The Historical Building celebrates its 150th anniversary
The UB headquarters is one of Barcelona's most emblematic buildings and has witnessed the country's main historical events
1837, the construction of the building represented the realisation of the desire to return the University to the city after its annihilation by the Nueva Planta Decree and demonstrated the firm commitment that higher education should have in Barcelona, and in Spain, as one of the necessary and essential structures of a society that was embarking on the road to modernity.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the Historical Building of the University of Barcelona. A very significant milestone, since after the long-awaited and demanded return of the University to the Catalan capital in 1837, the construction of the building represented the realisation of the desire to return the university to the city after the annihilation caused by the Nueva Planta Decree, and it demonstrated the firm commitment that higher education should have in Barcelona, and by extension in Spain, as one of the necessary and essential structures of a society that was embarking on the road towards modernity.
The Historical Building holds an important place among the city’s landmark buildings, but throughout its history it has focused mainly on the university sector. This anniversary also marks the definitive opening of the building in the city and in the country.
Historically, it is one of the first buildings to be constructed outside the city walls, and it inaugurates the Eixample district. The architect Jordi Rogent, great-grandson of Elies Rogent, the architect of the Historical Building and a great connoisseur of his great-grandfather’s work, says that its current location was decided “after the failed attempt to locate the new building of the Literary University on the site of the convent del Carme, in the Raval district, the result of the demolition of the building that the University had occupied when it returned to Barcelona, and at a time when Barcelona was deciding what the Eixample would be like, it was clear that the new building should be outside the consolidated city”. What few people know is that there were three different proposals for its location: “the city architect Francesc Daniel i Molina suggested that they located it near the current Ciutadella Park; Ildefons Cerdà, near Plaça de les Glòries, and Elies Rogent, at the crossing between Gran Via and Passeig de Gràcia”. Finally, it was decided to locate it where it is now because it was a State-owned land, which made the operation cheaper and easier. In addition, “a large square was built in front of it, bringing it closer to the city at that time, and ‘inaugurating’ the Eixample”.
For Rogent, “the position, aligned with the widest street in the Eixample and open to the square that linked it to the city at the time, but which does not coincide with Cerdà’s grid, helps to give the feeling that it is not part of the city’s skyline”.
From an architectural point of view, “Rogent designed a symmetrical building, with the side spaces for different studies and a hall in the central area, with great relevance both in terms of surface area —access, connection with the rear garden, distribution towards the study areas and the more representative and administrative areas— and form —this is where the teachers and occasional visitors will enter the building. He designed a grid of spaces connected to each other in both directions, a solution very similar to that of the hall of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, which he had visited in 1855. But Rogent’s contribution to the formalisation of this space is the placement of columns in front of the four ends of the cruciform pillars that support the vaults in what I believe is a reinterpretation of the pillars of the nave of the church of Sant Pere de Rodes, which he had known since the early 1950s and which represented one of the important moments in the history of Catalan architecture”.
Moreover, in these 150 years, the history of the Historic Building has been closely linked to the events in the country. One of the people who knows this subject best is the lecturer of the Faculty of Geography and History Francesc Gracia, co-author of La Universitat de Barcelona. Libertas perfundet omnia luce (1450). According to Gracia, “the choice of the location of the University building was not accidental. It marked the new border of the city of Barcelona once the walls had been demolished, and its strategic location made it possible to control the connecting streets between the old city and the Eixample. For this reason, it was used as a strong point in political movements throughout the 20th century”. From a symbolic point of view, “the historical narrative in support of the Bourbon monarchy needed to highlight the powers of the state and its cultural references in Catalonia. As Barcelona had neither a provincial library nor an archaeological museum, the University building —with an architectural language that evoked a closed and fortified quarters—, its teaching staff and its studies remained the main reference point for Spanish culture until the end of the 1970s, with a clearly elitist vocation. The UB played a decisive role in the process of structuring the power of the Alphonsine monarchy in Catalonia, both practically, ideologically and visually”.
Regarding the building as an epicentre and soundboard for political and social movements, “it has always been a point of reference in the political and social struggles in Catalonia and, by extension, in Spain”, in Gracia’s words. “In the graphic documentation corresponding to the early 20th century —continues Gracia— we unfailingly see the presence of the Historical Building in the most solemn ceremonies, whether with the Bourbon monarchy or with the Second Republic, together with the military governors and the leaders of the Catholic Church, a fact that highlights the binomial between sword and religion as a representation of the real powers of the Spanish State in Catalonia and the University”. This display of State power over the university caused tensions, which meant that “the building has been at the centre of political action. Student strikes were frequent in the 1910s and the 1920s, and they increased throughout the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, who dismissed professors and deans at will. In July 1936, part of the rebel troops barricaded themselves in the University and opened fire on the armed civilians who were positioned at the beginning of carrer Pelai and in the square. Some highlighted events and actions that occurred during the Spanish Civil War were, for instance, the use of the laboratories and rooms to contribute to the war efforts; the opening of an air raid shelter that connected with the metro line and the bombing in 1938 that affected the building. The Francoist period also saw political struggles at the University. The police were constantly entering the building and they acted with the help of the members of the SEO, who roamed around the building denouncing Catalan nationalists and opponents. We also have dark episodes in our past: the very harsh rectory periods of Gómez del Campillo —an admirer of the Nazis—, Luño Peña —known by the nickname of Puño y Leña for his brutal repression— and García Valdecasas in the late Francoist era”.
Far from the events that have linked the building to political and social reality, over the course of its 150 years of history, the UB’s central headquarters has also established itself as a powerful source of inspiration for the worlds of literary fiction. For Gemma Márquez, lecturer at the Faculty of Philology and Communication, the building is very encouraging to setting all kinds of stories: “The more mundane spaces, such as the courtyards or the bar, have given rise to everyday scenes of a realistic nature, while the Library of Letters, for example, has been used for stories where mystery and the revelation of secrets are the key. The latter, by the way, is not surprising: the Historical Building has fascinating corners and crannies, such as the Hebrew section of the Library of Letters, where Rabbi Loew and Professor McGonagall could just as easily appear. If we add to this the fact that, depending on the time of day, the physiognomy of the faculties changes considerably, the building becomes a catalogue of scenarios that spurs on fables in all directions”. In this sense, there is another aspect that turns it into a source of literary creation: the history that has been lived in it. “We must consider —Márquez adds— the singularity of the vital moment in which most writers have passed through the University: youth, a phase of discovery and expectations which is not yet closed, and the reflection that the passage of time provokes: from the attempt to capture that vitality without the interference of disenchantment, as Joan Maragall, Carmen Laforet or Montserrat Roig do, to the melancholic tone of Maria Àngels Anglada, nourished by the full awareness of loss. There is also the critical evocation of Pla or the vindictive pride of those who took part in decisive political initiatives, as is the case of Maria Aurèlia Capmany or Teresa Pàmies in the Catalan Women’s Days”.
Finally, we speak with Agustí Alcoberro, vice-rector of Heritage and Cultural Activities and professor at the Faculty of Geography and History, who is the creator of the initiative to celebrate this 150th anniversary. “On 1 October 1872, the first opening lecture was read in the Historical Building. This means that the University of Barcelona has been in Plaça de la Universitat for 150 years. Ours is an institution that was born in 1450. We have more than five centuries of history, but we suffered a terrible censorship in 1714, when, due to the Bourbon victory over Catalonia, the University was sent to Cervera for more than a century. The construction of the Historical Building, from 1863, expresses the continuity of a project, as well as a commitment to modernity, since it was the first public building constructed in the Eixample. These two axes, continuity and change, history and future, are the raison d’être of the university. The university preserves and spreads collective knowledge, while at the same time it searches and innovates”, says the vice-rector. In his opinion, the reason for celebrating this anniversary is “to dedicate it to the entire university community: we are interested in the experiences of all generations of students, professors and non-teaching staff. And also, and above all, to commit ourselves to the opening up of the University in the city and in the country. This is the University of Barcelona, the most important city of Catalonia and the capital of Mediterranean Europe”.