About Montse Serra


The management of ordinary landscapes, another type of city planning

A look at some initiatives designed to improve the urban landscape with a new vision of our cultural heritage, through proposals from the International Master’s Degree in Landscape Intervention and Heritage Management.

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The former power plant in Sant Adrià del Besòs.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The way we understand our landscapes, study them and manage them has changed considerably over the past decade. Starting in 2000, the European Landscape Convention encouraged states to promote public policies on landscape management. Here, this started to be applied in 2005 with the creation of the Landscape Observatory of Catalonia. This organization depends on the Government of Catalonia and, unfortunately, is only an advisory body; its proposals are not legally binding. The Landscape Observatory and other organizations such as the geography departments of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the University of Girona work on landscape as the relationship between nature and culture.

One of the most interesting changes in how landscapes are managed involves the analysis and management of ordinary landscapes, those that are not considered exceptional by the administrations and that, as a result, are not protected. Ordinary landscapes include the places most of us live. The preamble of the aforementioned European Convention states that we all have the right to landscape, which is essential to our quality of life.

Most landscapes aren’t exceptional, at least in the classical sense of having a unique, universal value. However, they all create a sense of place and contain a series of values. In some places, these values have been lost; in others they’ve been blurred, and we need to study them to identify them once again. Our landscapes also need to be well-managed so we can recuperate these values and keep our landscapes from being simplified, becoming thematic or turning into museums and losing their identity.

This vision drives the work of geographer Francesc Muñoz, director of the International Master’s Degree on Landscape Intervention and Heritage Management promoted by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and the Museum of the History of Barcelona (MUHBA). According to Muñoz, “in ordinary landscapes, there’s nothing to catalogue. It isn’t about looking for extraordinary elements, it’s about creating a network and associations for both culture and nature, by recovering the collective values contained in these landscapes. It’s about empowering the public on a local level.”

Through their international workshops, which involve multidisciplinary teams from different European Universities that are part of UNISCAPE (the European Network of Universities for the Implementation of the European Landscape Convention), the master’s program has provided a series of interesting and innovative proposals to recover the value of our heritage in a series of locations in Barcelona, while also considering a new use for urban space that is beneficial both to the people that live there and to the city in general.

According to Francesc Muñoz, “faced with the homogenizing tendency affecting European cities, our workshops try to reflect and offer alternative models that emphasize urban differences and understand the value of different spaces, in terms of their culture and their peculiarities.” We asked him to provide a selection of workshops on different parts of the city of Barcelona as examples of these reflections on how to manage and use ordinary landscapes.

Block courtyards in the Eixample

Photo: Pepe Navarro

The gardens of Ermessenda de Carcassona in the block courtyard at Carrer del Comte d’Urgell 145.
Photo: Pepe Navarro

The forty-eight block courtyards in the Eixample, which include almost a hundred thousand square metres of space reclaimed in recent years, are an opportunity to rethink the qualities of public spaces in 21st-century cities. The workshop considered proposals to establish relationships between city blocks and reclaimed interior spaces, using digital technologies or considering new designs, taking into account issues like climate change or citizen environmental awareness.

School routes in Gràcia

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The school routes in Gràcia.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

This workshop suggested introducing children to the process of diagnosing and planning urban public spaces to guarantee their empowerment as active citizens and their capacity to offer ideas and proposals. The paths taken by families on their way home from school in the afternoons were digitally mapped to detect where children spend the most time and the places they most often visit during the week. Then, by working together with children, their visual and landscape preferences were established. From 2013 to 2015, four new school paths were set up in Gràcia, while others are currently being considered or redesigned.

Shared landscapes: the Pere IV axis

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The intersection of Pere IV and Badajoz, in El Poblenou, where an attempt is being made to promote ordinary urban heritage.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The international workshop considered the need to work with ordinary urban heritage and the opportunities it can provide. In the case of El Poblenou, certain landscape elements such as alleys, party walls, leftover elements from former factories or even fire escapes make up a whole new cartography, partly latent and partly hidden, involving values of identity. It’s a real “catalogue of everyday heritage” that intervention in the urban landscape can clearly activate, making every-day heritage into a new and promising tool for urban planning in the context of the current city.

Water-based heritage

Photo: Pepe Navarro

The Rec Comtal, the medieval canal that once supplied the city with water.
Photo: Pepe Navarro

When recuperating the former industrial heritage of the city, lesser elements are often forgotten, such as those having to do with water: constructions to store and contain it, lavoirs, fountains… Today, these constitute a cultural heritage (tangible or intangible, depending on the case) which can still be taken advantage of. In the case of the neighbourhoods of Trinitat Vella with the Casa de l’Aigua (Water House) and Sant Andreu with the Rec Comtal canal, the workshops proposed urban itineraries to reconnect citizens with this cultural heritage, as attractive spaces that represent Barcelona’s industrial identity and memory. Along these lines, organizations like the Centre d’Estudis Ignasi Iglésias, among others, organize activities to promote knowledge of the Rec Comtal, such as exhibits and itineraries.

The waterfront

Photo: HEMAV

The waterfront.
Photo: HEMAV

Starting in the 1980s, almost all of Europe’s old ports were transformed into new spaces for recreation and entertainment, and most are quite similar. In the case of Barcelona’s waterfront, the urban experience with water is minimal, even though water takes up quite a large area.

For the Moll de la Fusta, the workshop came up with specific initiatives and redesign projects for the waterfront that would bring citizens closer to the watery landscape while also establishing new relationships among different spaces in the port sector, which could help to return citizens’ “right to landscape” as far as water is concerned.

Large industrial spaces: Besòs power plant

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The former power plant in Sant Adrià del Besòs.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The thermal power plant in Sant Adrià de Besòs closed in the summer of 2010. Since then, five international workshops have been organized with the goal of preparing projects to recycle it, contemplating its value both in terms of landscape and heritage. A group of ten European and American universities, represented by some two hundred students and professors, have worked to maintain this facility as a landscape monument with a clear metropolitan character.

This coming summer, a sixth workshop will be organized to summarize all the work done so far. The common thread in these different proposals lies in considering the value of the power plant in terms of landscape and heritage, as a catalyser for an entirely new landscape on the Besòs coast, capable of combining different types of economic, social, cultural and heritage-based uses; an active cluster of new activities and relationships between areas, inspired by the aesthetic and landscape-based value of a privileged metropolitan icon.

Jaume Plensa: “Works of art are a little David facing a giant architectural Goliath”

Sculptor Jaume Plensa has just won the Barcelona City Prize in the ‘International Impact’ category. He is enjoying a new millennium of vibrant creativity and increasing recognition. From his studio, Plensa shares his thoughts on the humanisation of art and the role of his art in public spaces.

© Pere Virgili

The studio of sculptor Jaume Plensa occupies a warehouse in an industrial estate in Sant Feliu de Llobregat. A bare, icy space with no remarkable features, it initially seemed to Plensa a place of exile. But now he’s made it his own: “It’s a non-place, situated between a rubbish tip, which I see as a storage facility for memories, and the cemetery, which is the future. This studio is virgin territory. That’s why I like it. I’ve been here for twenty-three years now.” As an internationally renowned artist with works on display in dozens of cities across the world, Jaume Plensa could have settled in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, New York or Chicago, but his workshop lies right next to Barcelona, to the great advantage of our city, where he was born in 1955.

Whilst it was his work with cast iron that brought him international prestige, Plensa is an artist that has also experimented with sound and light. He has been working with other materials for fifteen years now, frequently with the human body as his focus. His public sculptures are very recognisable, like the large heads of adolescent girls with their eyes closed, bodies made out of words or letters of the  alphabet, or figures in contemplative poses sitting on top of masts or with their arms around trees. Inside the studio, where a seven-strong team works, lie some of these pieces. Some of them are about to depart for Santa Fe while other, smaller ones are studies for some pieces that have been exhibited at Augsburg. In one corner two craftsmen give form to the sculpture that Plensa will be unveiling at the church of San Giorgio Maggiore during the Venice Biennale in May.

Plensa argues that beauty is one of the essential elements of his work. He is particularly well known for his sculptures in public spaces, a genre that still remains virgin territory (as it is misunderstood and often mediocre). A contemplative man, conscious of the role that his work must fulfil and of the positive impact that it must have on the community in which it is located, he becomes almost transcendental when he speaks of poetry as a revolutionary driver for creativity, and of silence in a world that is too noisy, where it is difficult to find oneself.

This desire to convey beauty through your work has a great deal of kindness in it. But do you not find the word “beauty” an uncomfortable one, since beauty is really in the eye of the beholder?

I don’t think that beauty is uncomfortable. Maybe people feel uncomfortable about beauty, because it is an instrument of extraordinary political force; because it makes no concessions. Beauty is not something one can negotiate with. It just is. That carries a lot of weight in the world of art because it is one of the major things that an artist must give throughout his or her creative career. Of course you can ask, what is beauty? I believe beauty is the vast place where you, he and I, everyone, can find ourselves. It’s very closely linked with memory. Once, when I was having a few drinks in Santiago de Compostela with José Ángel Valente, who is an outstanding poet, he said: “Jaume, never forget that memory is more vast than our recollections”. Beauty is like that. I can think of no more important purpose than to create beauty. One might make mistakes, one might get it right (that’s for others to say) but this desire is primary.

Do you understand the reason for this discomfort?

Currently, at this turn of the century, there’s a kind of blurring of the meaning of words. When one talks of morals, ethics, beauty and poetry, these words appear to have been misinterpreted, because they’re seen as old-fashioned, anachronistic, romantic. I don’t agree with that at all. We need to give the original content and meaning back to these words. Beauty, or the search for beauty, is an intrinsic part of the human condition. It’s also true that sometimes we are more interested in the notion of the grotesque or the ugly, but that’s alright because, by contrast, we’re also talking about beauty.

You were born to a family in which literature and music was very important. You went through the Llotja Advanced School of Art and Design and spent a couple of years in Fine Arts, soon after you left for Berlin, then Brussels and Paris and became a man on the move. Yet your first exhibition was held at Espai 13 in the Miró Foundation in Barcelona. Did that have any impact on you?

It was important. Miró and Calder were my heroes when I was little. They gave me an amazing outlook, and I’m glad to see that the world is beginning to understand Miró a little better. There has been a kind of rediscovery of Miró, because people had misunderstood him. Espai 13 was a great experience because through that I also met Joan Brossa and Antoni Tàpies. Tàpies and I became great friends. He was someone I didn’t just admire but venerated, because to me he was like a Renaissance artist; a very well-rounded man. Around that time I also met Chillida.

How did that go?

I managed to exhibit some forged metal pieces at the Madrid ARCO fair through a gallery in Vic called La Tralla. I saw Chillida from afar as he was walking towards the stand. He stood in front of the works and asked: “Who’s the artist?” When he shook my hand, I was shaking with nerves. And he said: “Jaume, keep up that purity”. I thought to myself that if Chillida liked it, I’d have to radically change my work, because I was sure it was bad. It was obviously a way of killing off one’s father. So I completely changed my work.

This talk of Chillida reminds me of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), because of the piece situated outside the museum, I suppose. Will the MACBA put on an exhibition of your work?

I’ve never gone looking for anything in my life, I’ve always just found opportunities along the way. I’ve always followed a rather individual and solitary path.

You have works or you’ve exhibited in Berlin, Chicago, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Venice, Frankfurt, London and dozens of other cities. Your works are recognisable wherever they are, regardless of the disparate settings they are in. This career that you’ve made for yourself by creating public art has also made you something of an expert in cities.

Firstly I should say that art is always public. So when I hear the phrase “public art”, I don’t get it. I understand art in public spaces. I’ve worked with opera and I’ve always thought of the theatre as a public space. And museums are also public spaces. A gallery is a private public space. Having said that, working in a community’s public space (a street, a square, a park) is really interesting because it is a wilderness, it has no context. When you work in these spaces, there is nothing to state that the piece is a work of art. It has to fend for itself. But when I exhibit at a gallery or museum, the visitors are predisposed to finding something one can call art. We are living through a very interesting period because what we might call monuments (or commemorations) are made by architects.

© Pere Virgili

Does the prevalence of architecture affect the way art is made for public spaces?

Today, a city’s landmarks are architectural; its landmarks are its buildings, and this has given artists a fantastic opportunity to express other things. We don’t need to commemorate anymore, that’s what architects do. And one of the things this allows artists to do is to give form to the scent of a community. In the perfumery business there are certain plants that are used to set the fragrance so the scent doesn’t disappear. I believe that art in a public space is that humble little plant that helps to set the fragrance of a community, to give it an identity and a value. It delves into a world that is already there and completes it or helps it to regenerate, breathing new life into it.

How do you get close to a city?

When I’m invited to work for a city’s public space, I try to understand the everyday life of the community. Let me explain using an example: I did a project in Calgary, in front of a new building designed by Norman Foster – it was a curved building, creating a square in the city centre. A group of art advisers thought it a good idea to ask me for a piece that would give the place a new spirit. I remember the meetings we had in London, where everyone kept warning me about scale, because of the size of Foster’s building. But I wasn’t in the least bit interested in looking at the relationship with the scale of the building. I wanted a relationship with people. My piece, which is twelve metres tall in front of a building that is one hundred fifty metres tall, forms a bridge that somehow protects the little ants that we have become around these gigantic buildings that crush us. Works of art are like a little David facing a gigantic Goliath. Art creates the link that humanises the space, because it gives scale to the human being. Art in a public space once again has a leading role to play, because of the need to give people the tools to feel like people again, because architecture has lost its essential purpose of embracing people. We should go back to a more human form of architecture.

You believe strongly in the need to create a link between art and the community. Is this one of your major contributions?

In my work, I have always wanted to connect with the community, with people. I love people, wherever they’re from. That’s why I like travelling so much. Every single one of my memories of a city is linked to the people I met there.

The Crown Fountain in Chicago is a piece of art that expresses this purpose very well.

Yes, it’s a great example of that aim to make people the protagonists, the soul. It’s these anonymous people that make a society. Society is a permanent community that is fluid, like water. That’s why that piece is so important.

The sculpture that you’ve designed for Barcelona, a project that is currently on hold, is also one that you link to water.

It’s a piece that I envisage to be not in water, but in front of water. When Mayor Trias invited me to create a piece, I did it with all my enthusiasm, knowing full well that it might never be made. Just as the sculptures designed by Miró were never made, nor the piece envisaged by Tàpies… I signed up because I’m also from Barcelona, but ours is a complex city. No one cares how much money is spent on a football player, but any money for the arts is seen as squandering, that it’s money needed for other things.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get over this problem. Our generations deserve to be able to aspire to leave some trace of our presence here, and I am stunned by the lack of courage to create landmarks that solely serve as expressions of beauty. I know that this is a time of major economic crisis, but it’s also a major crisis of values. It’s all connected. I think that it would really lift the spirits of the city to place a piece whose purpose is to just exist, to create beauty without any component of business in it.

Put like this, in such a romantic way, I think there are enough people in the city to give financial support to the project. I’ve never asked any government for anything – I strongly believe in private initiative. The piece would certainly put the city on the map, and it would be very good for the future of Barcelona.

As an expert in cities, how do you see the way Barcelona has evolved in the last few years, how its space has been occupied? Part of the population is critical of the tourism phenomenon, which it believes is not being managed well. What do you think?

Wherever you go in the world, you always incite a bit of envy when you say you’re from Barcelona. It’s a city with a peculiar balance: it’s small enough to have a human scale to it, but large enough to communicate with the rest of the world. It’s obviously not London or Paris or Madrid or New York, but if one doesn’t lose one’s sense of scale, it is an extraordinary city which, granted, is currently suffering from a bit of excess. But if you go to Vienna, it’s the same thing, Paris even more so, and Rome is just crazy. The fault I find with Barcelona, and I’ve already said this, is the lack of engagement of the public and the private sector in the city’s cultural growth. Passeig de Gràcia is now one big hypermarket, Rambla de Catalunya is not far off and all the galleries have disappeared. People don’t buy art in our galleries so what do you expect? For them to survive on nothing? Instead of going to buy art in other places, buy it here. Meanwhile, people from other cities come here to drink sangria. That is the issue, because I believe that Barcelona is rather more than a pitcher of sangria. The city’s population should be making a huge effort to revitalise the entire arts system.

Closing the circle: three leading sommeliers

First it was chefs who took Catalan avant-garde cuisine to the very summit of international opinion. Winemakers followed, with creations born from their terroir which made a great name for themselves. And now sommeliers are bringing things full circle, ensuring that both the food and wines are properly explained to diners.

© Enrique Marco
Roger Viusà

Roger Viusà, César Cánovas and Ferran Centelles are three sommeliers with a stunning knowledge of wines and cooking. They have headed and continue to head some of the country’s foremost restaurants and wine bars. They are young and they started out even younger. They all emphasise the fact that they enjoy dealing with people. All three of them reached the wine world somewhat unintentionally. But this territory of senses and landscape entrapped them through its intangible qualities, and also through the wisdom needed to care for a vineyard and expertise in the wine cellar.

The sommeliers we have chosen complement each other. They represent different backgrounds and different options within this world and help us to understand the range of possibilities the profession has to offer: César Cánovas (Monistrol de Montserrat, 1971), National Gastronomy Award winner in 2011, has been voted the best sommelier in Spain twice, best sommelier in Catalonia twice and has also won the Ruinart Trophy twice. He was born into a family of restaurateurs, the owners of the Racó d’en Cesc in Barcelona. There, against his family’s will, he built his first wine cellar. Years later he would become the head of the team of sommeliers of Monvínic in Barcelona, considered by media such as The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal as one of the best wine bars in the world.

Ferran Centelles (Barcelona, 1981) carried off the special Sommelier Award 2010 at the National Gastronomy Awards. He had no relatives in the gastronomy sector but started to study hotel and catering because he wanted to be a chef, ending up as sommelier of El Bulli for twelve years (2000–2012). After that he took to teaching and to spreading wine culture. He has recently become an international opinion leader, the specialist for Catalonia and Spain for Jancis Robinson, a world-acclaimed British wine critic, wine journalist and Master of Wine.

Roger Viusà (Roses, 1978) claimed the title for second-best sommelier in the world and the best in Europe in 2008, a year after receiving this same distinction in Spain. He started out as a kitchen help in several hotels on the Costa Brava. It was there that he made contact with the restaurant and wine world. He discovered that he had an extraordinary taste memory and simply went for it. Wine gave him a professional “reason why” and a personal passion. He trained alongside Josep Roca in El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, now regarded as the best restaurant in the world. He subsequently joined the Moo restaurant in Barcelona’s Hotel Omm, the first to offer a pairing menu in the city. He now has his own establishment, Plaça del Vi 7 wine bar in Girona.

© Enrique Marco
César Cánovas

Caught up in wine

None of these young sommeliers had ever imagined that they would specialise in the world of wines. So what was so enticing about the wine world that led them all to forge a career in it? When César Cánovas began to work in the family restaurant, he recalls that there was no creative incentive until the day he had to make up his first wine list. Centelles wanted to be a chef, not a sommelier, although, as he himself puts it, “wine found me”. The pleasure of tasting wines eventually became a profession. And Roger Viusà, after training with Jaume Subirós from the Motel Empordà in Figueres and the restaurant’s sommelier Jaume Portell, took charge of El Celler de Can Roca, which transmitted to him a kind of essential and poetic philosophy linked to the idea of a job well done, the land and natural wines.

After discovering this world, the young sommeliers took up the gauntlet of carving out a professional career. César Cánovas turned the wine lists of his parents’ restaurant upside down, doing away with wines that had taken root there through a flawed and somewhat unprofessional dynamic, proposing stimulating alternatives. “We came from a hotel world where wine was bought by the crate, determined by price and motivated by friendship,” he recalls. Taking risks and winning tasting competitions brought him renown and led Sergi Ferrer-Salat to call him to kick off the Monvínic adventure six years ago. This wine bar aims to be a world benchmark and this ambition makes the work of a sommelier even more complex. Monvínic usually stocks 3,500 to 4,000 wines from twenty different countries.

The case of Ferran Centelles is diametrically opposite, since at the tender age of seventeen he ended up in El Bulli, already a world benchmark for gastronomy, where he stayed until the summer of 2012 when the restaurant closed. It was in El Bulli that Centelles moved toward the wine world, even though it was not a pairing restaurant. He remembers that it was an extremely creative, modern cuisine where everything else took a back seat. “I used to open large bottles of wine after lunch, after coffee, for many clients, as a way of celebrating their meal,” he says.

© Enrique Marco
Ferran Centelles

After a spell at El Celler de Can Roca, Roger Viusà took up the position of sommelier at the Moo restaurant in Hotel Omm in Barcelona. It was the first restaurant in the city to pair all the dishes on the menu, which meant that there could be up to six wines for each menu. At that time Viusà also became an internationally renowned sommelier. However, unlike others, he had always wanted to run his own business to be able to offer more daring and personal wine and food options. In 2010 he partnered up with Carlos Orta, owner of the Villa Mas restaurant in San Feliu de Guíxols, and they agreed to start up the Plaça del Vi 7 wine bar in Girona, which opened on 5 January 2012. That is the story so far, and one that he is very happy with. It is a quality establishment, where Viusà opts for natural wines, vigneron wines as they are known, marked by the character of the land, the vineyard, the weather, respect for each vintage and inevitably by the character and personality of the wine-makers.

Ferran Centelles left the restaurant business to concentrate on teaching and disseminating his knowledge of all things wine, and he also reviews wines: over the last year and a half he has set up Wineissocial.com with two friends, a virtual wine club whose aim is to promote wine culture and wine-drinking in a simple and economically feasible way. He also teaches at Outlook Wine, the subsidiary in Catalonia and Spain of these British wine courses, managed here by the sommelier David Molina. Centelles is in charge of the drinks department of Bullipèdia, part of Ferran Adrià’s elBulliFoundation project. And for some months now he has also been the Spanish specialist for Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s most influential wine journalists. This position, which he regards as a responsibility and a source of knowledge rather than of prestige, is important for Catalan wines because Centelles is an international opinion leader who knows this area very well.