Cities are constantly evolving. Buildings, surroundings and urban planning trends change over the years and so does the way people live, in part according to what homes are like and the public areas surrounding them. Throughout history, Barcelona has created completely new neighbourhoods, such as the Vila Olímpica, built for the 1992 Olympic Games. Almost two and a half centuries ago a neighbourhood was built beyond the city walls, designed by a military engineer commissioned by the Captain General of Barcelona. The neighbourhood is Barceloneta and even today, a stroll around its streets reveals how houses have evolved since the first brick was laid over 250 years ago.
In the mid-18th century the city was hemmed in by medieval city walls. Military byelaws prevented construction right outside the walls as a measure against possible attacks from outside. This meant an ever-increasing density inside the city and so the Captain General, the Marquis of La Mina, decided to charge the military engineer Juan Martín Cermeño with the creation of a new neighbourhood next to the port, where the natural sediment of the Isle of Maians had ended up forming an extension of land.
The Marquis of La Mina recuperated the idea of his predecessor, the Marquis of Castel-Rodrigo, who in 1715 had suggested building a new neighbourhood to house families affected by the demolition of the La Ribera neighbourhood for the construction of the military citadel which controlled Barcelona for over a century and a half. Over the years, the area had grown thanks to natural silt accumulating where the Isle of Maians had been, turning the area into a rather haphazard part of the city, with fishermen’s and coal workers’ makeshift dwellings and slack heaps making for a very run down area. The Marquis de La Mina decided to regenerate the area by creating a new neighbourhood.
Juan Martín Cermeño, general commander of the engineers and head of the project, designed a linear neighbourhood with houses consisting of a ground floor and upper floor so as not to affect visibility from the Ciutadella. For the first few years this same criteria meant it was expressly forbidden to add further floors to the buildings there. Successive Captain Generals maintained the ban on modifying any elements of the original project meaning not only were extra floors prohibited, but so were modifications to roofs and facades.
Those first houses in Barceloneta measured 8.4 by 7.65 metres. There was a front door, four windows and a balcony. They had a pitched roof with tiles and the facade had a gable and a cornice. The colour of the house was deep pink, almost red. There was no courtyard or garden and the neighbourhood had no park or public squares, except for a couple of areas conceived as work spaces, soon occupied by coopers who set up open air workshops there. Six years after the first brick was laid, the neighbourhood already had 329 houses and a population of 1,570.
The population of Barcelona, still hemmed in by the city walls, continued to grow and became ever denser. Because of this, in 1838 the Captain General Ramon de Meer, Baron of Meer, gave permission for upper floors to be built onto buildings in Barceloneta. Thirty years later, with the neighbourhood no longer under military jurisdiction, the civil governor allowed the buildings to grow further and in 1872 it was the mayor Rius i Taulet who gave the go ahead for another additional floor. Thus the houses grew to the point where in 1930 there were some which were seven floors high. Strolling around the streets of the neighbourhood one can clearly make out the different stages of construction of the buildings and also see houses which are two, three or four floors high, all sharing the same basic structure.
On the corner of C/ Sant Elm, C/ Sant Carles and C/ Sant Miquel, one of the original houses still stands. Built in 1761, the building has been recuperated as an example of what the original houses were like and now serves as a social centre promoting the history, culture and heritage of the neighbourhood. The house is known as the Casa de la Barceloneta 1761. The ground floor houses a permanent exhibition explaining the way the neighbourhood was formed and how it evolved, along with a replica of the founding stone with an inscription which reads: “The founding of this town was started on 3 February 1753”. The upper floor of the house has a multi-use area where temporary exhibitions are held.
A good way of getting to know the neighbourhood is to visit the Casa de la Barcelona 1761 and take a stroll around the streets afterwards. An additional option is to take along a copy of the local history book Barceloneta: Guia d’història urbana by the historian Daniel Venteo, co-published by Viena and Barcelona City Council in 2014. The book contains five itineraries designed by Venteo himself, with collaboration from Isabel Centeno and Maria Jesús Vidal.
Photo captions: La Casa de la Barceloneta 1761. Author: JAF. | Evolution of the houses in Barceloneta. Artist: Jordi Ballonga. | Building in C/ Baluard, at Pl.Poeta Boscà. The growth of the building can be clearly made out. Author: JAF. | Replica of the founding stone on display at the Casa de la Barceloneta 1761. Author: JAF. | Original house with two additional floors at C/Sant Carles, on the corner with C/Sevilla. Author: JAF. | The upper floor of the Casa de la Barceloneta 1761. Author: JAF.