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Las Arenas: Beware of the stampede

The people of Barcelona are flocking back to this once cherished bullring – now that Richard Rogers has turned it into a Pompidou-style mall with a stunning view

Federico García Lorca described bullfighting as "probably Spain's greatest poetic and life-sustaining wealth". So what does it mean now that the corrida is giving way to the rituals of metrosexual grooming? This is what has happened at Las Arenas, formerly Barcelona's second bullring and now its newest shopping mall. The ornate, Moorish-looking circular facade of the original remains; but inside, architect Richard Rogers has inserted a colourful circus of leisure, in an atrium criss-crossed by escalators, walkways and giant structural elements. It's like walking into a giant tin of Quality Street, populated by Spanish fashionistas buying designer shades.

To be fair, it's not just the young and hip who come here. Las Arenas had more than 300,000 visitors in its opening week this March: that's around a tenth of the city. The rooftop public viewing terrace has been a huge hit, offering an unrivalled 360-degree view of the city. Families seem to have incorporated the building into their evening stroll. Senior citizens stare in amazement as they ascend the escalators, perhaps recalling great bullfights they saw at Las Arenas, where fearless matadors once struck poses in the face of charging bovine fury; now, the closest contact between man and beast might be the purchase of a leather manbag.

Next January, Catalonia will become the second Spanish state after the Canary Islands to have abolished bullfighting. Barcelona has been the epicentre of the anti-bullfighting movement; but, despite the fact that an estimated 70% of Spaniards are indifferent to the sport, and much of the outside world regards it with horror, the rest of Spain is unlikely to follow just yet. There is a vociferous minority who regard it as an inseparable part of Spain's identity, starting with King Juan Carlos, who once said: "The day the EU bans bullfighting is the day Spain leaves the EU."

Catalonia's rejection of bullfighting could be seen less as a cultural shift than a political one, part of its long-running beef with central government over issues of autonomy – though it has proved a red rag to nationalists. As a riposte, Madrid last year classified bullfighting as a protected part of the region's cultural patrimony. Valencia and Murcia did the same. "It is an art form that deserves to be protected," said Esperanza Aguirre, leader of Madrid's conservative regional government, adding that it "has been part of Mediterranean and Spanish culture since time immemorial".

Few could argue with Aguirre's latter point. No other country has formed such a complex relationship with an animal. The bull has shaped Spain's art and culture, from cave paintings right up to the famous Osborne brandy bull, the giant black billboard silhouette that looms over landscapes across the country. Goya, in particular, was influential in his enthusiasm for the death, drama and symbolism of the corrida; he even designed costumes for matadors. His 1815 work La Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting) features 33 lithographs that recall – or perhaps imagine – a colourful history of the sport. Men pole-vault over bulls and fight them sitting on chairs or standing on tables; often the bulls get the upper hand. Picasso, who sketched fights as a boy, said the bull in Guernica represented "brutality and darkness" against the people. Bullfighting is still reported on the arts pages in Spanish newspapers.

But, while the corrida might have cemented feelings of Spanish identity elsewhere, the same cannot be said of Catalonia, where it is often seen as the "foreign" sport of the Castilian oppressors. Post-Franco, Spain has successfully settled regional differences using another cultural medium: architecture. The shining example is Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, which not only put the Basque city on the cultural map, but helped bring a precarious peace between the separatist region and the rest of Spain. Now, in Barcelona, the architecture of Las Arenas is doing the opposite: sending out a message of regionalist defiance.

Las Arenas had not hosted a bullfight since 1977. It was built in 1900, on what was then the city's south-western edge. One of three bullrings in Barcelona, it had been a local landmark; but when the architects took possession of it, the building was covered in graffiti, trees were growing in it, and homeless people sheltered in its stalls. "It might have been easier to completely rebuild it," Rogers tells me. "It was a very weak structure with very thin walls. We had to shore the facade, then almost completely rebuild it inside. But the thing they insisted on, and I think they were proven right, was keeping the circular form, the historic form. It's not just a building – it's a piece of Barcelona."

The exterior is in a style known as neo-mudéjar, a 19th-century revival of Moorish architecture, characterised by striped stone arches and ornate tile and brickwork. This style was adopted by many bullrings of the era, including Madrid's Las Ventas, Lisbon's Campo Pequeno (which now has an underground shopping centre), and La Monumental, Barcelona's other surviving bullring, currently holding its final season. After that, chances are it will also undergo a Las Arenas-style transformation.

Having been built before the road outside, Las Arenas sits several metres above street level, a fact that Rogers exploits. A ring of steel supports around the base seems to hold the entire facade up in the air, and one enters the building by walking beneath it. The shopping and cinema levels within are an independent structure, organised around a central atrium, while the top two floors and the roof deck, which jut out over the old facade, are held up by four giant structural arms rising dramatically through the atrium. Where once the area around the bullring was taken up with its facilities – pens for the bulls, plus those two essentials, a chapel and a hospital – now it is all accessible public space, making it once again a piece of the city. "I have to say," says Rogers, "it's turned out better than I ever expected."

The term "hi-tech" now seems a quaint way to describe Rogers's style, especially in a historic refit like this; but, as with his breakthrough design for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the structural and service systems within the building are openly expressed in bright colours, and the joins between old and new are treated with similar honesty. Each service element here is coloured according to function: red for the structural steel; yellow for the giant structure supporting the roof; orange for the toilet cubicles; purple and pink for the fire escape and ventilation. The colours bring to mind the capes and costumes of the matadors, though now we humans are the cattle being coaxed by them.

If bullfighting was never Barcelona's thing, architecture very much is. This is surely the most architecturally exciting and forward-looking city in Europe. Looking out across the city from Las Arenas, it's an enviable spread of enlightened city-making. Ildefons Cerdà's visionary street plan of the 1860s laid the foundations for Catalonia's distinctive modernista movement of the early 20th century, which peppered the city grid with sensuous, organic structures, not least the works of local hero Antoni Gaudì, whose Sagrada Familia is the city's stunning centrepiece.

Back from the dead

There has always been room for foreign architects in Barcelona, too. A stone's throw from Las Arenas, Mies van der Rohe's cool, minimal German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Exhibition has been reconstructed, a true jewel of Modern architecture. Today, the city is dotted with works by virtually every great architect of our age. Rogers himself has something of a special relationship with Barcelona. He designed the Hesperia hotel, a little further out, in 2006, but he has also served as an adviser on architecture and urbanism to two Barcelona mayors, Pasqual Maragall and Joan Clos, who are credited with turning the city around.

"Barcelona has had the most amazing success, in terms of urban regeneration, probably in Europe," says Rogers. "They said it would take them 20 years to make a difference, and that's what they did. They connected up the city: it had been terribly cut off from the sea by the old port, which had died and was a no-go area. Now it's five kilometres of beach and city. It's made Barcelona what it is."

Rogers also notes that Barcelona is the only city that has successfully exploited its hosting of the Olympics, in 1992, to improve the city. It was the template for London's 2012 Olympic plans, says Rogers, who was Ken Livingstone's urban adviser. "You can't just spend x billion pounds for 17 days of sport. You must use it as a catalyst to improve the life of the city, and to lever the poorest areas of the city on to a better economic and social footing – which is exactly what we plan to do in London." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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