It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting at the top of Park Güell, a public park in the Gracia district of Barcelona that was designed by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi.
We walked up here after opening our presents and now we are relaxing and enjoying the view and taking a break from the long walk. Eleanor is on the swing at the playground, making friends with Spanish girls. Atticus and Sujata are reading and I’m thinking about the five days we’ve enjoyed here in Barcelona.
This is our fifth and final day in this city, and I’ll be sorry to leave. As we prepare to leave every major European city that we have visited this autumn, I always comment, “[The city we are in] is my favorite city so far.” Sujata teases me–you can’t have that many favorite cities, she says. I am happy, though, to accumulate a long list of favorite European cities.
The Barcelona I’ve seen is a city of parks, small neighborhood public squares, wide boulevards that transect the city, long winding beaches and tree-covered mountains. The people we have met have been overwhelmingly friendly, often complimenting us on our Spanish, which I find funny because our Spanish, while not terrible, probably isn’t much more advanced than the speech of a five-year old. Still, I’ll take the compliment and chalk it up to the graciousness of the people in this city.
Barcelona hosts a curious and refreshing diversity of tight, dark medieval streets and neighborhoods with wide, open boulevards and public spaces that we associate more with late nineteenth-century city planning. In the space of a few minutes, you could find yourself navigating a darkened, cobble-stoned street which tumbles you out onto a sunlit boulevard that provides panoramic views across the city.
Among other things, Barcelona is remarkable for its architecture and the way the city has been laid out. After the medieval city walls were demolished in the mid nineteenth century, the city began expanding west, toward the mountains. The modern city planners clearly imagined a city of wide open public, private and commercial spaces and they achieved this vision through the implementation of a number of planning techniques that have had a lasting and positive effect on the city.
Here’s an image I took from Pinterest to illustrate my point:
One of the first things you notice when you visit Barcelona is the way the buildings of many of the major squares and intersections are chamfered, or cut at a diagonal. You can see an example of this in the middle of the image above. Most commercial buildings in any given major city end in a 90-degree angle. From a commercial aspect this makes a lot of sense in that continuing the building to the right angle provides more square footage. So in that regard, Barcelona’s chamfered commercial spaces are economically inefficient. But what is taken away in commercial space is made up in civic space because when you cut the building on a diagonal, you open up the intersection to a wider range of public space. As you can see in the image above, the octagonal plaza is full of trees and green space.At the same time, the diagonals, open up more of the built environment, letting more light into the city streets.
Barcelona is also unique for its lack of alleyways across city blocks. The alley is a staple of nearly every American city, large and small, and in many ways, the back alley is a part of the American mythology–it’s where undercover and untoward deals are made, it’s where car chases end and it’s where dead bodies are found, unceremoniously stuffed in trash bins. Plus, how many Springsteen songs take place in alleys and backstreets?
I don’t know where Catalan artists go to for those dark metaphors because there aren’t any alleys, at least that I saw, in Barcelona. It’s true that Barcelona has its fair share of narrow streets that could be mistaken for alleys, but the kind of alleys that bisect entire city blocks don’t exist in the heart of Barcelona. Instead, the nineteenth-century city planners designed city blocks with inner courtyards where people could gather and relax away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.
Look back at the above image and notice how the blocks are organized: there are buildings around the perimeter of the blocks and then, in many cases, green spaces in the middle. This, I have to say, is genius city planning. Real estate developers, I suspect, chafe at the ‘wasted’ space, but, again, I think the tenor and the tone of this great city is set in these quiet spaces. The flat where we are staying hosts an inner courtyard and the effect that has on the living space is really quite amazing. This is a view out our window on Christmas morning:
When we sit in the living room that overlooks the inner courtyard, we are flooded in light. Moreover, it’s quiet back there. You don’t hear cars, delivery trucks or people creeping by at all hours of the day or night. It’s worth noting, too, that many of the inner courtyards in Barcelona were ‘filled in’ during the Franco years and many of them have since been recovered.
More recently, Barcelona city planners have been expanding on the vision of the early city planners by creating “super blocks”–long swaths of city streets and plazas with limited or zero car access and that will be largely turned over to pedestrians. The venerable (or ‘failing’ if you are #45) New York Times did an interesting piece on Barcelona’s ‘super blocks’ in September of 2016.