Barcelona 25 years on from 1992 Olympics: a city still glittering a little too much?
The main architect of the great transformation the city experienced a quarter of a century ago says opening up to the sea was the principal feat
The Olympic Village, the two 150-meter towers dominating it, the Olympic Stadium, the Palau Sant Jordi indoor stadium, the beaches, the Olympic Harbour… All of them are symbols of modern Barcelona, and all of them are offspring of an urban revolution in the 1980s. The aim, according to some of its promoters, was to modernize the city after 40 years under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Yet they needed a good excuse to get on with it –and get funding– and organizing the 1992 Olympic Games exactly 25 years ago provided that excuse. In fact, Tuesday marks a quarter century since archer Antonio Rebollo famously lit the Olympic flame with a burning arrow in the inauguration ceremony. However, it all started a bit earlier than that.
The famous ‘à la ville de… Barcelona’, pronounced by the then IOC International Olympic Committee President Joan Antoni Samaranch, on October 17, 1986 in the Swiss city of Lausanne, was the best excuse. The city committed on that day to holding the event five years and nine months later, in summer 1992. Mayors Narcís Serra, and above all Pasqual Maragall, were the main organizers at a political level, but those who took charge of the actual transformation are the architects, and one of them in particular stands out: Oriol Bohigas, the man responsible for urban planning in the local council in the 1980s.
The principat feat: granting citizens access to the sea
Bohigas is now 91, but he still remembers all the details of his work 25 years on, and he expresses no hesitation when asked about the most important transformation: the beaches. “The sea was cut off from the people; Barcelona had no beaches and nowadays it is the city with the biggest and best-looked after beaches in the Mediterranean,” he claimed in an interview with Catalan News. Bohigas recalls that the neighbourhoods along the coast “were a disaster, they had no drainage and all the dirt from citizens ended up in the sea.” In fact, he explains with a grin that the event organizers told him to stop “cleaning up the streets” for fear of running out of time and money to build the stadiums.
The Olympic Village: was it worth losing industrial heritage?
One of the other dramatic changes because of the Games was the construction, from scratch, of a neighbourhood to host athletes for two weeks and then the public after that: the Olympic Village. There was some controversy because knocking down some old industrial areas was needed to build it and some claimed that examples of heritage fell by the wayside. “The heritage was devastated,” architect and current city councillor Josep Maria Montaner tells Catalan News.
“The scale of the project and the improvement work was far bigger than safeguarding one or two buildings that may have had a heritage,” says a professional who worked with Bohigas ahead of the 1992 Games, Oriol Capdevila. He told Catalan News: “Our will was not to demolish, but to rebuild.”
The ring road: dramatic change for (private) mobility
Montaner introduces other controversies, such as, he says, the transformation did not take into account citizen participation or public transport. One of the most striking changes was the construction of a ring road surrounding Barcelona to prevent traffic jams in the city center and, although their architects concede that public transport was not the priority, the ring road was “essential”. In any case, Capdevila and even the critical Montaner admit that the debates and values of the society have drastically changed over the past 25 years.
“No one thought that millions of tourists would come, that is something that came later”
Beth Galí · Deputy director of Barcelona Urban Promotion Institute (!988-1992)
Six 150-meter towers in the Olympic Village: too much for the Spanish government
Bohigas expresses no complaints about any of the administrations involved in the transformation, including local, Catalan and Spanish governments. Nevertheless, another architect involved at that time, Beth Galí, recalls one major incident with Madrid. The Olympic Village, she says, was originally planned with six towers rather than two, but an official responsible for the coastlines vetoed four of them with no explanation. She maintains he gave “no option to discuss why they were planned.”
1992 Games' influence in the controversial current tourism model
The Olympic Village, the towers dominating it, Palau Sant Jordi, the beaches, the Olympic Harbour are not only icons of the city, but also the main themes on postcards, of selfies and all kinds of photographs taken by many of the 8.3 tourists who stayed in Barcelona in 2016. More than five times the population of the city. Is the city becoming a victim of its own success after the boom that followed 1992?
According to Montaner, a “liberal trend” started right after the Games to pay the bill, and that led to a city that was “more spectacular, touristy and focused on attractions.” Yet, Galí points out that “no one thought that those improvement works would make up the ‘Barcelona’ brand.” “No one thought that millions of tourists would come, that is something that came later,” she adds. Montaner, Galí and Capdevila agree on one thing, however: what puts the city at risk is its management and not its transformation ahead of the 1992 Games.
Venues spread around the country still in good condition
The election of Barcelona bid also affected beyond the natural city borders: the Llobregat and Besòs River, Collserola mountain range and the sea, as some Olympic events were held in towns nearby, including Badalona, which held the basketball competition and witnessed the (arguably) best team that has ever played the sport: USA’s dream team, featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson among others. While Capdevila believes that the changes spread throughout Barcelona metro area were considerable, Montaner thinks that the Games promoted more centralism.
Architect and Blanquerna University professor Sacra Morejón also regrets that the extent of the transformation could have been bigger, but still thinks that the sport venues built were very well-planned. “They were built interestingly, not only for its use during the Olympics, but also for the citizens’ use later on, it is one of the great wise decisions”, she says. What’s more, to her mind, the fact that the buildings are public-owned have helped get sport closer to everyone as there was more offer and the prizes to use them got down. She also believes that their ownership has been essential for the venues’ conservation 25 years on.
New Olympics in Barcelona?
After having seen some pros and cons, is it sensible to think of hosting some other summer Games? The ones in 2024 and 2028 are already allocated to Paris and Los Angeles –the only thing yet to be decided is the order–, so could Barcelona bid for the 2032 edition to mark the 40th anniversary of the first one? No way, say architects. The city needs to focus on specific issues, such as housing, noise or good functioning of supplies, but it does not urge a massive change, as it did after Franco dictatorship, claims Beth Galí.
The city council considered, though, bidding for the 2026 winter Olympics along with the Catalan Pyrenees, but it ruled it out for that year last March. This does not mean that it could try to host them later on in the future. Professor Morejón thinks that it would breathe life into the mountainous region of the country. What is certain is that it would seem contradictory to some people worldwide who think of sun and beach when Barcelona comes to their minds. In the meantime, there is nothing in the horizon which could make the Olympic Village, Harbour and Stadium go back to its original use.