This website uses third-party cookies so that you can enjoy the best possible user experience. If you continue to use this website we will assume that you accept their use. You can change your settings or obtain more information here.
Learning from Barcelona; twenty years of urban projects and their reception
Jean-Louis Cohen, 1998


Published in Ciutat real, ciutat ideal:  significat i funció a l'espai urbà modern. Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, 1998 (Urbanitats; 7)

For a historian of cities and town planning and a fortiori an observer of the architectural chronicle of Barcelona for almost thirty years, it is rather difficult to put together a summary of the thoughts aroused by the programmes carried out over these last two decades and their reception in Europe. The investigations and experiences that have transformed the urban space and everyday life of the citizens of Barcelona, while establishing references in city politics which have been widely broadcast, must be restored to their overall and specific historic framework.1 A very urban framework, since it is the framework of the crisis of the great agglomerations and urban centres in the Europe of the 1970s, when the brutal modernisation of the peripheries and the degeneration of the old districts came fully to light. A cultural and theoretical framework, that of the emergence of the doctrines of "urban" architecture, Italian in origin, and which spread all over Europe, notably in Spain and France.2 A political framework, then, which is that of the crisis of urban governance both in the districts and the regions and the emergence of a radical but "realistic" left.


From that last point of view, the policies implemented in Barcelona after the return of democracy to Spain are a direct extension of the action of the "vecinos" movement, which, at the end of the Franco regime, had resulted in the emergence of alternative structures of local power. The democratic municipal elections in 1979 were the direct result of that political action. We would be unable to understand the operations of the last twenty years without setting them in a longer period of time. The architectural culture of Barcelona is indeed rooted in the historical identity of a city shaped by a specific history which it is hardly appropriate to recall here in any detail, but which has left its mark in more ways than one. From Cerdà's Eixample to Léon Jaussely's plans and the Macià plan, Barcelona is a leading place in the formulation of modern theories of town planning, including pioneering projects. In terms of architecture, Barcelona has been marked by the constructions of Modernisme, then by the radical architecture of the GATCPAC and lastly by post-war poetics from Coderch to Bohigas.

The impact of recent town-planning policies has heightened that already acquired aura, making itself felt by architects, landscapers and town planners, but also on the municipal technicians and the politicians of Europe and sometimes beyond. And so the French architect David Mangin believes he can speak of Barcelona as a "Mecca for urban practices"3. In appearance, the programmes which have been the centre of outside attention give the impression of being an informal network of isolated objects ―parks, squares, housing units, sports facilities and cultural amenities or infrastructure works. But, far more than categorical themes or projects, they are policies associating public intervention and spatial intervention which can be related to particular moments of life in the Catalan metropolis. The first step was to open up the existing tissue to new collective practices with the inaugural "new squares" programme (1981-1985). Shortly afterwards the search for "new central areas" led to the reconstitution of urban continuities between the gutted neighbourhoods and the development of the peripheral districts. The recycling of the big buildings in the centre, earmarked for cultural programmes, has also mobilised part of the municipal energy. But most of all it is the operations mounted to redefine the relationship between the city and its shoreline, under the slogan Barcelona "cara al mar", that have received great exposure, as well as the ones that have enabled the recycling of the industrial land east of the centre.


As well as attending to the projects taken separately, I will bring out some more fundamental points. The first, of course, is the fact that the interventions have been carried out essentially on buildings and have followed a strategy of reformulation and improvement rather than renovation, as if in response to a watchword given by Lluís Clotet since 19744. The business of "building on the already built", in the words of Ignasi de Solà-Morales, has not been the prerogative of Barcelona alone, but it has found one of its more fertile grounds there.5

The programmes have not been managed by technocratically or bureaucratically defined zones but according to a division into complex objectives, associating infrastructures, exterior spaces and constructions. Such a programme involved permanent negotiation between the public groups and the private players and so a series of comings and goings between the different levels of the agglomeration. But most of all it was founded on a conscious determination to break with the terminology of functionalist planning. And so the idea is to make, not "public spaces", but squares, not "thoroughfares", but streets or avenues, not "residential zones" but neighbourhoods. To a certain extent Barcelona became a graveyard for the simplifying concepts of the town planning of the Athens Charter, as Bernard Huet had stigmatised them on those very grounds of terminology.6


And so it is a complex and, to a large extent, implicit programme on the identity of the city which has been carried out, as I had the chance to observe in the early 1980s.7 One of its most interesting characteristics, like other contemporary European programmes such as the IBA in Berlin or the Mission Banlieues 89 in France, is the effort expended to rediscover the visual traces of the decisive geographical factors of Barcelona. From that point of view the Barcelona building sites are part of a certain continuity with the positions which Léon Jaussely had formulated in support of his plan in 1905. He noted at the time that "there is no architecture that can replace a view of a beautiful landscape, sea or mountain, as in Barcelona" and thus refused to "block the perspective effects on the natural views."8 Jaussely's attention had been drawn to the "three fundamental parts of the territory" which for him were "the shoreline, the plain, the mountain", and which have been rediscovered by contemporary ideas.


Despite the permanent temptation of Barcelona culture to identify with the cities of Northern Europe, it must also have tried fresh encounters with the Mediterranean. In this case it is difficult not to return to the debates of the 1930s on the relations between Mediterranean and modernity. Two paradigms were opposed at the time: that of Carlo Enrico Rava or Enrico Peressutti, who identified the essence of the Mediterranean with the vernacular forms of architecture, and that of Quadrante and Le Corbusier, who identified it with Platonic purity. It is between those two poles, one picturesque and the other classical, that the debate developed in France and Italy. The situation of Barcelona rather suggests the writer Paul Morand's efforts to go beyond that contradiction when in 1938 he defined the Mediterranean as "a sea of peace and union, a mother sea full of a salt which is the symbol not of sterility but of endurance, a miraculous bath from which we emerge cured, washed of our moral ulcers after each immersion." For Morand, the lesson of the Mediterranean is all of "architectural and spiritual harmony". He judges it "impossible beside its blue depths to write an unconstructed book" and sees in the very vigour and range of its architecture the specific nature of its intellectual framework. "Homeland of melodious rhythm" and "not of disjointed sounds and discordant tumult", it is "the realm of that often hidden style that commands the mass of rough cyclopean constructions and the infinite smallness of mosaics."9


In the case of Barcelona, that kind of architecture is present, in the sense Morand gives it, in a good part of the urban culture. But the local Mediterranean quality is elsewhere and aims fundamentally to be urban. The relation with light has been mistrustful there and the southern vegetation was only preserved on the hills before being magnified by Jean-Claude-Nicolas Forestier in the Miramar gardens in Montjuïc. On the other hand, the permeability between sea and city was denied, since it turned its back on the port as industrial cities turn their backs on the factories and agricultural towns refuse to look at the fields which are the source of their wealth.


It is through the sedimentation of interventions on the great landscapes of the hills and valleys, on the urban plantations and, of course, the many links with the water that Barcelona has emerged over the last fifteen years from being landlocked. That Eixample operation by the water completes, according to a rather deceptive symmetry, the operation between the city and the hills performed by Cerdà.10 The refusal to leave what seems to be the province of technique to the engineers is a strong dimension of the Barcelona projects. Here the example of Cerdà, mindful of both the form of the city and its components and of the networks is obviously rediscovered, but that of Jaussely should be pondered as well, since after 1905 he imagined a system of ringroads with asymmetrical profiles on the slopes of the hill and a park avenue, a wide thoroughfare that would have opened the city towards the sports park planned in the east after the Plaça de les Glòries, along the axis of Gran Via.


The issue is fundamental in this case, if we know that the major investments in big cities today are agreed for transport infrastructures, especially roads. All too often the intervention of architects and landscapers is consolatory and compensatory, reduced to derisory cosmetic adjustments. Should they be defined only by technical rationality, which moreover is usually no more than pseudo rationality, extremely vulnerable to the fashions of the moment? The permanent conflict between technical services, which generally consider themselves to be the sole legitimate repositories of competences in road networks, and the project professions has fortunately been overcome in Barcelona, notably since the 1984 seminar in Sarrià on the roads of Barcelona.11


In three different areas, the cutting of the second ringroad, the Plaça de les Glòries or the redefinition of the urban ways along the Moll de la Fusta are all extremely positive contributions to a reflection on the division of labour in terms of infrastructures. Those operations manage, each in its own way, to resolve the contradictions of scale, of bulk, of slope and curve between fast highways and "surface" urban spaces, to take up the term used in Los Angeles to refer to all thoroughfares which are not motorways.


For reasons which are undoubtedly not in the order of planning, the setting in time of the Barcelona projects also makes them unusual. They seem indeed to escape from the strictly political cycles of the electoral mandates to become part of larger units of time. Urban restructuring projects require far more perseverance than new building operations in the open country, but are often carried out according to rhythms which are more defined by the demands of communication than those of urban sedimentation. On this subject, the mastery of a delicate operation like the 1992 Olympic Games should be emphasised. It was not clear that the city could be equipped in time or that it would survive the post-Olympic depression. There is no doubt that the Olympic Village is not the most successful group of the ones assembled in Barcelona, notably because it was broken up into projects which vied with one another in narcissism, which allows us to liken it to the most dubious compositions of the new French cities. The overall mediocrity of the Olympic Village is less this or that particular building than the debatable overall scheme, which leads us to wonder about the limits, even the failures of a policy which in many ways is remarkable.12


In the field of the architecture of major public buildings, Barcelona sadly fails to escape a playing to the gallery exacerbated by the real or symbolic competition of European cities. Programmes like Ricardo Bofill's National Theatre of Catalonia or Richard Meier's Contemporary Art Museum unfortunately illustrate the recourse to an imported model. That attempt to create an "haute couture" collection of buildings conceived by the architects of the moment does no honour to Barcelona either by the location of the buildings or their intrinsic quality.


Through its projects Barcelona is part of an urban network marked by symbolic competition and mutual imitation. Everything happens here as if the architectural choices tended to allow a number of European cities to have a kind of collection of contemporary architecture, as if each city meant to hang a work by the masters of the day in an urban museum. Every museum worthy of the name hangs a Picasso, a Miró, a Rauschenberg and a pile of felt by Joseph Beuys, whilst every zoo displays a cage with a hippopotamus, a zebra and a crocodile. Mimetically, each city seems to aspire to present a sampler menu concocted from the architectural hit parade of the day and which, if one studies the inclusions and exclusions more closely, is a kind of critique of contemporary production.


The risk of a process focused on "beautiful objects" in Barcelona would have been to return to the problems of the City Beautiful in the United States in the progressive period from 1897 to 1910. The City Beautiful also had civic objectives, also intended, like Barcelona, to lay out networks of parks and public spaces. Like certain aspects of the policy of Barcelona, it corresponded to the expectations of the bourgeoisie in the big American cities. It entered a crisis faced with demands for a "practical", in other words, "useful", town planning. What makes it relevant to the Barcelona experience is the permanent unstable balance between the two processes.


Barcelona reveals the contours of a stance which is contemporary and, as a whole, new. It is not the "critical regionalism" alluded to by Kenneth Frampton, who is taking up an idea Alex Tzonis had borrowed from Lewis Mumford. Ignasi de Solà Morales had already done justice to that hasty reading of the specific history of Catalan architecture.13 Barcelona is more one of the places where what I have called "critical internationalism" and described as the emergent condition of the end of the 20th century appeared.14 Rather than a tension over certain picturesque components of regional identity used to produce identity, that stance is based on a great permeability to the outside world.


Critical internationalism no longer comes from a defensive problem in the face of the threat of a uniform modernism or a utopian position, but rather from a strategy, which can be reticent or cynical as the case may be, of going with the market. In that setting, the new internationalists are potentially addressing the global scene and entering the fluidity of intercity networks. In particular they defend, in opposition to the vulgar attachment to the past of post-modernism, a certain return to the "Modern Movement", a term whose deficiencies are well known, but which I use for convenience, which may be accompanied by illusions, simplifications, even falsifications. Fetishist at times, when the spectrum of its references is reduced to stilts or the "open plan", but generally sincere and sometimes wise, that backward look tends to boost a concern for an architecture set in the rhythms and materials of the second industrial age.

The new internationalists do not oppose that first position with the formulation of a realistic relationship with the city and the territory, freed of nostalgia for the Mediaeval or classical city and the mutilating simplifications of functionalist town planning. An awareness of the issues connected with the landscape goes alongside that attitude that sets architecture in reality. That gaze directed at the spatial context of architecture is not necessarily, and this is something new, based on a total rejection of the architecture of the immediately preceding generations, and a certain recognition of the quality of vernacular modern architecture since 1945 is not unusual. It is evident in Barcelona, where a critical reference to local architecture is rarely lacking.


Another important dimension, the intellectualisation of the architect's work is no longer, as such, a fight for the new internationalists. Eclectic and sometimes instrumental, the relationship with intellectual culture is a given and not a vague wish, so much has the training of architects changed in thirty years. The cultural renovation that has taken place in the interim is interiorised and, except in certain American situations, is no longer the object of manifestations of theorising hysteria. The strong presence of a precise knowledge of the cinema and the problems of contemporary art helps to shape that new professional identity. Set in the changing configurations of the world market of a wise, experimental architecture, which obviously only makes up a marginal part of the whole production of buildings, those project makers share, if not a belief in the possibility of carrying on a practice leading to a new theoretical foundation, at least the conviction that a critical practice is possible.


In that field the architectural culture of Barcelona has given proof of a remarkable openness to outside experiences. An interest in Scandinavian housing of the 1950s and observation in real time of the Italian investigations between 1965 and 1980 are just two aspects of the will to belong to a Europe perceived not as a continuous territory but as a leopard skin dotted with the places where theories or projects are invented. From that point of view, and once again taken as a whole, the Barcelona architects have been in the avantgarde of critical internationalism.

The idea of Patrick Geddes, in whom we can see one of the first internationalist critics of the history of modern town planning, finds new meaning in the rebuilding programmes in Barcelona, since they are opposed to the idea that only projects on a utopian scale can be bearers of a mobilising heroism. Geddes never ceased to oppose to Utopia what he called Eutopia. In 1904, in Civics as Applied Sociology, one of his most important programmatic texts, he identified the two processes. Alongside "the abundant literature related to the topography and history of each city", he imagines a literature that assigns itself "the more distant and higher perspectives involved in the undefined life of a city". For him "such a literature would be very different from the traditional and contemporary 'literature of Utopia'. It would be regional, local, instead of not applying to anywhere; consequently it would be feasible". In that way, according to Geddes, "the real choices we face would appear, but also the ways to make them and to define the lines of development of the legitimate Eutopia, particular to each city considered: a quite different reality from the vague Outopia which is not feasible anywhere. To that the descriptions of the ideal city belong, from Augustine to Morris, by way of More, Campanella or Bacon; over time they have been consoling and even inspiring; but a Utopia is one thing and a town plan another".15


As an echo of the Scottish biologist's idea, the great merit of the Barcelona experience is in the convergent Eutopian practices, hostile to both Utopia and the consolidation of heterotopias which were the functionalist districts done before the 1980s. The practice of what Geddes calls "Civics" is a stable factor of the work done since that date.

Hasty lessons have been drawn from the operations carried out in Barcelona, categorically —and abusively— opposing the town planning of projects and the town planning of plans, forgetting the global context and the will for coherence which had led to the process. In 1984 Peter Buchanan essentially saw the successes,16 whilst David Mangin, admittedly more involved in the global project as a professional and theoretician, was able to see the global logic.17 But it is generally less a model for a city than a model for behaviour that people look for in Barcelona. It is less forms than methods which can be observed and collected. That does not mean that considerations of form are totally unproductive, quite the opposite. In the end, a stated indifference to form is all too often a gesture of renunciation and delegation of decisions to technicians. To take a particular case, French architecture has sacrificed too much to the hollow gesture18 for the lessons of the less monumental of the Barcelona projects to remain unknown.


In short, if the forms used in Barcelona could have been repeated and the urban strategies reproduced, which is hardly transportable, it is that integration of architectural culture into the collective identity that is a factor, no doubt changing but basically set in the urban habitus of the city. From that point of view, two sine qua non conditions of the success of the Barcelona projects must be mentioned in conclusion.


The first is the renunciation by many architects not of forms but of narcissism and their awareness of specific urban conditions. Their critical attention to urban reality and their political commitment have gone hand in hand, from Oriol Bohigas to Joan Busquets. The second and inseparable one is the attention paid by the politicians, the militants, the fabric of associations and the citizens to the problems of architecture and thus the practice of a flexible, prudent delegation of decision to the architects.


Without those efforts towards reciprocal adjustment and without renouncing their respective competences, the Barcelona projects would not have had the echo they have today and which in a way enables the export of the kit to cities like Rio or Buenos Aires; the local democracy is far more difficult if not impossible to export. And so there is nothing of the regulation or iconic model about the corpus of programmes carried out in Barcelona; it is an informal model anchored in city democracy, or rather a collective experience which can be appropriated beyond the mountains and the seas.





1. On the ventures carried out in Barcelona see, among others: Mateo, Josep Lluís (directed by), Barcelona contemporánea 1856-1899. Barcelona: Centre de Cultura Contemporània, 1996; Bru, Eduard, Tres en el lugar. Barcelona: Actar, 1997. On the more recent projects, see: Barcelona, la segona renovació. Barcelona:  City Council, 1996.

2. Cohen, Jean-Louis, La coupure entre architectes et intellectuels, ou les enseignements de l'italophilie, coll. In extenso, vol. I. Paris: École d'Architecture Paris-Villemin, 1984.
3. Mangin, David, "Une Mecque des pratiques urbaines", L'Architecture d'aujourd'hui,  n. 293 , octobre 1992, p. 30.

4. Clotet, Luis, "El arreglo frente al modelo", Arquitectura bis, n. 2 , juin 1974.

5. Solà-Morales, Ignasi de, "Barcelona: construir sobre lo ya construido", Revista de Occidente, n. 97, juin 1989.

6. Huet, Bernard, "La città come spazio abitabile, alternative alla Carta di Atene", Lotus, n. 41, 1984, p. 6-17.

7. Cohen, Jean-Louis, "La Barcelone de Bohigas, identité d'une ville", Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, n. 2 , october 1983.

8. Jaussely, Léon, quoted by Robert de Souza, Nice capitale d'hiver, Berger-Levrault, Paris, p. 417.

9. Morand, Paul, Méditerranée, mer des surprises, Flammarion, Paris 1938, p. 26.

10. Montaner, Josep Maria, "El Ensanche litoral; la Villa Olímpica, historia de una idea", Barcelona 1992, Arquitectura Viva, no. 22,1990, p. 16-25.

11. Les vies de Barcelona.  Barcelona: CMB, 1984.

12. On the Olympic projects, see Fiol, Carme (directed by), Barcelona, la ciutat i el 1992, Barcelona: Institut Municipal de Promoció Urbanistica S.A.,1988; see also: Progressive Architecture , july 1992, p. 62-81 and Buchanan, Peter, "Boost for Barcelona", The Architectural Review, n. 1106 , april 1989, p. 74-77.

13. Solà Morales, Ignasi de, "Catalan Architecture", Quaderns, n. 187, 1992, p. 40-48.

14. See my text on this subject, from which I take certain remarks here: Cohen, Jean-Louis, "Alla ricerca di una pratica critica", Casabella, n. 630-631, january-february 1996, p. 20-27.

15. Geddes, Patrick, Civics as Applied Sociology, lecture in London, 1904; reprinted in Meller, Helen  (ed.) The Ideal City, p. 88-89.

16. Buchanan, Peter, "Regenerating Barcelona with parks and plazas", The Architectural Review, n. 1048, june 1984, p. 32-46.

17. Mangin, David, "Les trottoirs de Barcelone", L'Architecture d'aujourd'hui, n. 260,  december 1988, p. 1-4. Among European analyses, see also: Dünnebacke, Niclas, "Areas de Nova Centralitat in Barcelona", Daidalos, n. 34, december 1989, p. 8-57.

18. Francia fria, Arquitectura Viva, n. 65, 1997.