A poll released today by the travel website Trip Advisor, the world’s largest travel site, has some interesting rankings this morning. The results of Trip Advisor’s annual Travel Choice Awards are in, and based on the company’s numbers Barcelona has ranked as the most popular travel destination in Spain, the 4th most popular in Europe after Paris, Rome, and London, and the 9th most popular in the world, just after London and just above Hong Kong. Popularity is not, of course, necessarily an indicator of quality – you could not pay The Courtier to voluntarily visit Rio de Janeiro, for example. Still, these results are telling for those of us who remember when Barcelona was a city that the average man on the street in the English-speaking world had never heard of, let alone chose as a vacation destination. This success has a great deal to do with municipal urban planning efforts, but as we will see Barcelona has not, even in the present day, always made the best decisions with respect to how the city should grow and develop.
Even in its stagnant periods Barcelona was ever an entirely ugly city. Like many very ancient cities, it has had its ups and downs, and sometimes political circumstances or a lack of foresight and funds led to some bad results. Perhaps the most striking example was Barcelona’s turning its back on the sea for much of the 20th century to look landward, creating a kind of industrial wasteland and no-man’s-land along a large stretch of the city seafront. This is why the improvements Barcelona has made over the last 30 years are truly remarkable, particularly with respect to opening itself back up to the Mediterranean which gave birth to it, and thereby helping to turn the fortunes of the city so completely around as to yield results such as those released today.
That being said, the city fathers in Barcelona have not always been successful in their efforts, particularly when it comes to the use of the city’s coastline. The area around the Olympic Village, with its beaches, bars, marina and restaurants, is just as lively now as it was when completed for the 1992 Olympic Games, and has spurred greater redevelopment in its immediate neighborhood. By contrast, the project built just a bit further up the shoreline for a UNESCO-sponsored event known as the Universal Form of Cultures (or “Forum” for short) has been an unmitigated disaster. Being design-conscious is all very well, but the Forum is one among a number of 20th and early 21st century projects where Barcelona town planners have really dropped the ball.
The Forum was supposed to have brought all sorts of cultural events to the city, with the combination of meeting places and open spaces built for it supposed to serve not only for the 2004 event itself, but subsequently as a new venue for large-scale congresses, fairs, and public events. This new public area was desperately needed in a city whose growing popularity means that there are not enough existing venues to host all of those who would like to hold their conference, convention, or other event in Barcelona. Siting the complex along the sea would also allow the city to reclaim yet another stretch of waterfront for public use.
Unfortunately, less than 7 years after its construction, the Forum area is quickly turning into something like Boston’s City Hall Plaza. Buildings are shuttered, the public spaces are empty, and the area has taken on what is described by many as being a threatening atmosphere. The resulting contrast between the Olympic Village and the Forum is quite readily apparent. The Forum is not a forum at all, in the traditional Roman sense of that term for an urban place where people come together to meet, do business, and enjoy public amenities such as gardens, the seaside, fountains, etc. It looks rather more like the love child of I.M. Pei and Leonid Brezhnev.
It is odd that in this day and age, contemporary architects still do not seem to learn the lessons of the past. Despite repeated failures in other cities, Barcelona’s embrace of giant, hardscape public spaces like this with little or no landscaping, and ringed by trendy, warehouse-dressed-as-lamb structures like the main Forum Building by the Swiss firm of Herzog and de Meuron, is inexplicable. In fact the Form Building itself, perhaps as a kind of cosmic joke, started falling apart almost immediately due to poor construction and a complete and willful ignorance of the laws of nature and physics. It is decaying rapidly, and repairs are going to cost taxpayers more than to simply tear the thing down – which they will probably have to do at some point anyway.
It is understandable that those who like and sponsor innovative but ultimately disposable architecture will marvel at studies and computer mock-ups, and they may even appreciate the results. Yet ultimately ignoring the human scale and employing the use of materials in unproven ways will lead to failure, as in the case of the Forum Building and even as Frank Gehry’s iconic Bilbao Guggenheim is already showing. This type of work is not built to last for centuries, and it shows. For a privately-funded caprice, it is all very well if some billionaire wants to build a tacky monument to himself. But when public funds are used, as was the case with the Forum, there needs to be a greater attention to the use of those funds and also a greater accountability of those who green-light and then build such projects to the citizens who have paid for it.
While as a half-Catalan I am proud that Barcelona is so popular, that does not mean that it is some sort of unassailable paragon of urban perfection. There are many, many ugly things in Barcelona; the Forum is just the most recent addition to a lengthy roster which includes sites such as the Barcelona World Trade Center, the entire redevelopment of the area of Clot, and the Architects Building across the square from the city Cathedral. Serving as it has as a kind of architectural laboratory, it will no doubt continue to sponsor the construction of some monstrosities. My hope is that the age-old Catalan virtue of “seny”, which we can roughly translate as “common sense”, will eventually prevail, and the city will sponsor better and less-trendy public projects as time goes on.
A giant sand portrait of President Obama at the Forum site in 2008