The Barcelona Brand

A March 2012 anti-austerity demonstration as it passes “La Illa de la Discòrdia” (the Block of Discord). The smoke is from burning barricades.

Barcelona is the sixth most powerful urban brand in the world, according to a report published today in The Guardian, after Seoul, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles (Madrid came in 12th, for those who like to keep score in these matters). That is quite an achievement, considering that Barcelona has a much smaller population than any of the other leading cities. What this means, of course, is that the consequences of living in a top-brand city, such as high property values, precarious working conditions, and the feeling that the neighborhood is being turned into a theme-park by the constant influx of tourists are much more strongly felt by the citizens of Barcelona than those of any of the other cities on the list, lending credence to the growing local chorus of voices arguing that Barcelona is selling out, lock, stock and barrel, to foreign interests.

So why is Barcelona such a “successful” global brand for a city its size?  Well, one of the things that the city is most known for, along with a Barça soccer team that has seen better moments, is its architecture, specifically its modernista and contemporary buildings and public spaces. This has painted a global image of Barcelona that is glamourous, cosmopolitan, and culturally sophisticated; a city where many would like to live. Meanwhile, what is not known at all about Barcelona in the rest of the world is its rapid growth of child poverty, along with rapidly increasing inequality. While the words “Palau de la Música” conjure up a modernista jewel in the minds of art and architecture fans worldwide, to citizens here the Palau is a reminder of a ruling political party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, that is corrupt (and what is worse: seemingly immune to corruption charges). I could go on…

The most significant conclusion about Barcelona’s ranking in this study, then, is the degree to which architecture is complicit in the branding of cities. Now, if architecture is a highly effective branding service, think of what else it could do, especially if some lip service to “citizen participation” is included and some pseudo-scientific “sustainability” rhetoric is thrown in. What we have then is a discipline capable of branding anything as “green”; a greenwashing service. Now that’s surely a growth industry if ever there was one.

Hey, Monsanto, Union Carbide, Exxon, et al: if you need a public image overhaul, you know exactly where to locate the experts.


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  3. Hey Rafael,
    I’m a brazilian student, whose final work for university (about to become a bachelor in international relations) is about the barcelona brand, and how successful it is indeed. Good to read some thoughts from someone who lives there. In my 3 times there I, as most people do, love the city, but wanted to see further. Thank you, and if by any chance you have something to recommend about more critical insights on the subject, I’d be happy. Congratulations on your work!

  4. Obrigado, Diogo. You should read a recent article in The Guardian titled ‘Postcard-perfect: the big business of city branding’ (by Sharon Zukin) if you haven’t already done so. The Generalitat de Catalunya and the city of Barcelona’s official websites contain a lot of data from studies, surveys, etc. Best of luck!

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