A dazzling pink castle perches atop the coastal cliffs of Calpe, near Alicante in southern Spain, its pastel turrets standing like a coral outcrop above the shore. The high fortified walls hide a vertical maze of staircases and terraces within, painted in shades of baby blue, lilac and red, opening out on to the sparkling waters of hidden rooftop pools.
This candy-coloured citadel of holiday apartments is the work of Ricardo Bofill, the maverick Catalan architect who has died aged 82. He spent a lifetime conjuring otherworldly buildings, which now stand like monuments from some future-primitive sci-fi civilisation. Half a century after their construction, his fantastical creations have inspired a whole new generation, being used as futuristic film sets and influencing the aesthetic of everything from the Monument Valley video game to the cult TV show Squid Game, whose stairs he designed.
Completed in 1973, La Muralla Roja was a spectacular arrival to this sun-kissed coast, otherwise dotted with traditional whitewashed villas and generic concrete apartment blocks. At once ancient and modern, it echoed the dense casbahs of traditional north African cities, with their labyrinthine layouts of narrow alleyways, courtyards and high adobe towers, translated into a vertiginous Escher-like world. Today it swarms with selfie-snapping influencers and music-video location scouts, a seductive pastel backdrop for the Instagram era.
Bofill was a glamorous star of postmodernism in the 1970s and 80s, enjoying international fame and a playboy lifestyle, but as fashions changed his expressive work fell out of favour. When I met him in 2017, he was thrilled that his projects were being rediscovered by a new, colour-starved generation, enrapt by his psychedelic, sculptural worlds.
“When I was 35, I was the most fashionable architect in the world,” he told me, with characteristic immodesty. “But I was always an outsider, never fitting in with architectural culture.” After being expelled from the Barcelona School of Architecture for his Marxist views, when General Franco was in power, he founded his office in 1963 as a multi-disciplinary collective, bringing together poets, sociologists, philosophers, writers and film-makers. He set up his home and workshop in an old cement factory on the outskirts of Barcelona, a place with the theatrical air of a Bond villain’s hideout, featuring white leather sofas in stark concrete silos, all dripping with lush greenery. He lived and worked here for the rest of his life, and it is where his two sons, Ricardo Emilio and Pablo, continue to lead the firm.
A self-styled outsider, Bofill initially shunned the architectural canon and turned instead to studying vernacular buildings on his travels around the Mediterranean and north Africa. “I’ve never liked architectural theory,” he told me. “So, from the beginning, I’ve always looked at traditional and vernacular buildings.” Enthralled by the tightly packed villages of Ibiza, where staircases are built into houses’ facades, forming hillsides of homes and terraces in an organic, higgledy-piggledy whole, he travelled further south to try to find the origins of this kind of primitive dwelling. “I learned more in the middle of the Sahara, among nothing but dunes and sand, than in a French palace,” he said. Combining what he learned from the mud-walled buildings of the Tuareg people, with hi-tech ideas for modular “plug-in” architecture being dreamed up by radical 60s groups such as Archigram, he developed a style that was very much his own.
His Walden 7 housing project, which stands as a monumental terracotta termite mound on the outskirts of Barcelona, seems as radical today as when it was built in 1975. The 450 apartments are arranged in a dense 14-storey cluster, grouped around five courtyards, lined with bright azure tiles, and connected by bridges and balconies, creating a dramatic three-dimensional matrix of views and enclosures, crowned with rooftop pools. This vertical beehive was an experiment in Bofill’s vision for a utopian co-operative community, its modular system intended to adapt to changing family needs. “It was about liberation from the traditional family structure,” he told me, wistfully. “I was supposed to be accessible to everyone, and every resident would have a share. Now it’s become a bit more bourgeois – the price has gone up and the community is a bit insular. They don’t want to let anybody in.”
His projects wouldn’t always turn out as he hoped, the utopian rhetoric sometimes falling short in reality. His series of monumental housing estates built on the outskirts of Paris in the late 70s and early 80s became a byword for the excesses of puffed-up postmodernism. Looking like a Stalinist Disneyland, his Espaces d’Abraxas project was neoclassicism on steroids, encircling grand civic spaces with gigantic fluted columns and heavy concrete pediments. It featured in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, and more recently provided a dystopian backdrop for The Hunger Games. But, just like his work in Spain, the buildings have enjoyed a renewed appreciation as part of the ongoing pomo revival, fuelled by their appearance in pop culture, fans revelling in the sheer overwhelming architectural power. As Bofill put it: “I wanted, once and for all, to create a space powerful enough to make normal people who know nothing about architecture realise that architecture exists.”