Barcelona’s secret

A great city is one that makes things grow, that is capable of representing a cause that transcends its material interest. Barcelona could defend the cause of its nuances, of minorities who do not need to blow things up because they know how to get things done without being trodden upon. A Judaising redoubt in the midst of post-modern Europe.

© Sagar Forniés

A couple of years ago, the ESADE Brand Institute pub­lished a study proposing that the Barcelona brand be detached from the Spain brand. The reason was that the Spain brand was associated with “sun and paella” tourism, and that this fame neutralised Barcelona’s potential as a business city.

Although the data were clear, the conclusions did not go into political issues. I took some notes because some of the figures were devastating. According to the study, just over 2% of foreigners who had visited Barcelona in 2011 related the city to the Catalan language. Only 1% of the people who had never been there made this connection. Of the visitors that had admired the city’s buildings or seen its museums or had just strolled through its streets, only 5% knew that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia. If a product’s brand is the epic summary of a reality – with its ideals and its problems – then it is clear that Barcelona does not quite have the brand it should.

This may all improve with the impact of the inde­pendence movement. At the moment, we are still where we were in 1990, when the famous critic Robert Hughes –no longer with us – realised that he could not explain the charm of Barcelona without knowing Catalonia. In Barcelona, the virtuous circle between memory, politics and nation that breathes life into the world’s great cities has, for centuries, been seized by an atavistic fear of questioning the unity of Spain. Taking things subtly down a level, as has been done in the last thirty years, or building castles in the air, like the castles that led Noucentisme to fail, no longer seems to be a reasonable way out.

Branding must begin with Barcelona placing itself at the centre of an imagery that goes deeper into its history and its personality. A brand will always be trivialised if we fail to consider that the struggle for memory is an economic and market struggle. If the Mediterranean brand has failed to get past sun ’n’ sand tourism, it is because between the idea of Barcelona and the idea of the Mediterranean, a clear idea of Catalonia has always been lacking. The exhibition of the archaeological remains of El Born, recalling the universe that was buried by the defeat of 1714, promises a change of attitude in the way we understand the city. The fact that the military frontiers have changed is also conducive to optimism. It has been centuries since Barcelona has had so much freedom to present its image to the world – to design its brand.

Now that North-American planners are promoting neighbourhood life and the old parts of cities, it might be the wrong time to separate identity from economy, and even more so to criminalise it, as has often been the case. To make a good brand, first of all Barcelona’s image needs to be reconnected to the epic period that yielded its street names and engendered its best artists and monuments. Now that the large American city cities are drawing their inspiration from the glory of the early 20th century European capitals, Barcelona has the chance to resume the project that was shattered by the Spanish Civil War. Still, if we are to become a kind of Mediterranean New York or Shanghai we need to know more about our history and learn how to make the most of it.

Today, the model of the city without a past is only profitable in countries that live off cheap labour and are run by bureaucrats who feel that democracy is fine but ultimately impractical. In the West, the industrial model has run its course; its cities can only compete with Asia through the intelligent use of energy and ideas. Now that the use of armies to steal and rob is frowned upon, culture has become the economic cornerstone of cities. Once a certain level of welfare is reached, all cities cease to be a money problem and become one of intelligence, of the ability to transform the resources and the failures of those who have gone before. Despots are always obsessed with official openings and infrastructures. However, the touchstone of city life lies in the capacity to leverage tradition and link it up with popular enthusiasm.

Encourage talent and human relationships

The future of Western cities will depend on their capacity to create a seductive atmosphere, one capable of fostering talent and human relationships. Metropolises with ambition will have to keep their citizens loyal while also making it easy for them to travel the world, becoming ambassadors for the city’s virtues and products. Culture is important because it provides a landscape for business, one that customers can literally buy into. Publicists are always telling us that the differences between cities will be determined by the strength of their brands, but I wonder if they realise that any strong brand is the result of the distillation of an ori­ginal identity, i.e. of a strong sense of one’s origins, of authenticity. It is significant that Amazon installed its headquarters in Seattle’s city centre. Microsoft, the oldest monster of globalisation, is based in a suburban area of the city, 18 kilometres away from the centre. The revitalisation of city centres reminds us of the importance of the past and of localism in the era of aeroplanes and the Internet.

Some authors, such as John Kasarda, say that urban life is destined to be built around airports. This strikes me as a very Asian solution, suitable for very specific brand-new cities like New Songdo, which is like Martorell with an airport halfway between Tokyo and Singapore. It is true that time has become more important than distance and that the fate of cities is defined by the place they hold in the transport network. But aeroplanes are very noisy and airports are monotonous, and a city’s attractiveness depends on its ability to create environments that arouse foreigners’ curiosity and are a mirror that motivates its inhabitants to defend it every day.

Commitment to the inherent reality

In the late seventies, when New York was tottering over the abyss, a publicist came up with this slogan: “I Love New York”. Today, the t-shirts bearing this message conjure up the image of a brilliant city that nurtures the dreams of the world. At that time, when New York was the city with the highest unemployment in the United States and the rich, running scared and fed up of street shootouts, were bailing out fast, the slogan rekindled a commitment that is the cornerstone of any civilised society: the commitment to one’s own reality, which means a lot more than numbers on a calculator. That publicist understood that a city’s ultimate goal is not to encourage individualism, but rather collab­oration between individuals, which is the veritable source of prestige and money.

One of the comments made about the study published by ESADE is that Barcelona’s values are tied in with Catalonia’s, but that the Catalonia brand is too small to promote the city. To my mind, this reasoning is wrong. A great city is one that makes things grow, that is capable of representing a cause that transcends its material interest. Barcelona could defend the cause of nuance, of minorities who do not need to blow things up because they know how to get things done without being trodden upon; a Judaising redoubt in the midst of post-modern Europe, the proof that not everything was lost with Nazism. If I were asked to come up with a slogan to sell the city to foreigners, I would say: “Barcelona has a secret, and its name is Catalonia”.

(And then we would discover that Catalonia is more than a nation – it is a system of cities led by Barcelona).

Enric Vila Delclòs

Writer and journalist. Lecturer at the Blanquerna School of Communication

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