Monday, 9 January 2012

Barcelona, 1929 International Exhibition

Like any big city, Barcelona has been marked by some key events which have involved major urban projects, among them:
        1714 (the construction of the Ciutadella and the occupation of the city),

        1888  The Exposiçió Universal (Arc de Triomf etc)

       1929  The Exposiçió Internacional (Plaça d’Espanya, Montjuic)

        1992  Olympics (Olympic Village and the ‘Olympic ring’ on Montjuic)

2004 The Fòrum Universal (devpt of seaside area, Parc del Fòrum)

The 1929 Expo has left behind a whole series of monumental constructions, offering a rich site for the study fo the interaction of architecture, urbanization, and history. Below I post some notes on an En Guàrdia programme on this event.

The 1888 Exposició Universal had a huge impact on Barcelona. This was one of the Great Exhibitions of the late nineteenth Century and put this provincial port city in the same league as the giants London and Paris. As early as 1905 the architect / scholar / politician Josep Puig i Cadafalch, writing in La Veu de Catalunya (house paper of the Lliga Regionalista), had proposed a follow-up. A commission was set up in 1913, comprising Puig i Cadafalch, Mayor Joan Pich i Pon and Francesc Cambó (founder and leader of the Lliga Regionalista). They considered various sites, in particular the Plaça de les Glòries (planned as a city nexus by Cerdà), before settling on Montjuic. Financially, the Expo was meant to support itself. This partly explains the choice of Montjuic, since there the city would not have to buy any land back from private owners. (Pich I Pon seems to have more or less promised to friends around the Plaça de les Glòries that their property would increase in value). The first concrete proposal was for an exhibition of electrical industries in 1917.

The 1888 Expo was quite recent. So what motivated another? First there were the technological advances that had been made in the twentieth century: the introduction of electric power, the telephone, radio (an antenna was placed on Montjuic in 1924). There was also the desire to develop Montjuic – still a wild place, on the fringes of urban life – and a strong political will: the Catalanist Lliga and sympathetic individuals were behind another project that would promote Barcelona and Catalonia as a distinctive nation.
1917 came and went. The First World War, and then the seizure of power by Gneral Primo de Rivera (1923) made the idea unfeasible.  The concept of an Exhibition in Barcelona was also viewed with great hostility by Primo’s government in Madrid, who were highly suspicious of any signs of Catalanism. So the Expo had to wait until 1929 (when it coincided with the Ibero-American Exhibition in Seville).. By then, further urbanization had seen the first Metro line (1924), and the very beginnings of discussion about an airport at Prats. The Eixample continued to grow, way beyond – and in defiance of - Cerdà’s original plans. Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Hospital de Sant Pau was in construction. The first traffic lights were going up. Socially, Barcelona was now a very stratified society, though a fairly homogenous Catalan-speaking one: before the thirties immigration from other parts of Spain was less than 10%. The Expo itself altered the demography of the city as workers from the South of Spain poured in, living in makeshift huts (‘barracas’) wherevever they could find a space.

The architecture for the Expo is a kind of last-fling of turn-of-the-century eclecticism. There are outposts of modernism, and we see examples of neogothic, and neoclassical noucentisme. The Palau Nacional (now MNAC) was constructed (without proper foundations). Primo de Rivera was determined that the event should not be an opportunity for Catalanist symbolism, and probably for this reason ordered that Puig i Cadafalch’s four ionic towers (the ‘quatre barres’) be dismantled: they suggest the Catalan flag. The Poble Espanyol was built to celebrate the different regional styles of Spain. All of this must have looked antiquated next to the minimal modernism of the German Pavillion by Mies van der Rohe, an indicator of the supremacy of German culture at this time. Only a few countries sent representatives to the Expo. Partly this was because the international economy was in difficulties. There was also suspicion of Spain as it was a dictatorship: with the exception of Portugal and Italy, democracy was the norm in Europe at the time.
The 1929 Expo was not the sensation that the 1888 one had been. And it ended in a minor key, as it coincided with the Wall Street Crash (in Mendoza’s La ciudad de los Prodigios the city authorities fill empty pavilions with anything they can find, but it’s hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction in that novel). Primo resigned just fifteen days after the closure of the Expo, and died shortly afterwards in Paris. In 1931 King Alfonso XIII went into exile as Spain became a Republic. And a few years after this the country fell into civil war. The physical legacy of the 1929 Expo is a remarkable space, stretching from the remodelled Plaça d’Espanya and its Metro up the Avinguda Reina Maria Cristina to MNAC. It is still the site of international fairs and congresses today.
Individual Works
Of the many buildings and monuments that remain, some of the most notable are:
·         The Plaça d’Espanya, including the Fountain and Venetian Towers
·         Puig i Cadafalch’s four columns.
·         Palau Nacional / MNAC
·         Poble Espanyol
The Mies van der Rohe Pavillion is covered elsewhere in this blog
General Sources
Detailed Wikipedia entry
Richly illustrated guide to the site (in Spanish)
Key facts in Expo 2000 site
En Guàrdia programme (in Catalan)

There is an evocative film of the constructionm work taking place.