Interview with Daniel Mòdol, Architect and Politician

Dani Modol
Daniel Mòdol, Councillor for architecture, urban landscape and heritage in the Ajuntament de Barcelona. Photo: Sergio Pirrone

[Originally published in Mark Magazine #68]

In Barcelona, architect and independent politician Daniel Mòdol was recently appointed city councillor for architecture, urban landscape and heritage, a new position resulting from a governance pact between Mayor Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú citizens’ platform and the Socialist Party of Catalonia. I sat down with Mòdol in his office, which occupies part of a modernista heritage building in the historical centre of Sarrià-Sant Gervasi, the district he represents. We discussed his plans for dealing with what many locals see as Barcelona’s out-of-control tourism industry.

How did you get involved in politics?

DANIEL MÒDOL: It was a bit of a leap to go from running a small architecture office and teaching at the architecture school to doing this, but I’ve always had a strong vocation for all things public, and academia involves a lot of politics, so I got some practice there [laughter]. In the last elections, the Socialist Party of Catalonia wanted to renew their urban discourse, so they invited me to join them and run for office. We negotiated a governance pact with Mayor Ada Colau some months after she took office, which is how I became councillor for architecture, urban landscape and heritage. I am also a district councillor, which is like being the mayor of a town of 160,000 inhabitants. The experience of being in government is intense and leaves little time for reflection, unfortunately.

How do you want to renew the city’s architectural and urban discourse?

Barcelona has become highly consolidated. This means we need to concentrate less on new urban construction and much more on the existing reality: on seeing and appropriating the city in new ways. There’s been a loss of the sense of belonging in this city, and tourism is a major reason. The city needs to be approached at another scale now: that of what’s already built. We want to look more at heritage, but at a very different idea of heritage. Instead of merely protecting certain listed buildings, we want to place greater emphasis on other elements and ensembles, and on the city as a whole. We want to do away with the idea of architecture as an elite, rather aloof, often frivolous discipline and focus on restoring a sense of identity and belonging, which is important to citizens.

We’re currently preparing an urban landscape charter for Barcelona. Its purpose is to help identify those elements – existing or lost – that generate distinct identities in the city, so that their importance is recognized. The idea is to establish broader criteria rather than just building façades, as has been the case for the past three decades. We need to focus more on urban environments.

Whatever happened to the city’s Department for Urban Habitat?

With the change of government, ‘urban habitat’ became ‘urban ecology’. Such name changes reveal a lot. I went into politics especially because I felt that the previous right-leaning administration’s four-year term was disastrous in terms of architecture and urbanism. The role of government should be to protect and administer the public realm, not give it up. Their belief in technology, ‘smart cities’ and ‘clusters’ was separating people from the physical reality of the city – from their very ownership of the public realm.

The rise of tourism has done very much the same, making citizens feel as if the city is no longer theirs.

It is precisely because of the tourist boom that we need to accentuate the whole question of identity. The previous government had absolute contempt for the public realm, commodifying it and renouncing rather than updating tradition. They actually stated that urbanism was dead. When citizens can no longer participate in the construction of their city, the city will surely die.

Another architect who occupied a position in the municipal government several decades ago is Oriol Bohigas, a man instrumental in the regeneration of this city. Are those big shoes to fill?

Oriol Bohigas’s commitment to the city transcends the political. I see him more as a cultural agitator who determined the discourse on our city. He is a reference that I look up to with modesty. His programme for revamping Barcelona’s small urban squares in the 1980s, after the dictatorship, was an important first step towards reclaiming the public realm. When I took office, the first thing we did was to officially protect Plaça dels Països Catalans [a square realized in 1983 by Viaplana & Piñon with Enric Miralles], not because of any historical value or because anyone likes it [a reference to public outrage over its ‘hard’ design], but because we wanted to set a precedent. Up to then, listed status was given only to buildings, so this was the first public space to receive heritage protection in the city. In the face of tourism pressures, the decision conveyed an important political message: we’re protecting public space from privatization.

Ada Colau, the first woman to become mayor of Barcelona, is a housing activist. What are the priorities of her administration with respect to tourism?

Ada Colau, whose position I agree with wholeheartedly, is not particularly preoccupied with Barcelona’s global image or the international coverage of its urban projects. She made a significant political gesture –perhaps not the best gesture for those of us in urbanism-related disciplines – when she moved the Housing Department from Urbanism to Welfare. Housing is, for her, an emergency social issue, which it is; she’s absolutely correct. But it’s also of primary importance for urbanism, and the two could be considered conjointly. This change, which was made before we joined her administration, reflects a reduced role for housing as a building block of urbanism. Housing should not be unduly isolated, in my opinion. The same thing has happened to traffic mobility. These are partial visions that are not being viewed from a holistic perspective. Perhaps such excessive segmentation comes from a lack of experience. The problem of air pollution in Barcelona, for example, cannot be solved without taking the entire metropolitan area into consideration. The same goes for public space. We can’t continue to compartmentalize public space to fit the needs of each new user group that comes along, because it only leads to specialization and semi-privatization. The very essence of public space is that it be shared and used spontaneously. We must find a way to be more flexible in the use of public space, upon which more and more demands are made. The city must be maximally flexible, or it loses potentiality. Ada Colau and I agree that architecture and urbanism should serve people and definitely not be elitist, existing just to fill the pages of the media or to brand the city internationally.

For the people of Barcelona, tourism is a major problem. What sorts of challenges does mass tourism present in terms of public space and the city?

All of the above. I mean, tourism generates close to 14 per cent of the city’s GDP, so it’s very important to us. But tourism depends entirely on what is offered. People come here because they’ve been offered something that we’re selling, and we’re the ones who have sold Gaudí to foreigners. Mass tourism wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t allowed it to become established in our city. It creates jobs and brings in foreign currency, but its effects can be harmful to our sense of collectivity. The recently approved plan to restrict hotels and tourist apartments is another example of a problem that has been resolved in severe isolation. The solution has been to simply put the brakes on tourist accommodation rather than to come up with a plan or strategy for curtailing the harmful effects of tourism. This will only create a black market. I think it’s better to be proactive than to forbid –by presenting other architectural sites, for instance, and diversifying what is offered.

The important thing is to decide what to offer to whom, and to come up with an effective strategy. Tourism is a global industry, with fierce competition. Without a tourism strategy, you might find yourself in a race to the bottom. Low-cost tourism.

Tourism is very much linked to heritage here. In order to diversify the offer, do we have to create new heritage?

We’re completely rethinking the notion of heritage now. We have a lot of architecture in this city that is little known yet has the ability to arouse cultural interest. It’s better to valorize and appreciate what we already have than to build new attractions. One of the things we’ll be launching in the near future is an architecture biennial. We’re a highly architectural city, so organizing such an event makes sense.

Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic Games attracted an inordinate number of volunteers. Back then, it seems, citizens were eager to show foreigners their city. Do you think that spirit can be rejuvenated?

Those Olympics generated huge collective pride. Today, many local people are angry with this city, a place where it’s very tough to make a living, not only because of tourism but also owing to other economic and societal factors. So it’s hard to rejuvenate the collective pride of 25 years ago. But we must, and I think it’s possible. It’s the architect in me that believes in a better future.

Curbing tourism in Barcelona

Housing-rights activist Ada Colau and the Barcelona en Comú citizens’ movement won Barcelona’s 2015 municipal elections, in part because Colau promised to rein in tourism, which many Barcelonians associate with high rents, hooliganism and gentrification. So far she has fined Airbnb and Homeaway €600,000 each for listing apartments that are not licensed as tourist accommodation and expanded a freeze on licences for new hotels and tourist apartments to cover a larger area of the city. She is currently negotiating with the Catalan government, which collects a tourist tax on lodgings, in an attempt to recover a larger share of these taxes for use in her social-housing and community-improvement programmes. Other measures under consideration include a special cruise-ship tax to be levied on visitors who do not stay overnight in the city. Colau’s disincentives have been well received among the electorate, but the tourism industry – a powerful lobby in Spain – is not accepting her new directives without a fight.



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