Once, when visiting the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion with a prestigious German art critic, he looked up Montjuïc to the Palau Nacional, home to the MNAC museum, and said: “That’s the Baroque palace of the Baroque monarchy that Catalonia never had.” A splendid turn of phrase I’ve never forgotten. Of course, he was perfectly aware it had been built out of time, not in 1650 but for the 1929 International Exposition. Just like the pavilion commissioned to Mies by the Weimar Republic: one pointing to an unlived past, to a glory that never was; the other anticipating a rationally modern future that could not be consummated either. Even rebuilding that pavilion in the 1980s was modernist nostalgia, an icon to a missed opportunity; lovely thing indeed, but the epitome of pastiche.
Between one and the other, one woof and the other warp, the tale of Barcelona’s fall is intricately woven.
Barcelona is full of architectures that express this, delayed or premature or both at once. Take the Sagrada Familia, an overstated copy of a Gothic cathedral done by nineteenth century romantics, where stories from the Evangels are accompanied by lichens and turtles and invertebrate marine motifs. When it’s done it will be as unvisitable as ever. Or the entire Gothic quarter, where few of the quaint medieval squares are original: most are the result of having removed a cemetery or cloister or entire blocks of housing, their charm a modern ruse too. Even the Eixample, which many tout as functional and egalitarian, was imposed over the design approved by city hall, when Ildefons Cerdà snuck off to Madrid to get his plan rubber stamped by the minister: we were literally conned into it.
The fall of Barcelona describes a city that has made its name for places out of time and times without places. Where even when you get where you want to go, there’s no solace in having done so. God sat back on the seventh day and saw that it was good; Barcelona could not. Emerging out of the dictatorship, the city’s social democrat leaders strived to forge a dream of a cultural capital, open to the world, non-denominational and cosmopolitan, friendly to tourists and attractive to international financial capital.
It is astonishing just how quickly the heralded Barcelona model went from being a source of pride to the symbol of all things gone wrong.
A city that locals and foreigners could stroll through side by side, equally thrilled. In less than two decades all this was achieved: they did it. But while outsiders continued to arrive en masse, seduced by the narrative, for locals the product had already expired. The sweet wine had quickly soured, the fine raiment was found to be threadbare. Every Barcelonan seemed to be muttering those lines out of Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
Unable to settle into the beauty of a harmonious present tense, Barcelona is the exact opposite of mindfulness. Being mindful means cultivating an awakened experience of the moment, unplagued by past remorse and doubt, unmarred by future uncertainties. Even if you think pop regurgitations of Buddhism (a fair description of mindfulness) are silly, you can’t deny that Barcelona has staked its reputation on fleeing from the here and now, coming up with every escape route imaginable.
In the conditions of its rise, nervous and narcissistic, cavalierly indifferent to the socio-economic conditions of residents, plain rude to the humanity of its traditional neighbourhoods, the terms of Barcelona’s fall were inscribed. Cultural capital? Still mired in provincialism. Friendly and cosmopolitan? You mean a service sector stocked by immigrants, smiling through their minimum wage. A good place for foreigners to invest? No doubt, with results that make it more comfortable for wealthy speculators than for long-time residents. It is truly astonishing just how quickly the heralded Barcelona model went from being a source of pride to the symbol of all things gone wrong.
Last month I wondered if not being the capital of its own nation was what had made Barcelona so deeply irreconcilable. A place unable to find any pleasure in what it had previously been convinced would please it, because it really wanted something else.
Now that it has been invaded again, in what can only be described as a judicially and legislatively sanctioned coup d’état, exposing the vilest reality of Spain’s flawed transition, I’m repentant of having thrown that out so coolly. Not because it may not be true, but because this is not the best time to be a smartass, with helicopters buzzing our heads, the internet and liberty crashed.