Barcelona sprang into being much as the Greek goddess Athena did: from the headache of a warrior. Following the exhaustive conquests of the Roman Empire in the third century BCE, Roman generals needed a place to put restless armies to pasture, far enough away from Rome that old soldiers butting heads wouldn’t disturb the peace in the city. Roman armies arrived in northeast Spain in the third century CE and named their capital Barcino.
Following the Romans, the Visigoths swept through in the fifth century CE and changed the city’s name to Barcinona. The Moors followed, occupying the city for at least a century until the French regained control of the city. (In fact, the Catalan language descends from a combination of Latin and French, unlike Castilian Spanish, which descends from Latin tempered with Arabic influences.) During this period, the French categorized their southern territories into counties, with Barcelona’s territory formally recognized as the County of Barcelona. (To this day, the king of Spain retains the honorific title Count of Barcelona.)
The story gets interesting here. As a result of Catalonian subordination to the monarchy during the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, Barcelona was forced to remain within the Roman-walled city and was prohibited from building into the open area, used in medieval times to defend the city. This condition cemented the restrictiveness of the labyrinthine garret of the Old City, also called the Gothic Quarter, as the entire city’s population lived and worked in an area of only 4.5 km². Its density was nearly 42,000 people per square kilometer, nearly double today’s density of 24,800 people per square kilometer. Finally, in 1856 Barcelona tore down the medieval walls, providing an opportunity for expansion.
The developmental mastermind of Barcelona’s expansion was a Catalan civil engineer named Ildefons Cerdà. In an 1859 plan, he conceptualized the new development of Barcelona as an opportunity to create the perfect city. In the new district of the Eixample, meaning expansion, the long, straight streets (already a departure from the winding, narrow passageways of the Gothic Quarter) form square blocks that meet not at right angles but at bezeled corners, called illes in Catalan or manzanas in Spanish. Each intersection becomes an intimate square, perfect for building community through markets or cafes. Illes further benefit the citizens of Barcelona by promoting ventilation and increasing visibility. Moreover, Cerdà designed the new parts of Barcelona so that all citizens—not just the nouveau riche who built grand living spaces along the ostentatious Passeig de Gracia—would benefit from the reorganization. In theory every inhabitant would be within easy range of a hospital, market, church, and school. To me, this strategy emphasizes and sets the standard for an incredibly multi-disciplinary approach to urban planning, uniting moral philosophy, transportation, geography, public administration, finance, and more. In the end, Cerdà used what he termed “urbanization” as an instrument of social reform to create the whole, nearly perfect city.
The world awaits…discover it.