Article 5: Barcelona 1992: The Olympic Games and a Paradigm Shift in City Planning – Cultural Policy and Resources, and a Conclusion

Published: July 19, 2022Categories: Urban Design Policy & IntegrationTags:


Barcelona and Catalonia were able to to revitalise their cultural traditions and upgrade and develop arts venues from the mid 1970s. To begin with, they focused on the more institutional arts – museums, galleries, concert halls – but this gave way over a period of years to a more mixed approach that stressed cultural producers, community arts development, participation and the creative industries, especially design, architecture, contemporary crafts, film and television and the music industry.

About the Author

From around 1987, John Montgomery began working in culture and the city – the arts and urban regeneration, the creative industries, cultural quarters and nighttime economies. By combining these, a then new approach to city cultural planning was formed. During the 1990s and later, he adapted this approach in his work for cities such as London (for example Hackney, Wood Green, North Kensington), Manchester, Sheffield, Belfast and Glasgow, as well as smaller cities such as Derry and Hull.


Since 1975, Catalan governments have laid great stress on re-discovering Catalan cultural identity. This was encapsulated to a large extent in the promotion of Catalan dance, the Sardana, and folk music in the streets and public spaces, activities that had been proscribed by the Franco regime. One important means of doing this was the annual La Merce festival of street art which brings culture, art and tradition into the spaces and streets of the city. This was seen as reaffirming Catalan identity and tradition back to times before 1936.

Changing Cultural Policy

The Congress of Catalonian Culture was formed in 1975 when autonomous provincial status was granted. The Department of Culture and Media was formed in 1980, with devolution of much cultural governance from Madrid by 1986. Cultural facility repair and development followed with the Modern Art Museum, the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, the National Arts Museum of Catalonia, the National Archive, the History Museum, the Picasso Museum, and the reconstruction of Opera and Theatre houses. Policy was very much directed towards Catalonia’s cultural heritage as embodied by arts buildings. The focus was on the visual and performing arts, and especially high art, and museums.

Museu del Disseney, the New Design Museum of Baecelona, by local designers MBM Arquitectes is designed on the edge of Placa de les Glories. The tower in the background is the headquarters of Grupo Agbar designed by Jean Nouvel in association with b720 Fermin Vazquez Arquitectos. The Museu is a cultural institution that brings together under one roof Spanish industrial design, decorative art and fashion.

From around 1984 cultural planning and development switched into preparing for the Cultural Olympiad. Although hailed as a success, it was considered by many in Barcelona to be overly focused on heritage and the fine arts, not enough on living artists, creativity and participation. A new cultural plan was drafted in 1993, and this went some way to addressing such concerns. This strategy had four elements or lines of action:

  1. Developing the City’s Cultural Heritage and Encouraging its Wider Use

This covered supporting the city’s basic cultural institutions, museums, theatres, galleries. But in future more attention would be paid to smaller institutions and organisations, both well established and recently formed.

  1. Promoting Excellence and Creativity

The idea here was to increase cultural production, the making of art.  It was seen not only as a question of new art and new art forms, but of new ways of interpreting and presenting existing art and new ways of establishing relationships between art, cultural expression and the city. The goal was to encourage an atmosphere of freedom and open-mindedness through innovation and experiment.

  1. Increasing Cultural Consumption

On the demand side, the objective was to increase both the numbers and levels of arts audiences and cultural consumers. This referred to the building up of new audiences for the arts – existing residents new to the arts and also visitors (cultural tourists).

  1.      Promoting Wider Cultural Participation

Participation was seen as taking place on many levels and for many reasons: artistic expression, street life, community identity, learning. Here, culture is experienced actively as well as passively.

The period between 1996 and 2003 saw culture recognized as an engine of development for the city, and in underpinning the city’s economy. Even so, the idea of a mixed economy approach to culture, and the creative industries, remained undeveloped. The Barcelona Institute of Culture was set up in 2004 to lead on the development of cultural policies. This brings together several institutions that shape cultural policy, represented a turning point. It produced the Barcelona Strategic Plan for Culture in 2006. The aims were now:

  1. to improve the viability of culture as a sector,
  2. generate more acceptance of the creative industries,
  3. foster initiatives and design strategies to strengthen cultural production,
  4. and improve public understanding of the importance of culture.

This was bringing Barcelona more into line with cities like Manchester and Sheffield, and London. Even so, much of the focus remained on institutions. In a relatively short space of time during the 2000s, Barcelona went on to develop a ‘Theatre City’ at Montjuic, extended the Picasso Museum and built a new music auditorium close to the National Theatre of Catalonia at Les Glories. A major Centre for Design was also proposed. By this time International Contemporary Art was recognized as a growth area. An exhibition circuit of over 100 galleries was established, of which half are proprietor owned. The mixed economy model was beginning to take shape.

Creative Industries

During and immediately following the Franco regime, major film and music recording industry activity moved away to Madrid. However, design (fashion, architecture and contemporary objets) remained an important industry. There was a strong design tradition and network, particularly in graphic design. The Fomenta of Artes Decoratiovas was founded in 1903 and a trade association formed in 1961.

Yet the creative industries economy of Barcelona was undeveloped and largely ignored by policy-makers. During a study of Barcelona’s cultural economy in 1989, researchers at Comedia in London were surprised to find that the cultural (later creative) industries were unheard of in Barcelona. This began to change from about 2004.

Barcelona emerged as the most important creative industry centre in Spain.  The highest concentration of creative industry activity today is in the Eixample, Sarria de Gervas, Sant Marti/PobleNou and Ciutat Vella districts. By 2008, about 22% of Barcelona’s employment was in the creative industry and knowledge intensive sectors. The design industries generally and production-based publishing and printing are the largest sectors, including newspaper/magazines, followed by TV & Radio, Film/Video and Music. Barcelona dominates in Publishing/Press and the region accounts for over 60% of the Spanish market. Planeta is one of the largest 10 publishing companies in the world and international firms also have bases in the city.  Architecture and Industrial Design account for some 3,000 firms. Despite the travails of the 2008/9 financial crisis and recession, the creative industries in Barcelona are still sizeable and, as in other cities, have seen convergence with digital communications.

Theatre and Performing Arts as Cultural Resources

The other strong tradition in Catalonia is theatre. Barcelona is a city of some 1.5 million inhabitants, although it lies at the centre of a wider region – the comarcas – of 4.4 million. The city attracts some 8 million visitors a year. This number of people, many of whom are keen on culture, supports a sizeable sector of theatre and performing arts, including dance, opera and concerts.

Within the city of Barcelona itself there are just over 50 theatres and performance venues, ranging in size from 100 or seats to over 2,000. There are a further 15 theatres in the wider metropolitan area, taking the overall total number of venues to at least 65. A list of some 24 such theatres is appended. Theatres and performance venues found in the outer suburbs of the city include the Nou Barris, Sant Marti and Les Corts.  This underlines the city’s commitment to performing arts and to providing venues and facilities for people living outside of the Old City.

There is an average of some 33 venues per million population within the city boundary, and some 18 for the wider metropolitan area. It is true that many theatres are small such as the Espai Escenic or the Café Teatre Lliantiol, but this is balanced by a suite of large international class theatres such as the Gran Teatre del Liceu (the Opera House), the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, the Teatre Lliure and the Palau de la Musica Catalana. Most of the larger institutions are located around the edges of the Gothic Quarter, and many on the southern part of the Eixample.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Gothic Quarter, in the Baroque Italian style, is Barcelona’s premier theatre for opera, concerts and dance recitals

One of Barcelona’s key venues for the performing arts, the Ciutat del Teatre on Montjuïc Hill brings together a series of theatre spaces. This was completed over several years in the noughties.  The Ciutat del Teatre is now the cornerstone of Barcelona’s performing arts’ scene, hosting many of the city’s leading productions. The complex is home to the Mercat de les Flors, the municipal theatre which schedules contemporary performances in its different theatres spaces and provides a strong focus on dance. The complex also includes the Teatre Lliure, the permanent home of the theatre company which has become one of Spain and the world’s best-known performing-arts troupes. The theatres are housed in the former Palace of Agriculture which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. The Teatre Grec, an open-air venue built in the style of a Greek Amphitheatre on the site of a former quarry, hosts performances and concerts during the city’s summer festival, the Festival Grec. The Institut del Teatre, the drama school for actors and directors, and BTM (Barcelona Teatre Musical), a venue staging musicals housed in the former sports palace, the Palau d’Esports, are the other facilities that are part of this extensive recreational and cultural area.

Barcelona and the 92 Olympics: Some Conclusions

Barcelona now has a cultural economy of rare diversity, standing and vitality. This was not the case at the time of the 1992 Olympics. Rather, changes in cultural policy from the mid 1990s marked the beginning of seeing culture more widely, and importantly including the creative industries and small as well as large institutions. To an extent this can be seen as an application of models adopted in London (from the late 1980s), Manchester (1992) Dublin (1991) and Sheffield (from 1984). These cities, in differing mixes, developed a new type of urban cultural policy or strategy. They stressed the heritage, institutions and arts venues, but also participation, production and consumption partly aimed at attracting visitors, and the cultural industries. Manchester and Dublin also set store by the public realm and urban design, café culture and the night-time economy, and a little later creative and cultural quarters. Along the way, Barcelona has become a leading tourist destination, based in good part on arts, culture and urban culture.

However, Barcelona’s model has also been heavily criticized for transforming the city into a tourist haven, and for creating expensive places within the city. Of course, success is rarely if ever a one-way street. It can bring heightened problems of attracting too many people, ‘over-tourism’, high prices and rising house prices. We see this in all successful cities from the late 80s onwards, notably Dublin, Prague, Amsterdam, Edinburgh and Barcelona. All of these and others grapple with heavy influxes of visitors.

Barcelona design tradition: Bench by Antonio  Gaudi is an artwork iat Parc Guell.

La Gamba, Barcelona Public Art by the Sea

Peix by Frank Gehry is a 52m long golden fish sculpture of monumental design for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Looking back, Barcelona was a successful combination of hosting the Olympic Games with city regeneration and cultural revitalisation. It remains a preeminent example of how to do urban regeneration. One would go so far as to say Barcelona enjoyed a golden age in design, the arts, urban design, tourism, the night-time economy and in tourism. The ripple effects are still being felt, for example in entire new media and tech industries and clusters. The city economy is now well diversified. Not all of this, of course, is due directly to the hosting of the Olympics. Yet 1992 did crystallise, as an inflexion point, the melding of new economic, cultural and design initiatives with the old.


Comedia in the late 1980s: Charles Landry, Franco Bianchini, Simon Blanchard, Liz Greenhalgh, Ken Worpole and John Montgomery.

Notes & References