. She received a bachelor’s degree of Arts in Architecture from American College Skopje, North Macedonia. Her interests lie in the theory of architecture, an abstract undertake of architectural projects, and the socio-psychological aspect of architecture.

Write A Comment