50 years of Picasso’s friezes on the Architects’ College of Catalonia

In May 1955, the Official College of Architects of Catalonia and the Balearic Islands inaugurated its new headquarters in the Plaça Nova of Barcelona, in front of the Cathedral.  The building was decorated with some friezes by Picasso, produced by the Nordic artist Carl Nesjar.

The Architects’ College (COAC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary and from the museum we would like to celebrate this milestone by remembering the words of Mr. Xavier Busquets i Sindreu, the architectural director of project, in which he explains, in a very personal and detailed way, the whole process, from the idea to the production of these friezes.

Front and right side facades of the building of the College of Architects of Catalonia

“I was very lucky to win the two contests and to be charged with carrying out the project and to take on the management of the works.

As soon as the draft project was known by the Barcelona public, a considerable controversy began.  The current style of the building projected and its location, right in front of the solid Roman Wall, of the Bishop’s Palace, the House of the Archdeacon, and of the Cathedral, lead to extensive discussion.  Some spoke of the breaking of the architectural harmony of the setting.  Others were of the opinion that the contrast between the building and its surroundings gave mutual value to them […]. The criticisms and the debates were heated, and, all in all, achieved a very agreeable result: that of stirring up the interest of the public in architecture. […]

With regard to the building, the blind wall of the first floor, which surrounded the lecture hall and the foyer, was a problem that especially worried me, given that it constituted a transition from one horizontal element to another vertical element.  The initial idea had been to resolve this with a covering of stoneware ceramic charged to Antoni Cumella.

Two facts contributed to modifying this first idea.

Some years before, finding myself in Cannes I had met Pablo Picasso in person. […] His interest in our city was immediately very clear to me. Practically the first question he asked me was: “What are they doing in Barcelona?” And he listened to my explanations with an attention and friendliness that in no moment were refuted. […] It was an unforgettable afternoon for me. He had received me in a room organised on the basis of a magnificent mess. […] Of that first visit to Picasso, lost in time, I kept the inalterable impression of honest hands and of eyes of an implacable curiosity, corrected by experience. […]

In October 1958, on a trip to Paris related to the project of the College, I also visited the UNESCO, where I saw a mural of Miró done with the collaboration of Llorens Artigas. This mural and the memory of my visit to Picasso provoked the idea of a possible collaboration between Picasso and Cumella for the building of the College.  The enormous prestige of Picasso, his unarguable mastery, and his very close link of so many years in Barcelona and Catalonia were decisive factors for a certain success. […]

Detail of the friezes in the front facade

Thus I went to visit Picasso again. I did so, provided with the plans and perspectives of the building and collections of photographs that reproduced its location and its future aspect.  As is natural, at no stage had I proposed a specific topic to Picasso for the decoration of the murals. […]

As has already been said, my first idea was that of a collaboration of the potter Cumella with Picasso.  But about this, with the interest for new ways of expression that always characterised him, he spoke to me of a new procedure with which he had reproduced some of his drawings from the Grimaldi d’Antibes Museum on the building of the Norwegian government in Oslo.

Carl Nesjar, who knew Picasso and the new technique of sandblasting had already managed to take on the responsibility for the work and moved to Barcelona. I remember him as huge Nordic man, tall and robust, bearded. […]

We had therefore decided the materials with which we would work. But we still lacked the original drawings. […] With the intention that he wouldn’t feel excessively pressurised, I kept him up-to-date with everything.  I visited him every month and spoke to him on the phone weekly. […] Meanwhile the works of the building advanced, and soon we would reach the stage of the finishing works. Everything was ready for the murals to begin.

One day, when saying goodbye to Picasso and Jacqueline at “La Californie”, I dared to say to him that we couldn’t delay it any more. “Pray to Our Father that I do it”, Picasso responded to me.  Just a few days later, on the 18th October 1960 at eleven o’clock at night, he telephoned me to say that the drawings were ready. […]

On showing me the drawings, Picasso mentioned the willingness for synthesis and the effort of simplicity that they represented. «This – he concluded literally – I wouldn’t have been able to do before.» And, effectively, the drawings had much more wisdom and depth than they seemed to have at first sight.

The moment had therefore arrived to begin the definitive works. […] The reproduction of the drawings was done in two phases.

It was first necessary to reproduce fragments of the originals in paper, enlarging them until the definitive size was obtained.  The drawings were photographed on slides.  And these were projected on paper, and Carl Nesjar retraced the drawing with a paintbrush.  So as to do the enlargement to the size that the friezes presented it was necessary to project the slides from more than 10 metres away. [..] Once the drawing on paper was passed to the natural scale, the paint strokes were followed by perforating them with a punch.

Left side of the building facade

The second phase of the reproduction took place in the College itself. The painted papers were fixed on the recently unpacked concrete panels. Carl Nesjar, with a small canvas bag full of graphite dust followed and hit the perforated tracing of the drawing. The graphite passed through the holes of the paper and marked the lines on the concrete.  Once the paper was taken off, looking at a photograph of the originals, Nesjar went over the lines with a crayon and marked with arrows the direction which the sand should be blasted, with the aim of exactly reproducing the different intensities of the lines of the drawing of Picasso.

Finally, the time arrived for blasting the sand following the marks and uncovering the black stones inside the concrete. […] The sand and mortar created a formidable cloud of dust.  To avoid this as far as possible, large fans were used to project the dust into a curtain soaked in water. […] The process required the removal of the mortar with great care, repeatedly consulting the photographs of the originals, so as not to make the lines too thick.

Having spread the word that the decoration of the exterior panels of the College was produced from original drawings by Picasso, there were various artists who would have wanted to contribute their knowledge to the decoration of the interiors.  For the two wall panels of the foyer, the prolongation of the lecture hall, I had thought of Joan Miró.  I commented this possibility to Picasso.  The reaction was fast and cutting: “I’ll do them for you, the ones of Miró!”, he said to me.

He did them with surprising speed.”

Entry speech of the Illustrious Elect Academic. Mr. Xavier Busquets i Sindreu
Read in the Lecture Hall of the Academy on the 9th December 1987

To find out more
Bassegona Nonell, Juan. Una gran obra de Picasso a Barcelona. Els esgrafiats del Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Barcelona. Barcelona: Amics de Gaudí, 2009.
Cirici-Pellicer, Alexandre. Esgrafiados de Picasso. Barcelona: Col·legi Oficial d’Arquitectes,
Fairweather, Sally. Picasso’s concrete sculptures. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1982.

Consult the online catalogue of the Library

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