BRISBANE 2032 OPPORTUNITIES FOR AN OLYMPIC LEGACY: ARTICLE 3. Barcelona 1992 – The Olympic Games and a Paradigm Shift in City Planning – Urban History and Regeneration


In this article, one of three on New City Planning in Barcelona, the history of the city is presented up to 1975 and the death of General Franco. We cover the early growth of the Gothic City, Barcelona as a port and trading city, the pressure for expansion during the rapid population growth of the 19th century, the rise of Modernisme in art, architecture and design, and the development of industrial suburbs around the city perimeter during the 1950s-1970s.

About the Authors

John Montgomery worked briefly on cultural policy for Barcelona in 1990. He visited the city many times in the lead up to the 1992 Olympic Games and after. He used the insights gleaned to write a history of urban planning and design in Barcelona as part of his 2007 book ‘The New Wealth of Cities’. This has been updated over the years and is presented here in the form of three short articles. The first of these – Article 3 in our series – deals with urban history up until the early 1980s.


Barcelona was the host city for the Summer Olympics of 1992.  The then city mayor saw this as an opportunity to kick-start a broader rediscovery of the city as ‘a cultural phenomenon’[i]. As well as the necessary upgrades and new-build sports venues, the city took its chance to build a new beach, connecting the city to the sea, embark upon a programme of making 150 new and redesigned public spaces, creating a new transport link, making a new urban village, redesigning Barceloneta, and more. Great stress was placed on cultural as well as physical development. This approach to new city planning began in around 1984 and continues to this day. Hosting the Olympic Games was used as the driving force in the renewal of the city.

Pasqual Maragall was mayor of Barcelona from 1982 to 1997. He studied in the United States, at the New School of Social Research in New York and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  On his return to Barcelona, he began to look for ways in which both business and public funding could be used to regenerate the city. He saw this as a mixed economy model, utilizing both private sector investment and policy planning to improve Barcelona’s economy, culture and sense of place.  The main objective of the ‘Barcelona model’ was to achieve a balance of strong economic growth, a better distribution of facilities and installations, and better overall quality of life for the city as a whole.

Ambitious programmes of work were undertaken to establish quality public spaces and innovative architecture across Barcelona.  These are rightly celebrated by the Catalans themselves, by architects and urban planners and by people who visit this fine city.  There is perhaps no other city in the world where so much has been achieved in urban design and in improving the public realm.  It represented a new approach, a paradigm shift in city planning, one that remains important.

This article contains a chronological exposition of Barcelona’s urban history, architecture and important cultural movements. This takes us to 1976, the death of General Franco and the renaissance of Catalan culture. There follows a discussion of the work leading up to the 1992 Olympics, specifically in urban design, place-making and architecture. There is a summary of Barcelona’s evolving policy and investment in the arts and cultural and creative industries, as these were from the early 1990s seen as part and parcel of the Barcelona model.

Barcelona: An Urban History

As the art historian Robert Hughes has pointed out, Barcelona is really three cities[ii].  On the perimeter lie the industrial suburbs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as depressing a muddle of roads, factories and apartment blocks as can be found anywhere.  Inside this lies the nineteenth century grid of the Eixample (Enlargement), laid out by the engineer Ildefons Cerdà i Simyer, built between 1859 and 1910.  Inside this is found the Old City or Gothic Quarter.

Map of the city showing the Gothic Quarter, Exaimple and the coast, the port and Montjuic, the site of the Olympics. (Barcelona History Chapter).

The early city – Barcino – dates back to Roman times, the first century BC, when a port and Roman city grew up.  Extensive remains of Roman Barcelona can still be seen in the Gothic Quarter.  Following the collapse of Roman Spain, Catalunya was subject to various waves of invasion from Vandals, Suevians, Alani and Visigoths.  Eventually the Visigoths would become rulers of Catalunya, and most of Spain, eventually moving their seat of power to Toledo.  As invaders at the time went, the Visigoths were relatively benign and, according to Hughes the process of cultural change was “one of absorbing and merging”[iii].

Catalunya began to grow in wealth and influence, culminating in the union with the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon after 1134.  This would establish Aragon and Catalunya as a strong power bloc in the Mediterranean, and in the process Barcelona became a great sea power.  This situation would remain broadly the case through the following centuries of trade across the Mediterranean, wars with the Moors and outbreaks of the plague.  Barcelona prospered, and its population grew.

By the early thirteenth century, new city walls were under construction.  These would take 100 years to complete, enclosing an area twenty times the size of the original Roman city, and this would become known as the Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter.  Although little from before the thirteenth century remains, Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter contains the largest concentration of thirteenth to fifteenth century buildings in Europe, including churches, town houses, government buildings and the Cathedral.  Barcelona would continue, with ups and downs, to create wealth for the next five hundred years, during which time it would also resist the Hapsburg Empire and be invaded by the Bourbons (in 1714).  The Bourbons, in the guise of Felipe V, set about building a system of walls – muralles – which were reviled by the Catalans and would create many future urban problems.

Placa del Pi, an old public space in the Gothic Quarter. (Photo by: John Montgomery, taken on slide film, 1991).

A city plan, published in 1740 by the architect Francesc Renart i Closas, shows a new street connecting the Port of Barceloneta to the northern edge of the city, running along the western edge of the Old City.  The street follows the route of a former stream, and indeed the name –rambla –  in Arabic means “riverbed”.  Built as an access road, the Ramblas would preserve the boundary of the medieval city despite being widened in the early nineteenth century.  Along its route many fine palaces would be built in the 18th century.  However, as the city’s population continued to grow, urban densities increased to the point of severe over-crowding by the 1790s.  Any plan to extend the city, however, would need to wait another seventy years during the power struggle between the Carlists (Madrid) and the Catalans, an enmity that exists to this day.

Las Ramblas – a street that was once the edge between the Gothic City and the newer city to the north and west. It developed as a street from the 15th Century. (Barcelona History Chapter).

Planned Expansion (The Eixample):

By the mid-1850s, Catalunya as a whole had a population of 1.67 million people.  Of these, 189,000 lived in Barcelona[iv].  At this time, based on industry, Barcelona accounted for over 25% of Spain’s gross national product.  The industries were iron and steel, and a rapidly expanding cotton industry, the fourth largest in the world.  Catalan entrepreneurs had visited England and returned with designs for spinning jennies and machine looms.  By 1861, there were almost 10,000 such looms in Catalunya[v]. Following a period of agitation for social reform, although not without the brutal suppression of a labour uprising, the Bourbon walls were allowed to be removed over a period of some ten years, and by 1865 they had all but gone.  Today, although sections of both the Roman wall and the medieval wall remain intact, nothing exists of the Bourbon wall.  By 1865, the removal of the walls meant that at last Barcelona could expand.

The industrial waterside in the 1970’s. (Adobe Stock).

The expansion plan was prepared by a socialist engineer Ildefons Cerdà. It follows a similar logic to Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris, except that Cerdà was building on agricultural land as opposed to demolishing the old city.  Cerdà’s plan won the competition, organised by the Adjantament of Barcelona in 1859, despite the fact that his plan made barely any acknowledgement of the Old City.  There was, moreover, a rival plan prepared by the City’s own municipal architect, Antoni Rovira i Trias.  Rovira’s design extended from the areas of the Ramblas into a new ceremonial square, and from here it radiated out into five segments divided by avenues.  The outer edges were defined by a canal and a railway.  By contrast, Cerdà’s plan was an unrelieved grid, the only exception being three great avenues criss-crossing the grid. The name of one of these – the Diagonala – gives the idea. The City Council selected Rovira’s plan but within eight months this decision was reversed by Madrid.  This caused considerable resentment at the time, and still rankles even today, Cerdà’s plan being criticised roundly as being monstrous, lacking in grace, “a disaster of gigantic proportions” and generally lacking in understanding of the realities of everyday urban life. This debate has resurfaced in recent years with proposals to break the Eixample into larger discrete places or superblocks.

Superblocks of the Eixample neighborhood in accordance with the Cerda Plan. Getty images.jpg

Cerdà’s layout consisted of 550 city blocks converging on an area of nine square kilometres.  This would be broken down into units of 100 blocks (ten by ten), each designed as a city district with its own shopping area.  Two-thirds of each block would be left open as parks, so that the built footprint of a block would be some 5,000 square metres.  Every block would be 113.3 metres square, so that three blocks would equal exactly 400 metres.  Corners would be set back at 45°, not for any aesthetic purpose but simply to allow turning space for public transport vehicles.  Building heights would be limited to 57 feet.  In the event, many and varied ‘relaxations’ of the plan meant that building heights were increased to 65 feet but, more importantly, infill of the courtyards and parks was allowed.  The Eixample as built was a more dense urban environment than Cerdà would have wished, yet this was probably an improvement on what might have been.  Too much open space in a city can leave streets and blocks a series of disconnected islands.  That said, the slow, disjointed progress of actually building the Eixample undermined any prospect of architectural unity, while the sanitation systems – which Cerdà had designed to reduce outbreaks of disease – were as bad as anything found in the Old Town.  And as the city population was growing so rapidly, the Eixample was overcrowded almost from the outset.  In stark contrast to Edinburgh’s New Town or Pombal’s Lisbon, the Eixample brought as many problems as it solved.


Meanwhile, life and politics in Barcelona reverted to a familiar litany of uprisings against the Bourbons, disputes between Carlists and Catalan nationalists, left and right, an outbreak of phylloxera which wiped out the vineyards in the 1870s, followed by the deep recession of the 1880s.  During all of this, the hated Bourbon Citadel was pulled down, leaving an enormous vacant site of some 270 acres. Once more a competition was held, this time to design a new park.  The winning submission, led by Josep Fontseré i Mestres included a young Antoni Gaudi.  Today it is known for the Cascade, a large-scale sculptural fountain, and for the zoo which occupies the park’s southern half.  In 1888 it would be the site of Barcelona’s Expo.

Casa Batllo with its curvilinear Art Nouveau theme is a fantastical example of Gaudi’s Modernisme. (Adobe Stock).

Having built not one but two cities, a large park and some monumental art, the Catalans spent much of the next forty years erecting sundry statues and monuments, building many grand homes and palaces in the Art Noveau style (known in Barcelona as Modernisme), plus the odd park and even a cathedral – the Sagrada Familia.  Architects busy during this time included Domenech, Gaudi and Josep Puig i Cadafalch[vi].  Artists such as Santiago Rusinyol and Ramon Casas were also living and working in the city, as was the young Picasso.  In the midst of their work, Casas and Rusinyol found time to open a “beer cellar” in 1896 as a centre for the Modernisme movement.  Critics suggested that no-one but possibly four cats would turn up at the opening, so they named it “The Black Cats”.

The last vestiges of Modernisme and the life of Barcelona would grind to a halt with the onset of the Civil War in 1936.  The Catalans were pro-Republic and – as they had during the War of the Spanish Succession – ended up on the losing side.  General Franco banned the public use of Catalan in teaching, publishing, the press and in government.  Moreover, Barcelona’s economy would remain depressed, with only a modest upswing in the 1960s during which time many ill-considered industrial estates were built on the edges of the city and even along the waterfront.  When General Franco died in 1975 without an heir apparent (his chosen successor having been blown up in 1973), the streets of Barcelona danced for joy.


Over several years now: Charles Landry, Will Cousins, Jordi Farrando, Paul Skelton

Notes & References

[i] Barcelona City Mayor, Pasqual Maragall, ‘We have saved the city as a cultural concept’, September 1992.

[ii] Hughes, R. Barcelona, (London: Harvill, 1992), p3

[iii] Ibid, p 72

[iv] Ibid, p 254

[v] Ibid, p 255

[vi] For more detail on the work of these architects see Ignasi de Solà-Marales Fin De Siecle Architecture in Barcelona (Barcelona:Gustavo Gili, 1992).