Tuesday 31 May 2016

What happened to Barcelona?

I have never been a great fan of Barcelona. To me, the city seemed always a bit too much to stomach, too lively, too much 'in your face'. However, it clearly has its charms and during a recent conference I had the chance to re-visit my original judgement.

When I visited the first time in the 1990s, the city had just hosted the Olympics and was in full throttle tourist mode. The transport infrastructure had gotten a facelift and there was a vibrancy about the place that was hard to deny. Almost 25 years on, and the city has not weathered with time all too well. The Rambla has more or less deteriorated into a somewhat tacky and over-crowded tourist avenue and the metro is creaking at the seams. So what happened?

The centre piece of tourist attraction - the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
Part of the story of Barcelona is its port. It remains one of the biggest ports in the country but the rejuvenation of the city in the 1990s deliberately tried to eradicate this important part of the city's existence. Banished to the outer fringes, it is only visible from Montjuic. As part of the Olympics, the city elders tried to frame it with an artificial beach, but that never felt quite like a real one, and whilst popular with tourists, you see precious few locals there.

The other dimension Barcelona's tourist and city planners were keen to stress is her architectural history, with the Sagrada Familia as the crown jewel. However, it always appeared to me that they emphasised Gaudi at the expense of the 'other' architectural history of Barcelona, which is more ordinary, yet just as fascinating, though chaotic and resisting simple narratives. The official story however, with Gaudi's cathedral appears hollow.

Gaudi's cathedral, as important as it may be, is not easily 'domesticated' within architectural history. It did not emerge organically from any homegrown style or architectural school. It stands alone and represents, to an extent, a dead end in architectural style. Little in or around Barcelona (or anywhere else in fact) carries echoes of Gaudi's work. True, that speaks of the uniqueness of his style. But it also makes it look quite alien in the city scape.

In fighting mode - Barcelona's mayor Ada Colau
It does not help that Barcelona appears now on the path of a slow but frightening path to political polarisation paralysing the normal functioning of the city. Where the infrastructure urgently needs investment and modernisation, the mayor appears to exhaust her administration in endless cultural confrontations, embarking on en masse renaming of 'francoist' streets with the names of her heroes of the communist revolution. As rubbish collections need to be improved and green spaces need to be created, the new mayor prefers to demonstrate her 'solidarity' with house occupants and their 'fight against the repressive classes', by castigating the police who tried to implement court orders. The ensuing street battles do not help the city's image.

However, who looks long and hard can find the charms of Barcelona, far away from the crowded Rambla and overpriced restaurants. But I could not help to notice that the old vibrancy has turned into a staleness, that the makeup has somehow smeared and lost its freshness. The next time Barcelona launches itself it should perhaps make less of the things that are temporarily borrowed, and make more of the things that have always been there, a city of dockworkers and labourers, artisans and fishermen. Pretence tends to backfire.

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