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Interview with Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona

Interview with Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona
Interview with Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona, © Ewa Szymczyk
© Ewa Szymczyk

In the following article, originally published in Polish in theDecember 2013 issue of A&B, Ewa Szymczyk interviews Vicente Guallart, the Chief Architect of Barcelona since 2011 as well as the founder of Guallart Architects and IAAC (Institute of Advanced Architecture in Catalunya). Szymczyk questions Guallart about his experience in urban design, asking: how can you measure a city's success?

Ewa Szymczyk: When measuring the contemporary city’s success we typically use economic measures. In this sense Barcelona ranks very high, being a top tourist destination and managing its budget in times of global crisis. But there are many other ways to measure its success. What in your opinion makes a city a good city? Isn’t it much more than economic prosperity?

Vincente Guallart: A good city is a place where the citizens live well. So the best measure for a good city is how the citizens live. The truth is that the city is a physical representation of a social agreement. If you think for instance about Phoenix in Arizona, maybe people live there the way they want and the way they like to live. Obviously there are also questions related to cost. I mean, questions related to environmental and economic costs. Therefore the cost of a city like Phoenix is very different from the cost of a city like Hong Kong, which is the densest city and probably the most efficient urban structure in the world. So the question is the economic efficiency and also the quality of life of the citizens. And the best way to know is to ask citizens how happy they are to live in a place like this. The truth is that if you are a citizen of Barcelona you are quite happy. We have been evaluating this over the past few years and the average rating is seven out of ten. So that is in general very good! The people are proud to live in a place like this.

It’s true that Barcelona, in order to arrive to this point, had to suffer great transformation of the last thirty years. This is the responsibility of the politicians and the people developing this transformation. We are a part of a long history that started more than 2000 years ago with the Romans founding the city. And today we try to create the city with a good quality of life. I don’t want to say that this city is better. The best way to measure it is to ask the citizens. You can ask for example people living in far Greenland if they are happy to live there and they will tell you ‘yes’. A hunter in the forest or citizens of a small village might be happy too. The most important thing is to fulfil the mission, which is the happiness of the people.

ES: Barcelona, as part of the City Protocol platform, is working on city certification, which is like the architectural LEED but for cities. Can you tell us more about the indicators that are used in this protocol?

VG: City Protocol is a platform to share knowledge about the progress of cities. It’s not strictly a certification system but obviously will generate some knowledge that will allow for the evaluation of the city’s progress.

There are some certification systems in the world that in general are very partial, analysing only isolated aspects. This concept has a few different aspects: pure information – data, indicators connecting different kinds of data about the city, indexes that are comparisons of the indicators, and in some cases you can finalize it with certification. It is good to remember that there are some certifications, well known internationally, which are pure business for those that organize them. So the best urban certification should be accepted by many people, promote quality and with as little cost as possible. So in that sense the City Protocol objective is not to create an urban certification system. The vision is much broader. But maybe in some moment we will use some certification system to evaluate how cities work.

What is important is to understand what a city is. How should we analyse a city? If someone tells you that the city is water infrastructure, mobility and governance, they are telling you three very different things. What we have been doing is to define, in a holistic way, all the different layers that you can find in a city. And you can choose to talk about one of them but you should know what makes a city. The problem is that we, as urbanists, we work on cities that last thousands of years, but we don’t have real prescriptions for making cities. We do not have a book where you could see everything that you should know about cities and could answer how to solve your city’s problems. This is what the City Protocol would like to do. It tries to develop the sign of cities, which would remove this opportunistic and speculative vision about city transformation. Even the speculation coming from the government can tell you something that is not true. In some cases the local government sells, very fast, the best places in the city to do some development, for instance, to develop a “façade” to the sea. But fifty years later you could see that what they did was a pure disaster for the city.

This is the right balance you should try to keep: try to develop a city in a rational way, obviously using the opportunities that appear along the way, but without destroying your future with the decisions you take now.

© Carlos Henriquez
© Carlos Henriquez

ES: Is the City Protocol also working on tools for municipalities to help them evaluate their success?

VG: Yes, the first sign of success is coming from the fact that the municipalities are copying each other. If something is working in one place, for example the bus system or the light system, others will try to copy this. The best way to measure the success is to see how much they copy you or how much they are looking at your solutions. But more than copying directly, which can be done in the wrong way, we should learn to share knowledge in order to promote a collective progress for the cities around the world. This is exactly what City Protocol is trying to do. There would be some recommendations and standards, but what is important is not to say what is good and what is bad. Instead we want to walk together, to make common trips in order to develop cities and improve the quality of the city.

ES: How can this kind of cooperation be successful when some cities’ budgets are far smaller than that of Barcelona? We know for instance that the Colombian city, Medellin is looking very much at Barcelona’s case, but is unable to transform so rapidly.

VG: We receive over 200 cities’ delegations every year - not only Medellin but many other cities form China, India, Latin America are looking at us. This is because Barcelona has great traditions in urbanism, innovation and the organization of urban habitat. In the case of Medellin, the best results came from people studying here and sharing this vision back there. The problem in Medellin was urban violence, a low quality of living with no infrastructure etc. They transformed the social inequality by changing the physical environment. This is crucial. The model of Barcelona is in fact very simple. Every time that we have economic and cultural progress you can visualize this in the public space. By sharing the progress with everyone you create a better city for everyone. In other cities the progress is very private, very capitalistic. The money goes to big mansions while the city is not well maintained etc. We try to use the physicality of the city as an interface to better the quality of life of the people. This is the goal we work hard on every day: to listen to what the people are asking for, to try to do our best with the design of the public space, but also to create right governance. The internal organization is crucial in order to achieve, let’s say, external results in the city. Those results are not a question of design; they’re a question of organization. What we would like to do is to share our knowledge with other cities to promote better cities around the world.

ES: Do those investments in public space, infrastructure, public facilities have a direct link with the economy? Can you say that making a new, nice library in a city district will improve the economic situation of its citizens?

VG: Those are two different things. The first one is that obviously you need resources in order to do a city transformation. In order to get there you need to do several things right. You need to create a right path. This is not a short term path; it’s a long term path. If you do things right in some moment and you do it many times then many people would be interested in being a part of this project. Many cities are changing their ways - sometimes doing this, some other time that. It’s very difficult to change direction so many times. Barcelona is quite consistent, for a long time, trying to generate a good quality of life.

The other question. Yes, we try to spend or to invest our money in the right place and in the right moment. That means that if you invest your money in a right way you generate revenues. The 22@ is a very clear example. In the 80s, when the economy of information and success of Silicon Valley started to be famous around the world, the idea of an industrial park was developed. Industrial parks, following the American model, were developed at the peripheries of cities. And this is what happened in Barcelona in the Sant Cugat area outside the city. We thought, well, that’s a new economy, we should generate a new kind of city. But this was a disaster. I mean, this is not exactly our tradition. Some people realized that what we should do in order to promote progress in the city is to bring those new forms of economy to the heart of the city, transforming all post-industrial neighbourhoods into neighbourhoods oriented to IT companies. This is more or less what the city of New York did with Silicon Valley. It was important to have a vision about what we wanted to do, to develop an urban but also economical plan to make this possible, and then communicate to the world ‘hey we are here, we want to do this, come and join us’. So we did an investment, with which we attracted other investments. What is important is to develop a plan that you are able to explain in order to attract the investment, which will always be in parallel with the municipal one.

ES: You said once that ‘the time of the investors who buy cheap land, build, sell expensive and run away from the city is over’ and that you need investors who stay and develop their project. How can you say no to investors in times of economic crisis and, on the other hand, attract good ones?

VG: The first thing is that the bad ones disappeared with the crisis. It’s because their business was based on economic speculation and not on real values for cities. While industrial economy was oriented to products, the information economy is oriented to services. That means that future business is more about running a business than about buying and selling. Traditional real estate business is about buying and selling, but in many cases it doesn’t work very well. In the moment of financial crisis you can go bankrupt very quickly, while the business based on something that you generate in your daily activities, based on real values for society, will pass the crisis in a softer way. So from that point of view it’s not that we do not want developers that will speculate. It is they that disappear in a moment of crisis.

The task is really to develop and push for other forms of economy related to those values, related with services, management.

For example, it’s very typical that some football clubs promote speculation through requalification of land, promoting housing development in order to sell the apartments and get money to buy football players. This is really crazy! A better business model would be for example to have a hotel were the fans can come, stay in the hotel; then you generate slower revenues but more permanent ones. So a good economy is about renting and managing a service, sleeping and living in the city, and not buying and selling a product that is an apartment to sleep in a city. It’s about having a good business plan that builds on slower but more permanent business, that in the long term is the best one.

University Housing, Gandía / Guallart Architects. Image © Adrià Goula
University Housing, Gandía / Guallart Architects. Image © Adrià Goula

ES: The city’s shape depends on many different actors, such as individual citizens, citizen organizations, the private sector etc. How do you make sure that all those actors understand your actions? How do you establish a common vision?

VG: A city is created by a political vision. This political vision comes from the social realm of the city. Politicians are chosen, of course in democratic countries, by the citizens. We had politicians that were very consistent, in the last few years, trying to develop a vision for the city. And yes, at least every 25 years you need to upgrade your vision because otherwise you go into crisis. This is what is happening in Barcelona, which was fantastic in planning small scale urbanity, but now — with the arrival of new technologies, ideas of sustainability, local production of energy, and new industries in the city — it has to change. And that’s the idea which is a mantra of Barcelona, an idea of mixing many slow cities inside a smart city. The idea that the neighbourhoods should be the place where people live, with a high quality of life, with work places where people can find good bakeries selling fresh bread every day. The idea of a good quality of life that one can share with neighbourhoods which are connected to each other and to the world. If you want to do this you need to make some changes in the city. First of all you need to have a vision that you need to share with the business sector and you need to share with the people. In general, if the vision is right, the people will be happy. This is what is happening more or less. Sometimes you say something that is not what you’ve been doing for the last five years, but everyone feels that what you are saying makes sense. Because if they feel it doesn’t make sense, they remove you from power. From that point of view we are trying to explain what we are doing; we talk with the citizens, we explain through TV, the newspaper. The mayor gives talks, we make articles and exhibitions, we do projects and share them. By promoting this interaction we create a common vision of the city.

ES: Let me summarize. The idea is for a common city vision and inside it, a variety of smaller visions within the neighbourhoods.

VG: No, there are no smaller visions. It’s the same vision but with different identities. What we need to promote are the different identities within the city. In many cases you have people with different cultures living there, different topographies, different markets. The best cities are those that have a great diversity. If you are able to promote these diverse identities but keep them connected to one vision, then you will have a mixture that produces a good city.

ES: So you suggest a more decentralized way of governing the city.

VG: Yes, but while you are promoting different identities you need a web manager. All the webs, like the internet, have managers. It’s not to say that everyone has to go in the same direction. You need to have a shared vision, but then everyone has to develop it their own way. The best cities are those that have very clear leadership. For example in London the mayor is the leader of many different neighborhoods. Or in New York there are a lot of different districts., but at the same time the mayor is a strong leader that says which direction we should go. So this balance between a clear leadership and diversity is very important.

Ewa Szymczyk is a Graduate Architect and Urban Planner; she is also trained to work in development cooperation.Currently living in London, Szymczyk is a part of ansambl.

About this author
Cite: Ewa Szymczyk. "Interview with Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona" 28 Jan 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884
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