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Ricardo Bofill, Architect of Otherworldly Buildings, Dies at 82

Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish architect behind some of the world’s most startling buildings, died on Friday at a hospital in Barcelona. He was 82.

The cause was Covid-19, his son Pablo said.

Among Mr. Bofill’s best known works were public housing projects, most of them built in France in the 1980s, with vastly overscale classical elements, which were both derided as kitsch and hailed by critics as the long-awaited middle ground between historicism and modernity.

He began his career with a series of smaller projects in Spain that followed geometric rules to sometimes mind-boggling extremes. La Muralla Roja, designed in 1968 and completed in 1973, in the coastal city of Calpe, reimagined the North African casbah as a bright pink assemblage of walls and stairways as if arranged by M.C. Escher.

Another housing project from the same period, Walden 7, outside Barcelona, consists of 22 towers grouped around five courtyards, their outer facades painted an earthy ocher and their courtyard facades a dark aqua.

But it was more than just aesthetic exploration that motivated Mr. Bofill. His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest cost you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk down endless corridors, and where different populations can be part of one community.”

By the 1980s, Mr. Bofill had begun using historical details as surface decoration — a hallmark of the style that came to be known as postmodernism. And for much of that decade, it served him well.

In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a show of his work, including color photographs of a number of housing projects in and around Paris. The first one built, Les Arcades du Lac, was a gargantuan version of a 17th-century French garden, with apartment buildings standing in for hedges.

Another, known as Les Espaces d’Abraxas, reinvented and repurposed classical elements in unsettling, otherworldly combinations; it features vast columns made not of stone but of reflective glass. That project was often described as a kind of “Versailles for the people.” But its jarring juxtapositions made it seem dystopian — and it served as the perfect backdrop for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie, “Brazil,” and the last of the “Hunger Games” movies.

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New York Times at the time, wrote in 1985 that it was Mr. Bofill’s gift “to be able to unite the French instinct toward monumentality, which has lain dormant since the days when the Beaux-Arts ruled French architecture, with the country’s more current leanings toward populism.”

Mr. Goldberger visited four Bofill projects that he called “collectively, the most significant body of architectural work constructed in Paris in a generation.” He was particularly interested in The Scales of the Baroque, a 300-unit development in the blighted 14th arrondissement, classically detailed and arranged around tightly composed public spaces. He described it as important for Paris as the Pompidou Center.

But the project’s influence proved limited. Postmodernism was short-lived, and Mr. Bofill returned to doing more conventionally modern work.

“When Post-Modernism became accepted and popular in the United States and worldwide, it also became a style,” Mr. Bofill told Vladimir Belogolovsky in a 2016 interview for the website ArchDaily. “And with time it became ironic and even vulgar. I was no longer interested.”

Ricardo Bofill Levi was born into a prominent Catalan family in Barcelona on Dec. 5, 1939, months after the end of the Spanish Civil War. His father, Emilio Bofill, was an architect and developer. His mother, Maria Levi, was a Venetian who became an arts patron in Barcelona.

Ricardo developed an interest in architecture when his father took him to visit job sites. But when he thought about a career in architecture, he felt at once inspired and inhibited. Growing up under the dictator Francisco Franco, he explained in an essay in 1989, “you dream of freedom and great travels. I left as soon as I could.”

That happened after he became a student — and a student activist — at Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona. During an anti-Franco demonstration in 1958, he was arrested and expelled from school.

He moved to Geneva to continue his architectural education. While there, he told Mr. Belogolovsky: “My real passion ignited when I discovered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. I related to organic architecture, buildings that integrated with nature.”

In 1960, he designed a summer house for a relative on the island of Ibiza, a modest stucco building that did seem close to nature.

He founded his firm, Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, in Barcelona in 1963. In 1975, the firm — and Mr. Bofill — moved to La Fábrica, a 32,000-square-foot former cement factory outside Barcelona, which he spent decades turning into a habitable ruin.

Five years earlier he had proposed a housing project for Madrid called the City in the Space, an endlessly expandable structure with turrets and crenelations and, in some renderings, a crazy quilt of colorful patterns.

According to Pablo Bofill, the project led the mayor of Madrid, a Franco ally, to tell Mr. Bofill that he would never build in Spain again. Mr. Bofill decided to start a new life in Paris, where he won the commission to replace the markets called Les Halles. His scheme was already under construction when that city’s mayor, Jacques Chirac, fired him from the project.

Still, by 1985 his innovative public housing had made Mr. Bofill a star of the French architectural scene. But over the years the projects outside Paris became symbols of violence and squalor, and there was a movement to demolish Les Espaces d’Abraxas. Residents held off the wrecking ball, however.

In a 2014 interview with Le Monde, Mr. Bofill said, “My experience in France is partly successful and partly unsuccessful.” He succeeded, he said, by introducing new styles and new construction methods. But, he added, he “failed because when you’re young, you’re very utopian, you think you’re going to change the city, and in the end nothing happened.”

Besides his son Pablo and another son, Ricardo Emilio, who together run the Bofill studio, survivors include four grandchildren and Mr. Bofill’s longtime partner, the industrial designer Marta de Vilallonga. Mr. Bofill never married, but he had three previous long-term partners, Pablo Bofill said.

Mr. Bofill completed three buildings in the United States: the colonnaded Shepard School of Music at Rice University in Houston and two office towers in Chicago. His firm’s work also included offices for Shiseido in Tokyo, academic buildings for the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University in Morocco and a W Hotel in Barcelona.

In an unexpected twist, Mr. Bofill’s older buildings found new fans in the 21st century. “Westworld,” the HBO sci-fi series, was shot in part at La Fábrica, and “Squid Game,” the Korean TV juggernaut, featured sets that closely resembled La Muralla Roja.

Those Bofill buildings and others became familiar Instagram backdrops — or in the words of Manuel Clavel Rojo, a Spanish architect and educator, “His buildings became pop icons at the very end of his career.”

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