Barcelona from the Air

¿Does it make sense to look at a city from a birds-eye perspective?

There’s not a country in the world that hasn’t produced a tv program of images of its landscapes and cities from the air. Once perfected the technical capacity to shoot quality, stable images from a flying machine, ideally a helicopter, it was easy to convince a programming executive to pay for production. It’s one of those “why not” tv genres. Such shows are also premised on people wanting to see aerial images of where they live, places they’ve been and others nearby they haven’t gotten to yet, which proves a point: these series are meant for viewers who already have an idea of what they are looking at. Nobody would watch a program about anywhere else—unless it were exceptional, like a Hawaiian island spewing volcanic ire, or a frightened herd of wildebeest fleeing across the Serengeti. But if I came across a documentary on Netflix called “Moldavia from the Skies”, I wouldn’t watch it; Moldavians would.

Many of us have watched bits of the classic Catalunya des de l’aire (Catalonia from the Air) http://www.ccma.cat/tv3/alacarta/catalunya-des-de-laire/, but never because we wanted to. Usually you are flipping channels at some odd hour, and it’s on; or maybe TV3 is on strike, so they use it as filler. But you never watch a full episode, start to finish—and why would you? You get no story line, no characters, no dramatic tension. No one hangs off the edge of their seat to see what the next mountaintop thinks personally about the valley below, or if one cove is secretly in love with another. In television terms, filming a place from the air is the exact opposite of a soap opera.

Catalunya des de l’aire first came out in 1998, with a 20-minute episode on the Barcelonès comarca, basically the metropolitan core. Not the city of Barcelona alone, although you’d think there would be enough to show, with so many singular details. TV3, as an extension of successive Catalan governments to the political right of the capital, has habitually made an exaggerated effort to minimize Barcelona city, to play it down. Since Barcelona has by far the highest density, doing just part of a single show on it meant it got less time, per person, than any other episode. Even Catalunya des de l’aire couldn’t avoid political bias.

New arrivals look down on the uninterrupted stretch of constructed space pushing up from the coastline, with pathetically little green space, and the reaction is blasé.

10 minutes of a 20-hour series would be insulting if it weren’t for the fact that shows like this have nothing to do with people, and hardly anything to do with urban environments. From the air you can’t see a single person, apart from the odd fleck on Barceloneta beach. Not a single distinguishing feature of a Barcelona neighbourhood is perceptible, while striking features like the Sagrada Familia are flattened into the ground. From above you can’t tell which barris are tightly knit in a union of mortar and shared complicity, and which are totally destructured. You can’t even tell that medieval Sarrià is far wealthier than Roquetes, built by working class immigrants in the 1950s: they’re just two amorphic daubs in the city’s upper reaches. When you fly into Barcelona, surrounded by first-time tourists coming for a weekend, you perceive this in their reactions. Nobody ever seems thrilled. When seen from above, the city creates little buzz; new arrivals look down on the uninterrupted stretch of constructed space pushing up from the coastline, with pathetically little green space, and the reaction is blasé. From on high, Barcelona is not so different from Genoa or Tangiers.

Looking down this way on Barcelona, most details of merit are lost. Family, friends and associates simply do not exist. Nor can any of the richly variegated texture of the street be seen. The pulse of the city’s squares, densely criss-crossed on foot, bike or electric kickboard, is annulled. The particular character of any given nucleus cannot be perceived, so you get no sense of the vitality of the Plaça de la Palmera for La Verneda, or the lively hum of small, historic food markets like Galvany or Llibertat.

So is there anything positive about seeing a place from above? Perhaps it helps remind us that taken from a certain distance, petty obsessions make less sense. Rivalries, racial differentiation, even flag-waving, lose all importance. Most political discourse, contextualised this way, seems positively insane. This is what seeing our planet from space should have taught us, since the higher you get, the further borders and dogmas move away as well. Of course, doing a show like Catalunya des de l’aire had no such intentions when it was made: it was just a boring pageant of geographic jingoism.

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