In 1992, I.M. Pei was commissioned to design new headquarters for La Caixa, which became the largest bank in Spain through a merger in 1990. Having occupied two mid-rise black glass towers – the tallest in Barcelona (274 feet) upon completion in 1974 –, the corporation wanted to expand more comfortably, with greater distinction, outside the city. To the client’s considerable surprise, Pei rejected the suburban site offered. (He had done the same on other projects, the Kennedy Library, Fragrant Hill Hotel, and La Défense among them, as the site for Pei was always of paramount importance.) La Caixa later returned with a forested plateau 24 miles outside Barcelona with sprawling views of the nearby Collserola and Monserrat mountains.
Pei took advantage of the unique environmental opportunities to create a serene corporate compound in intimate balance with nature (much as he was doing at the same time for Miho Museum in Japan). La Caixa’s principal, largely autonomous enterprises are housed in linked components that step down into the hillside, including hermetic facilities for its computer-driven operations, which are mostly excavated into the ground. In the center of the complex is a large L-shaped building for administration and communal services, intersected by a quarter-round cafeteria and a circular courtyard that embraces the landscape and fills the interior with natural light. A glazed moving walkway links to another L-shaped building further up the hill, where management, executive suites, board rooms, and dining rooms are housed in stepped modular units. Also here, in the most public part of the private compound, is the Fundación La Caixa with exhibition galleries for its art collection, a 400-seat auditorium, cafe, and terraced outdoor sculpture court. A 3-story skylit lobby is both the main entrance and a monumental reception hall for the bank’s progressive social and cultural activities. The new headquarters was part of an enlightened strategy to set La Caixa apart from other Spanish financial institutions, dating back to the late 1970s, when the great Spanish painter Joan Miró was commissioned to design La Caixa’s corporate logo.
Architectural plans for the arcadian complex were fully developed right down to construction documents and office layouts when the project collapsed. The head of La Caixa, preparing for retirement, lost corporate confidence and support; opposing interests opted to remain in Barcelona.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; L.C. Pei, Rossana Guttierez
Pei Cobb Freed & Partners