Barcelona and Berlin: two iconic European cities which have undergone a process of profound reinvention over the last 3 decades. In 1990, the Berlin wall had just come down and the city had been established as the capital of a reunified Germany. Barcelona - emerging from 4 decades of dictatorship - was in the midst of frenzied preparations for the Olympics, the city’s springboard to its reassertion as a major European city. While there are significant differences in context and approach, these two cities have been locked in a parallel process of urban and cultural renewal.
In both cases their regeneration has been characterised by the central role of public space and infrastructure as a vehicle of change and field of political and cultural struggle. In addition, they share an exceptional weight of recent history, which has been played out in the planning and design of public space, either as underlying narrative or as explicit iconography. Their progressive re-emergence over the last 30 years has involved a dialectic between top-down, politically led planning and bottom-up socially driven demands, although the balance between these competing prerogatives appears to be very different in the two cases.
In Barcelona, a centralised and hierarchical planning system has allowed the city to take bold and radical steps, but has often over-ridden local communities’ concerns about space and housing. The architectural design of space still predominates and practices have been given a free hand in implementing conceptual visions, which have not always responded to community needs and have rarely been as celebrated locally as they have by international journals and tourists. Nevertheless, the city continues to invest in new public spaces and parks, appropriating space for communities and, to a lesser extent, ecologies, far away from the tourist trail. There is an underlying commitment to the humanisation of the city through the creation and reoccupation of public space.
In Berlin, some of the early central developments and the more iconic memorialisations, display a similar degree of conceptually dominated design, and have rarely been fully embraced or occupied by the local population. In more recent developments, however, design practices have acted more as mediators and translators of a multiple range of interests and aspirations in generating their proposals. A commitment to proactive engagement with communities and ecologies has been evident in the response to the complex and contradictory demands of communities, developers, interest groups and the sites themselves. At Gleisdreieck, Sudgelande or Tempelhof, this has led to the creation of successful parks, which retain the traces of their historic infrastructure and ruderal abandonment, whilst injecting new life through programmatic and cultural diversity.
Barcelona and Berlin are exciting cities because of their dynamic and evolving urban landscapes. Their public spaces are both battlegrounds and playgrounds in an ongoing debate about what the cities represent and where they are going. Far more than their architecture, the design of their public realm is the primary means of expression. They share a commitment to the humanisation and democratisation of streets and spaces and, through this, have forged new identities: embracing, acknowledging or celebrating their respective histories, whether proud or painful. Both cities remain on a journey of self-discovery and reinvention which is dynamic and unpredictable but marked by a continuing commitment to public realm and infrastructure.