Barcelona: Then and Now

When deciding the location of team GB’s study trip we had to find a location that would encompass the range of projects currently in the team – waterside development, sports ground design, green infrastructure, heritage, urban renewal and shared streets… and preferably sunny and warm (a bit of Autumnal sun to boost mental health and vitamin D levels). So there really couldn’t be anywhere else, tickets to Barcelona were booked.

Barcelona is the cultural and economic heart of Catalonia and the second biggest city in Spain to Madrid. It’s also one of the oldest cities with its history stretching back over 2,000 years. Today, much of Barcelona’s 14th Century Gothic Quarter remains. The tight cobbled streets and enclosed squares are lined by artisan shops, bars and restaurants. The city is a 24 hour hive of activity. The expansion district or Eixample, designed by progressive urban planner Ildefons Cerdà, implemented in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, wraps ancient Barcelona. A strong city grid crossed by wide avenues and square blocks with chamfered corners. This grid was implemented to meet infrastructure needs, but of equal consideration was the desire to control sunlight, ventilation and visibility. In recent history Barcelona hosted the 1992 summer Olympics that provided a catalyst for substantial and rapid urban renewal, in particular along the waterfront and declining residential areas.

After a very early start from Manchester airport we landed in Catalonia under humid and heavy skies. We found our apartment and headed up Montjuïc through the Plaça de les Cascades, encountering our first of many outdoor escalators, and the Jardins de Joan Maragall to the Olympic Parc. Located on the sumit of Montjuïc the Olympic Parc offers spectacular views over Barcelona and the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately, the Olympic Parc itself was significantly less impressive and appears to have failed in the capacity of post-Olympic legacy or re-use. The public spaces designed to accommodate the international event are now barren, over-sized and under maintained, offering little incentive for visitors to make the hike up the mountain.

With the skies darkening and the winds swirling (so much for our escape to the sun), we made our way down the mountain towards the Gothic Quarter and the Picasso Museum. En route the heavens opened and we were drenched in a truly biblical downpour. Picasso offered the opportunity to view a vast collection of his works and masterpieces throughout his career; As well as time to dry!

An evening spent in the Gothic Quarter under clearing skies was very welcome. Observing the interaction between people and place, trafficked and pedestrianised, constrained and open spaces was invaluable. The simplicity in the use of furniture, lighting, materials and design reinforced the ‘less is more’ design mantra.

The following day we were greeted by the Mediterranean blue skies we’d hoped for and headed off on a cycling tour on our hired bikes. First stop was Jardins de la Rambla de Sants, an elevated linear park over a main railway line within the residential district of Sants-Montjuïc. This was a beautifully implemented scheme, utilising a restricted and inexpensive palette of hard and soft materials and incorporating a variety of uses for both young and old. Interconnectivity with surrounding residential areas was created through a network of steps, ramps and escalators and the regeneration effects of the park on the residential interfaces were obvious. The park was lively, engaging, neighbourhood-focused and clearly valued.

After missing the botanical gardens the day before, we powered our way back up Montjuïc, eagerly anticipating a botanical highlight. Unfortunately the plant collections, divided into 6 world zones that have a Mediterranean climate, were disappointing and we admired the simplicity of use of hard materials and water management more than the vegetation.

The rest of the day was spent cycling the length of the waterfront from the port to Parc del Fòrum along the tree lined, cycle boulevards. We took in the incidental shore line spaces and sports provisions. Implemented in 2004 for the Universal Forum of Cultures, Parc del Fòrum, like the Olympic Park, was disappointing. It provides large spaces for concerts and events but offers little in terms of day to day placemaking. The marina and bathing area failed to live up to expectations, with large areas currently undergoing refurbishment due to failed surface materials.

Our route back to the apartment took us inland through the mega blocks and rebalanced streets, where vehicular access has been restricted, to the Torre Glòries, formerly known as Torre Agbar, Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes and numerous incidental spaces. By early evening we had clocked up over 40 km and richly deserved our evening tapas meal from the top of a re-purposed bullring overlooking Barcelona’s skyline.

Day three took us to Park Güell, Barcelona’s iconic park for the people designed by Antoni Gaudi. Thankfully our pre-booked tickets meant we could skip the 3 hour wait to enter and we enjoyed the unique experience that only Park Güell offers. A relatively small park, Gaudi managed to increase the sense of scale and space through clever manipulation of levels, enclosure, reveal and shading. The iconic mosaic elements are offset with simple surrounding materials and swathes of mono planting.

After leaving Güell we headed south winding our way through the streets, taking in a number of smaller neighbourhood street scenes and squares, towards another of Gaudi’s iconic buildings, la Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s large and unfinished Roman Catholic Church. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, la Sagrada Família has entered the final phases of construction and is due for completion in 2026; the centenary of Gaudi’s death.

Our final walk back towards the train station and our flight home took us back into the city centre and a rally for independence being held on the National Day of Catalonia. We were met by a sea of Senyera flags, crowded streets of young and old and rallying cries for independence. As we boarded the airport train we left with chants of ‘independencia’ ringing in our ears, good food in our bellies, another 20 km in our legs and a real love of Barcelona in our hearts.

Written by Georgina Baines, Principal Landscape Architect