Welcome to Carrer Príncep de Viana in the Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona, a small, normally quiet street lined with trees and fine works of architecture such as this one, situated at number 14. Since 2017, the entire five-story building at number 14 has been squatted and controlled by a violent gang, making life hell for neighbours over the past three years (I live only one street away). What is worse: the authorities are doing absolutely nothing about it, despite the fact that three persons have died within its walls: one was murdered, another died of a heroin overdose, and this past spring someone died of Covid-19 in the building. There is also one reported case of a woman being raped. Fights are an almost daily occurrence in and around the building, to say nothing of accumulations of garbage, death threats, human excrement, and rats the size of cats. Every time there’s an incident, the police and the coroner enter the building to take care of paperwork, remove any corpses, and –if we’re lucky– perhaps make an arrest or two. But then they leave the building again, exactly as before, so the remaining squatters can continue doing business as usual (selling drugs, prostitution, stolen goods, scrap metal, etcetera).
The building has changed ownership several times among different banks and vulture funds that similarly do absolutely nothing about it (the latest owner is the American vulture fund Cerberus). They won’t even evict the gang that is squatting it, despite all the experience that banks have with evictions. That’s how it is: banks act quickly to evict a family that can’t keep up with rent or mortgage payments, but then do nothing about the squatters that immediately move in, even though they don’t pay any rent. On the contrary: they rapidly cause the building to fall into disrepair and so lose value, dragging the rest of the neighbourhood down with it.
Turns out, though, that this may be precisely the owner’s intention: to degrade the neighbourhood so that he can then snap up adjacent homes and commercial retail units on the dirt cheap and consolidate properties. Such property can then be more efficiently rebuilt into the kind of global (un)real estate financial products that nobody actually lives in, but that prove much more profitable in a purely speculation-based form of capitalism.
The gangs of criminals and the criminal banks are thus in collusion, a phenomenon that has come to be known as “narco-speculation”. Yet nobody in power seems to want to really do anything about it, despite the desperate pleas from neighbours. Images of this building are nevertheless used for political gain by the right (“stop immigration!”), and by the left (“nationalize banks!”), but nothing gets done.
As for the interests of the little people who have to suffer the consequences, there’s no political will to do anything; not even on the part of a mayor who is a housing activist, oddly enough, and who actually posseses the power to undertake immediate action when a building such as this one poses a serious risk to public health. What else has to happen before this disaster area starts to be taken seriously by Barcelona city council? Evidently, three deaths in three years in one building is not enough.
This is increasingly the problem with politics: it has become purely about fighting ideological battles with propagandistic images and demagoguery while little or nothing actually gets done about anything anymore. The current state of this once beautiful building perfectly suits the demagogues on either end of the political spectrum, and it seems to perfectly suit the owner’s business plan, so why bother with action? The only interests that count anymore are those of politicians and investors; meanwhile, we architects wonder why our services are so under-paid and under-appreciated. Time to become a politician.
To this end, “Barcelona, posa’t guarra” (Barcelona, get dirty) is proposed as a new slogan for this city. It is a 180º détournement of the 1990s slogan “Barcelona, posa’t guapa” (Barcelona, get pretty), a municipal program that publicly subsidized the rehabilitation of building facades in the Olympic period. A new slogan to reflect new times. Who still wants pretty buildings that only cause gentrification, attract tourists, and waste public money? Much more politically expedient just to let Barcelona crumble, as is evidently happening before our eyes.