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23 June 2010

From monumental urbanism to productive urbanism

Lluís Ortega

Conference that formed part of debates on public space, in the framework the Bucharest Architecture Symposium (Anuala de architectura Bucaresti) and took place in Bucharest on 22 and 23 May 2009

From monumental urbanism to productive urbanism

In order to ask about the possible relevance of the so-called Barcelona Model, it is first necessary to distinguish between those aspects of its origins that were strictly disciplinary and those that were contingent. We know that in Catalonia the change of regime had a direct impact on the architecture of those years. During the transition to democracy there was a broad consensus in favor of the collective reconstruction of a sense of civic dignity that had been trampled underfoot, humiliated and spurned for forty years, and an ambitious program was thus developed with which to reinvent the public on the basis of the institutional. As far as the city was concerned, impoverished areas were rescued and reclaimed, certain minimum standards were guaranteed and there was a recovery of that part of the symbology of identity that did not enter into conflict with those new social strata that, even though imposed or induced by the Franco regime, were already an unquestionable and definitive part of Catalan life.

All of this not only sought to make visible the new political conditions, but also offered objective guarantees of progress. The drawing up of new goals —new, at least, for the Barcelona of the late 1970s— was felt to be necessary by a whole generation of architects that had been calling for changes for years.

The political class and the neighborhood associations, determined to have a hand in the restoration of the civic fabric, could draw on the creative potential of many architecture firms ready and willing to intervene in the public domain. This state of affairs undoubtedly resulted in unprecedented levels of quality in the design of the urban. The construction euphoria continued right up to the catharsis of Barcelona’s nomination to host the 1992 Olympic Games.

A large part of the disciplinary research originated in the academic field, which in those days consisted of the city’s two public architecture schools. Almost all of the architects involved in public works in the city were also teaching in one or other of the schools. Architects who were seen as standing for healthy new ways of doing things in the academic sphere were at the same time commissioned to carry out some of the most emblematic urban projects of the new Barcelona:
Another area from which architecture was to be renewed was the Col•legi d’Arquitectes, the architects’ association which became a cultural agitator and promoter of emerging values. Proof of this is the role played by the architectural journal Quaderns d’Arquitectura i Urbanisme under the editorship of Josep Lluís Mateo from 1981 to 1990, considered in its day the flagship of architectural activity at its most ambitious and innovative. The magazine Quaderns first opened up local architecture to an international scene not readily accessible until later. At the same time, Quaderns established itself as a platform for the international dissemination of local architecture, which was received with admiration by critics and the profession worldwide. In other words, by the end of the 1980s, the finishing touches were being given to what was coming to be called, with evident political benefits, the Barcelona Model.

It is a commonplace to refer to the present as a moment of crisis. A number of chroniclers and theorists, from several areas, are speaking of an exhausted model and the need to replace it. I believe that if we are to speak of a model, it has to be possible to extrapolate and reproduce that model in other geographical locations and other historical contexts that are not those of the Barcelona of the transition to democracy. Is it pertinent, then, to speak of a model? A model of what? A model for whom? A model in what terms? Is it plausible to think of the Barcelona of 1992 as a model for the London of 2012? It is not even necessary to turn to major metropolises. Right here in Barcelona there is not, and it does not seem that there can be, in the case of socio-political normality, any general consensus as a real driving force and agent of the much missed Barcelona. The diversity of opinions and options may perhaps allow partial consensuses. Something may be achieved in the area of housing, if the crisis gets worse —though a public opinion that was more vocal in its protests would be required. In general terms, however, we must insist that there is neither the political will nor the institutional instruments to reproduce any of the aspects of the so-called Barcelona Model. Dissolutions such as that of the metropolitan area in the hands of petty local interests and the various systems of patronage still stand in the way of such forms of consensus. No, a non-reproducible situation is not a model, and yet people continue to insist on using the term, whether from journalistic urgency or from a deliberate strategy of power. It would be more appropriate to speak of the Barcelona Cases.

To discuss public space is to discuss a space of conflict. This paper traces a very brief summary of the history of discussion and strategies towards the public from the architectural point of view and crisis of those strategies. In this unauthorized history of Barcelona’s urbanism, architectural competitions play a key role. As Ramon Faura states in his recently published essay called: “Why today’s competitions are all the same, so boring?” architectural competitions have four meaning emissions: the first one corresponds to the entities or institutions that call for the competition and its format is the brief, the second one is more collective and corresponds to the body of entries that responds to the call of the competition, the third one will be the jury and its resolution, and the fourth, and most important one, is the public debate the opens once the competition is published. Naturally this fourth one is the one that disappears more easily.

The studies about the design of public space in the Barcelona of the democratic period coincide on dividing the strategies into three major periods or stages:

First stage: Strategic interventions from 1980 until 1986
Second stage: Olympic urbanism from 1987 until 1992
Third stage: Post-Olympic urbanism and the Forum from 1993 until 2004

Consensus period
First stage: 1980-1986
What characterizes this initial period is the recovery of the civic space. According to Oriol Bohigas, one of the main protagonists of the urban project of that period, what they attempted was to reconstruct the existing city rather than being tempted towards expansion. The city was not considered as a single system, but rather as a juxtaposition of elements that focused on the neighborhoods. During this initial period, they tried to compensate and offset the ancien régime effect by reconstructing the civic identity of the public spaces. The consensus about urban transformations was constructed around this recovery.

Quoting Bohigas again, he distinguishes three different kinds of interventions: concrete plans, analytical plans and political plans.

These different kinds of plans have varying and different degrees of efficiency according to the different scales they are applied to. In the first period, the engine of transformation was to give priority to the design of the public space (understanding it as voids within the city) and collective amenities and facilities. These transformations focused on strategic areas with the confidence in their capacity to regenerate the areas around them. These kinds of interventions were extremely specific and local and they did not have the ambition to become urban regulations, but rather they took on a much more transformative and problem-solving attitude.

In this initial period, there was an extremely fruitful relationship with the social associations in and around the neighborhoods. Very active and cohesive associations that originated from the activism of the 1970s with people who were involved in the public authorities agencies. These associations and their shared political background were key aspects in constructing the consensus about the new public spaces.

Projects that are examples of this period are:
Sants. Antigues Cotxeres
Plaça de Sants
Plaça de la Mercè
Plaça de la Palmera
Plaça del Sol
Parc de l’Espanya Industrial
Plaça dels Països Catalans
RENFE Meridiana (rail hub)
PERI de Ciutat Vella (Special Plans for the Interior Reform of the Old Town)

Crisis: the example of the Escorxador

While previous projects like the Cotxeres de Sants were the outcome of a very close and intense relationship between different agents, the competition for the urban park, the Parc de l’Escorxador, was a case that triggered controversy as it marked the start of a reduction in the transparency of some of the competitions that were shaping the public space. While in my introduction I mentioned the four emissions of meaning that Ramon Faura identified as structural to any real competition; the last one, the one concerning public debate, was highly controversial in the case I am now referring to.

‘Socias, the mayor of the city in 1978, opened the competition for rethinking a space that would result from moving the public slaughterhouse to another location. In 1979 the call for entries closed, with high levels of participation. Apparently it seemed that it would meet with the same success as its predecessors, such as the conversion of the former train depot, the Cotxeres de Sants, into a community centre. The neighborhood was to have its own voice, the competition would be open and there were high expectations within the community of architects for their involvement in the construction of the public space. In 1981, the jury declared the winning team: F. Fernández, B. Galí, M. Gallego, M. Quintana and A. Solanas with a long list of finalists.

Immediately great controversy arose. Quaderns, the journal of the architectural league, criticized the jury very strongly for the decision taken. To quote the magazine, the criticism was based on “excessive attention to and literal compliance with the requests of the neighborhood association”. This could be a strange argument, but if we keep following the criticism we understand better the lack of satisfaction with the outcome of the competition: according to the editors, the jury’s decision lacks reasoning about how things were decided, and merely emphasizes the bureaucratic procedure of how to decide. If we look at the finalists, the lack of criteria behind the decision becomes clear. The confusion becomes even greater when the jury recommends that the final project should introduce the good ideas of the finalists. If we look at the plans we can imagine how strange this recommendation sounds. Bohigas writes an article where he mentions that the jury has rejected the finalist for stylistic reasons: too neoclassical in Bofill´s case, too picturesque in the case of Batlle i Roig, too abstract with Piñon Viaplana, and too geometrically outdated (San José and Rodrigo). Oriol Bohigas, the main protagonist of this period as an architect involved in local government, seems to call for a public space that has to be as ideologically neutral as possible.’

Regardless of the different shades of interpretation we could garner from the proposals, what is clear is that the controversy regarding this space is not so much based on the content only, but also on the lack of transparency or clarity that the process has produced.

Second stage: 1987-1992

In this second period, the other two kinds of plans mentioned by Bohigas —the analytical plans and the political plans— took precedence in the construction of the public space. The city was looked at on another scale and there were challenges that went beyond the municipal area. This made the concrete plans ineffective in order to bring about an effective transformation. What mostly characterized this period were the political plans. The choice of Barcelona as an Olympic city allowed the execution of a series of projects that would have never been possible without these plans. Major infrastructures, ring roads, and the consideration of traffic flows as formal and functional elements of restructuring the city were key aspects in order to fully understand most of the interventions carried out during this period. While in the initial period, the civic and democratic reconstruction was a force of consensus, in this second period, the Olympic Games emerged as an engine for bringing together political, economic and social agents.
Another aspect that distinguished this period is the decreasing participation of the social organizations in the community. This was due to different reasons. Some were more technical and others more cultural. The infrastructural character of most of the interventions and their scope that went beyond the municipal terrain, meant that participation tended to be more ‘technical’; furthermore, the recognition in certain international areas of what was officially called the Barcelona Model made the authorities and the techniques involved start to take into consideration the external voices more than the local.

Examples of work carried out during this period would be:
Olympic villages
Ring roads
Communication Tower in Collserola
Passeig Joan de Borbó (1989-1993)
Sant Sebastià Swimming Pools (1988-1995)
Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta – seafront promenade (1993-1995)

Crisis: Discussion about the Mar Bella housing blocks

This seafront area of the city was discussed for development by City Hall after the Olympic Games. Most of the work was done by local architects related to the so-called Barcelona School. It is interesting to follow Manuel de Solà-Morales’ thoughts about the problem and his understanding of public space in his article about the proposals: “If the purpose of the consultation were not to build an Eixample (Cerdà’s grid-like expansion project for the city), we might discuss the building potential of the 117x117 block as the site more or less suitable for the new dimensions, good in terms of proportions, not so good as far as the interior is concerned, etc... But if we want to build another Eixample, we must recognize the fact that the Eixample is not about the block but rather a block along streets. And streets which are at the same time about traffic flows and façade, but above all about public space. In all the responses to the consultation, the idea of public space is defined as being independent from the streets.

And he continues, “the whole debate on modern urbanism could be written in the key of interpretation of green space. In the present-day idea of a dense city, in all urban proposals which centre on the values of density and of urban architecture, we mix an idea of linked green areas, namely parks and autonomous elements distributed throughout the city: an idea of green space which corresponds to the beaux-artsian landscape metropolis of the turn of the century, of enormous interest for the discipline but whose coexistence with any attempt at modern urbanism can only be spurious.
A good slice of city extension does not need too many parks.

Solà-Morales’ criticism of the understanding of public space as a leftover that is not articulated and programmed, and the reclaiming of the public nature of the street, makes sense in that area of the city where the beach becomes a prominent feature of an open area.

In the consultation, the independent treatment of the urban blocks, thoroughfares and the coast as separate, parallel bands represents rejection of the best possibilities for this urban growth. And it reveals the negative aspect of separating planning options from the urban project per se.

The open discussion towards the detachment of the urban project from some of the operations that will shape it has commenced. The excessive abstraction of the tools operating in the proposal (plans and axons focusing on the blocks) is very telling of the way architects are thinking the city, as figures on backgrounds instead of complex fields.

Third stage: 1993-2004

This third period is clearly different from the previous two. On the one hand, it is not possible to intervene with what Bohigas called concrete plans. On the other, The Forum, which was supposed to play the role of bringing together agents in a similar way to the Olympic Games, did not work as planned. Thus the tools the city had been using up to then proved no longer useful.
From 1993 onwards, with the decentralization of the urban design agency, the decisions tended to get closer again to the local community through the district centers. This approach did not work as planned. Between 1993 and 2003 more than 30 social platforms for opposing ongoing projects populated the political scene.
One of the difficulties argued by the municipal managers of that period is the impossibility of finding the right representatives to talk to. The fragmentation of neighborhood associations with different interests, sometimes contradicting each other, constituted a scenario of difficult and sometimes impossible dialog.

Examples of this period:
Universal Forum of Cultures
[email protected] (global hub for knowledge industries)
Restoration of the Besòs River

Crisis: Diagonal Mar

The public agents’ ability to decide and bring about the transformation of public space remains strong if we compare it with other places, but it has been reduced by two new fronts: the multinational power (for example the role of Hinge in Diagonal Mar) and the political effects and media power of some neighborhood associations. This narrowed power of the public agency, independently of its positive or negative effects, forces us to invent different working systems and new models that expand our architectural understanding of public space.

New work scenarios:
One of the most significant changes in public space is the dissolution of the link between public space and built space. In the traditional sense, building used to formalize public space. The tools we architects used to treat this space —horizontal planes treatments, objects on that plane: furniture, plants, sculptures..., treatments of the limits of the space— and the ones that were used for its monumentalization —art, iconic architecture and so on¬— are not enough.
Large shopping areas, infrastructures and roads, seafronts, conservation areas, new land reclaimed from the sea, vertical public spaces, industrial areas, and new urban agricultural land are complex spaces that should be introduced into the so-called public space and have no precedents to recall.
As far as the ambition to achieve consensus is concerned, we might be facing the need to work public space from complexity, from the multiplicity of local agreements, the redefinition of ecological models and renouncing major foundational projects.


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