In Europe, the city of Barcelona is one among the many interesting examples showing how cities are always produced by fights and tensions over the question of what makes a city livable, rather than being the products of a gifted master mind. Cities are always imbued with the ideas and visions of countless people and Barcelona proves this argument quite well.
For those who don’t know, the old part of the city, the Barrio Gótico, emerged during medieval times. Its alleys are narrow and its structure is intricate – one may say that is illegible to a foreign tourist used to the straight line of modern mega cities such as New York. In medieval times, the illegibility of Barcelona to eyes of a foreign visitors – locals, on the other hand, could move from point A to point B without problems – served as protection mechanism against foreign infiltration and attack. This is not only true for Barcelona, but for the vast majority of cities that rose up in medieval times. For those who are interested in reading more about this, anthropologist James Scott provides a very nice description of this process describing how the city of Bruges took shape spontaneously through a gradual process comparable to repeated footsteps marking a path on a grass field.
Going back to Barcelona, the walls surrounding the medieval center were demolished to give space to extension visible in the map above. This occurred in the years after the of the so-called Cerdà plan, named after the civil engineer who presented the first draft, was approved in 1859. Below is the mathematical formula that contributed to shaping the extension of the city as we know it today: straight and wide lines that facilitate orientation and enable the quick transportation of goods and people from one point to another, wide roads that facilitate maintenance, sanitary works and upgrades.
Juxtaposed with the medieval center with its tight and unpredictable roads, these were exactly the characteristics that Cerdà was striving for. It is however incorrect to regard Cerda as the only mind behind Barcelona’s extension. The formula that gave shaped the wideness of the streets and the height of the buildings was adjusted throughout the years, before the first pieces of concrete were laid down. Critics accused Cerdà of having never clarified how he got to the formula. They suspected that mathematical jargon was being used to hide secrets values and assumptions. Architects, in particular, criticized his approach for how it made functionality prevail over monumentality. Lastly, Barcelona’s anarchist movements, intellectuals and working classes rejected the original plans, particularly its functionalist character that would have broken down their hegemony in specific areas of the city leaving free reins to modernist hegemony.
Understanding how cities develop requires more than a quick glance to architectural planimetries that guided the construction process. Urbanism is an exciting process that is always fueled by social conflict and clashes of visions. This article is not meant to spoil your fun on your next visit to Barcelona or any other destination you’re thinking about exploring, but rather to stimulate your curiosity in exploring the processes underlying urban realities. Attention to the little details and hidden assumptions, that architects inevitably imbue in their plans, can shed a different light on what urbanism actually entails.
Aibar, E. and Bijker, W. 1997. “Constructing a City: The Cerda Plan for the extension of Barcelona.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 22 (1):3-30.