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Barcelona, 20th Century Urbanism
Josep Parcerisa Bundó

First Edition
Àrea Metropolitana de Barcelona.
Col·legi Oficial d'Arquitectes de Catalunya.
Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura de Barcelona.
Laboratori d'Urbanisme de Barcelona.
2014

ISBN 978-84-15340-96-6
280 págs.

21x26cm

 

 

 

 

 

        THIS IS A GROUP OF ESSAYS about urbanism in the city of Barcelona. It aims to help the reader understand the city today by presenting arguments and visions from its recent past. I have chosen two ways to approach this subject. Initially, I will focus on two decisive moments that are now distanced from the present since they took place at the beginning, and in the second half, of the 20th Century. However, to understand the city today, it is also necessary to look at the new issues which the city has raised during the last third of the 20th Century as a kind of urban laboratory.

BEFORE GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER, I consider it worth introducing a protagonist which is often undervalued. The roots of the city of Barcelona can be found in the Roman period. It also played an important role in the Mediterranean Concord in the early Middle Ages. It was a city which developed behind its defensive walls and embankments which stood until the middle of the 19th Century. It then experienced an extraordinary and robust expansion (arguably the best in Europe) through the building of the Eixample district. With such major milestones, it could be seen as somewhat outlandish to concentrate on minutiae, or even worse, a caprice. However, if we take a close, unbiased look at the reality of the city at the beginning of the 20th Century, we would see a physiognomy that was very dependent on conditions that have little to do with the historical city or its later expansion. Conditions which, for the most part, come under what the late-lamented lecturer Manuel de Solà-Morales called orchards, factories and villas in his Ten Lessons on Barcelona (COAC, 2008). Over the 20th Century, these overlooked aspects formed an immense and silent canopy covering everything. Systematically, repeatedly and unexpectedly, they stood out, here and there, as a kind of mortar holding together a city of more than a million inhabitants. My overlooked protagonist, therefore, is Barcelona behind the curtain. Meanwhile, I am assuming that the reader will already have some basic idea about the background to the Eixample district and the historic centre of the city.

I believe THERE ARE TWO DECISIVE MOMENTS IN 20TH CENTURY URBANISM IN BARCELONA. These can be summed up by the two decades covered by the years 1903-1924 and the years between 1957 and 1973. At the risk of simplifying, this compression allows us to focus on key ideas that help explain the main events. What happened later (Democratic and Olympic Barcelona, mass tourism, the city of logistics, the «successful model», etc.) is a process that is so intense and so close to us that we do not yet measure it in units of finished time. Since we are perhaps too close to it, I have decided to organise that period in another way; as if, from the 1980s onwards, the city had developed different laboratories, each of which can help explain the present, its antecedents and the challenges still to be faced.

Any discourse on urbanism in Barcelona at the beginning of the 20th Century must centre on a profound impulse: the ambition to construct a capital city with all its appropriate buildings and institutions. That was the challenge of the 1903 competitive tender and this premise would become an obsession in Barcelona in those early decades. I am going to focus on three issues: the change of scale as a mental paradigm (Plaça de Catalunya), the decision to conquer Montjuïc (against the wishes of Jaussely) and the opening up of the centre of the city from the port to Tibidabo Mountain through the creation of two new streets: Via Laietana and Carrer de Balmes. As usual, this ambition could count on an expanded city that supported it: the periphery without which nothing would be possible.

The idea of Barcelona as a Capital, however, would later be in virtual hibernation; covered in dust by the great depression of 1929, the long shadow of the Spanish Civil War and the protracted post-war period. When would the next great phenomenon appear? That would involve the irruption of the motorcar onto the streets. That phenomenon, which changed the landscape across the developed world, had been slow to take off in Spain due to the particular circumstances experienced in the country during the post-war period. Popular use of the car would not have much of an impact before the new earth shattering, critical and savage period of the 1960s. When the trend did appear it would have immediate consequences which today are history, because the argument over how the occurrence was handled has become obsolete. Proof of this obsolescence can be found in images of the dream city which many demanded should be built. I would like to mention some particular dates: 1957, the beginning of Porcioles’ time as Mayor of Barcelona and the beginning of sales of the SEAT 600 car. Then, in 1973, the start of the oil crisis and the great failure of the demolition of the Les Halles market in Paris, which caused many a rethink on a variety of issues. It was also the year Porcioles ceased to be Mayor. This was a turning point which coincided with a peak in the development of Metropolitan Barcelona and which has left definite traces on current urban planning in the city.

From then on, we need to explain things the other way around. We need to imagine which, then current, issues were developed from 1979 onwards and note how even today the issue lies behind much of the urbanism to come. Then we need to explain the background and the uncertainties surrounding future projects.