Wednesday 7 December 2022

Barcelona, Robert Hughes

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Written on the cusp of Barcelona’s transformation for the 1992 Olympic Games, Robert Hughes takes us on a journey through the city’s tumultuous past and incredible creative output. We go back to the early days of the city and learn about how the Catalan language developed independently of Spanish and the reasons behind this. Hughes explains the poor way many in Catalunya were treated over the centuries, but does not shy away from pointing to the times when they also had the opportunity to be the oppressors and took it. This is a fascinating look at a city that continues to capture the imagination.

There’s a large focus on the architectural development of the city. Walking around it today, it feels like a city made for people, with children’s play areas dotted around the place, cycle lanes, and pedestrian crossings that prioritise those on foot over those in cars. Even at the time the book was written, it seems to have been a very different story, with overly congested roads and building regulations which allowed once well-thought out developments to become overcrowded, with outdoor space being sacrificed. Hughes walks us through the different ages of the city, each one wrapping around the previous. It was fascinating to learn about the political motivations for long straight roads as opposed to the maze of streets in the Gothic Quarter, and to learn about thoughtful city planning that makes a positive impact to this day, in ways that couldn’t have been imagined at the time of conception. 

Gaudí has an entire section dedicated to him, but Hughes is also set on making other great Catalan architects known, most notably Lluís Domènech i Montaner, architect of the beautiful Palace of Catalan Music, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Hughes is opinionated throughout and offers interpretation of many of Barcelona’s most famous buildings, closing with some scathing remarks on the continued work on the Sagrada Familia. His section on Gaudí reveals an eccentric genius who left an indelible mark on the fabric of Barcelona. 

He writes about the landscape surrounding the city and the ways in which this has had an impact over the years, including making the sewerage system a challenge, something the casual visitor will realise after a short while. He speaks also of the pride that its residents take in Catalan culture and language, and the barriers that those who do not understand the language have in accessing its remarkable history and cultural output. Hughes does us a great service in having written such a fascinating history of the city, a rarity in the English language. 

This is a brilliant book to read if you’re planning a visit to Barcelona, or indeed to read after returning home as it will add much depth to your understanding of the buildings and structure of the city, as well as understanding the tensions that bubble just under the surface. Reading this at a remove of several decades from when it was written is deeply interesting, as Hughes discusses the potential for change that many planned works promise for the city. At times he is unconvinced by some of the proposals and so it is interesting to consider how the experience of the city has changed, where the plans were well executed, and where things maybe didn’t achieve what they hoped. At over six-hundred pages this isn’t a quick read, but the writing is absorbing, the tales interesting, and the city complex and at times contradictory, so it doesn’t feel like a slog.  

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book, specially considering such a beautiful city. I would love to read..