Building Barcelona: A Second Renaixença

pub_fac_rowe_building_barcelonaThe fate of modern Barcelona has been and continues to be defined by a particular grasp on external events, a sense of Catalan nationalism, and by the ebbs and flows of an industrious and pragmatic-minded populace. As a provincial capital, the city has been engaged, sometimes disastrously, in the debate between the two Spains: progressive vs. backward, modern vs. traditional, secular vs. catholic, and liberal vs. authoritarian.1 It has also sought, on several occasions, to escape the geography of this debate by reaching beyond Spain and appearing to be more international. Along the way, during the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Catalanism, rooted in a reaction to eighteenth-century French hegemony and the later Peninsular War, became defined by a capitalist middle class on one side, and, secondarily, by socialism and to a lesser extent, anarchism, on another. More recently, since the Civil War and the demise of Francoism, this sentiment has been content to operate within Spain, especially among the socialists, although at times not without a strong hankering towards a kind of federalist autonomy. Leaders among Spaniards in industrialization and other facets of modernization, those in Barcelona pride themselves on being independent, hard working, commonsensical, although somewhat sentimental, and possessive of an instinct for propitious business outcomes. In short, they have—according to local parlance—seny.

Outward cultural manifestations of this admixture of social and political ingredients have been episodic and sometimes spasmodic. A combination of bourgeoise affluence, Catalan pride and gamesmanship gave rise to the outpourings of rebirth—renaixena—beginning around the 1830s, the general impetus of which gained in force and was transformed and continued through the laterModernisme and Noucentisme movements, well into the early twentieth century, although not without broader reactions, disputations and international orientations. Then followed periods of occlusion and dominance by larger Spanish interests, followed by an occasional outburst of local initiative and imagination, until the contemporary period, around the 1980s, which offered a second wind, so to speak—a second renaixena—although again not without moments of collective exhaustion and casting about for fresh and revitalizing ideas. At stake, through most of this history, was the city fabric itself, the palpable and symbolic framework that orchestrates most Barcelonians lives. For, unlike many other cities, Barcelona seems to have chosen architecture and urbanism as its most conspicuous, long-lasting and crowning glory.

Within this historical framework, the following narrative is largely about the past twenty-five years of physical development in Barcelona as a city and, now, as a broader metropolitan region. Essentially it chronicles urban and architectural events, as well as some of the motivations that lay behind them—the building of Barcelona in a continuing period of democratic governance, during which the city has effectively shaken off the often debilitating yoke of Francos dictatorship. Progress in this direction, however, did not occur all at once, nor with complete force and again not without interruption. Nevertheless, from an overall perspective, re-possession and re-making of the city first proceeded gradually, then more confidently and, of late, almost over confidently, at least for some. Moreover, during specific moments of urban-architectural profusion, developments shared certain important similarities with those of prior episodes of resurgence, particularly those during the last half of the nineteenth through to the early twentieth centuries, despite the passage of time and notably different socio-political circumstances. Among these were: the creation of particular pretexts to experiment with grand collective projects and visions of the city, aimed, at least in large part, at international audiences; an unusual alignment and intertwining of local political will and architectural talent—often young—capable of producing and promoting innovative symbols of national or regional progress; periods of intellectual rehearsal followed by civic action, during intervals between repression and self-determination; and a marked capacity, among the citys leadership, for inculcating a sense of collective urgency, opportunity, and even crisis, to take on new projects, under both the guise and reality that Barcelona might be falling behind or not receiving its due, especially from Madrid and only slightly less so from elsewhere in Spain and in nearby Europe. Self consciously and not, a unique cultural modus operandi became established during the earlier days of modernization in Barcelona and, when sufficient freedom of operation was allowed, it later became a powerful means for pushing city building forward, especially during the latter part of the twentieth century.

Actar 2006