Hermitage, the museum project rattling the Barceloneta neighbourhood

Vista des del mar de Barcelona amb la plaça de la Rosa dels Vents, l'Hotel W i una part de la platja de Sant Sebastià, en primer pla, i Montjuïc i el World Trade Center, al fons. © Hemav. Ajuntament de Barcelona.

The possible arrival of the Hermitage Museum to the port of Barcelona is met with scepticism and discord in the Barceloneta neighbourhood. While some believe it will mark an opportunity to transform the economy, others fear it is a trick that will exacerbate the overtourism of an already crowded neighbourhood. The project has undergone modifications since the initial agreements in 2012, but the underlying issue remains. Beyond the endless promises of wealth and employment, what impact will it bear on the neighbourhood and on the city?

When the promenade Passeig de Joan de Borbó breaks to the right, the Barceloneta neighbourhood splits in two. The two swimming clubs (Atlètic Barceloneta and Natació Barcelona) occupy the central stretch of a strip of land along which the Sant Sebastià beach extends westward and a languishing Passeig de Joan de Borbó boulevard extends to the east. At the end of this artificial urban peninsula is a roundabout; beyond lies the gigantic Desigual warehouse; next to it is the sail-like structure of the W hotel; and in the background, as the city’s final frontier from the sea, the huge esplanade (called Plaça de la Rosa dels Vents) where the Hermitage Museum branch is to be built.

After six years of the project to-ing and fro-ing, in April 2018, the Barcelona City Council Plenary Meeting finally approved the reform of the Nova Bocana area in Port Vell. In this document the central space of the inlet was redesignated for cultural use, thus allowing Barcelona Port Authority (APB), in possession of the deed to the land, to open the call for proposals. More than a year later, in June 2019, the BOE [Spanish Official State Gazette] published the application for the awarding of the plot corresponding to the central building of the inlet’s approved renovation plan (1a/31.3.b) to the company Museo Hermitage Barcelona, SL. Its CEO, Ujo Pallarés, is the only visible face of the project after the death, in March 2018, of the other promoter, in charge of the museum proposal, Jorge Wagensberg, a prestigious figure who designed and directed Barcelona’s CosmoCaixa museum.

In late June the project currently on the table was made public, designed by the architect Toyo Ito, winner of the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize, and builder of the Hospitalet Fair building. A much more elaborate project than the version presented earlier in 2016, with wavy, very marine-like forms. During the presentation, the developers focused on underlining the importance of Ito’s central building, affirming that it would become a city icon. In addition, they stressed that the museum would have its own collection, that it would be endowed with works purchased, donated or conceived within the very spaces of artistic creation contemplated by the project. In an interview granted to the newspaper La Razón in 2018, the developer Ujo Pallarés claimed that the benefits for the neighbourhood would be enormous. He denied that the Hermitage sought a high-profile audience and assured that the museum would be open to the neighbourhood: “We are the best neighbours they could have.”

Some of the residents, among them L’Òstia Residents’ Association, brought together in the Plataforma per un Port Ciutadà [Platform for a Citizen Port], lodged fifteen claims with the APB in July to put a stop to the project: “We do not want the Hermitage. And the latest reform proposal for the Nova Bocana area in Port Vell must be reversed”, argues Daniel Pardo, a member of the platform and the Assembly of Neighbourhoods for Sustainable Tourism (ABTS). “We need a fourth reform of the area, which must be undertaken with genuine neighbourhood participation.” In contrast, the Barceloneta Residents’ Association thinks differently: “We are interested in a project that believes our neighbourhood may be suitable to foster something as neglected as culture has been in recent years”, declares Manel Martínez, head of communication for said association.

In the licence the Hermitage plans to open its doors in 2022, at a cost of 52 million euros, of which 35.8 million correspond to the cost of production and five million are earmarked for the architecture and museum projects. The commission for the latter has been entrusted to the late Wagensberg’s studio. Another five million have been paid to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to cover the license, in exchange for the transfer of a certain number of works for a period of 50 years.

In any case, Barcelona City Council will have the last word over whether or not the museum will be installed. Municipal sources indicate that the APB must request the express consent of Barcelona City Council, which must be reflected in a specific agreement between both institutions. The plenary meeting will decide whether or not it allows the museum to be built and whether the port is the best location or it can be located elsewhere. Moving the museum would help decentralise the tourism suffocating a neighbourhood-peninsula such as the Barceloneta. Among the location options under consideration is the area of the Besòs chimneys, the vestiges of the thermal power station. As regards this possibility, Daniel Pardo believes that “although it would not further congest the Barceloneta, it would still be bad news. After all, it would not imply curbing tourism, but moving it.” The developers do not seem to be interested in that area either because they prefer the proximity of the cruise ships.

Imatge virtual del projecte de Museu Hermitage per a Barcelona. © Museu Hermitage Barcelona. Virtual image of the Hermitage Barcelona Museum design. © Hermitage Barcelona Museum.

The city hall agreed that the decision hinges on the departments of Ecology and Urban Planning, Culture, and Economy and Budgeting. And it will be taken following the appraisal of four reports that have already been commissioned: one on mobility, to be carried out by Ole Thorson; another on the urban planning impact, to be executed by the architect Maria Rubert de Ventós; a third on economic viability, to be prepared by the economist Xavier Cubeles, and, finally, a fourth report on cultural value to be compiled by Josep Ramoneda.

The investment required to bring the Hermitage Museum to Barcelona would be private. Eighty per cent of the shares of the concessionary company, Museo Hermitage Barcelona, SL, are controlled by the Swiss-Luxembourgish investment fund Varia Europe. The remaining 20% belongs to Cultural Development Barcelona, owned by Ujo Pallarés, who signed the 50-year agreement with the Russian museum in 2012.

The members of the Plataforma per un Port Ciutadà fear that the museum will ultimately need some level of public investment to guarantee its viability. “Museums do not survive alone”, Daniel Pardo explains. “Unless they are like the Barça one. And as has occurred with other branches of the Hermitage Museum around the world, there are only two ways: secure public funding or close down.” Municipal sources warn that the project presented must be accompanied by a rigorous feasibility study. The City Council is not willing to eventually rescue a failed initiative, as has happened elsewhere in Europe.

According to the project details published last June, 16,493 square metres are to be built, of which 3,782 metres (less than 23%) would be designated exhibition space. The remaining space would be assigned to offices, a cloakroom, multipurpose rooms, an auditorium, three coffee shops, an art library, a VIP room and two terraces; as well as, needless to say, a museum gift shop. The developers are confident that thanks to these services and the cost of admission, which Ujo Pallarés said in February 2018 will be “less expensive than that of the most expensive museum in Barcelona”, the Hermitage will be viable.

Conflicting rhythms

Urban rhythms on both sides of this part of the Barceloneta are at odds with one another. To the west, the traffic is dense. Bus lines V15 and V19 get to this point in the city, and load and unload members of the swimming clubs, visibly recognisable from their sports gear and gym bags. Old shipyards and former garrisons of the Guardia Civil [Spanish Civil Guard] conceal the silhouette of a row of luxury cruise ships, and the city in the background. On the other side of the sports facilities, to the east, the hum of background music on the terraces adjacent to the W hotel can be made out, a bland melody that ends up mixing with the music of a group of young people with naked torsos practising street dance right on the beach, with the volume up at full blast. Unrepentant bathers make the most of the last warm days before autumn really descends on the city. During the summer season, 11,000 people per day visit the Barceloneta beaches, according to the Plataforma per un Port Ciutadà. The developers of the Hermitage Museum project estimate that the museum’s first year would see approximately 850,000 visitors (70%, tourists) and that the figure could grow to 1.5 million visitors over time.

One of the greatest fears is the funnel effect. The description of the Hermitage project featured on the website of ujoandpartners.com reads: “Despite a somewhat complicated topography, the place clearly and fervently calls for its architecture to facilitate circuits, to connect the different levels, to generously open up”. All the museum visitors, added to the guests at the W, plus beach-goers, will have to get along and mingle with the neighbourhood’s residents. And leaving this artificial peninsula implies passing through the neck of land corresponding to the Passeig de Joan de Borbó promenade. From the Barceloneta Residents’ Association, Manel Martínez responds: “To avoid the funnel effect, those responsible for the project have assured us that the museum won’t have bus parking, so they won’t be able to get as far as there.” In addition, Martínez adds, thanks to the contact they maintain with those responsible for the project, they have also managed to include “the idea of establishing a seafront shuttle bus that connects this zone with the area surrounding the Columbus Monument, in order to decongest the neighbourhood”.

Following its communication with the city hall, the Plataforma per un Port Ciutadà has confirmed that municipal political groups are divided between those who see the Hermitage as an opportunity to transform the type of tourism in the neighbourhood and those who consider that the Barceloneta cannot fit anything else, that it is time to cut back. They explain that, in a meeting in early October with the Councillor for the Ciutat Vella district, Jordi Rabassa, assured them that “a priori, the Hermitage Museum project in Barceloneta is not suitable for the neighbourhood or for the district”. However, the platform does not keep in touch with the developers.

Residents’ associations agree that no administration has really invested in preventing tourist monoculture in the neighbourhood, but they differ in the proposed solutions to tackle the problem of touristification. Pardo claims that the solution involves curbing tourism: “If we are not inclined to reduce the number of flights and cruise ships packed with tourists arriving in Barcelona, despite how many weather-related emergencies we declare, it will not help”, he asserts. Martínez is in favour of “transforming” the tourism model: he explains that the neighbourhood unremittingly opens restaurant businesses whose licences are gradually extended until they become nightclubs, exacerbating overtourism and attracting a type of tourism associated with drunkenness and partying. Against this backdrop, Martínez is clear: “Faced with the risk of the emergence of other types of proposals more focused on leisure and entertainment for tourists in a space owned by the independent port, we opt for the museum. After all, you can’t set up a nightclub in a museum”. Hermitage and/or barbarism, that seems to be the dilemma.

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