Spanish cities have much to recommend them. Beautiful architecture, great restaurants, vibrant night life...and a generous provision of street furniture.
Of course Spain is has lots of sunshine and people spend far more time outdoors than they do in cooler climes. However visitors to London, Paris or Frankfurt do lament that it's not that often enough that you come across a bench in the city centres where you can sit and watch the world go by.
But from Barcelona to Málaga, Valencia to Cádiz, one thing Spanish cities do exceptionally well is ensure people can find a seat when they're out and about. And the company local authorities often turn to for street furniture is Barcelona-based Escofet, which says its ethos is to put art into the industry.
Founded in Barcelona in 1886 as a tile manufacturer, Escofet has its roots in the Modernist period and has always championed modern design for all. Today its portfolio includes benches, seats, planters, lighting, drinking fountains and complete streetscapes, with most products made from reinforced cast stone or concrete.
And over the past few years Escofet has been working more with UHPC Slimconcrete. As the name suggests, this Ultra High Performance Concrete is highly compacted, making it more environmentally-friendly because it uses fewer raw materials; and it's exciting because you can cast far more refined and slender shapes not possible in the days when concrete had to be inches thick.
‘We use our own UHPC, which we've called Slimconcrete and it has many advantages for us,’ says Enric Pericas, a director at Escofet. ‘Concrete is associated of course with a heavy carbon footprint, but Slimconcrete not only uses less raw material but is 100 per cent recyclable. And because we can make products that are far less heavy than ones made with 'normal' concrete, you reduce transport and installation costs.’
For those with an interest in matters technical, Slimconcrete has a high density matrix and low porosity. It has a liquid consistency with smaller than 1mm siliceous aggregate and you don't lose aggregate from the surface even over long term cleaning and maintenance.
Escofet, led by MD Marcos López Antich, employs some 80 people and manufactures at its plant in Martorell close to Barcelona. It has its own technical department and when it comes to design it works closely with architects and landscapers. It cites Antonio Gaudí among its earliest architect collaborators and more recently has commissioned pieces from Toyo Ito, David Chipperfield, Ricardo Bofill and Manuel Ruisánchez.
Escofet specialises in modern design and not the solid rectilinear shapes associated with concrete. For example, the recent Grasshopper collection of tables and benches by Makoto Fukuda demonstrates the elegant curves that can be achieved with UHPC.
Enric Pericas says Escofet isn't preoccupied with designing furniture that is vandal-proof. Of course, vandalism is an occupational hazard for everyone involved in providing public/street furniture, but Pericas says Escofet believes that creative, innovative, beautiful design does intrinsically civilize people.
‘Public spaces are designed around the concept of wellbeing and if they have good facilities that encourage people to interact, they will be used and valued by communities,’ says Pericas.
For many Spanish companies, exports have been crucial to their surviving the recession, as the domestic economy has struggled. But for the street furniture sector, Pericas says Spain is the best market in the world and that's because local and national government has long seen the value in investing in urban furniture: ‘They've done so both for political reasons and simply because our climate means people live outdoors for much of the time.’
That said Escofet has strong export markets within the EU and it sells well in the US. More recently it's been working to increase sales to Russia and the Far East.
While public furniture is expensive, if it's made from concrete or steel it should last for decades, so it is money well spent. ‘Escofet furniture will look in great condition in 50 years' time, definitely,’ says Pericas.