We just got back from spending a week in Barcelona. It’s a great city, the weather was perfect, and the crowds weren’t too bad. A very enjoyable trip all around. As usual, I have a few observations that struck me while there.
I used to have a team I supervised in Madrid, so I had been to that city many times, but never made it to Barcelona apart from one brief in and out trip. I was eager to compare and contrast the two.
One thing that struck me was an analogy to the Midwest. Spain was once a mighty empire, but became a sort of backwater for quite a while. Madrid was always a sort of provincial capital not as important in world affairs as say London, New York, or Paris. And within Spain, Barcelona is a regional capital, one looking to assert its own cultural identity, such as by emphasizing the Catalan language. Some even want Catalonia to be independent from Spain. I definitely noticed that the Catalonian flag is ubiquitous while you need to look closely to see Spain’s national flag.
This is somewhat similar to the Midwest. Chicago is the provincial capital, and other cities in the region want to assert themselves on the national stage. Of course, we’ve got to be careful about analogies, particularly with foreign countries. No city in the Midwest is a rival to Chicago in the way Barcelona fancies itself a rival to Madrid. And Chicago itself is in some ways a second city like Barcelona. But I’ll try to tease out some provocations anyway.
The thing I found most interesting was actually a lack of distinct regional culture in Barcelona vs. Madrid. To me, Barcelona just seemed generically “European”. Sure, you knew where you were, but it was a similar experience to many other European cities. But when you go to Madrid, it is very clear you are in Spain, in a Spanish city. There’s the weight of all the history, the culture, and above all a notable lack of English speakers. Barcelona is much more cosmopolitan. In pretty much every establishment I visited, someone spoke good English, which is definitely not the case in Madrid.
Possibly the language matter is due to Barcelona’s embrace of Catalan. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that any Westerner should know at least a few words in Spanish and French, but clearly almost nobody is going to learn Catalan. Hence, if you want to embrace that language, you must be willing to engage in English with foreigners.
Consider also the artists. The artists that are the backbone of the Prado collection – Goya, Velazquez, El Greco – are ones that immediately conjure up Spain in the mind. But Barcelona’s native sons Picasso and Miró were modern artists whose names bring to mind place like Paris and MoMA above all. So too with architecture, as Barcelona has clearly more embraced the modern than Madrid. There are even more modern furniture outlets there.
If I were to draw a surmise from this, it would be that: when a regional provincial capital tries to assert its identity, the result is a sort of generic cosmopolitanism.
If you look at the Midwest, you see this in action. It is Chicago (like Madrid), not the other regional cities, that has the most unique identity. And most of the efforts smaller cities are putting into asserting themselves is through self-consciously embracing a sort of generic cosmopolitan style, by implementing standard urban items like sports stadiums, starchitect buildings, and transit systems that are as much about signaling as they are about actual results.
Beyond this, it seemed to me that Madrid was much more a business center. Barcelona didn’t give off that vibe at all. I’m not even sure what its main industries are. Also, Madrid seemed to have much more recent construction than Barcelona. Tons of new apartment blocks and office towers had sprung up there. And there was an orgy of freeway construction (including several underground tunnels) and transit system expansions, including many new tram lines that reach even suburban office parks. I didn’t notice nearly as much of that in Barcelona.
Density and Transportation
As with Madrid, Barcelona is an exceptionally dense city by the standards of the west. The core is about 40-50,000 per square mile, greater than any US core other than Manhattan. But as is often the case in Europe, this is in the form of 6-8 story buildings, not skyscrapers, refuting the notion that height equates to density. There are almost no vacant lots or surface parking anywhere in the city, though the interior of blocks often features courtyards or lower rise structures that make them look hollow. Here’s a view of the city taken from one of the bell towers of Sagrada Familia:
Naturally this enables a robust transit system, and Barcelona has an excellent, high frequency subway network that, as with many European cities but unlike in the US, is a mesh-like structure that serves most of the city, enabling you to get almost anywhere with a simple transfer. It is not a core-centric radial system. Headways are excellent. I never waited even one minute for a train and something like eight times in a row the train pulled into the station just as we arrived at the platform. There is also an extensive and well-patronized bus system with a modern rolling stock.
The streets themselves are largely a grid outside of the gothic-era core. Avinguda Diagonal cuts through the grid at an angle like Market St. in San Francisco. Many of the streets are very wide. I often hear people in places like Indianapolis bemoan their wide streets. I take exactly the opposite view. In most cases, the street ROW is actually too narrow. There are many Barcelona streets wider than the right of way of Washington St., Indy’s widest. The big difference is that in the US we give most of the ROW to cars, with only tiny sidewalks. In Barcelona and throughout Europe they accommodate plenty of cars, but give large amounts of the street to general sidewalks, wide medians, landscaping, and such, creating a much better pedestrian experience. Barcelona also has a plethora of one way streets, which seems not to have hurt it.
Speaking of pedestrians, there is a high density of them throughout the city. I did see some bike lanes, but most of these appeared to be carved out of previously pedestrian space, not auto traffic. There is also a bike share program, which accounted for about 80% of all the bikes I actually saw on the street. Barcelona’s biking culture far lags that of many US cities. The preferred mode of transit is instead the scooter, which is ubiquitous. It appears to be legal to park them on the sidewalk.
Unlike in the US, all of the sidewalks I saw were either flagstones or modular pavers. It also appears that they run most of their utilities under the sidewalk, not under the street pavement. I saw very few projects tearing up streets, but several on the sidewalk, though generally not disruptive. It’s a great solution. To access utilities, you simply pull up the pavers, shovel away the sand, and get at it. Replace the sand and pavers when you are done. Looks better than concrete and functions better than cobblestones. Also, they use granite curbs and wheelchair ramps. Very nice.
Barcelona is known for its architecture, particular that of the so-called modernista movement (related to Art Nouveau). The best known exponent of this, and certainly the most original, was Antoni Gaudí. His works are heavily influenced by nature and come across as sort of a fairy tale setting.
His most famous work is the Sagrada Familia church.
Here’s a closer look at the bell towers. These are actually mosaics.
This project was started in the 19th century and is still under construction. It is estimated to be completed in 2030, making it like a modern day equivalent of the gothic cathedral projects.
Another well known Gaudí building is Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera.
Facade detail showing the intricate ironwork railings:
Chimneys (aka Imperial stormtroopers) on the roof:
One last example is Park Güell:
Gaudí was fortunate to work at a time when he had access to modern construction techniques such as steel frame construction, but also to craftsman who could create his unique works.
When you think of all this old architecture that even today enchants visitors, it makes you think. There was a great era of architecture from say 1850-1914 in Europe and from 1875 to the end of the art deco era in the early 1930’s in the United States. It was actually a great era in many other ways. The French called it the Belle Époque. And it wasn’t just the modernista and Art Nouveau in Europe. Most of the core civic structures of the Midwest were built in this era as well. Virtually none were built after them.
I think of Indianapolis, where the Indiana State House, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Union Station, the movie palaces, and the Indiana World War Memorial (started 1926) all date to this era. Has there been a truly great building constructed in Indianapolis since the Scottish Rite Cathedral in 1929? A similar story could be told in most places. For much of the US, this is the era that defined the architecture that creates the civic sacred space. Europe obviously has a longer architectural history, but this era saw most of the last of the entries. If many of these were simply vernacular pieces, at least they were good ones, especially compared to what came later.
The mid-century period and beyond produced plenty of architecture that is critically acclaimed, but for the public at large even the best of these buildings inspire more respect than affection. And unlike previous eras, the vast bulk of the copies of the masterworks were severely lacking. Many of them blight our cities to this very day.
What went wrong? In the Great War and the Great Depression something in the human spirit was grievously wounded.
But today we see signs of recovery. While I have my quibbles with starchitecture, there’s little doubt many of these structures are beloved by the public in the way a Miesian monolith never will be. These architects remembered that aesthetics is the answer to the great question of “What is Beauty?”, a question too seldom asked in the modern world. While it is too early to judge, perhaps we are the start of another age of good design. I don’t think it is any accident that like the previous one, today’s design age takes place against a backdrop of economic revolution and all that comes with it. Will the Great Recession kill the baby in its crib? We’ll see.
Here are a few more shots from Barcelona. First, Casa Batlló by Gaudí
The Mercat de Santa Caterina
The Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
The Palau de Musica Catalana
Dining and Entertainment
I won’t say much on this, other than that Barcelona is a famously hard partying town. Alas, I’m past the age for such things, but I did notice quite a crowd of people still carousing on the streets at 6:30am as we were in the cab on the way to the airport to leave. Reputedly there are over 20,000 bars in Barcelona.
The food is also quite good. I didn’t go hungry, that’s for sure. Very heavy on seafood, as one might expect being so close to the coast.
I’ll leave you with one of those strangely named restaurants that always gives one pause in a foreign country.