• Thursday , 12 December 2019

Transforming Olympic cities – the Barcelona model

The image which captivated so many television viewers around the world - divers performing against the magical panoramic backdrop of Barcelona beyond.

‘Legacy’ seems to have become the prominent term by which cities judge the worth of staging the Olympic games. It also seems to be a term that is thrown around lightly, as we have seen multiple Olympic ‘legacies’ have quite an opposite effect on a city than was originally intended in more recent times. The legacy of Rio de Janeiro 2016 lies in tatters. Venues and faciilities are already abandoned and even disintegrating while the financial burden on an already fractured economy has been devastating. Similarly the Athens 2004 spectacle left numerous instant ruins or ‘white elephants’ behind. All eyes will now begin to turn their attention towards Tokyo 2020, with the city seemingly taking a similar approach to Barcelona 1992, focusing on the area where the facilities used for the 1964 games are located and looking at developing the Tokyo Bay zone to become a model for innovative urban development.

The fact that the ‘Barcelona Model’ is still known for providing the blueprint for other cities bidding for Summer Games should perhaps be seen as somewhat concerning. Are we yet to witness a host city come close to equaling the successes of Barcelona over the last twenty-five years? Each host city seems to have brought successful aspects to the table but many of them have been overshadowed by the failures and consequences of poor decisions.

<> on March 18, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Disturbing image of the Rio 2016 Aquatic Centre and practice pool.

Barcelona 1992 used the Games for urban redevelopment and improvement of infrastructure, which supplied a model that set a benchmark for prospective Olympic Cities. Barcelona’s bid claimed that over 80 per cent of the necessary facilities for the Games were already available. The Olympic Stadium was a renovated stadium from the 1929 International Exhibition, while the bid emphasised that only fifteen new venues would be required for the Games, with the lion’s share of investment devoted to urban improvements. The city had used the Games as part of a long-term development strategy that was in place long before the nomination stages and one that continued long afterwards.

‘An Olympic city is neither invented nor created by decree: it is built up slowly on the underpinnings of an essential vocation. Then, gradually the city learns to be Olympic.'[1]

There were a number of key features in the Barcelona ‘model’ which other countries have subsequently attempted to replicate. The most significant aspect of the model was its focus on long-term strategic visioning and planning, with regard to urban regeneration as opposed to focusing on area-specific interventions that many previous Olympic hosts had done. The planning project for the Games took shape with three simple aims:
– Open the city to the sea.
– Distribute spatially the improvements and re-equip the city’s sporting facilities.
– Promote communication infrastructures, especially the road network.

These objectives expressed the will that the city as a whole should take a great leap forward. There were four principal sites for the Olympic games on the edges of the city centre, connected by a large ring-road improvement – the Cinturón de Ronda.[2] This was a huge physical step beyond the discrete urban interventions of previous years, reorganising the overall urban form of the city at a metropolitan scale. The intention for introducing four separate ‘areas’ was to avoid packing all the sports facilities into one single place, which would have proved useful for the sixteen days of the Olympics, but would have subsequently been of little social value afterwards.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMoll de la Fusta – part of the remodelling of the Barcelona seafront. The Cinturó del Litoral is seen here running between the old city and the sea.

Barcelona today is best regarded as a ‘street city’. Its citizens habitually use the streets and surrounding urban environment for numerous facets of their daily lives. They take to the streets in times of protest and demonstration, and ‘make use of public space as a sphere of emancipatory appearance’.[3] As a result the people are constantly in touch with the physical dimension of their city, it’s monuments, streets, places of gathering, and also the quieter, more reserved corners of respite. The approach to hosting the Olympics was about transforming the city through its public spaces, pursuing an ambitious yet pragmatic urban strategy and the highest standards of design. To recognise Barcelona’s achievement, the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1999 was given not to a person but a whole city: to Barcelona, its government, its citizens and design professionals of all sorts.[4]

More recently, host cities have embraced the concept of ‘temporary architecture’, constructing less permanent venues. This was a strong focus for London 2012 and with Tokyo building just eight permanent venues for the 2020 spectacle it seems that cities are learning from past mistakes. The crucial lesson to be learnt from Barcelona was the necessity to consider the Games and future uses simultaneously from the outset, with the ’92 games having proven to be a major success in catalysing plans and projects, and stimulating the urban economy. ‘The project for ‘Greater Barcelona’ – thought about for decades but developed during the 1980’s – became a reality in the 1990’s.’[5]

1. Tim Marshall, ed., Transforming Barcelona (London, Routledge, 2004)

2. Peter G. Rowe, Building Barcelona, A Second Renaixença (Barcelona Regional & Actar, 2006)
3. Peter G. Rowe, Building Barcelona, A Second Renaixença (Barcelona Regional & Actar, 2006)
4. Tim Marshall, ed., Transforming Barcelona (London, Routledge, 2004)
5. John R. Gold et al., Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning, and the World’s 
Games, 1896-2016 (London, Routledge, 2011)

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