Sunday, June 3, 2007

Soaking in Barcelona

Barcelona is an important city for architecture students who have studied the striking architectural works of Antoni Gaudi. (I remember someone mentioning that this is the origin of the word ‘gaudy’ - must google!) However, what breathed new life to this city were the 1992 Olympic Games and the transformations that occurred to accommodate this world event. Today, Barcelona comes across as a city of high-style with a distinctive, if eccentric metro-feel. I only have four days in Barcelona - I must quit sleeping to savor and soak in everything!

Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain. Located in the Catalonian region, it serves as a major seaport, boasts a dynamic and bustling mixed-use waterfront and has created a dynamic economic and cultural future for itself. In the mid '80s, anticipating the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona’s then Mayor Pasqual Maragal had the vision to leverage this opportunity and catalyze a massive economic development strategy, positioning Barcelona as a world-class city. This bold approach included an expansion of the airport, transformation of the city's waterfront, and the development of a tourism base based investments in arts and culture as well as a massive promotional campaign. The waterfront is sprinkled with celebrity architects and artists and their creations, giving opportunity for debate and discussion.

The main promenade is filled with activities that appeal to a range of ages and prices. Ritzy restaurants overlook the ocean, and the Gran Casino is prominent on the boardwalk.
People get here on bikes, buses and the train. There are lots of underground parking structures along the waterfront.
New high-tech business areas, a world-class convention center, and the refurbished port that includes state-of -the-art facilities for cruise ships and large scale boats dot the waterfront. Barcelona also has an impressive park system, circling the region as well as smaller neighborhood parks and plazas that serve local communities – their master plan places strong emphasis on parks as integral to neighborhood development. Their largest park in on the hills of Montjuic, and there are many heritage and cultural parks as well.
These spaces were restored and revamped as part of preparations for the Olympic Games. The strategy was not about hosting the games, but about changing the future of the city. Clearly, it worked!

I start my days strolling along palm lined avenues soaking in the city and its ambiance. Striking Gaudi masterpieces pop up along the way. My first day was spent paying homage to this incredible architect. Gaudi did not believe in buildings with straight lines – he proclaimed that nature has no straight lines, so neither must his buildings.
Well, that’s a simplistic way to explain his philosophy, but the pictures speak for themselves.

Park Guell is one of Gaudi’s most impressive works, his version of utopia. The park is built atop a bald mountain area overlooking the city and the ocean, and was initiated by Eusebi
Guell, a wealthy industrialist. Work started in 1899, and so complex was the vision, that Gaudi moved into the park to manage it full time. Today there is a museum at the house Gaudi lived in containing original drawings and models – it was great to pour over these. The park spreads over 15 acres or so, and is a fantastic landscape bringing together opulent built elements with manicured plants and landscape elements.
The most impressive and ornate part is the center of the park which sits on a raised plaza, held up by massive columns and edged with the signature undulating mosaic seats.
The view from up here is breathtaking, one can see all the way to the ocean, with the city as the foreground.
I wonder if JK Rowling drew any inspiration from Gaudi for her Harry Potter series. I can imagine my daughter, a big Potter fan, finding lots of connections! It was great to see the park used, loved and kept up. I spent half a day there, and there must have been thousands of users.

La Sagrada Família is Catalan for "The Holy Family," and Gaudi’s most impressive life-time work. Left unfinished, after dedicating 40 years of his life to this project, Gaudi died in 1926. Yet, the work continued on, as it does today, interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1935, and partial destruction of the building by anarchists. Seems to me, there is no better homage to one’s work when it is continued by others!
There is a foundation that was formed to complete the project by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. It is clear that there is great progress being made, including the construction of the central nave, and the support structure for the main tower that is yet to be built.
Even in its state of constant construction, this site is one of the most important attractions in Spain, second to the Prado and the Alhambra. The path for this project remains strewn with challenges; I noticed a sign inside the cathedral protesting the City of Barcelona’s decision to dig under the building for a new metro line!

The Ramblas - In my book, the Ramblas rates No. 1. It’s one of the best streetscapes I have seen. Seems to me, there is a rythmn that Spanish people have; everyone strolls, eats, works, rests and plays on similar schedules.
The entire city stroll along the Ramblas in the evenings. This mile-long street runs through the Gothic quarters of Barcelona, beginning at Plaza Catalunya, the city’s main square and ending at the waterfront. From what I have read, the Ramblas emerged organically, and was never really planned. It is best described as a boulevard with a pedestrian area in the middle and with smaller driving lanes on either side. The entire pedestrian area is filled with kiosks, activities, and benches making it a dynamic place. The landscape is simple, but impressive – London Plane trees placed at 20 feet on center give the space its majestic feel. The trees form a massive archway and serve as the main architectural element of the long corridor. Given how hot it gets, these trees are critical to the success of Ramblas.

Neighborhood Development - My local contact here is with an organization called Foundacion CIREM, an impressive non-profit organization that is focused on new immigrant and social service issues, serving the needs of low and middle income communities with many innovative programs - job readiness training, language help, accessing public services, legal help and more recently socially-based neighborhood planning. My guide is Bernat Gomi, a urban planner in the process of completing his thesis. Bernat is young and enthusiastic, with a great Spanish spirit. It was a real pleasure seeing the city through his eyes, particularly visiting Santa Coloma, a lesser known neighborhood in the metropolitan Barcelona region where CIREM was working to engage new immigrants in a planning and redevelopment process and is now serving as consultants to the city as the plan gets implemented. The overall plan includes massive amounts of new housing and commercial development, as well as jobs training and riverfront restoration. The first phase of the plan, in anticipation of the economic development is focused on addressing the following environmental and social issues:
- Uncontrolled dumps in the city outskirts.
- Need for green and leisure areas in the city.
- Unemployment and lack of professional skills for youth of Santa Coloma
- Need to raise public awareness and individual involvement in environmental issues.
Since 2004, the Santa Coloma de Gramenet community has been able to remove 1,500 tons of trash from its abandoned areas and parks, including massive cleanups along the riverfront. The picture below of the riverbank is new for this community, previously overgrown, polluted and the city’s trash dump.
The city has also invested 3.5 million euros in new parks and plazas, and worked to integrate 60 percent of its youth in job training opportunities. Planting more than 40,000 trees and shrubs has been a big priority. Also, they invested in reclaiming their central plaza as a newly revived open space for the community.
All this was done with CIREM working to engage local neighbors and associations, and in partnership with local municipality and city council and the focus is green infrastructure. Quite impressive!

No comments: