About Enric Vila Delclòs

Writer and journalist. Lecturer at the Blanquerna School of Communication

The organic city

The Self-Sufficient City

Author: Vicente Guallart

Actar Publishers

New York, 2014

262 pages

We have had to swallow arguments on Barcelona that are so convoluted that still today, forty years after Franco’s death, I am surprised to read a book that speaks passionately about the city’s future without insulting my intelligence. It is common knowledge that since the 17th century – with the exception of a fifty year period before the Spanish Civil War – Barcelona has been pushed aside to make way for Madrid, forsaking its history, culture and ambitions to be a leading light in the Mediterranean.

The Self-Sufficient City is a treatise written in a style well-versed in marketing, and with a hint of shareholder interest that at times evokes memories of the times of socialist cosmopolitan splendour. The book is full of ideas though, and statements that might be considered grandiose or vague are relegated to the background. While Vicente Guallart does not give centre stage to the geopolitical issues that are decisive in the development of every major city, neither does he avoid them. This allows him to use Barcelona as the focal point of a slightly speculative, but very solid and cosmopolitan discussion.

According to Guallart, globalisation will force humanity to surpass the current model of the modern metropolis. The book insists that if we continue to build cities following past blueprints, a global collapse awaits since humanity will not have the necessary resources to complete the urbanisation process in which it is immersed. Guallart believes that just as technology has traditionally distanced urban life from nature, it should now extend the proverbial olive branch through more efficient methods of production and consumption.

The book reminds us that the cities of today are still products of the hopes mankind pinned on machinery in centuries past. Proof of this is found in the cities that spring up like mushrooms across Asia. As soon as the works finish, many such cities already appear old because they cling to political and economic models that are obsolete, having been surpassed by technology and 20th century experience. Look carefully – says Guallart – and you will see that many Asian cities have neighbourhoods reminiscent of those built in Europe after World War II, uniform and lacking in identity, but with buildings more than thirty storeys high.

Guallart says that it is the job of Western capitals to correct this trend. The artificial consumer city, separated from nature by an inhumane cultural and economic wall, should evolve to a city model that is more organic and ecological, and also more democratic. The author asserts that if technology is revolutionising our ways of living and working, sooner or later it will also revolutionise the organisation of our cities. Guallart is deeply understanding of the relationship between productive culture, urban culture and political culture, and it is via this relationship that he endeavours to propose a future in which cities have an almost redemptive role for humanity.

Without saying it in so many words – the tone of the book differs – Guallart seems convinced that globalisation will empower the civil ideas etched into Barcelona’s history. In the urban planning of the city’s Chief Architect, there are resonances of a certain Gaudí-like naturalism. When he says that the challenge for cities in the 21st century is becoming productive again, it seems to me that he is saying that cities must be rethought to recapture some of the mediaeval urban traditions cast aside by the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and, of course, by the invasion of Barcelona in 1714.

Barcelona’s secret

A great city is one that makes things grow, that is capable of representing a cause that transcends its material interest. Barcelona could defend the cause of its nuances, of minorities who do not need to blow things up because they know how to get things done without being trodden upon. A Judaising redoubt in the midst of post-modern Europe.

© Sagar Forniés

A couple of years ago, the ESADE Brand Institute pub­lished a study proposing that the Barcelona brand be detached from the Spain brand. The reason was that the Spain brand was associated with “sun and paella” tourism, and that this fame neutralised Barcelona’s potential as a business city.

Although the data were clear, the conclusions did not go into political issues. I took some notes because some of the figures were devastating. According to the study, just over 2% of foreigners who had visited Barcelona in 2011 related the city to the Catalan language. Only 1% of the people who had never been there made this connection. Of the visitors that had admired the city’s buildings or seen its museums or had just strolled through its streets, only 5% knew that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia. If a product’s brand is the epic summary of a reality – with its ideals and its problems – then it is clear that Barcelona does not quite have the brand it should.

This may all improve with the impact of the inde­pendence movement. At the moment, we are still where we were in 1990, when the famous critic Robert Hughes –no longer with us – realised that he could not explain the charm of Barcelona without knowing Catalonia. In Barcelona, the virtuous circle between memory, politics and nation that breathes life into the world’s great cities has, for centuries, been seized by an atavistic fear of questioning the unity of Spain. Taking things subtly down a level, as has been done in the last thirty years, or building castles in the air, like the castles that led Noucentisme to fail, no longer seems to be a reasonable way out.

Branding must begin with Barcelona placing itself at the centre of an imagery that goes deeper into its history and its personality. A brand will always be trivialised if we fail to consider that the struggle for memory is an economic and market struggle. If the Mediterranean brand has failed to get past sun ’n’ sand tourism, it is because between the idea of Barcelona and the idea of the Mediterranean, a clear idea of Catalonia has always been lacking. The exhibition of the archaeological remains of El Born, recalling the universe that was buried by the defeat of 1714, promises a change of attitude in the way we understand the city. The fact that the military frontiers have changed is also conducive to optimism. It has been centuries since Barcelona has had so much freedom to present its image to the world – to design its brand.

Now that North-American planners are promoting neighbourhood life and the old parts of cities, it might be the wrong time to separate identity from economy, and even more so to criminalise it, as has often been the case. To make a good brand, first of all Barcelona’s image needs to be reconnected to the epic period that yielded its street names and engendered its best artists and monuments. Now that the large American city cities are drawing their inspiration from the glory of the early 20th century European capitals, Barcelona has the chance to resume the project that was shattered by the Spanish Civil War. Still, if we are to become a kind of Mediterranean New York or Shanghai we need to know more about our history and learn how to make the most of it.

Today, the model of the city without a past is only profitable in countries that live off cheap labour and are run by bureaucrats who feel that democracy is fine but ultimately impractical. In the West, the industrial model has run its course; its cities can only compete with Asia through the intelligent use of energy and ideas. Now that the use of armies to steal and rob is frowned upon, culture has become the economic cornerstone of cities. Once a certain level of welfare is reached, all cities cease to be a money problem and become one of intelligence, of the ability to transform the resources and the failures of those who have gone before. Despots are always obsessed with official openings and infrastructures. However, the touchstone of city life lies in the capacity to leverage tradition and link it up with popular enthusiasm.

Encourage talent and human relationships

The future of Western cities will depend on their capacity to create a seductive atmosphere, one capable of fostering talent and human relationships. Metropolises with ambition will have to keep their citizens loyal while also making it easy for them to travel the world, becoming ambassadors for the city’s virtues and products. Culture is important because it provides a landscape for business, one that customers can literally buy into. Publicists are always telling us that the differences between cities will be determined by the strength of their brands, but I wonder if they realise that any strong brand is the result of the distillation of an ori­ginal identity, i.e. of a strong sense of one’s origins, of authenticity. It is significant that Amazon installed its headquarters in Seattle’s city centre. Microsoft, the oldest monster of globalisation, is based in a suburban area of the city, 18 kilometres away from the centre. The revitalisation of city centres reminds us of the importance of the past and of localism in the era of aeroplanes and the Internet.

Some authors, such as John Kasarda, say that urban life is destined to be built around airports. This strikes me as a very Asian solution, suitable for very specific brand-new cities like New Songdo, which is like Martorell with an airport halfway between Tokyo and Singapore. It is true that time has become more important than distance and that the fate of cities is defined by the place they hold in the transport network. But aeroplanes are very noisy and airports are monotonous, and a city’s attractiveness depends on its ability to create environments that arouse foreigners’ curiosity and are a mirror that motivates its inhabitants to defend it every day.

Commitment to the inherent reality

In the late seventies, when New York was tottering over the abyss, a publicist came up with this slogan: “I Love New York”. Today, the t-shirts bearing this message conjure up the image of a brilliant city that nurtures the dreams of the world. At that time, when New York was the city with the highest unemployment in the United States and the rich, running scared and fed up of street shootouts, were bailing out fast, the slogan rekindled a commitment that is the cornerstone of any civilised society: the commitment to one’s own reality, which means a lot more than numbers on a calculator. That publicist understood that a city’s ultimate goal is not to encourage individualism, but rather collab­oration between individuals, which is the veritable source of prestige and money.

One of the comments made about the study published by ESADE is that Barcelona’s values are tied in with Catalonia’s, but that the Catalonia brand is too small to promote the city. To my mind, this reasoning is wrong. A great city is one that makes things grow, that is capable of representing a cause that transcends its material interest. Barcelona could defend the cause of nuance, of minorities who do not need to blow things up because they know how to get things done without being trodden upon; a Judaising redoubt in the midst of post-modern Europe, the proof that not everything was lost with Nazism. If I were asked to come up with a slogan to sell the city to foreigners, I would say: “Barcelona has a secret, and its name is Catalonia”.

(And then we would discover that Catalonia is more than a nation – it is a system of cities led by Barcelona).

The Synthetic Baroque of Marta Cerdà

© Christian Maury
Illustrator and graphic designer Marta Cerdà

Three years ago, Marta Cerdà Alimbau set off for New York to seek her fortune with her photo album under her arm. She had won the ADC Young Guns award, had worked in London and Berlin and had the makings of a decent résumé, but lady luck had not yet smiled upon her. Now, as I write this, she is flying back to the United States. A studio left her a desk where she can exchange ideas with the finest creatives in the Big Apple. Since her first assault on the city, she has worked with brands such as Coca-Cola, the Penguin publishing house and Ray-Ban, and is likely to return to Catalonia with more clients. Mostly, though, I’m sure she will come back with a crate-load of ideas. And I think that is what matters most to her.

The value of a creator depends on the richness of their world, and Marta is currently conquering hers. Finding work is no longer a problem, so she can focus on self-discovery. Her works bring to mind the heritage of Catalan Art Nouveau, due to her love of both synthesis and ornamentation. She thinks her designs through, as if seeking an indisputable clarity that will stave off the most nitpicking critics and outlive passing fads. Taking a solid and simple concept, she is capable of crafting, like a goldsmith, a jewel brimming with passion that acts as an exuberant foil to her metic­ulous and cerebral personality. She insists that she has “no moral aspiration to explain anything to the world”. And while it is true that this playful side shines through more brightly than the moral side of her work, I would not be surprised if the charm of her designs becomes more incisive over the years.

When I met Marta, her character immediately made me think of her work. She is a woman of controlled spontaneity, who combines restraint with warmth, eccentricity with prudence and distance with an attention to detail. Her sense of the aesthetic is related to the way she dresses and her overall mien – the elegance of her bamboo cane body and her exotic face with its large, strong features sit so well with her independent spirit and the roots of her surname, of Visigothic origin. She does not like to be treated as an artist, and believes more in hard graft than relying on inspiration. She has a strong sense of unity, great personal ambition and respect for tradition, and she competes only with herself. If these are not the traits of an artist, then someone please tell me what are.