New ‘Public’ Space in Barcelona

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“The goal is to turn this old, unloved port into the best super marina in the world, to integrate yachting people with locals, and to create a hub for enjoying an exclusive Mediterranean lifestyle.” -Uri Nachoom, Salamanca Group [1]

Barcelona architecture and design first made name for itself thanks in no small part to a 1980s municipally-led public space renewal program. During this post-Dictatorship, pre-Olympic build-up, the motto of which, “recover the centre, monumentalize the periphery”, was coined by architect Oriol Bohigas, public space was seen, first and foremost, as the space of a fledgling democracy. The program aimed to turn plazas and squares, many of which had been completely taken over by parked cars and ‘motos’, into spaces where citizens could take ownership of –and pride in– their city. It worked: the 1992 Olympic Games set a record for citizen volunteership. Some years later, the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded Barcelona the RIBA Gold Medal, the first time it went to a city and not a person, and soon after that it became a global ‘model’ of successful post-industrial transformation, attracting tourists by the plane-load.

The renewal of public space continues today, but this time it’s without a motto, and without the public interest chiefly in mind. If there were a motto, it would have to be along the lines of: “privatize profits, socialize losses”. For there is no other way to neatly summarize the intentions behind projects such as the renewal of Port Vell (old port) into a ‘super marina’ for super yachts. It’s all being handled by a private corporation, Salamanca Group (UK), that ‘represents’ largely Russian ‘investors’ with huge amounts of cash that need laundering. The project was approved by city hall despite local citizen opposition, and, as is suspected by Catalonia’s anti-fraud watchdog, with bribes going into the pockets of the planning boss responsible for giving final approval to this operation. Since these kinds of privatization projects bring nothing more than a dozen McJobs and some spending-cash to the city, the only way any elected official is going to approve them, considering the political / electoral liability they pose, is by receiving sufficient kick-back money. One thing politicians are not is stupid! (Let’s at least have that much respect for them.)20150510_193016

Originally a fishing and industrial port, Barcelona’s old port was transformed into a marina for leisure boats in the 1980s. The latest renovations add a security fence, a roadway so vehicles can maneuver up to any boat, and a drastic reduction in the number of moorings in order to enable much larger yachts to maneuver in the harbour. Private clubhouse facilities have also been added. Whereas before, a walk around the harbour offered views of water and hundreds of small and medium-sized boats, now the hulls and decks of multi-story tall vessels block most of the views of the water. Instead, we get views of rich people lounging on their deck chairs, or else lackeys polishing doorknobs.

What is certain is that this is no longer a space with democracy in mind. Not even in theory. It is a once-public space that has been privatized to satisfy ‘investors’. Should there be any losses (here I refer to financial losses, not the environmental loss that is already evident), then the public will, in all likelihood, be left with the bill. That’s how the global economy works: “capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich”.

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1. as cited by Tara Stevens, “Review: One Ocean Club” in Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine, February 2015 http://www.barcelona-metropolitan.com/eating-and-drinking/restaurant-reviews/one-ocean-club/

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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