Destination Architecture

Fish by Frank Gehry. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #68]

Barcelona may be well known today as an urban tourism destination, but it was not always thus. Four decades ago, in the 1970s, Barcelona was a declining industrial port city in which the only tourists to be seen were occasional groups of Japanese Gaudí devotees or hippie backpackers tripping on Dalí. Queues to visit a slowly progressing Sagrada Familia construction site were nonexistent, and Casa Batlló and La Pedrera were covered with soot. Plaza Real was a hangout for junkies, and shantytowns occupied the city’s beaches and hillsides. The picture today is completely different: Barcelona is an internationally recognized urban brand, a gleaming postindustrial city with the same predictable luxury boutiques and hotel chains as any other world-class metropolis. At the same time, however, its narrow streets are so overrun by tourists and housing is so expensive that tourism is perceived by locals, according to a recent survey, as the city’s second-biggest problem after unemployment.

How did Barcelona go from industrial grunge to designer chic in only a matter of decades? The 1992 Olympic Games were a major factor, as were the rise of FC Barcelona and the worldwide popularization of tapas. But repeated visitor surveys show that it is actually the city’s architecture that attracts foreign visitors the most, especially those buildings dating from Barcelona’s modernista era. Predictably enough, an entire industry has formed around Gaudí and his contemporaries, comprising everything from specialized architecture-tour operators and venue-rental agencies for exclusive international business events, to plastic trencadís knick-knacks sold alongside fake Barça jerseys in the city’s countless souvenir shops.

Architectural tourism, a branch of cultural tourism, is behind much of this transformation. In the 1980s, at the height of postmodernism, the rediscovery of the work of Antoni Gaudí and contemporaries such as Jujol led to the restoration and museumification of some of the city’s most important heritage sites. Alongside, however, many new works of architecture were also garnering international admiration in ‘the city of architects’, as critic Llàtzer Moix refers to post-dictatorship Barcelona. It was only a matter of time before a growing wave of architectural tourism would produce a new building type that would surf this wave to full advantage: ‘touristic architecture’.

Touristic architecture is specifically planned and designed to appeal to a particular way of seeing: to a ‘tourist gaze’, as John Urry termed it in his eponymous 1990 book. Becoming increasingly widespread as global tourism grows along with the global media that fuels it, the tourist gaze is the look we practise when engaged in leisurely travel, an activity that heightens sensitivity to our immediate environment. The tourist gaze is especially well suited to architecture, cities, landscapes and other place-making signifiers. The authenticity of place – which can be experienced only through personal displacement – is highly romanticized in our technological society.

The evolution of the tourist gaze follows the mass-cultural development of travel. Historically, travel was the exclusive reserve of the upper classes, as exemplified by the aristocratic grand tour of antiquity. Mass tourism is a product of the relatively recent modernization and democratization of travel that occurred in the late 19th and 20th centuries, when mobility, infrastructure and industrial production techniques were revolutionized and labour struggles led to more leisure time for workers. Tourism is a quintessentially modern invention that could not have come about without technological and social progress, and without which modern architecture as we know it would not have emerged.

In his 1936 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin writes of ‘the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building’, contrasting sight with the more ‘distracted’ sense of touch by which ordinary buildings are used in our everyday lives. Benjamin describes a way of seeing architecture that is conditioned by mass-reproduced media – especially photography – and the notoriety and fame they generate. Urry’s ‘tourist gaze’ is similarly conditioned by a fabrication and reproduction of certain ‘expectations’, especially with respect to authenticity and heritage. The packaging of heritage to make it attractive is precisely what creates the tourist gaze.

Touristic architecture goes one step further, directly forging future heritage. Whereas most heritage buildings were not designed to accommodate tourists but became tourist attractions over time, touristic architecture considers the presence of tourists from the start. As Rem Koolhaas has pointed out: “Through [heritage] preservation’s ever-increasing ambitions, the time lag between new construction and the imperative to preserve has collapsed from two thousand years to almost nothing. From retrospective, preservation will soon become prospective.” Koolhaas’s ‘prospective’ form of heritage preservation effectively exists already in the form of touristic architecture.

Over a period of almost three decades, Barcelona was a veritable laboratory for touristic architecture, employing it as a means to simultaneously solve two urban problems: on the one hand, degraded parts of the city needed to be rehabilitated, while on the other hand, overly high tourist concentrations were starting to form in other areas (Sagrada Familia, Passeig de Gracia, and Las Ramblas). A work of touristic architecture could catalyse the regeneration of a neighbourhood with tourist dollars while enticing visitors away from overcrowded areas, a strategy that Barcelona’s planners refer to as ‘tourism dispersal’.

Macba, by Richard Meier. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

The Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), a project personally entrusted by then-mayor Pasqual Maragall to Richard Meier in 1986, only two years after the latter received the Pritzker Prize, was intended to revitalize a neighbourhood notorious for vice and physical degradation. Meier’s shiny white formalist object worked as a beacon, beckoning foreign art and architecture tourists who would initiate, through their sophisticated taste and buying power, a demand for new kinds of businesses that would set the wheels of gentrification in motion. Since the museum opened in 1995, much of the Raval neighbourhood has indeed been ‘regenerated’.

The success of MACBA undoubtedly served as a model for the Santa Caterina Market some years later. This reconstruction project, similarly situated in an area where change was desired, was awarded through a 1997 competition to local firm EMBT. It consists of a convoluted new building within a preserved historical façade, all capped by a colourful, sculpturally exuberant roof that clearly references Catalan modernisme. Again, the idea behind its planning was to lure sophisticated foreign tourists – in this case foodies and cult followers of Enric Miralles – into a somewhat problematic part of town. The market, which can be seen from Cathedral Square several blocks away thanks to the prominent horizontal extension of its undulating roof over a broad avenue, is a highlight on the itinerary of every visitor to Barcelona.

The Forum of Cultures 2004 building, awarded to Herzog & de Meuron in 2000, was erected for a new global event conceived by a city that had already hosted two World Expositions – in 1888 and 1929 – as well as the Olympics of 1992. Global events have often been used by the city as political leverage for urban transformation, and Forum 2004, intended to regenerate an area of industrial waterfront land in a remote corner of the city, was no different. The Forum building contains auditoria, exhibition spaces and a restaurant, all within and beneath a horizontal volume that floats above a sloped plaza. With a façade characterized by texture and colour – its intense cobalt blue mimics an Yves Klein monochrome painting – the building acts as a landmark at the end of the city’s extended Diagonal Avenue. In 2011 Herzog & de Meuron renovated the Forum building and converted it into a museum of natural science. Its remote location continues to dissuade many tourists, however.

Torre Agbar, by Jean Nouvel. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

The building that best exemplifies touristic architecture is Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar (Mark 1, page 112). The 38-storey office tower was meant to achieve the status of urban icon and to become a major tourist attraction. The location, which boosted this lofty aim, was a new city centre at the intersection of the city’s three most important avenues. Although the only part of the building open to the public is the lobby, where a promotional exhibition devoted to Grupo Agbar is on permanent display, the skyscraper pulls in some of the highest tourist numbers in the city. Its height, form and illuminated presence – after dark, 4,500 LEDs make it highly visible throughout the city – set a new precedent for touristic architecture when it opened in 2005. Indeed, a veritable cluster of touristic architecture has formed in the vicinity, including DHUB, a design museum by MBM (Mark 45, page 46); the Encants Flea Market by B720 (Mark 48, page 22); and the Media-TIC building by Enric Ruiz Geli (Mark 25, page 140). Each of these object buildings employs formal gestures and material finishes that make it stand apart from its neighbours and its overall context. Together they seem to be competing for our undivided attention – for the ultimate tourist gaze.

DHUB design museum by MBM. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

As projects with relatively high budgets bearing the signatures of big-name architects, touristic architecture is built to perform an additional service that extends far beyond property lines. Functioning as recognizable wayfinding beacons, not unlike those Baroque landmarks built to guide pilgrims through the city of Rome, the objects that make up touristic architecture are characterized by axial visibility, sculptural forms, bright materials, larger-than-normal entrance plazas and lobbies, and aggressive media publicity. Because the design of touristic architecture considers crowds of visitors from the outset, issues like urban siting, massing, materials, lighting and circulation must be handled differently from non-touristic projects. Economic viability considerations – net-to-gross area, energy efficiency, floor-area ratio, and so on – are usually waived when it comes to touristic architecture, since return-on-investment takes other forms.

Encants Flea Market by B720. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

Touristic architecture is pre-eminently global. It could not exist without economic and cultural globalization, the loosening of border restrictions for travellers, low-cost airlines, and the modern invention of the celebrity architect. It relies on an international transport network, as well as on relentless promotion through global media and communication networks. It exemplifies a fashion-sensitive ‘experience economy’ that constantly demands new Instagrammable settings and places.

MediaTIC building, by Cloud 9. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

Barcelona’s period of experimentation with touristic architecture began during the build-up for the 1992 Olympics, but it’s been deteriorating since the 2008 economic downturn, even though tourism itself has continued to grow throughout the crisis and its aftermath. Changes in the cultural climate have made touristic architecture no longer politically viable. Protest marches against excessive tourism are regular occurrences as Barcelonians question the real intention behind urban improvement projects: are they intended for local citizens or for tourists? The new mayor of Barcelona, anti-eviction activist Ada Colau, has implemented a moratorium on hotel licences and tourist apartments in an attempt to rein in tourism. In one way, her efforts attest to the success of Barcelona’s experimentation with touristic architecture, but at the same time the city risks becoming another Venice (Mark 63, page 104), as revealed by the declining population of long-time residents. What’s more, the aforementioned visitor surveys cite a growing complaint being expressed by the very same tourists who rank architecture as Barcelona’s number-one attraction: that the city is becoming ‘too touristy’.

Map of Barcelona showing works of ‘touristic architecture’ and their axes of visibility: 1 Macba, 2 Santa Caterina market, 3. Encants flea market, 4. Design museum, 5. Agbar tower, 6. MediaTIC building, 7. 2004 Forum of Cultures building.

Make a one-time donation to support the work of Criticalista

Make a monthly donation to support the work of Criticalista

Make a yearly donation to support the work of Criticalista

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.