Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Robert Hughes on Barcelona

I recently read Lance Berelowitz' thoughtful post on the death of Robert Hughes:
Anyone who has had the good luck of visiting Barcelona in recent years will know that Hughes’s eponymously named book is a brilliant interpretation of that place and its curiously complicated culture. Reading it completely opened my eyes to one of Europe’s most enthralling urban experiments. In that sense, Hughes was a true urbanist: he understood, and wrote about, cities for what they are: great works of art.
I happened to have had that good luck three years ago, arriving late September on the weekend of the Merce Festival. While I await the library copy of Hughes' Barcelona I read his National Geographic book Barcelona the Great Enchantress. Here's Hughes on the Eixample, Catalan urban planner Ildefons Cerdà's mid 19th century expansion of the ancient port city:
The Eixample today is far denser and higher , more chaotic in texture and generally more oppressive than Ildefons Cerdà could ever have imagined. Cerdà designed his standard block with 710,000 feet of built floor space and a maximum height of some fifty-seven feet, later increased to sixty-five. Over the next century developers managed to increase this fourfold, to three million square feet per block; an urbanistic disaster, a fraud on the public, and a travesty of Cerdà's plan... Even so, the Eixample is one of the most interesting urban areas in Europe.
Among Barcelona's many delights, for me, was not so much Gaudi's famous strange otherworldly Modernista fantasies (Picasso said Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia should be sent straight to hell) but the discovery of Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and his breathtaking Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Música Catalana (high res panorama here).

Right: View from the Hospital de Sant Pau main entrance looking toward the Sagrada Familia down the pedestrian Avinguda de Gaudi.

Pictured below: Hospital de Sant Pau. Photos: Frank Murphy

Hughes on the impact of the 1992 Olympics on Barcelona.:

"Olympiads come and go amid a lot of blather about how they help remake the host city, lift it into permanent world attention, and so on. It is rarely true... But the approach of the 1992 Olympiad was the cue for Barcelona to launch the biggest program of excavation and construction, rerouting and reconstruction, cleaning, restoration and general urban rethinking the city had experienced in a hundred years, since the construction of the Eixample." 

The legacy of the 1992 Olympics includes the Barceloneta, a Mediterranean beach reclaimed from "a wilderness of rusting tracks and abandoned industrial equipment... from dump to prime real estate in a single fiat."

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