CORDARO, FRANK, WALLING Urban Interment: Reclaiming the Parc del Forum

“A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” - Walter Benjamin


Ruins are a spectacle for understanding a distinct separation from time and culture; a significant construct that resides outside of the present, yet with a residual effect of leaving an impression on scholars and visitors.

 These abandoned structures serve as platforms for enlightenment and understanding that can be interpreted as key ciphers to how a given collective operated. Our complete knowledge of the past is defined by a collection of fragmented forms of diverse objects observed through architecture, art, books, and artifacts, driven by educated hypotheses to narrow the gap among vastly separate sources of information and define the way of life for that given culture.

One seemingly perfect example of this hypothesis is manifested in the once majestic Michigan Theatre building in Detroit, Michigan. A theatre house that housed over 4,000 spectators, complete with lavish tapestries, crystal chandeliers, and academic painting and sculptures, is now host to the automobiles of professionals, presumably produced just a few miles away (Austin). Ironically, the demolition of the theatre isn’t the first historic demolition on the site. Prior to the theatre construction in 1926, the site was home to a small garage where Henry Ford built his first ever car (Messy). Given these clues and insights into the past, we can view what is culturally important today.

 However, the ruins of today do not possess the sublime and nostalgic qualities of a slowly eroding past, held stagnant in time to reveal hints of a culture that may have once thrived. The ruins of today depict an era of massive public works and regional developments, claiming to rehabilitate undesirable parts of a city, yet actually are only motivated by potential financial interests which allure the housing market and tourism industry. (Walker/Porraz) The claim is that these conditions are desirable to the occupants of the city and even the world. High rise condos, vacation resorts, Olympic stadiums, world exhibitions, and beachfront entertainment all lend to a city the air of lavish domesticity and ample entertainment. Repeatedly, large scale private investor developments are used to instigate a chain reaction of urban revitalization stemming from a reorganization and structuring of the infrastructure within the city. The publicly funded infrastructure acts as a duality, where it first and foremost connects the city in a more efficient and organized manner, while also joining the city together through nodes of capital as a result of investors staking claim into how their investment property aligns within a network.

 The result of modern capitalism is excess in all regards. This approach establishes a divergence from previously known urban order, a seemingly logical process of urban planning has now evolved into a vast web of dissimilar spatial conditions, heaved up from the city plan, establishing complex and opposing urban spaces. Within the city of Barcelona, the parasitic nature of capital excess has rooted itself into the periphery of the city, where the idealized grid of the nonpolitical space deforms, morphs, and breaks down into a spectacular regime of investment islands established for the purpose of increased capital of global investors.

 The city of Barcelona, or the urbe, understood that a city that is not restricted, and therefore expanded the form of territorial organization through constructed perimeters such as roads and walls, providing the framework for the Parc del Forum. In Ildefonso Cerda’s 1867 treatise General Theory of Urbanization, the Exiample is a prototype of the manifestation of unlimited expansion and circulation of capital and private property (Soria). In the late nineteenth century after this plan was implemented, taxation and legal measures were formed from his ideas, becoming the framework of large-scale urbanization today. This vast “real estate city,” whose industry is evolving to that of real-estate based investment trade and management, is also a center of political activism. Recently elected Mayor, Ada Colau, who is the founder of PAH (Platforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) [Platform Against Eviction], has placed a moratorium on new hotel rooms and short-term rentals to ensure that her city doesn’t “end up like Venice,” a city notorious for tourism as it’s sole source of revenue and industry (Matlack). While the situation in Barcelona is not as extreme as Venice and public opinion and studies conducted by NHTV Breda University in the Netherlands have proven that “there is no sign of a tipping point,” the local residents and authorities are feeling growing pains. Top destinations, such as Gaudi’s Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia have moved to time-restricted entry, while La Boqueria, a large marketplace, has prohibited large tour groups from entering during peak shopping times.

The Parc del Forum was originally proposed on the heels of the hugely successful 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The scheme outlines a substantial amount of urban planning ideas and general revitalization as an attempt to generate more capital for the city of Barcelona. At the time, Barcelona held a string of worldwide conferences and events that involved a redesign or addition to much of the city. These developments had been economically successful elsewhere, so the city borrowed with this model when it came to the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures.

The plans use the Universal Forum of Cultures as the “reason” to redevelop 624 acres on the coast and in the La Catalona and La Mina neighborhoods, including reclaiming 93 acres of land from the sea. The redevelopment to the neighborhoods for this event extended far beyond simply creating space for these discussions to take place; additions would cost upwards of 341 million euro, ranking the Parc del Forum as quite possibly the most expensive example of Marc Auge’s “non-places,” (Marín-Dòmine) which he defines as a postmodern space of transience that doesn’t have enough importance to be regarded as a true place. The plans included social, environmental, and metropolitan elements including a museum, a marina designed for up to 1,000 moorings, beachfront, “enhanced scenery,” and space for the Forum of Culture’s temporary exhibitions. Politically, this forum was a necessity as Pasqual Maragall I Mira, the then mayor of Barcelona, had failed on his promise to secure an international exposition for the city.

The Forum proposal was met with a lot of contestation and demonstration from the public. Both the convention and the redevelopment areas were under high scrutiny. Non-Government Organizations, including Greenpeace and Amnesty International, withdrew their involvement when they felt the Forum became more about corporate sponsors than humanitarian interests. These corporate sponsors (Nestle, Coca Cola, Telefonica, Indra, etc) drew individual critique for some of their less-than-altruistic efforts in third world countries, and the Non-Government Organizations did not approve. One of the larger demonstrations held was comprised of protesters arriving at the Parc del Forum on rafts and it ended rather violently, with altercations that involved public officials. It is often theorized that because of this contestation over the commercialization of the exposition, the Forum of Cultures achieved less attendance than expected (Bollens). Originally, 7 million visitors were projected, however, the final reports stated that there were only 3.3 million individuals in attendance over the 141 days the event took place.

This area along the coast has quite a history: 

“It has been pointed out that the place had also been an execution site where scores of antifascists met their end during the dictatorship, over the course of almost thirteen years. Once again, the city seemed oblivious of its dead… But the erection of a site capable of swallowing any event that could challenge its raison d’etre is a rather extreme construction of the city anew” (Marín-Dòmine)

Once again, the pattern emerges of Barcelona and its attempt to force the urban fabric to control not only the actions of pedestrians and citizens but also to control memory. It is no doubt a success in this manner, as no one could speculate any on sort of storied past with the coagulation of postmodern pavilions that now make up the space at the end of the Diagonal.

The main building on this plan, and certainly the one that held the most weight with the overall design, is the Forum Building, now used as a natural science museum- the Museu Blau, which was designed by Herzog and de Meuron. It “aims to become a reference point” to the city and the neighborhood. Located at the end of the Avenue Diagonal, the context certainly takes precedence and its unusual triangular shape in plan makes it stand out from the surrounding building planes. Only viewed as a facade, the building that rises from the ground becomes something of a spectacle, and is one that is easily forgotten.

As mentioned earlier, the site itself is one of high contention, and any reading therefore must be biased. Beginning with the question: “Can architecture be anything more than a residual outcome of capital investment and resolute financial stability?” our simple answer to that question is “Yes, of course,” but this is not where the argument of understanding begins, rather it is diving into how we succumb to that answer through understanding objective knowledge.

As growing pains are felt in most parts of the city, the Parc del Forum remains predominantly empty. Aside from the few large events and concerts at the site, the vast concrete land-reclamation is home to sporadically placed buildings that are seemingly “held together not by structure but by skin,” as Koolhaas writes in his journal Junkspace. The rationalization of the space has turned into something of modernization and spectacle over cultural and architectural concerns. The spontaneity of structure is individualistic while simultaneously turning toward mass excitement and acceptance. It cannot be understood or remembered, and the constant gimmicks are more flamboyant like a screensaver (Koolhaas) than a piece of architecture. As Koolhaas says in his article Junkspace...

“At the stroke of midnight it all may revert to Taiwanese Gothic; in three years it may segue into Nigerian Sixties, Norwegian Chalet, or default Christian. Earthlings now live in a kindergarten grotesque...Junkspace thrives on design, but design dies in junkspace.”

Large concrete walls. Buildings seemingly protruding from a concrete plinth. “Improved views” now consisting of thousands of Tetrapods speckling the transition from sea to land. Photovoltaic arrays harboring areas of refuge from the sun while seemingly providing energy for the site’s sparse inhabitants. Where the erection of a multitude of churches define a culture of piety, so too do the towers of glass and expanse of concrete reflect the era of capitalism in architecture. This so-called “cultural” essence of the site has become one of mass globalization, and speaks nothing to the local Catalonian culture and is completely avoid the remembrance of the atrocities fueled by antifascists prior to the 2000s. It has merely become a site constructed to be “contextual” with any mass-urban sprawl.

The question then became how one begins to read a site and a history that already appeared to be so distinctly and negatively thought of in the eyes of the public. Segmenting the reading into typical architectural analyzation tools; circulation, interior/exterior, program, et cetera would merely tell the same politically charged story of the site that was already familiar. Frustrated with the overload of repetitive and adverse information we continuously met, the decision to hypothetically “bury” the site offered a way to approach a reading of the Parc from a new perspective that creates an unexpected process and analysis. Since the coastline had been reclaimed from the sea it made sense to implement a second reclamation as a new alternative to the tabula rasa. It allowed for certain areas to be re-exposed by excavation and be given distinct presence, something that did not exist on the overview of the site previously, it was simply viewed as a political, postmodern whole. Because the site could be revealed in a number of different ways a regimented reading was necessary to control possible theories and data. Borrowing from archaeological axioms we designed an approach similar to that of an archaeological excavation that gave the revealing process direction and operated on the assumption that as the site had been “buried”, the knowledge had been erased. Through using burial as a device to control bias, a less-historical precise but more intrinsic reading began.  

Our excavation is simply a way to record data. Using these archaeological methods, the Parc del Forum can be interpreted in an unbiased manner with a level of accuracy. In accordance with traditional archaeological processes, a square grid was overlaid across the site and a datum point was selected. Sets of direct questions were laid out to guide the goals of analyzing the site through such a method. Would there be visual cues that that would lead to the uncovering of a certain building first? Could one determine whether they were all located in the same phase (built or used at the same point of time)? What kind of artifacts might be found that could tell about the human experience of the site? Though these questions are as hypothetical as the burial of the site, they allow a constructive framework to begin analyzing what the site may be as viewed through an uninformed but more elemental lens. 

First, what is the context of the site? As the city around it is unburied, the answer, when approached large-scale, is simple: Barcelona. When we zoom in it allows for certain hypothesis to be made about what may lay underneath the sand. It’s situated on the coast, so this may be a marina, a hydroelectric power plant, high-end real estate or a nature preserve. Measuring the square footage may narrow the list or further specify it. Since it’s a large area, perhaps the buildings beneath it have varied programs.

As the excavation process begins, the site becomes uncovered based on what may be protruding through the sand. As always with archaeological excavations, one works from the known to the unknown, top to bottom. Because of the way a sand dune would cover the Parc del Forum, presumably more buildings would be uncovered near the edges of the site leaving the middle to be the area with the greatest number of undetermined factors.

Now that the excavation is underway the features (in this case, mostly building structures) would become exposed. The difficulty with understanding the function of the buildings on the site is that their forms have nothing to do with what is inside (ex. the triangle-shaped museum). Another difficulty in the reading of the site’s features would be that approximately half of the structures are some sort of pavilion. What could possibly occur here to warrant this number of permanent pavilions; maybe a market or an events center? With the number of different building forms and shading structures it can be inferred that the site has multiple programs occurring at once. These buildings, though different formally and spatially, were probably built in the same time frame due to material use and structural capabilities. 

Periodically throughout the excavation process excavators will run into artifacts. These may be items such as cameras, sunscreen bottles, concert tickets, or sandals. These objects will begin to inform what the Parc del Forum was not. There will be few food-related artifacts, indicating the lack of restaurants, and no hints of permanent domesticity. The items uncovered suggest that the site was a destination for temporary gatherings and events. People will probably theorize about the experiments that may have occurred there. As any ruin holds interest with the public, there is a certain level of mystery about what may have happened on the site. In the way that Stonehenge has captured so much attention for its ambiguity, the Parc del Forum will allow for similar speculation.

This type of reading garners a different understanding, departing from typical academic architectural practices. In order for our definition of ruin to be understood and for the site to be comprehended within that context, reliance is placed on a specific analytical process, instead of one that allows the site to be seen as a spectacle and not a set of successful or unsuccessful programmatic functions. The reading draws attention to the anomalies on the site that both make it what it is and would add clarity for the excavators. These anomalies create the intrigue that unknowingly is capturing the attention of visitors to the site today; it already feels unfamiliar and ruinous. In the same way that walking through an empty church or concert hall feels eerie, the Parc del Forum was first and foremost designed for a crowd, it is not architecture of the everyday, and understanding it on this very fundamental level can only happen when the Forum is detached from previous knowledge- through burial. 

We claim that a disconnect has arisen between the built environment and how one desires to live. Even more so, we have taken the capitalist and political problems surrounding these 624 acres and illustrated our disinterest in the process of trying to rationalize our understanding. Through the process of burial, an unbiased conclusion can be achieved based on empirical data and connections formulated. Just as Benjamin wrote, “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward” (Benjamin), so too does Barcelona not address their constructed problems, but rather just opt to reclaim more land from the sea and/or expands outward into the urbe, a capitalistic approach that creates more “Junkspace.” Ironically, it is through reclaiming these sites and their stories and burying them that we understand the space as a spectacle. Scribing its images into the minds of those who encounter it, it becomes more than a contested history or an abstract form, and only through excavation can the site be truly discovered and digested as more than a political space.

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This paper was presented by David Cordaro, Josh Frank, and Liza Walling in December 2015 at the AHRA Conference "Reading Art and Architecture Across the Humanities" at the University of Stirling, Stirling U.K. This paper was under the direction of Assistant Professor Ross Exo Adams, with input from Associate Professor Mikesch Muecke and Lecturer Leslie Forehand.

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