AD Classics: Kafka’s Castle / Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitecturas


© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

Standing on a rise overlooking the Spanish Mediterranean coast, there is an odd structure which could easily be mistaken for an vast pile of forgotten blocks. Kafka’s Castle, built in 1968, was one of the earlier projects completed by Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish Postmodern architect known for apartment buildings as monumental as they were thought-provoking. While his later work indulged in Postmodern historicism, the modular and mathematically-derived Kafka’s Castle was an unabashed break from any local or global tradition – as much the case now as it was in the 1960s.


© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

With amenities including a pool, bar, and multiple restaurants, Kafka’s Castle is often referred to not as an apartment complex, but as a resort. Image© Ricardo Bofill

With amenities including a pool, bar, and multiple restaurants, Kafka’s Castle is often referred to not as an apartment complex, but as a resort. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Ricardo Bofill, born in Barcelona in 1939, studied architecture at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura in his hometown and at the Université de Genève in Switzerland before returning to Spain to begin his practice. He founded a multidisciplinary team called the Taller de Arquitectura (“Architecture Workshop”) in 1960 and, by the end of the decade, had designed several apartment complexes. Each project by Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura [RBTA] explored a common theme: the effect of spatial design on human interaction.[1] Bofill also demonstrated a predilection toward poetic and literary references in his work – Kafka’s Castle included.[2]

In The Castle, an unfinished novel published after the death of its author Franz Kafka, a protagonist known only as K arrives in a village dominated, both visually and governmentally, by a nearby castle. K claims to have been appointed as a land surveyor by the rulers in the castle, but as chronicled in the story, his attempts to be recognized by this inaccessible authority are dashed against the obstinacy of the villagers and arrogant local officials. Although unwritten, the ending Kafka intended would see K finally receive a permit to stay only after exhaustion from his efforts has literally left him on his deathbed.[3]


Every aspect of the Castle’s design, including its siting, was dictated by mathematical formulae. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Every aspect of the Castle’s design, including its siting, was dictated by mathematical formulae. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Given its fragmented appearance, it is not immediately discernable as to why Bofill would choose to name Kafka’s Castle for a novel which portrays bureaucracy taken to its logical extremes. This could simply be an ironic appellation, but the fact is that there is a method to the apparent madness in the building’s design. The distribution of the numerous cubic structural units which compose the Castle is not random, but dictated by various equations: one determines how many modules connect to the two core circulation shafts, while another determines the height of the spirals of units wrapping around the shafts. The equations are applied to each vertical core and their outputs merged together into a single building, the synthesis of the two creating unique spatial conditions which bely the meticulous calculations from which they were derived.[4]


© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

Elevation changes marked the boundaries between modules within each apartment unit. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Elevation changes marked the boundaries between modules within each apartment unit. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Along with residential apartments, Kafka’s Castle includes a swimming pool, sauna, bar, and multiple restaurants. In this sense, although its formal design was a clear break from Spanish tradition, the complex is not programmatically atypical. The concept of habitation modules clustered around a vertical core was also not unique – at approximately the same time that Bofill was designing Kafka’s Castle, Moshe Safdie was utilizing a similar approach for his Habitat ‘67 in Montréal, Canada.[5]

In total, there are ninety apartment dwellings sprouting from the two circulatory cores. Half of each unit is supported by the same brickwork that composes these cores; the other half, protruding out into space, is supported by two steel columns. The units themselves are built on cantilevered ceramic slabs, framed in lightweight wood, and covered in stucco. Despite appearing as independent elements plugged into a central core, none of the cubic modules are actually structurally self-sufficient; their standardization, however, allowed for greater ease of construction.[6]


Once the physical model of Kafka’s Castle was completed, RBTA managed to condense all necessary construction information into only five drawings. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Once the physical model of Kafka’s Castle was completed, RBTA managed to condense all necessary construction information into only five drawings. Image© Ricardo Bofill

Every apartment comprises a grouping of multiple cubes, each of which contains one or two important spatial or programmatic elements within the collective whole: for example, one module may contain a bathroom and a bedroom, while its adjoining neighbor contains the living and dining areas. The various modules in an apartment unit connect at varying heights, bringing the spatial variety of the exterior into the dwelling spaces.[7]

The Castle’s unusual formal strategy merited an equally unusual approach to the construction process. After a physical model of the design was produced, RBTA set to work on a new method of presentation, distilling the information as much as they could while still allowing builders to understand what they were expected to construct. Thanks to the standardization within the building’s base formulae, the firm was able to dispense with the stacks of drawings normally de rigeur in architectural practice and utilize only five: one main drawing and supplementary images clarifying the variations of the apartment modules. Any design decisions not specified in these few documents were clarified on site.[8]


© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

The world has changed since 1968, and Kafka’s Castle has changed with it. Once standing alone on its seaside hilltop, the imposing structure now shares its environs with an entire neighborhood of apartment buildings and single family homes. Its multifaceted façade, once painted in shades of blue, is now a pale cream hue. But whatever changes time has wrought, the Castle continues to be an object of fascination to those who see its unusual form silhouetted against the Spanish sky – as captivating and mysterious as the literary castle for which it is named.


© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

© Ricardo Bofill

References

[1] Sennott, Stephen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004. p152.
[2] Kruft, Hanno-Walter, and Ronald Taylor. A History of Architectural Theory: from Vitruvius to the Present. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014. p446.
[3] “The Castle.” Encyclopædia Britannica. May 27, 2016. [access].
[4] Sennott, p152.
[5] Kroll, Andrew. “AD Classics: Kafka Castle / Ricardo Bofill.” ArchDaily. March 21, 2011. [access].
[6] “Kafka’s Castle Apartment building.” Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura. Accessed March 31, 2017. [access].
[7] Kroll.
[8] “Kafka’s Castle Apartment building.”

  • Architects: Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitecturas
  • Location: PASSEIG PUJADES 1 APARTAMENTOS 608/609, 08810 Sant Pere de Ribes, Barcelona, Spain
  • Architect In Charge: Ricardo Bofill
  • Project Year: 1968

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