Barcelona: Three Orders, or One?

Barcelona, Spain’s second city, is composed of three distinct planning regimes, each with its own urban logic and order. Of these three, one, L’Eixample (lit. The Expansion), has been the subject of an outsized amount of popular interest and academic inquiry. The iconic octagonal grid of L’Eixample––which knitted together Barcelona’s gothic core and the villages of the Catalan countryside into a contiguous urban fabric––was commissioned in the mid 19th century, motivated by industrial era urban-inflow and the rising nationalism of the city’s elites, who hoped to build a suitable capital for the Catalan region. Ildefons Cerdà, the grid’s designer, included several innovative features which have stood the test of time. Most notable are the block’s chamfered corners, which open up sightlines and provide community space around intersections, giving L’Eixample an airiness not found in standard gridirons. Unfortunately, Cerdà’s decision to oversize the district’s blocks, in the hopes that their centers would accommodate community gardens, appears overly optimistic in hindsight.

While praising the rigid, explicit order of L’Eixample produces a pleasing narrative of progress, one should not assume that Barcelona’s older core or annexed outer reaches are themselves disordered. The fusion of incumbent, village-scale mini grids has endowed the fringe districts with level of local coherence and intimacy not found in the uniformity of L’Eixample. Similarly, the old Gothic Quarter began as a gridded Roman colonia; its Cardo and Decumanus survive as major boulevards to this day. In the 13th century, King James I of Aragon authorized the demolition of the old Roman wall, allowing the Gothic Quarter to grow its current size by filling in the space between satellite settlements, just as the 19th century demolition of the city’s medieval walls enabled the construction of L’Eixample. Ultimately, L’Eixample did not impose an order on a disordered city. Instead Cerdà’s grid harmonized two incumbent orders––that of the satellite villages and the Gothic Quarter––into the broader, city-scale urban order seen today.

1. Nico Calavita, Amador Ferrer, Behind Barcelona’s Success Story, Journal of Urban History, September 2000
2. Antònia Casellas, Barcelona’s Urban Landscape: Historical Making of a Tourist Product, Journal of Urban History, September 2009
3. Gary W. McDonogh, Barcelona: Forms, Images and Conflicts, Journal of Urban History, January 2011

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