The city seemed to have lost its most genuine promenade for ever, or at least that’s what a lot of people thought. The Km_Zero team won the ideas competition to improve the Rambla with a project that sets out to catalyse collective hope in its rebirth.
‘La Rambla’ – or ‘Les Rambles’, as people prefer to call this avenue to stress its multiplicity and diversity and out of respect for the traditional and more widespread name – will be redesigned thanks to the Km_Zero team that won the contest for the comprehensive improvement of this all-important Barcelona street. The architect Itziar González (1967), a former city councillor and a resident of Ciutat Vella, is leading the project, which she talks about in this interview. She receives us on the ground floor of the Palau de la Virreina, where she’s been working with her team for weeks and where all residents are welcome to join in.
On the following pages, Itziar González speaks to us of the changes she foresees in the avenue and the horizontal method she wants to use so that everybody who wants to can take part. A year from now the main guidelines will have to be decided and the work could begin.
Let’s start with the trees, those wonderful trees.
The natural element of the trees is essential. The trees are very close together and because of that they’ve grown very tall in search of the light. So from the balconies you can see the avenue, because the crowns don’t block the view. Intuition tells us that the tree, as a presence, as a generator of atmosphere, should be closer to the rest areas. I’m talking as a resident now; it’s a shame having trees all around you without being able to enjoy them. We already have very specific reports on the condition of the trees, but this information hasn’t been released. We want our specialist on trees, Josep Selga, a biologist and expert, to take it, weigh it up and share it with everyone. And it’ll either be validated, or it won’t.
Objective: to get away from the tourist monoculture.
When we talk about getting away from the monoculture, we do so as a general challenge: our city shouldn’t be so specialised. We can’t have parts of the city that are exclusively for the use of a single group of people. And now, especially after the terrorist attack, the people of Barcelona carry the Rambla in their hearts. The reason people give for not coming here is precisely that they find the Rambla too targeted on the tourist trade. The challenge before us is to get the people of Barcelona to reconnect with the idea that the Rambles are home to the most collective expression of the city, a setting for demonstrations and rebellions, with an impressive architectural heritage, and a central space between two intense neighbourhoods: the Raval and the Gothic Quarter. All of this is what makes it a must to rescue the promenade as a place where the people of Barcelona can live life actively.
Objective: make the economic circuit visible and redistribute the benefits. I don’t know if this will be easy.
We don’t know enough about what’s happening in the Rambles. We’re stuck with a series of stereotypes: there are lots of tourists, the restaurants aren’t very good. There are too many negative comments against the Rambla and our team is convinced that the best way is to neutralise the negativity a bit by being objective. What we’re saying is that we don’t know much about the economic circuit in place there. We don’t know the real activity it generates, or what sort of wealth. Do the restaurants here do their shopping at the Boqueria market? How does this awesomely unique device for city construction we call the Rambla feed economic processes for the rest of the city? One of our team, Ernest Canyada, is an expert in the analysis of the employment situation in the world of tourism. To generate this collective debate we could gather all the information and sort through it, put it on the table. We believe that’s the best way to combat the negativity. Anyone who thinks that slamming the Rambla helps to change it is wrong.
Will rents for flats be included in the economic circuit?
The avenue was planted with plane trees so that the roots would retain the earth when there were floods. The fact that the trees are in straight lines is a feature of it. In the same way, then, the volume of residents will guarantee community dynamics. Let’s look at what’s happened with Portal de l’Àngel, for example. The regulations didn’t allow department stores to open if there were residents above. But what’s happened? I remember from when I was a councillor: somehow or other, these residents gradually disappeared. I talk about this in my book Per no perdre peu, which brings Alexandre de Cirici’s Barcelona, pam a pam up to date. Now, at night, Portal de l’Àngel is a desolate space. We don’t want this to happen in the Rambla as well.
How many people live in the Rambla?
So far as we know, 120.
What? Only 120?
There are more residents registered there. But according to figures by SOS Rambles there are very few. All these figures need to be checked. Now we feel like privileged intermediaries. This work, bringing figures to light, is also part of our work. Esteve Boix, one of our collaborators, is working on just that.
You speak of dealing subtly with security issues. Has Article 155 affected you? Will you have to put up with bollards?
Certainly there are measures that will affect our work. Now the challenge facing Km_Zero is to find a non-defensive way to protect the Rambla. We’re very much against making the Rambla an enclosed precinct.
Let’s start at the beginning. In Plaça de Catalunya there’s a geological problem.
There’s the topography. In Plaça de Catalunya there’s what’s called a talus. Between the Barcelona plain and Ciutat Vella there’s a difference in height. It shows very clearly in Carrer d’Estruc and Carrer de les Moles, in the respective connections with Carrer Fontanella, which are very steep. Our aim, as I said, is to ensure easy movement of people.
Does the Rambla lead to Colom? It’s not clear.
The nicest way to end the Rambles is at the Golondrines pleasure boats. I want to tip the wink to our colleagues on the Golondrines, who are members of the board of Amics de la Rambla (Friends of the Rambla) and have always been very committed to the avenue. The Rambles lead to the seafront, and its continuation isn’t via the Rambla del Mar, which leads to the Maremagnum, but bordering Passeig de Colom facing the sea.
There are several military buildings on the seafront. Could the city take them over to put them to new use?
It’s an idea: putting these buildings to collective, cultural uses. We could house libraries in them. We’ve also got the Civil Government building, the Post Office. Whatever the case, it’s obvious that the Rambla reconnects with a seafront and consequently it has to be able to grasp Barcelona’s maritime nature to rescue it from the mercantilism of the port, which once again turns its back on the city.
How many outstanding buildings are there on the Rambla?
There are more than 30 individual listed buildings: the Antiga Foneria de Canons (Old Cannon Foundry), Casa March, the Teatre Principal, Casa Xuriguer, Casa Fradera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the Palau de la Virreina (Virreina Palace), the Casa dels Paraigües (Umbrella House)… From the point of view of the urban landscape, the Rambla is something to be protected and showcased as a cultural and environmental space. There are lots of stories to be found in the sgraffiti that were done on the façades to disguise the addition of extra storeys to the original buildings. Right here, opposite the Palau de la Virreina, there’s a sgraffito with some little angels looking down and saying ‘There are four of us now’. Four stories!
Where else in Catalonia can you find so many facilities where culture-related activities go on together in one place? Starting with the Institut Municipal de Cultura (Municipal Institute of Culture) itself, in the Palau de la Virreina, and then several theatres, hotels where important people connected with contemporary history have stayed – such as the Continental, the Quatre Nacions or the Lloret –, homes of cultural entities, establishments like the Beethoven music shop, etc. We’re making a map of all the facilities connected with culture, science and technology. The idea of the Rambla as a cultural space is fundamental. In this respect, among other initiatives, we’re thinking up a possible strategy for drawing up joint programmes.
One classic dilemma: are we going to get rid of the traffic or not?
The Ciutat Vella mobility plan is being debated now and we’ve got to fit in the proposal that is most in line with the general strategies. However, our mobility expert, Ole Thorson, prefers us to speak of ‘movement’, the movement of people. And we’ll end up deciding between us all how the presence of cars should be organised. There are important questions to be considered, linked to logistics and public transport.
And now a question about method: how do you get people to cooperate?
A few months ago Voreres, la memòria subtil was presented, a book by Frederic Perers published by the City Council, about the street pavement tiles with lettering on them. Another book that appeared at the same time was Emilio Farré-Escofet’s Escofet, símbol industrial de Barcelona. Arts, disseny i arquitectura en la creació de valor, published by Angle Editorial. In a single month two views on how the city is urbanised were presented and both of them show there was a moment when industrial initiative recognised the chance to contribute to the general interest through urban improvement. Originally, the City Council made house owners pay for the cost of building pavements outside their property, but gradually it took over the expense of all the city’s urbanising. And this is where Frederic Perers detects that the administration’s bureaucratic machinery is often blind. When the democratic town councils took power and street names were updated, the plaques on the façades were changed but the names on the pavements weren’t touched. That’s why, for example, you could find a plaque on a façade that said ‘Diagonal’, but on the pavement was the name ‘Avenida Generalísimo Franco’. Voreres contains an artistic action by Perers, in which he rescues some abandoned lettered pavement tiles and rearranges them to spell out the slogan ‘Els carrers seran sempre nostres’ (The streets will always be ours’). This is exactly the spirit behind the work of Km_Zero. We want to return a finesse and a closeness to the administration that bureaucracy often doesn’t allow. It’s a question of distributing roles. I always speak of administrative therapy, the administration is in need of therapy. And it needs to put itself in the shoes of other agents and not accumulate so much decision-making power. Because running the city isn’t the same as constructing the city. There’s a big difference.
The actual ideas competition for improving the Rambla required the creation of an interdisciplinary team. They wanted sociologists, economists, architects, engineers, environmental experts, etc. We’ve invited people who have already been working in Ciutat Vella for some time and know it well. For example, Iolanda Fresnillo’s Ekona team, Sergi Cutillas, Pablo Cotarelo and Itziar Giménez, who drew up the plan called ‘Queda’t a Ciutat Vella’ (Stay in Ciutat Vella), or Paul B. Preciado, who collaborated with the MACBA as director of its public programmes and has been working for some time on the role of culture as a constructor of public space. I myself was Councillor for Ciutat Vella and I live 20 metres from the Rambla. Olga Tarrasó, for her part, was jointly responsible for re-urbanising the dockland promenades on Moll de Barcelona and Moll de la Barceloneta, and Lona Domènech’s studio signed the restoration of the space around the Carmen Amaya fountain in La Barceloneta and the remodelling of Passeig de Sant Joan.
‘Les Rambles’ or ‘La Rambla’?
Traditionally the name of the promenade is remembered in the plural, ‘Les Rambles’. But in the administration it’s ‘La Rambla’. We’ve chosen to call it ‘Les Rambles’ because they’re many and diverse. Some people want one Rambla and others want another. Finally, on the basis of our analysis we saw that the Rambla is outside the city walls and that spaces, or squares, were generated at the gates: Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de les Flors, etc. They were ‘Les Rambles’, a chain of points spatially centred on themselves. Our idea, our intuition, is that there should be a concatenation of ‘Rambles’, like agoras, that break with the central passageway devoted almost exclusively to the tourist trade.
Provide free internet in the Rambla! You’ll fill it with residents.
These things aren’t enough. It’s the case of the Apple establishment on Plaça Catalunya, which attracts masses of people because there’s good Wi-Fi on the pavement outside. The other day, when Councillor Gala Pin presented our Km_Zero team to residents and organisations, a man called for day centres for old people and nursery schools! We believe that if you carefully study routes to school, playing spaces, the most comfortable spots for sitting, there’s more chance that residents will want to come back.
Rehabilitation or large-scale works? Relocate or make anew?
We take an all-round view which at the same time respects the existing patrimonial surroundings. If we have to work below street level to improve the condition of the plane trees, we will. There are tunnels and shelters down there that will have to be taken into account. We’ll also focus on a study of housing and conditions in the buildings, especially those that are publicly owned. The residents who asked us to take part in the competition will audit our work and make sure that when the whole process is over there won’t just be improvements in the street, but also, for example, that lift they’ve been asking for for so long.
The project’s great danger and great hope?
The great hope is that we will finally be able to do things together – residents, City Council and experts – to show that it’s possible to redirect current trends in the Rambla. Too many people have already given up the Rambla as a lost cause! And we see this project as a chance to realise the collective hope of rescuing it from its disenchanting inertia. Now it’s a space for unity. It’s up to the team not to betray this hope. The great obstacle will be the presence of people with an individualist view of what should be done, people who don’t accept the rules of the cooperative game. We want the whole process to be transparent and public, so that decisions can be taken collectively and discussed openly. We defend dynamic planning that adapts to the new and changing challenges arising in an epicentre of globality like the Rambles.
Do you see this as a personal challenge?
The job is for one year. In fact I owed the Ciutat Vella district one year of work, as I resigned as councillor in my third year. So I’ll have fulfilled my commitment to work for Barcelona for four years! You might say a cycle has closed. Soon after beginning my term of office, coinciding with the feast day of El Roser, I announced my intention to start work on an all-round operation in the Rambles. It was 28 September 2007, and look: ten years later it looks as though I’ll be able to help make it come true.