portada de BMM

BY Gabriel Pernau

It is not easy to meet Josep Antoni Acebillo, and even less easy to interview him. Most probably because Barcelona City Council's chief architect likes to be rigorous in everything he does. He is the kind of man who dedicates himself fully to his job and does not leave anything to chance. So, when he decides to give an interview, he does it with conviction and consistency. Acebillo starts talking and keeps on talking with enthusiasm, his answers become longer and longer, new questions arise, which he himself asks and proceeds to answer. Time passes quickly, his secretary opens the door and interrupts him for the second time : "Mister Acebillo, it's already twenty to, and the taxi is waiting for you". Well, that's it, "We'll have to continue with this another day", he says apologetically. I answer that it's all right, that of course we shall continue with the interview another day. Half the questions I had planned to ask have been left unanswered, even though I already have two full cassettes of recorded statements. So, instead of one interview, there will be two, along with a third one that would be postponed at the last minute; and, of course, Acebillo wishes to reread the text so as to check some points, to make sure that everything is correct... Definitely, Mister Acebillo, the great maker, is a very busy man.
He bursts into passionate speech, gets up, gesticulates, signals points on the map, swiftly walks up to the window to stress that he is not referring to a theoretical city, that he is talking about a very real city which lies right out there, beyond the double-glazed window of his office in the plaça de les Glories. Acebillo carries on talking, standing for more than one hour until he gets tired and eventually sits down. Surprisingly enough, he never uses the first person singular "I"; when referring to his work or the work carried out by his collaborators, he always says "we".

1888, 1929, 1992. Did Barcelona really need a new revulsive only twelve years after the Olympic Games?

Barcelona, just like every other city in the world, has to keep evolving constantly in parallel with technological advances and changes in people's life-styles. Thus, in the eighties, we fostered a revolution in the layout of public space; by building the so-called "hard squares" and open small-sized squares, we created a different landscape for the citizens of Barcelona. That first urbanistic transformation also served to renovate conventional infrastructures, ring roads and service networks; for the first time ever, we've gone beyond Barcelona's urban space to act within the city's metropolitan space, more particularly thanks to the new ring roads. The process changed Barcelona's scale, and Nou Barris and the Besòs river, for instance, became part of the city's new map. Today's situation is different. When facing up to the new cultures which have stemmed from the globalization process, it is most important not to lose our own cultural identity, and architecture and, more concretely, the city's architecture, is one of the domains in which conditions are most suitable to counteract the neutralizing, homogenizing effect of that situation. We have to integrate the latest economic theses. The economic basis for the city of the twenty-first century will be the tertiary industry.

Isn't is already so?

We're almost there. From this window (he signals the "Diagonal Mar" area and the Poblenou district), you can see a landscape of building works, and the scale models I keep in my office are of parts of the Poblenou district. Up to the eighteenth century, Poblenou was an agricultural area. The first textile mills appeared at the end of the nineteeenth century, then bigger factories were built. Nowadays, we have to make space for the new offices, the new thought and design factories, the new tertiary industry... In terms of economic activity, the tertiary industry is the same in New York as in Barcelona. However, our management of the tertiary industry does not have to be modelled on the way things are done in New York.

How will it be like here?

It will be a complex fabric composed of more elements than those comprised in the tertiary industry proper. It will combine residential and industrial facilities. Mediterranean culture has never been fond of functional specialization. This is a failing that even the countries which have taken that approach are attempting to overcome. Look over there, look out of this window : on the right, there is the Sagrada Familia church; that high-rise is an apartment house; this other building in front of you is the National Theatre; slightly on the left, there is the Auditorium and, further on the left, more apartment houses and, right in the middle, the "Nus de Glòries" Junction.... This functional promiscuity so characteristic of Barcelona, the first Mediterranean city in terms of size, is a desirable feature. The Poblenou district is not a place in which we have to pull down old, obsolete industrial buildings. We did just that in the "Vila Olímpica" neighbourhood. But things are different in Poblenou, because it is a much larger area and because it does not deserve to be wrecked. Barcelona's architecture is strongly connected with industrial architecture, and the newest theses on the re-utilization of old buildings demand that we take good care of existent constructions on the basis of historical, cultural and identity criteria, as well as economic criteria. The best thing for the new companies that intend to set up in our city would be to operate within an urbanistic framework comprised of islands of new architecture surrounded by examples of the architecture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From this point of view, the "22@" project is a complex venture, structured on an economic basis, if you want, because it is a project which has been brought forth by the new international economic situation, and a project that has to provide Barcelona with thousands and thousands of square metres of tertiary industry just as the nineteenth century endowed the city with industrial ground. However, we are trying to act differently today, taking into account our own cultural criteria based on the practices peculiar to the Mediterranean and to Barcelona.

Which good will the Universal Forum of Cultures do us?

Well, I like to explain that point from three different perspectives. More than ever, cities require challenges so as to put large-scale projects into action. You cannot undertake a large-scale project if society as a whole neither needs nor agrees with it. No city council can carry out a large-scale project on its own; we need a certain amount of positive complicity from the citizens, the associations and the whole civil society. I don't know if we are the inventors of the idea, but we could patent the thesis that the Olympic Games served to make Barcelona a better place. (...)

Isn't it a problem that, with the deadline only four years away, such a complicity between the city and the Forum, has not yet been achieved?

Well, I am not who ... But what I'd like to say is that it is much easier to carry the meaning of the Olympic Games and the universal nature of sports than to explain an event organized on the basis of an interchange of ideas; maybe it is not that easy to transfer or to fit ideas into a framework as physical and as obvious as the one we would like to present people with. However, speaking of that feeling of complicity, I would say that we haven't yet succeeded in getting through to the general society where the contents of the project are concerned. On the other hand, we do have succeeded in making people aware that 2004 is a red-letter date and that there will be a renovation of the seafront area. The Port of Barcelona is already expanding towards the southwest, the new opening will soon be completed and, between this opening and the Besòs river, we have a seven kilometre coastline. The renovation works on the first five kilometres, between the Barceloneta beach and the "Vila Olimpica", were carried out in 1992. We now have to put the plan for developing the remaining two kilometres into operation. In fact, the Besós area is the fourth example of misdirected town-planning action our city has been suffering for a long time now. Do you see this photograph? It is not by chance that it's hanging on the wall of my office; these are my nightmares : a Diagonal avenue that ends nobody knows exactly where, a purifying plant built close to Diagonal avenue, an incinerator, several power stations which generate not only electricity but also outrageous visual pollution, a coast that ends where people cannot have a swim, a river that ... It is obvious that this whole mess requires stricter regulations. Works have already been carried out in the upper section of the river; changes are being made to the electric power stations; the works on the Besòs purifying plant - a most important piece of equipment - have started; we plan to build an ecopark so as to improve the processing and disposal of solid waste material... And the people of Barcelona are becoming aware of all these improvements, I have no doubt about it. Look, in a very near future, there will be such an incredible amount of construction works under way ! And, from this point of view, there is an advantage in comparison with what happened in 1992. At that time, works had to be carried out within the city, which caused terrible inconvenience to the residents. Now, given the location of the building sites, they won't involve as much disruption of everyday vehicular traffic.
Here is the second raison d'être of the 2004 deadline, which is not the event itself, but the transformation of that area. We have associated transformation and event, and we have put up the event as the deadline for the transformation because, otherwise, we would never have finished the works and we would not have the necessary synergies to do it. However, there is a third issue at stake : the end section of the Diagonal avenue, which is like the necessary icing on the cake, the physical crowning of that large urban space that stretches between the Glories junction - which has been remodelled - and the end section of the Diagonal avenue. The map of Barcelona gives full evidence that, no matter what we do, the city will always end at that final section of the Diagonal avenue, an area that also comprises the Rambla Prim, the Besós river, the coast, the beaches of Barcelona and Badalona. It is an absolutely crucial point both in terms of the organization of the "22@" event and in terms of our capacity for explaining, from a metropolitan perspective, what is going on in that area. For the first time, we are undertaking a project without knowing exactly if this or that particular square metre of land belongs to Barcelona or to Sant Adrià. But that new urban nucleus will undoubtedly have an energizing effect on that whole stretch of Barcelona's Metropolitan Area inhabited by more than one million people, one of the most densely populated and vital zones in our city which, nevertheless, had until now remained an urban black spot.

Cerdà had already forecast that the centre of Barcelona would be the Glòries area and yet ...

Regardless of what Cerdà said, anthropologist Lévy-Strauss remarked that, in Western Europe, cities only expanded westwards. It is very difficult to explain that phenomenon, but it's true, and Barcelona is a case in point. Cerdà ended his urbanizing scheme at Glòries, but the city went on growing westwards... The 1992 town-planning operation was intended as a turnaround, pulling down the infrastructures that sealed off the Glòries area, constructing the "Ronda Litoral" ring road, Marina street, Diagonal avenue ... Actually, we have to recover the drive to develop the city in a north-easterly direction : this is the project that will shape the Barcelona of the future. The new Diagonal avenue, the Rambla Prim, the high-speed train on the Sant Andreu - Sagrera line, the large "Fòrum de les Cultures" square... That triangle is an area of crucial importance which is being the object of an operation which has been researched for many years and for which we now have a very definite plan. There won't be reason to speak of the "poorer" part of Diagonal avenue any more. (...)

What will future residents of the "Diagonal Mar" area find there?

Important advantages. First of all, the pleasure to be living in Barcelona. You might point out that, actually, the "Diagonal Mar" estate proper is not a very Barcelonese housing development; well, you would be right, but it's an exception. And it accounts for only 2000 housing units of a total of 40.000. So residents will find a well orientated, newly urbanized city boasting modern equipment : a pneumatic rubbish collection system, fibre optic technology, built-in telephones, parking space, new transport systems, etc... For the first time, they will find a city which has been totally planned out, not the result of a succession of historical events, even though valuable industrial buildings will be preserved. It will be a very lively city, built very close to the sea, with several parks and, at the end of Diagonal avenue, a twelve or fourteen hectare esplanade which will be like a large terrace where people will be able to get plenty of sun and fresh air, and which will boast the most important conference centre in Western Europe - a venue that will stand out not only for its architecture, but also for the 20.000 guests it will have the capacity to accomodate and the area of 60.000 square metres it will occupy -. In the "Diagonal Mar" area, there will also be a new university campus, hotels, a new zoo - an outstanding park with a large primate department that will serve as a major zoological research centre -, a pleasure harbour with a sailing school, and half a kilometre of bath systems with swimmimg pools (stretching over a 500 metre long area) next to the sea. To sum up : the citizens will find a highly diversified offer, a complete contrast to the monothematic patterning of Nordic cities. (...)

o What did the so-called conquest of the sea actually mean to Barcelona?

The cities located close to the sea or a river find in that proximity their main urbanistic argument. In Barcelona, the sea was the missing guest that never arrived because of the location of the port and the industrial estates. However, things were different in the Middle Ages and the neoclassical period saw the implementation of the Fontseré and Pla de Palau projects which were intended to restore connection between the city and the sea; nevertheless, in the twentieth century, access to the sea was practically barred until the eighties, when the construction of the "Moll de la Fusta" and the works carried out for the Olympic Games marked a major change in that state of affairs. Nowadays, the situation can be considered paradigmatic. For instance, a foreigner who comes to Barcelona can go to the beach by Underground and that is something very few European cities can boast. The eight or nine million people who visit our city usually spend their time in the Ciutat Vella district and Passeig de Gràcia but, most of all, in the "Maremagnum" and Olympic Port neighbourhood, an area which is a tremendous popular success. That is why it is so important now to provide the seafront area with a definite structure once and for all. Barcelona will again be able to use the proximity of the sea as a argument in its favour. Great effort has to be made to ensure that the sea is kept in good condition, and this means not only that the beaches have to be clean, but also that the sea water itself has to be clean. We have commissioned university experts to carry out a survey of the sea floor and the whole biotope. But this will be of no use at all if the sea water is dirty. Besides, accessibility by public transport has to be achieved whenever possible. And it is not merely a question of adding one or two extra lanes to the "Ronda Litoral" ring road. Building Underground lines so close to the sea is an unworkable alternative; a tramway system is another option, but it would be somewhat incompatible with transversal vehicular traffic. We are currently considering the possibility of introducing monorail and other new, highly flexible transport systems. (...)