To What Extent Have Major Global Events in Barcelona Been a Catalyst for Urban Regeneration

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To what extent have major global events in Barcelona been a catalyst for urban regeneration


The pursuit of urban regeneration is seen as 'a comprehensive integrated vision and action which leads to the resolution of urban problems and which seeks to bring about lasting change in the economic, social, physical and environmental condition of an area that has been the subject of change' (Roberts and Sykes, 2000, p.17). This is a practice that had its modern incarnation in the late 19th century, with decision makers realizing the importance of the urban environment, which was recognised as a prerequisite and a catalyst for economic development. During this time, the relationship between large scale events and strategic urban regeneration has gripped the imagination of urban planners. This is largely due to the perceived economic and social benefits of hosting major events and developing infrastructure.

The vision of Barcelona as a stage began with the first Universal Exhibition of 1888, which is frequently adopted as the year which separated two differentiated periods in the city's urban and cultural history. The International Exposition of 1929 and the 1992 Olympic Games can also be recognized as part of this long tradition in the pragmatic use of major events. It is fair to say that Barcelona has experienced a profound urban transformation, and has often been referred to as the 'Barcelona model' by economists, geographers and town planners for being an outstanding example of improvement to a city.

My research aims to investigate the degree in which the city has been affected by three selected major events that have taken place over the last 125 years, and to conclude whether they can be seen as a cause rather than a symptom of the aforementioned transformation. The three individual events will be investigated in three chapters, beginning with the Universal Exposition of 1888 and ending with the Olympic Games of 1992.

1888 Universal Exposition


It is essential to place the Universal Exposition of 1888 within a larger urban sequence, so as not to show an overly simplified urban context. This analysis will try to show a consideration of this historical period and will examine the changes in the urban spatial structure in order to understand the relationship between the areas where the exposition took place and the entire city.

Large exhibitions such as those in Paris, London, Philadelphia and Vienna were organised by major nations in order to demonstrate their power and wealth to the world. The event in Barcelona is placed in the category of smaller exhibitions which took place in Amsterdam, Nice, Frankfurt, Bordeaux and Antwerp. The aims of these were more modest and were not held in capital cities. Because they were not heavily subject to the rhetoric of the major nations, they were strictly involved with the urban context.

In Barcelona, an important role in constructing the modern city has been attributed to the 1888 Universal Exposition, which continues to be present in the urban landscape and also in the collective memory.

The event seems to have a dual interest. The first was urban planning policy that followed the approval of Ildefonso Cerda's 1859 Ensanche project for Barcelona, and the creation of Barcelona as we know it today. Secondly, it permits a reflection on several planning objectives and methods that were highly relevant at the time.

Figure 1. Proyecto de Ensanche de Barcelona, Ildefonso Cerda 1859 (Atlas de Barcelona).

Urban Growth prior to the exhibition

The approval of the planning project designed by Cerda was not well received. Opposition arose and from this came debates which suggested that the proposals and previous projects inspired by local requests led to ideas of urban interest and values which differed considerably to Cerda's designs. The municipal Administration held a competition because of this opposition, won by the Architect Rovira I Trias. This project was the best exponent of an idea that Cerda had overlooked. It attended to the design of urban spaces, the construction of a stage for the new urban elites and the new city's visual and monumental values that were capable of expressing aspirations for higher levels of civilization and modernization (Espuche et al, 1991, p.141). This meant that his project was closer to the interests and aspirations of Spain's second city, which wanted to take on the clear status of a capital.

One of the modifications of Cerda's Project in the course of its construction was the Universal Exposition. There was resistance to the plans for public spaces, with the existence of the Ciudadela military installation occupying one of the projects key sectors.


An economic crisis became apparent in Barcelona in 1882 and worsened towards 1885 before the cycle ended, which meant that the idea for the Universal Exposition appeared during a difficult period for the city. Such a crisis meant that there were difficult social and health conditions, which then related to a depressed situation in the building sector, which was at its lowest in 1885-6. From its inception in 1885 until April 1887, the exposition was promoted by a private group, which used smaller international exhibitions as models for its approach. The government then took over because the inaction by the promoters became too obvious.

The location of the exhibition in Ciutadella Park was a logical choice, with the association between government owned parks and exhibitions being common in the 19th century. This was the only available public space however because of the weak financial situation of the government. The space had good attributes: It had good rail connections, was near to the port and some of the main axes which were under construction at the time. Because many works were not finished, it wasn't difficult to adapt to the changing needs.

The main objectives were to project Barcelona’s reputation and stimulate foreign interest, and to function as a mechanism to accelerate the building work that had already started. Building permits of the city show however, that few licences were handed over in the area surrounding the park where the exposition took place. Only a few decades earlier, this was considered to be one of the most attractive areas of the city. The expectation about selling these plots in the 1870s started to change towards 1880. The difficulties became obvious in the few years before the exposition, when after selling 40% of the plots, the trend remained unchanged. At the time of the exposition opening, important parts of the grounds had still not been sold. After 1888, the sales fell even lower and it seemed evident that the exposition was having no impact on the process.

Although there was no boom in building works, the immediate effect of the expositions impact on political and economical interests of Catalonia within the Spanish state should not be underestimated. Long before 1888, Barcelona needed to sell either its own economy's products or the sign of its unheard of status as a capital city. This meant that in the long term, its aim was to be not just a political investment, but also a national and international accolade for its status as a small industrial nation.

Urban Beautification

On evaluation of the exposition as a mechanism to generate a modernizing urban structure, a fairly weak impact has been observed. However, the exposition can be considered as an instrument for the desire to improve the beautification and monumentalization of the city. It expressed the values and culture of the urban elite, as well as impressing the visitors.

An important characteristic of 19th century urban history was the willingness to renovate the image of a city. The conversion of a city into a 'work of art' was followed in a neoclassical tradition, and this allowed the acquisition of new productive and cultural meanings (Olsen, 1986). A meaningful example of the spread of new ideas about monumentality lies in Gaudi's explanation of his streetlamp project. In 1878, he spoke of the need to consider public streets of 'the modern cities and especially the trading cities'. He explained that they 'not only work to connect the different parts of the city but also were places for meeting and making contracts as well as for walking and leisure'. It was at this time that the idea of monumentality extended from single buildings to entire urban areas.

Although not being entirely responsible for it, the exposition had given an opportunity of a greater momentum for urban planners regarding the beautification policy which started in the mid 19th century. At the end of the 1880's, several interventions had been made to the objective of achieving a 'monumental and beautiful city'. (Pirozzini, 1882) The culmination of some of these projects occurred in relation to the Exhibition: public sculpture, triumphal arches, urban landscaping, various urban decorations, and new pavements. These aspects, along with the monumental buildings, meant a proclamation of the aspirations and glories of a dynamic Barcelona that wasn't yet industrialized.

Under the leadership of Elies Rogent, the Barcelona School of Architecture, founded in 1874-5, assigned a team of architects to use the exposition as a point of reference upon which to experiment with possibilities of a new architecture. This search for a new 'modern and national' architecture was focused on the volume, public dimension and collective significance of erected buildings, and has lead the exposition to be considered as the threshold to the period of contemporary Catalan architecture known as 'modernismo'.


Ornament, innovation, monumentality and efficiency were the basic objectives of urban policy around the time of the exposition. Despite this, priority was given to monumental aspects rather than technological ones. (J. Marfany, 1986). The evidence of attempts to reconcile the willingness to beautify the city with the technological and modern values were the wooden pavements, which were introduced as major innovations. Other new forms of urban furnishings were also seen in such features as billboards, pneumatic clocks, automatic platforms, stands for newspapers, and public toilets. All of these added to the cosmopolitan look, which was emphasized because of the exposition. Another relevant case was the installation of electric lighting in the most important public spaces within the city. The entire Rambla, the Passeig de Isabel II, Passeig de Palau and Passeig de la Aduana leading up to the entrance to the park were electrified. This connection between the centre of the city and the exposition area was appraised.

1929 International Exposition


The realisation of an international event was promoted in the first decade of the twentieth century, which led to the conception of the 1929 International Exposition. The Universal Exposition of 1888 led to a great advance in the city's economic, architectural and technological growth and development, and the necessity for the continuation of urban regeneration through the turn of the century will be analysed to determine the lengths planners went through to implement a successful regenerate project.

The idea of the Exposition was latent in the urban planning programme of the industrial party, and the architect Puig I Cadafalch voiced it in a front page article in La Veu de Catalunya newspaper, calling for votes in the 1905 elections: “Come and vote! For the Great Exhibition.” In the article he justified the exposition as a way of implementing the main body of ideas in the Interconnections Plan that had been proposed in the same year by French urban planner Leon Jaussely. This was a fully-fledged body of urban development theory that applied to the whole city. It included the fundamental criteria of a desire to monumentalise the city and particular insistence on the introduction of green space, which until then was practically non-existent. Jaussely's plan was viewed favourably by a jury including Puig I Cadafalch, which pronounced that the completion of the project would make Barcelona “the loveliest city in the Mediterranean”.

Laussely based his proposals on three criteria: the zoning of activities, the arrangement of green spaces, and street and avenue design. These criteria were applied to an area that had never been designed as a whole and therefore required the addition of further theory to make its urban continuity viable. It also signalled an explicit rejection of Cerda's plan and his isotropic grid plan by introducing a variety of diagonal elements. It also consolidated a catalogue of junction sections to ensure the viability of the hierarchical structure of spaces and streets proposed by the plan, such as boulevards, landscaped avenues and high streets. These represented a visionary theoretical and practical approach.

The urban location of the Exposition was a vital issue. The experience of the 1888 exposition had revealed some attendant difficulties in relation to development of the chosen area, but it did highlight the attraction of the urban improvements that an event of this kind could bring about.

The initial hypothesis centred on the eastern sector of the city with a view to urbanising the Besòs park as suggested by Cerda's project. At the same, Montjuic was gaining in stature as an alternative with the possibility of condensing the urbanisation of a park on the mountain. The two options were clear opposites: Besos or Montjuic, the east or west of the existing city. In 1913 a commision was created, and the decision was given to Montjuic. This decision represented Barcelona's future development towards the west. Special conditions for the exposition project were that it would be built on sloping ground, and this would be the first time an attraction of this scope took place on a mountain with the characteristics of Montjuic.

Puig I Cadafalch was responsible for several key operations in the overall layout. He designed the main axis, the Gran Avenida, which, starting out from the centre of present-day Placa d'Espanya, non-existent at the time, drew out a forceful line from the north towards the mountain. He also designed the square with a colonnade, forming an imposing façade for the exposition buildings.

Construction of the projects began in 1917 with the intention of completion in 1919. However, the pace of work on the development was impermissibly slow, and the date was set back to 1923, though political events also changed the course of the exposition. The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera was introduced in 1921, and his far-reaching changes into municipal and Catalan administration meant that construction work was blocked until 1925, when the bourgeoisie made a pact with the dictator and work was resumed on the exposition, which was then rescheduled for 1929.

The resumption of work involved public competitions and commissions once the basic urbanisation work had been completed, and these buildings varied a great deal in size – from 5,000 to 30,000m2 – as did their styles and construction methods. The exposition was an urban planning and architectural feat, as opposed to later times when the exhibition would become

On 19 May 1929 the city of Barcelona inaugurated its second international exhibition.The genesis of preparation goes back to 1913 with the decisions of the Catalan industrialists and politicians to give a new boost to the economy and show the advances brought about by the introduction of electricity in the industrial production process and the time . Barcelona City Council then agreed that the space that will host the event would Montjuïc, encouraging the redevelopment of neighborhoods sector and large areas of military jurisdiction hitherto untouchable. The outbreak of war municial in 1914, the economic crisis, social and international policy after leaving the nonsensical idea to hold a first International Exhibition of Electrical Industries, since this power line was no longer new.But the same initiative cultural reconstruction of the nation that was born of the desire to serve the Commonwealth Government Dictatorship to try to get out of economic stagnation and solve the existing problem of unemployment throughout the state.

Ildefons Cerdà, represents one of the most significant

examples of early modern town planning. His scheme was the first use of

“neoliberal” plans that restructured or expanded existing cities during the

second half of the nineteenth century to accommodate the commercial,

social and representational needs of the new entrepreneurial class.3 The

Eixample became the framework within which the combined talents of

Barcelona’s turn-of-the century modernist architects could flourish. Their

buildings, most notably Antoni Gaudí’s, made Barcelona renowned as La

Ciudad de los Prodigios, or the City of Marvels.4 This was also a city of

intense class conflicts, a city with no nobility and commoners but of

capitalists and workers, many of them anarchists and Marxists. The city was

often rocked by episodes of revolt aimed at the church and the clergy.5

After the turn of the century, the idea of an Exposicion Universal

that would act as a showcase of Barcelona’s status as the prominent

manufacturing centre in Spain took hold. One of the most important

architects of the modernist period, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, also a politician,

supported the idea as a mechanism to improve the infrastructure of the city.

While the main buildings of the Exposicion of 1929 were located on the

mountain of Montjuic, the entire city benefited from a system of avenues,

parks, buildings and plazas built at this time.


Modernization through buildings

1992 Olympic Games


The Olympic Games are regarded as the worlds most prestigious sporting occasion. They are typical of major events in that they bring short-term international attention and can have long-term consequences for the host city (Richie and Smith, 1991). In order to appreciate why the Olympics have increasingly been used as an opportunity for urban regeneration, it is important to place them within the context of wider changes in the urban economy. The contribution of major events, such as the Olympics, to strategies for urban regeneration is strongly associated with transitions from industrial to post-industrial society and from modernism to post-modernism (Tickell and Peck, 1995). It should not be overlooked, however, that the substantial redevelopments of Barcelona around the time of the Expositions of 1888 and 1929 were long before post-modernism and these have left a mark on the city of Barcelona.

Barcelona has seen a profound urban transformation over the last 30 years because of this . It has been referred to as the 'Barcelona model', which 'for urban transformation … has been a reference for other cities since the mid-'80s – the outstanding example of a certain way of improving cities' (Marshall, 2004 p.1)

The ‘reconstruction of the city’ and ‘qualitative’ planning: the projects of recovering

public space during the 1980s

Strategic planning: infrastructure and major urban projects of the mid-1980s and the 1990s

Urban renewal and suburbanization: metropolitan perspectives

Epilogue and conclusions