CITY IN THE FAST LANE

Barcelona has used the 1992 Olympic Games as a kick start for a highly ambitious programme of urban renewal, reports Deyan Sudjic. Photos by Richard Bryant

Nothing illustrates the ferocity of the competition between the world’s great cities more clearly than the round of tooth and claw politics, arm-twisting and out-and-out bribery that accompanies the final stages of the International Olympic Committee’s decision every four years on where to stage the Games. Despite the catastrophic history of violence, corruption and overspending that is the most lasting legacy of the modern Olympics, the shortlisted cities fight desperately for the chance to be allowed to mortgage themselves to the hilt to spend a minimum of £2 billion on an event that will last just sixteen days. Enough money, should they have the mind to spend it differently, to build Heathrow Airport, put up the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, or even to open Euro Disney.

Clearly, it’s not simply a question of national prestige that persuades governments to underwrite these events. They have persuaded themselves that staging the games brings benefits more tangible than a patriotic glow. Money spent on the games is represented as a long-term investment in a city’s infrastructure, an unmatched opportunity to raise its profile, and therefore its attractiveness to bankers and businessmen. Given the increasingly international competition for jobs and investment, staging the games is a chance for a city not only to rebuild itself, but to kick the props away from under its competitors. And nothing has proved more persuasive to that view than the success Barcelona has enjoyed in using the Olympics as a tool for urban renewal, a success which has attracted worldwide attention, and inspired a host of other cities to try and emulate it. Manchester, Berlin and Sydney, the front-runners for the games in the year 2000, are all treating the Olympics as the starting point for embarking on urban transformations as ambitious as Barcelona’s.

The idea of a coherent approach to the city has been central to Barcelonas redevelopment strategy ever since 1979, long before its bid for the games was finally successful in 1986. The city’s architects had been debating the nature of the modern city for two decades when the burst of economic growth that accompanied Spanish entry into the EC gave them the chance to put their ideas into practice. Barcelona’s core has one of the highest densities in Europe, and it was always this kind of urbanism to which the city’s architects kept coining back. They wanted to reinforce the city’s metropolitan qualities, and to reverse the sprawl of the 1960s which had weakened them. Narcis Serra, Barcelona’s first post-Franco socialist mayor appointed Oriol Bohigas as the city’s planning consultant as soon as he came to power, with an imaginative strategy to revitalise the city after the torpor of the post-war years.

Schinkel meets smoked glass

The results have been remarkable. Anybody who returns to Barcelona this summer after an absence of even five years, let alone ten, will find the city utterly transformed. It has new landmarks, such as Norman Foster’s spectacular 300-metres-high communications mast up on the hills overlooking the city at Collserola; and it has new amenities, of which Ricardo Bofill’s new Schinkel-meets-smoked-glass-and-palm-trees international terminal at the airport is the one that most foreign visitors will see first. But it also has more subtle elements of urban knitting that shift the balance of the city. It is full of fine new architecture, from Richard Meieris art museum to a Frank Gehry fish — most of it, though not all, finished in time for the games. But most impressive is the way that the city has not simply collected signature buildings, but has sought rather more substantial contributions from its visiting and domestic architects than their names alone.

Initially Bohigas encapsulated his approach as «monumentabsing the periphery». His aim was to bring an identity to the sprawling formless developments at the edge of Barcelona -closer in their character to the unplanned squatter settlements of Latin America than conventional western suburbia — that eddied around the grid of the nineteenth-century city.

The campaign began with a series of low-budget but high-profile urban interventions: the creation of a series of parks and squares that created a focus in the formless wastes. In Britain they would inevitably have been paralysed by decades of Civic Trust-inspired sentimentality about street furniture and art in public places. In Barcelona, however, they were the trigger for a firework display of architectural creativity. Albert Viaplana and Helio Pinon set the tone with their remarkable park in Sant Adria de Besos, with its combination of landscape, sculpture and surrealism, and the even more electrifying Placa dels Paisos Catalans fronting the Sams station. Pasqual Maragall, Serra’s successor as mayor, continued the programme, and endorsed his predecessors plans about making a bid for the 1992 Olympics.

This was not the first rime that Barcelona had used an event as the trigger for a bout of restructuring. It was the Expo of 1888 that had finally allowed the city to escape from the claustrophobic tangle of its medieval incarnation. Idelfons Cerda’s plan, drawn up 30 years before, to extend the city north and west on a system of square grid blocks with avenues cutting diagonally across them, was finally adopted, and work started on a collection of new civic buildings. The 1929 Expo, when Mies van der Rohe came to the city to build the German pavilion, saw a similar programme of civic improvements.

Recycling in the nark

With this kind of history, iris not surprising that long before the IOC’s decision on the site of the 1992 games was finally made, Barcelona had already committed itself to a hugely ambitious urban renewal programme built around the bid. A competition was held in 1983 for the design of the main Olympic ring up on the Montjiuc Park, site of the 1929 Worlds Fair. The park survived the fair to become a rambling complex of leisure attractions and gardens. Sens Miro Museum is in its precincts, as is the astonishing Pueblo Espanol — a bizarre collection of facsimile fragments of historic Spanish architecture, half-Disney, half-Portmeirion, recently revitalised by the opening of Mariscal and Arribas’s notorious Torres de Avila nightclub. Here, too, is Gae Aulenti’s Art Museum of Catalonia, carved out of the grandiloquent remains of Pere Domenech Palau National, also built for the 1929 exhibition.

Going back over old ground

It was inevitable that Montjuic would be the focus of the 1992 games. It was here that Spain’s last democratic government, having failed to win the Olympics for themselves, attempted to stage a people’s games in 1936 as a riposte to Hitler’s co-option of the games for Berlin. The red sandstone shell of the original stadium, started in 1929 for the Expo, remained a potent reminder of Barce lona’s history, and it stood close to an existing municipal swimming pool.

Five teams were invited to compete in an international competition to produce a masterplan for the whole site, with the understanding that a single architect would be entrusted with both the urban design aspects of the project and the architectural designs of both the main Olympic stadium, a covered sports arena, Olympic pool and press centre. The competition proved controversial, both in the choice of participants and the results. Eventually the work was parcelled out between four of the finalists. The fifth, the Madrid-based team of Moneo and Saenz, got nothing.

Arata Isozald was given the indoor stadium — the Palau St Jordi. Ricardo Bofill, showing his first sign of interest in his native Barcelona after a decade-long absence in Paris, secured the commission for the national sports institute which will be used as a press centre for the duration of the games. It is, in the words of one local critic, a typical example of BofiH’s decaffeinated classicism. The job of adapting the 1929 stadium to take the 80,000 seats demanded by the IOC went to two different teams, Vittorio Gregotti from Milan, and local firm Correa Mila Buxade Margarit. From the outside, the beaux-arts stone skin looks almost untouched. Inside the extra seats have been accommodated by excavating downwards to squeeze in more tiers.

The public space, around which all the individual sports buildings are located, is the responsibility of Correa Mila Buxade» Margarit, who created a formal axis running east to west along the site, off which all the buildings open. Its character is distinctly authoritarian, with its insistent symmetry an deco-inspired light pylons. Until the completion of Santiago Calatravak bizarre, and bitterly criticised, telecommunications tower immediately behind it, this was the single most memorable image of the games.

Isozaki’s original idea was to transform the inevitable roof-meets-dumb-box stands formula of most big covered stadia with an undulating roof echoing the rolling landscape of the Montjuic hillside, integrating elevations and roof into a single object. In the event this integration was diluted and regularised. The structural system adopted called for a simplification of Isozaki’s original form. But the stadium nevertheless is subtly accommodated to the slope of the hill, and, with its flaring circulation lobbies, retains a distinctive profile.

Imagination at a modest scale

Activities during the games will be distributed over three other sites; at the Diagonal complex, far to the west; at Vail d’Hebron to the north; and at Poble Nou on the coast. Despite the undoubted power of Isozaki’s stadium, and the effective trarisfbrmarion of the old arena, the most impressive pieces of sports architecture are actually not on the main Olympic site, but on the subsidiary ones. The more modestly scaled sports buildings, such as Enric Miralles archery stadium, the velodrome at Horta, and the Vail d’Hebron pelota complex, have emerged as lighter on their feet, and considerably more imaginative than the set pieces.

In urbanist terms the most ambitious part of Barcelona’s development programme has been the creation of the

Olympic Village, and the associated reshaping of the cityls waterfront. Rather than banishing the Olympic Village to the suburbs, it has been built at the heart of the revitalised city. A swathe of industrial buildings in the Poble Nou area was demolished, and in its place Bohi-gass firm, Martorell Bohigas Mackay, drew up a masterplan for a new residential neighbourhood that would accommodate 7,500 athletes during the games, and then be sold to private owners.

Restructuring out decay

The new district is laid out on a pattern of blocks derived from Cerda’s with the intention of re-addressing Barcelona towards its coast line. Nineteenth-century extensions to the city led the prosperous to move away from the waterfront, leaving it to decay. Now the district is tied in with a restructured waterfront where main roads have been buried, and an urban park gives public access to the sea.

In addition to the residential blocks of the village, there are twin high-rise towers, one a hotel designed by Bruce Graham for G. Ware Travelstead, the developer who sold Canary Wharf to the Reichraann brothers. Alongside it is an unmemorable office tower, a shopping and restaurant complex designed by Frank Gehry, government buildings designed by Alvaro Siza, and a conference centre.

Architecturally, the Olympic Village is a descendant of West Berlin’s International Building Exhibition, in that it attempts to create a city fabric rather than isolated monuments in space. To avoid monotony — and any suggestions of nepotism — the village has been broken down into no less that 30 distinct parcels, each with their own architect. These were allocated to the winners of the Catalan architectural instituted annual award, made over the previous 30 years. In theory this not only went some way to overcome the ill-feeling that usually accompanies the allocation of such projects — in the event without much success — but also ensured that the development with its heterogeneous collection of designers (each working in accordance with the masterplan) would have an instant sense of history.

The village has not been without its critics. On the one hand are those who see it as representing the destruction of a working-class part of the city, and its subsequent sanitation with high-priced apartments. On the other are architectural critics who criticise the detailed quality of some of the apartment blocks, their relationship with each other, and even the assumptions on which the masterplan is based — «neither blocks, nor free plan», as one put it.

It is not unhealthy to keep in mind the criticism, but the village is so far ahead of most Olympic villages in its sophistication and ambition — and, for that matter, in advance of most urban renewal schemes — that the more extreme critics seem off target. Compare this to London’s Docklands, for example. And give the city a little time to settle down when the Olympics are over. Richard Bryant’s photographs of Olympic Bandana will be on shim) at the Erco showroom, 38 Dover Street., London Wl (071-408 0320),from 29’July to 11 August.

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