Archispeak in Political Propaganda

The Catalan independence movement has for years been churning out a great deal of propaganda in order to win over the hearts and minds of not only Catalans, but also the rest of the world. This conflict is a global image war, after all, and there is nothing that the independence movement would like more than for “Catalonian Freedom” to become an international cause célèbre. What is curious is how urban-architectural terminology, or “archispeak”, is being used in some of its propaganda efforts.

To start with, there is the Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) party’s slogan of “construir una nova república“, an explicit reference to good ol’ “nation-building”. An Iberian propensity toward bricks and mortar is appealed to here, and considering that the local economic crisis that began in 2007 was triggered by the bursting of a huge real-estate bubble, this slogan effectively promises that an independent Catalonia will once again become the site of a construction boom that will provide jobs and wealth for all. Never mind that over a thousand corporations have left Catalonia in the last months because of the current instability, or that no other state on Earth has formally recognized Catalonia’s independence. With our own hands and tools, we will persevere and build a new state come hell or high water!

Another bit of “architectural” propaganda –one that is especially urban– is the popular demonstration chant of “els carrers seran sempre nostres!” (“the streets will always be ours!”). The question of just whom streets belong to was first raised in 1976, shortly after the death of dictator Franco, by Manuel Fraga, who stated “la calle es mía!” (the street is mine!”) when he forbade trade unions from organizing a march on May 1st of that year. The chant is often repeated as a provocation to police during demonstrations, and was also heard when Spanish national police forces tried to suppress the October 1st Catalan independence referendum by force. Curiously enough, on that day, Spanish national police forces did not intervene in polling stations situated in Barcelona’s most dense and labyrinthine historical centres, as the map below shows (for interactive map, click here):

Screenshot 2017-10-30 13.38.09
Map of Barcelona polling stations raided by Spanish national police forces on 1 October 2017

The map (using data from a judicial report available here) reveals that only conveniently accessible polling stations were the scenes of violent police raids. It makes practical sense, of course: narrow, Medieval streets prevent large convoys of riot police vans from being deployed efficiently.

Spanish national police raiding an illegal referendum polling station in Barcelona on 1 October

The most architectural piece of propaganda I’ve come across, however, is a poster with an estelada (the flag of the pro-independence movement) together with the words “una república a escala humana” (“a republic at a human scale”). If there’s anything that lies at the heart of architecture, it’s the notion of scale, which has to do with relations, size, proportion, and detail; with the range of human spatial needs that can stretch from the design of a door handle to that of a city.

A pro-independence poster in Barcelona

But just what, exactly, is a human-scaled republic? Human scale is normally associated with buildings or cities; not with nation-states. Buildings tend to be described as having a “human scale” when they are simply small, or when their design has been “broken down” into fragments, often by the kinds of architects who like to wear Birkenstocks. The implication here is that large shopping malls, skyscrapers, airports, or football stadiums such as Barcelona’s Camp Nou (Europe’s largest stadium) are not human-scaled, even though they may be bursting at the seams with thousands of people. Similarly, cities are often described as “human-scaled” when these are designed around the needs of pedestrians instead of motorists, although most motorists are still human beings last time I checked. Does simply being smaller in size make a country more human-scaled? In that case, perhaps Barcelona should declare itself independent from Catalonia, and become a city-state. But why stop there when we can have independent districts or city block-states? Building-states, anyone?  Ikea’s advertising campaign in Spain suddenly makes more sense now.

If we consider architecture as a trendy “expanded field” that includes geography, then the recent statement by the radical anarcho-leftist CUP leader Anna Gabriel “som independentistes sense fronteres” (“we’re independentists without borders”), apparently made without any intended irony whatsoever, takes the Orwellian doublespeak prize of the year hands down. After all, when a new state is created, so is a new international boundary, like it or not. But what can we expect from someone who claims to be an anarchist but is also a flag-waving nationalist patriot?

The first thing about propaganda is that if it is not an outright lie, then it certainly bends the truth beyond coherence. The fact that “archispeak” seems to lend itself so well to political propaganda speaks volumes indeed.


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