Designing Urban Regeneration
Oriol Bohigas

Editors Introduction Oriol Bohigas is the planner and architect responsible for the regeneration of Barcelona into one of the world's most popular destinations. In this feature, taken from a lecture held at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he discusses his philosophy of urban planning and restitution. Beginning with the question "What is a city?", Bohigas explores the factors that, for him, constitute the city: density, identity, communication and collective life.

I want to begin with a very pretentious question. I want to begin by asking: "What is a city?" This is a question for which it is impossible to give an answer, but with it perhaps we can begin to address some of the problems that affect cities, especially European cities. For me, a city, and especially a European city, is a place of random information, a place with a great variety of options. I mean this as a description of the physical qualities of the city. In this age however, ease of movement and information technology offer a vast spectrum of information and accessibility that extend beyond the physicality of the city. So, the second question I must ask is can these systems create cities without a physical site? Will cities change radically because of this new technology or will they be as they have always been?
Oriol Bohigas was the architect charged with regenerating Barcelona.

The Unchanging city

I remember an interview with the architect Renzo Piano a few years ago when someone asked him: "What is the city of the future?" Over the last two years, this question has been asked of architects all over the world. Renzo Piano's answer was: "I think the city of the future will be exactly like the Renaissance Italian city. The city will not change. It is a very important physical and social entity, so that if it were changed, it is not a city."


I would echo this statement. The city cannot change--it will always be the same. It will always have the same social and physical structure for many reasons. Firstly, human beings tend to live together. I think it is impossible to live alone and the capacity to live in society is one of the characteristics of humanity. There is a second reason that is possibly more important and certainly more obvious. Many say that information technology, the internet, etc. can substitute the capacity for information and the accessibility of the traditional city. This is simply not true. One of the most important aspects of the city is the element of randomness: the capacity to find something without searching for it. Such random information is not possible in a technological system where everything is logically defined. It is no coincidence that we say, "With information technology we search but in the city we find." I remember a friend of mine who decided to go to Seville to find a job. He was in Seville for six months and failed to find a job, but he met a beautiful girlfriend and the result of this situation was that his life changed immensely--not because of the programmed information but because of random information.

Yet most of our cities are sick because they have been treated very badly. Problems ranging from pollution, the centre-periphery dichotomy to the problem of individual possession of land and so on have all been ignored or treated badly in European cities. The solution is not to invent another system and to eliminate the cities, or to imagine another system and to live in an artificial community. The real challenge is to arrange and repair the existing cities, to use the technology to improve the quality of the city while preserving the integrity of the traditional form of the city. It is still possible for the moment and one of the problems for politicians, engineers, planners and architects is to work out how to cure these diseased cities.

Sustaining cities

What are the right conditions for the city to continue being a city? I think it is very important to have the appropriate degree of density, to have spaces appropriate to collective living, to foster the creation and strengthening of identities that bond the social fabric and to encourage the development and modernisation of communications so that the other conditions are sustainable. Quality of life depends on the satisfactory attainment of these four conditions: density, collective life, identities and communications.

Density

For me a city is consolidated by the organisation of structures clearly separate from the country. A territory covered by buildings constitutes the city. It is really important to distinguish between city and country. I am completely against this idea of the dispersed city, because I think the dispersed city is not really a city; it is a cotermination between city and country. The city is a very limited space in which the concentration and density of life and structure is quite clear. Without this density it is impossible to have information and accessibility, which are the two most important characteristics of the urban structure.

Collective life

The public space, whether open or built-up, is really the city. It is not the architecture or the dwellings or the architectural elements that configure the reality of the city. But in order for the public space to be the container of collective life it must be comprehensible and legible--the form of the city must have some relation with its traditional structure. I think the only way to understand and to give a real social sign to public space if you can, is to have a reference to the traditional space of the city. The modern city like all cities is a structure made up of streets, squares, urban gardens, urban blocks--the traditional forms are the only forms who can give the same capacity of collective life. When I talk about the traditional forms I don't mean the formal model, I mean the continuity of big historical typologies. Another problem with collective life is one of homogeneity.

Identities

I think the social identity of a territory is fundamental for collective life. It is possible to have global identity in a very big city, but I think real collective identity has a very small dimension. Understanding identity in social groups is an important route to understanding the city--not as a general system but as a collection of different systems throughout the neighbourhoods, quarters or streets--depending on the structure of each city. We decided to view Barcelona not as a whole but as a collection of different quarters. From the point of view of planning this was important, because we were absolutely against the idea of master plans. The master plan is a way of factoring in the globalisation of the city but without considering the individual identities of each quarter. For that reason we decided not to do a master plan for Barcelona but to complete small architectural projects and to understand that the master plan was just the culmination of all of these small solutions.

Communication

Density and size are fundamental features of a city, yet they can be the cause of great difficulties in the development of cities. Density and size have also to contend with the impact of new technologies. We have to understand how technology can reconstruct the city. These four points are very important. The problem of identity, communication, collective life and density are very great--and the key to preserving the value in the traditional structures of our cities.

Reconstructing Barcelona

I arrived in Barcelona as a planning director in 1980. After four years in this position, my associates and myself began the building of the Olympic village among other projects in Barcelona. The year 1980 was a very important time because it was just three or four years after the beginnings of democracy in Spain. I had my first meeting with Barcelona's first democratic mayor. We decided that we had to invent the democratic urbanity in Barcelona, but of course we didn't have any experience of that. There were a number of routes we could have pursued. Firstly, we had to decide whether to design a master plan for the city or not. We decided not to follow a master plan, but to begin with smaller projects that could be realised immediately. In two years we set out 150 projects and half of them were built. The next decision concerned the expansion of the city. Either the city could be expanded or the traditional city could be reconstructed. We decided to reconstruct the real city, preserving its old identity.

Another set of alternatives was to reconstruct the city starting from public space or starting from the housing problems. Architecture is the element that defines public space and so the reconstruction, transformation and modification of the city must begin in the public space. This discussion was very prominent and important in universities throughout Europe at that time. The tension between urban planning and urban projects were a central part of this discussion. By aiming at small realisable projects that could be built immediately, we felt that we were ensuring a sense of public participation. Local projects and local reconstructions were how people could understand and participate in the future of their own city.

Copyright The London School of Economics and Political Science.