Is Urbanism Over? A Controversial Debate

The Barcelona "grid": Urban planner Ildefons Cerdà's Eixample district

In a place like Barcelona where the practice of urbanism has left such an indelible mark on the city and become a renowned model in and of itself, announcing the death of urbanism is almost akin to blasphemy. What does Vicente Guallart, director of the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and newly appointed director of Barcelona’s Urban Habitat Department, mean exactly by claiming on more than one occasion (below, 08:35) that “urbanism is over”?

In a recent article (in Catalan) co-written by one of our master’s faculty members, David Martínez, architect, urban planner and urban advisor for the City Council of Barcelona, challenges Guallart’s statement within the context of the urbanism practice in Barcelona today. We thought it worthwhile to share those thoughts here, in English, making this much-needed and contested debate on the approach to urban practice, in our city, available to an international audience.

In the article, he replies with the questions: Are we truly witnessing the end of modern urbanism? Can urbanism adapt to the rising challenges of the contemporary city or must there be a shift in paradigm and methodology in light of an obsolete discipline? Willl Cerdà’s legacy, which gave way to a democratic approach to building a city come to an end with the Vives-Guallart duo under the umbrella of Urban Habitat?

Mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trías and Vicente Guallart at the High Line, New York. © Xavier Trias on flickr

The question is a relevant one, they say, and one that should not be limited to the voice of experts, because urbanism’s purpose is to serve as a democratic tool for building cities, “balancing out the functions of territory, containing and regulating growth, creating axes for mobility and most of all, limiting–albeit too timidly–the excesses of the market on land and public space. We can affirm that urbanism is responsible for the public sphere and architecture for the private dimension of the city.”

The article continues:

“The history of modern urbanism was born with Cerdà’s Eixample but it’s not the first time that someone declares its death. A blind faith in technology, the inspiration in organic forms taken from nature, a stronger emphasis on buildings than on the concept of the city, are some of the characteristics shared, for example, by Archigram or the Japanese Metabolists. Both arose during postwar economic boom of the 1960s and express a desire to break with the modern architects guided by Le Corbusier.”

Noting a coincidental(?) resemblance between Kurokawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower, or Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 complex with some of Barcelona’s recent renders for their planned Blau Ictinea project, Martinez reminds us that “beyond the intellectual agitation sparked by these movements and the mark they left on the history of architecture, they never generated a new methodology for intervening the city.”

Blau@Ictinea, the new neighborhood planned for the old port of El Morrot, in front of Montjuic. | Render ©Willy Mully Architects

“Now, fifty years later, all of the proposals by new municipal team simply recycle the urban habitat debate of the 1950s, adding a dose of futuristic technology (which they call smart city) or referring to the term urban metabolism as a new one, even though it has been around for half a century.”

And what of urbanism, then?

Expressing a regretful loss of values, the article concludes emphatically,

“The idea of the city as a global concept, a product of physical, historical and social conditions, has disappeared. Urbanism, as a method of creating place, began with an analysis of the conditions of each territory; now advanced architecture no longers needs this apriorism: that is why we get proposals for “gates” (a euphemism for projects) in Collserola, and not for ways of defining limits between city and park; or the transformation of the Old Port into a luxury marina crowned by the Blau@Ictínea, without considering the relation between Barcelona and the sea. A more sensible proposal came from the neighborhood association of Poble Nou that reclaims the axis of Pere IV, a historical artery of this district, or from the associations of Nou Barris that entered the Collserola Gates competition for their own district. The city today faces new demands, the dimension of the metropolitan region is key and must, in many cases, transform its urban fabric to allow for a new dynamism. We must recycle neighborhoods and buildings, but we cannot start from scratch as the postwar Japanese Metablists did. The city, as Calvino would say, is time concentrated into space, and everything we do today must be inscribed with the past and charged with the future. Urbanism continues to be the best instrument to that end.”

Blau@Ictinea | Render ©Willy Mully Architects

So, was Guallart’s assertion merely a question of semantics, of replacing and an “old” term with trendier ones, which at the end of the day do not exclude each other? (After all, things like smart city, urban acupuncture…are approaches within urbanism). Or is it a genuine belief that the future of cities will be shaped not by thoughtful urban planning but by iconic architectural interventions like the ones proposed for the new Barcelona so far?

The debate is open.


The original article was written by our faculty member David Martínez together with Jordi Martí, councilor of the City Council of Barcelona.

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  1. […] with one of our faculty members’ critical reflexion on Vicente Guallart’s views on the “death of urbanism”, the chief architect of […]

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