Author: Kiblind Magazine
Picture Credit: Kiblind Magazine
As our plane descends, hands shielding our eyes, we gaze down upon Barcelona. From afar, it looks like a sparkling gem, almost too beautiful for the naked eye. No longer a mere city (has it ever been?), and so much more than a metropolis. Today, Barcelona is a legend. A giant among even Europe’s most iconic cities, a destination loved by even those who have never set foot there.
As spring approaches, we start to hear the whisperings of devilishly seductive sweet nothings. Although they paint an irresistible picture, the story they tell is nothing new. It has been told a thousand times before, passed on by word of mouth, reinforced by marketing campaigns, brought to life by film makers.
The story of Barcelona: resolutely hedonistic, yet enduringly traditional; a global financial centre in the land of the Indignados; a seaside resort annexed to a global capital; a breeding ground for cutting-edge culture, nestling within centuries of architectural heritage.
Barcelona exudes a beguiling sense of utopia that resonates with us all. Rare is the city that inspires waves of adoration from punks, bankers, sports fans, clubbers and retirees alike. What we’re approaching is less a city, and more an untouchable global superstar.
It’s true that she is difficult to resist. Rucksacks on our backs, we traipse our way through the streets that stand between us and our accommodation, passing beneath the iconic Sagrada Familia on the way. Almost immediately, we find ourselves empathising with the nine million people who flock to Barcelona every year. She is pretty, full of life, the weather is perfect, and there’s the unmistakable scent of good times in the air. It’s always unsettling when you hear so much about a city that, even when you’re there, it becomes almost impossible to shake off the clichés. Grinning like fools, we order paella for lunch.
It may be a simple anecdote, but it’s one that speaks volumes for the richness of the legend surrounding Barcelona. Our feet walk her streets, our eyes are fixed on her walls, our ears listen as she gently breathes. Yet we only truly feel what we had already prepared to feel. Barcelona thus becomes one giant sense of déjà-vu, one in which images previously stored in our minds are projected entirely naturally onto our immediate surroundings. Essentially, Barcelona is a tourist destination.
And she does it very well, revealing only her perfection to onlookers and hiding the struggles of everyday life in the shadows. Struggles that don’t, in truth, seem of much interest to the city’s visitors as they shuttle up and down Las Ramblas, take selfies at Parc Güell, and exhibit their steroid-enhanced torsos on the outdoor stage at Sónar. Because – oh yes! – Sónar is all part of the show too.
Sónar is one of Barcelona’s key cultural calling cards. Attracting as many connoisseurs as it does punters in search of a 72-hour binge, it is a major asset in Barcelona’s ongoing charm offensive to the outside world. Not only a mega-festival, Sónar is a visible declaration of love for contemporary culture. And once there, it must be said, we have a great time and in the company of some sensational artists. But we cannot let this outsider’s perspective hide the somewhat overbearing presence of Sónar – as wonderful as it is – in Barcelona’s cultural universe. Ultimately, Barcelona’s own music scene must be capable of supporting itself outside the festival.
The director of the Association of Concert Venues in Barcelona, Carmen Zapata, offers a mixed appraisal on this front. “In Barcelona, we take great care of our festivals. But you cannot have festivals without concert venues. We need to work alongside the festivals, in a mutually beneficial way, and avoid being trampled on – as is the case with exclusivity deals, for example.”
The sparkling beauty of Barcelona can therefore blind us to a city threatened by the same issues as any other, one inhabited by artists and promoters who face a daily battle to survive and to offer a high quality calendar of cultural events beyond the main festivals. It is a battle that nobody is safe from, not even mythical venues like Razzmatazz, which has been forced to fend off repeated attacks from property developers.
As Carmen Zapata puts it: “Our main battle is to prevent the construction of residential buildings around our venues or, at least, to ask them to work with those venues so that they don’t end up receiving complaints. But developers are very powerful people.” And so Barcelona’s attractiveness, unquestionably ones of her main assets, can also become a problem for her residents and a hindrance to her cultural life.
Deep in contemplation, we leave Sónar by Day and pass some local street vendors selling cut-price FC Barcelona shirts. Such is the power of this city that, before we know it, we’re each sporting our own Neymar Jr. shirts. Not that we particularly like the player, or even the team. Barcelona is clearly too powerful for us. So we take the conscious decision not to fight back and, following the recommendations like good tourists, we head to Las Ramblas. And, like good tourists, we love it. Looking for a giant Zara store? Barcelona’s the place for you. How about an authentic little café? Barcelona’s got hundreds of them. The trap that Barcelona has set for us is so admirable that we fall into it without even caring. To a certain extent, that’s not even a bad thing; it’s what we’re there for, after all.
But what is genuinely disconcerting is that, behind all that – even if you wouldn’t have thought it – there are real people who live in Barcelona. And every now and then, the real inhabitants of Barcelona make their voice heard. In particular, the city’s most fragile residents – its artists – are unable to keep up with the tourists. By so willingly putting itself at the service of its visitors, the city may well be driving a flourishing local economy but it is also somewhat abandoning the most active sections of its population.
Alba G. Corral, an artist and creative technologist introduced to the Sónar line-up by We are Europe, explains to us that “the big festivals are important for digital artists like us, but we don’t really have anywhere else to perform. There are lots of us producing digital art, and there isn’t enough space.” Alba ends our conversation with this little parting shot, aimed at the city hall: “I hope that the local authorities will listen to the people living here, instead of encouraging mass tourism and gentrification, and that they will put new technology to good use in order to narrow the gap between the citizens and decision-making.”
Alba‘s timing is spot on, as her appeal strongly resonates with the experiment conducted by the city hall and The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in the Poblenau district.
The city of Barcelona has long demonstrated a passion for urban planning. Way back at the end of the nineteenth century, it was one of the first cities to consider this “new science” when designing the layout of its streets, in a bid to adapt to the latest technology of the day: the car. Today, Barcelona continues to embrace both urbanism and industrial progress. “We’re in the process of contemplating how the city will be reimagined and reformulated with the emergence of the new technologies”.
Those are the words of Thomas Diaz, urban planner and founder of the first European Fab Lab and the IAAC, the institute behind the Maker District project in the Poblenau neighborhood. Although small in size (covering a total of only 1 km²), it is an experiment whose potential repercussions are huge.
As the first full-on trial of the FabCity principle, the Maker District is aiming to reinvent the principle of the industrial area and to function, thanks to new technologies, as a circular economy where goods are both produced and consumed in one place. Residents and workers – be they researchers, vegetable farmers, engineers, artists or others – will be connected in such a way as to ensure that decisions are taken as a result of a shared awareness of the district’s needs.
It is a new model – the future, even – that may allow us to break free from the existing urban planning paradigm, entirely at the mercy of financial interests. “Until now, urban planning has suffered at the hands of market forces,” Diaz explains. The project is a first step towards a brighter future, and one that also serves to illustrate another of Barcelona’s great facets: its open-mindedness.
There may seem to be an element of overindulgence in Barcelona’s relationship with tourism, but this is not a city that spends its days counting the money coming in. It innovates, it attempts, it experiments, it researches. Susana Garcia, a documentary maker now living in London, cut straight to the chase on our very first day when she told us: “Barcelona is a city on the lookout, attentive to new and cutting edge ideas.”
Perhaps it is the city’s port status that stimulates that curiosity, that thirst to assimilate the different cultures that stop off on its shores. The Poblenau district – just like the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona‘s work with on digital arts and Sónar / Sónar +D’s dialogue with local cultural actors – demonstrates the city’s desire for change. Barcelona has the assets to be as generous with inhabitants as it is beautiful for tourists.
To do so, perhaps it is time the city paid heed to the advice of Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the Tresor nightclub in far-off Berlin: “Open your city, open it to the artists, to the sub-cultures, and the economy will soon follow. For they are the treasures of our cities.”
Kiblind is a trimestrial publication dedicated to visual culture and contemporary illustrations, created in 2004. Several years later, its team launched a specialized agency based in Lyon and Paris.
Article initially published in 2018.