As an architect who is blessed with having double citizenship–Spanish as well as Canadian– I was quite amused, while on a recent site visit, to stumble upon Canadà Park, a suburban development built in the 1980s in a mountainous forest about 45 minutes northeast of Barcelona by car. If it were not for the naming and the branding of this “urbanización”, it wouldn’t strike anyone as being particularly “Canadian”. Its urbanism, architecture, and outward appearance are like most other suburban developments: a low-density sprawl of single-family detached houses on private lots exclusively zoned for residential use, meaning that the nearest businesses are at least a drive away.
Automobile sprawl, as we know, is a consumerist importation from northern North America, where a pioneer-spirited “don’t fence me in” ethos of rugged individuality has long prevailed. In Iberia, traditionally, only the aristocracy and farming families resided in detached dwellings in the countryside. Even agricultural villages are typically dense and compact in Iberia, with buildings sharing party walls and containing mixed uses such as a dwelling above a stable or a workshop. It wasn’t until the Catalan bourgeoisie began, in the 19th century, to build free-standing summer homes in the countryside that anything resembling a community of detached houses began to appear.
The idea for Canadà Park dates from 1981, according to the earliest planning document found (see plan below); a year in which Spain suffered an attempted coup d’état during its difficult transition to democracy. Some years later, in 1986, Spain entered the European Union and a common market that greatly improved the upward mobility of a Spanish middle class eager to move elsewhere as well as onward from the past. A suburban development that referenced a country whose motto is “peace, order and good government” would seem to fit the bill. At that time, the end of the (Pierre) Trudeau era, Canada enjoyed an enviable international reputation, predictably resulting in the emergence of Canadian-themed brand identities the world over, including this one in the province of Barcelona.
In its branding, however, Canadà Park is modelled on a precedent that is older and situated much closer: Park Güell, the urban plan, landscape and public buildings of which were designed by Antoni Gaudí, and which initially failed as a private, exclusive residential development before it was sold to the city and transformed into a public park. Note the similarity in the naming: Park Güell and Canadà Park both use the English spelling of the word “park”, the Catalan word for which is “parc” while the Spanish word is “parque”. The English spelling, with a “k”, was used precisely to bestow the development with greater prestige. In French, Canada’s other official language, the word for park is the same as in Catalan, parc, which of course would not work as a branding strategy.
The use of the word “park” in the name of this suburb is also notable because that is precisely the illusion that North American suburbia aims to deliver: that of an expansive, park-like green space sprinkled with free-standing “pavilions” that are the private houses. North American suburbs typically prohibit property fences on front lawns precisely so that the appearance of a seamlessly blended and unified “natural” surface is created when seen from the road. In Spain, however, where “nothing to hide” Calvinism has never sat well, putting up a fence –or even better, an opaque brick wall or hedge– is effectively a neighbourly obligation.
Spanish suburbs do not, therefore, resemble a “park”. The houses are typically fenced- or walled-in on all sides, with a security gate at every driveway, and Canadà Park is no exception. There is nevertheless one unique element that puts the “park” in Canadà Park: a public picnic area by the side of one of its roads, replete with picnic tables that look as though they were purchased at Canadian Tire. The only give away that we are not in the True North Strong and Free: the tables are sheltered beneath a fixed, permanent shade canopy.
Also noteworthy is the looming presence of Montseny in Canadà Park, a 1706m high peak whose name translates as “common sense mountain”. Many Catalans proudly distinguish themselves from the rest of Spain based on a belief that they possess more common sense and are therefore more northerly in their character, and indeed, the Massís del Montseny is considered the very heartland of Catalonia. Many Canadians similarly pride themselves on having a no-nonsense sensibility. The central province of Ontario is precisely where a neoliberal “Common Sense Revolution” was waged between 1995 and 2002 by then conservative premier Mike “the knife” Harris, a promulgator of education and social-service cutbacks who was elected twice thanks to a massive suburban voter base.
Curiously, the streets of Canadà Park are not named after anything Canadian. You would think there would be a carrer de Banff, a via de Sant Llorenç, or a camí Algonquin, but no luck. Instead, almost every street is named after a different kind of edible mushroom (see Google maps) that can be found in the adjacent Parc natural del Montnegre i el Corredor, a nature park created some years later, in 1989, to protect this natural area from further suburbanization. Canadà Park’s mushroom streets are what makes this place quintessentially Catalan; fungus foraging being a favorite pastime in this neck of the woods.
It is quite heartening to have stumbled upon such a hotbed of cultural hybridity. Who would ever have guessed? Now, whenever I miss the place in which I spent my most formative years, all I have to do is head to those picnic tables with a back bacon sandwich and some cold brewskis. But I could never live there. Despite its many problems, I still prefer to live in the historical centre of Barcelona –El Raval, no less– than this or any other suburb. In fact, as pleasant as it may seem, “I couldn’t live there if you paid me.“