Plaça de Lesseps, Barcelona, Spain, 2009 – Psychogeographical Portrait

On our way back from the fabulous Gaudi's park Güell we were looking for the metro station. It turned out to be Lesseps station. We were not in this area before so we didn't know what to expect. One narrow street to another and we found ourselves in-front of little Plaçeta with old fashion water fountain and the dog fulfilling his thirst. Nice little sight [and photo], having in mind our love for dogs. Next look and we are facing one of the best "modernista" buildings in Barcelona "Cases Ramos", designed by architect Jaume Torres i Grau in 1906.OK, now lets look for the metro entrance. But what's that over there? Just steps away we were really surprised. Vast open public space at the first glance all devoted to pedestrians, few minor streets were visible from our standpoint. Slowly all the magnitude of the content, attention to details and recognition of social urban needs was revealed. It took me a second walk, few days latter, to completely comprehend the urban value of this renewal project. First initiatives for revitalization of this square dates back to 1995. Following similar initiatives for urban renewal in Barcelona planning board was formed and design team with architect Albert Viaplana, as its leader, was selected.
In 2002 the city council presented a closed rehabilitation plan to local residents. Their opposition to the project was immediate. After several protests, a dialogue was set up with the city council which, with the help of a group of experts, led to the creation of a whole new project.

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Cases Ramos", from 1906



Local event in historic Gracia

Church de la Verge de Gràcia is visible in the background. Girl on the photo bellow is practising guitar infront of the same church.



Entrance to the one end of underground Ronda del General Mitre



Auditorium







Entrance to subway, elevator for disable people or people with kids,






















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Architect Albert Viaplana and his CCCB project on Plaça dels Angels
The mediator was brought because she was a professional and had recognition from her work in Girona (where she was given an award for her service). Her main approach was based on creating a "participatory" process. In her words: "Spain is far from the level of citizen participation (of Switzerland for example) but they are trying – they are making declarations of intentions. In this case its not a declaration of intentions, it’s the only way I do things, I don’t know how to do them in another way. The reality is that there is very little maturity (politically), residents arguments are not real, they are based mostly in fear. The "left uses a lot of words, but do very little. Between the "lefts" which are not so credible and the "rights which tends to simplify, there is the truth. The citizen has a very poor level of political education. They have the impulse to organize, to make claims, but they are not good at speaking, at participating politically. It’s desire that the citizens feel implicated in the city government, that they realize that in the end the government and the city don’t do anything other than what the citizens ask for, so its to establish our complicity with the citizens, to remake this complicity". We will elaborate about this very interesting cooperation later in this text. Lead architect, Albert Viaplana had a long previous experience with number of urban projects. He is one of the architects that has left significant traces in contemporary Barcelona. His architecture, which some define as a minimalist, is undeniably not indifferent. See CCCB space on Plaça dels Angels in our collection. What he was facing here was a great challenge.

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Plaça Lesseps, preliminary sketch; biblioteca Jaume Fuster
Two major roads Ronda del General Mitre, as well as Carrer Gran de Gràcia pass true this area. Plaça Lesseps is also crossed by a ten other streets. Beside above mentioned Cases Ramos, heritage convent of Santa Maria de Gracia from 1626 and catholic church de la Verge de Gràcia i Sant Josep are also located here. Of course numerous residential buildings, some of them quite recantly built, two schools and newly designed library Jaume Fuster [architect Pep Ilinas, 2006] are also part of the built environment.

Above is one of the preliminary sketches just to resolve traffic problems with 10 bus and two metro lines, more that 20.000 pedestrian and 120.000 vehicles are crossing plaça every day. To solve this problems two major "rondas", with the size and amount of traffic comparable to the highway, are connected and buried underground. Terraces are placed above entrances and they are very successfully hiding the "vistas" of the heavy traffic.

Natural slope of the terrain was emphasized so the visual impact of the square is pedestrian oriented. All the bus stops are moved out of the square along the incoming streets and consequence is minimal traffic congestion.

Being so close to the very traditional and preserved environment of former independent city of Gracia [visit our portrait of the square in the Gracia district]. Involvement and interest of the neighbourhood is understandable. All along the planning process, during the construction and especially after opening of the square in april 2009 criticism, suggestions and occasionally even frustration was expressed. Most of the "calling for action" and proposals are taken in consideration and implemented.

I would really like to show you [with follow up photos and explanation] amount of observation and scrutiny and, of course, effort from the designers and city officials to meet needs of the concerned citizens.

The other aspect of the successful urban renewal project is every day utilization. Sights recorded on my several visits to this square will proof that the joint effort of the community and planners is showing results that can serve as an example how problems of public placa of this size and complicated needs can be solved to the satisfaction and benefit to all.

One of the strongest impressions was that there were so many seats. Most of them were occupied with people just enjoying the sights, talking to each other or as in the case of the girl on the image right left practising her guitar in front of the church. guitar sound was so pleasantly noticeable. I was surprised that traffic noise was not above tolerable level, quite unusual for the public space we are used to in North America.

Seats are positioned very smartly in groups, slightly turned to each other, or in some cases away from each other. Need for privacy is taken in consideration.

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Seats are positioned very smartly in groups, slightly turned to each other
These four photos bellow are two opposite ends, or to be precise what looks like an end, of Plaça Lesseps. Some are saying that plaça is suppose to resemble a ship deck, association to the name [Ferdinad Lesseps was involved in planning of Suez Canal, and marine life at the time]. Whatever it is inspired by it is really skillfully disguising the heavy traffic flow beneath the square and also very successfully blocking the noise. Especially during the bright, and always pleasant, evenings it is admired spot for young couples or just people who are looking for the lonely spot.

As mentioned before very heavy traffic was main reason for this renewal process.

120.000 vehicles are traversing this square daily. 12 bus and two metro lines and 20.000 pedestrians.

My personal affection for urban art–shapes was actually main reason for my second visit to this plaça few days later. They were attractive and quite unusual enhancing visual impact of the space. I've heard that in the initial plans, requested by the locals, all of these shapes were much more modest and wood was intended material. Of course this way [using steel] planners were in a position to make much more compelling forms, mixed with water, greenery and very impresive lighting.

Content on this plaça is so rich. It is obviously requested by locals and influenced by local traditions and needs. Just four months after partial completion it is already intensively used by local community. I've made a full circle around and being so excited with space I am quite sure that I missed lot of the good sides [and probably some bad ones]. But let's see what I observed.

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Auditorium, small stage with the stands for couple of hundred of neighbours, was created on the west side of the plaça. It is used for local celebrations, performances, fiestas. It is separated from the main pedestrian passageways. It is additionaly used as a gathering spot for groups of local youth, ideal for teens to exchange "hot" local news. Space is even silent enough for evening nap. Notice the young lady, sleeping in the top left corner of the photo with the 3 people bellow left.

On the other side of the auditorium in the nice shade beneath the stands, there are a well executed courts for the traditional [all over mediterranean] game of "bocce".

Bocce originated in Italy, back in Roman times, and is one of the oldest of all lawn bowling games.

Most pleasant part of the day for this game is, of course evening and night, so playgrounds are equipped with very efficient lighting system. It is mainly popular with older population but while courts are without players it is ideal space to meet your companions from other generation.

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There are two children playgrounds [two photos above] one on each side of the square. Favorite among locals, is one beside the church. It is always full of children and watchful parents. It looks to me that grand parents are main caretakers?

Just recording all the details took my breath away [literally and metaphorically]. Nice, colorful and functional design for bus stands protecting passengers from wind, rain or sun, traditional fountains with drinking water [b.t.w. they can be found all over Barcelona, very very appropriate for hot summer months], Very attractive lighting system etc. Even the regular light pools are specially designed for this space. Notice that they are not vertical, this slight angle is adding additional points of interest everywhere.

Most complains in the process of revitalization of Plaça Lesseps and after it was finished was insufficiency of greenery. It is very understandable that this is main concern, during the day in summer months when temperature is reaching 35˚C! Of course this will come with time. One of the problems that planting large trees over the tunnel with limited options is impossible. Some of the hanging gardens, are cleverly planted in those areas. Some park like areas with water features, one even crossing the street and bringing the pleasant sound of running water, are everywhere. I hope that over time trees will grow bigger and even more of them are going to be planted.

Nobody is forgotten. Pets have their own area, lot of grass, water and their owners place to enjoy chat with the fellow dog lovers.

Public transportation in Barcelona is very important, and as I already mentioned 20.000 pedestrians are traversing this plaça every day. Most of them are using numerous bus lines or metro line running underground. Well designed colorful entrances are clearly marked. We actually found this place looking for big letter M, marking entrance to the metro, on the red background, very visible form the distance.

To my surprise elevators for disable people or people with kids, strollers or elderly are in the middle of the open space [photo right] making it very convenient to get where you are going.

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Remarkably even the view to the distant and famous Tibidabo hill with the church and impressive Jesus monument on the top is not blocked and it is clearly visible from the square [two photos right].

Why I am so impressed by this square? Plaça Lesseps is not the most attractive or most "anything" square. I was impressed, probably because I am looking from the North American perspective and nostalgic reminiscence to my previous life in Europe. The other aspect, extremely important to me was my interest in psychogeography, participatory urbanism and influence of citizens on urban democracy. Results are orchestrated in this case by initial conflict. Conflict evolved to the strong engagement of the local community in search for the heritage experiences [heritage is not only built environment!] that will be remembered, incorporated and passed to the future generations; experiences rediscovered, renewed and
redeveloped.

"Shared culture is also referred to as intangible cultural capital, which has been described as “ideas, traditions and customs shared by a group of people,” including intellectual capital. a diverse, cohesive community is one where each citizen’s ideas, traditions, and customs are shared with the collective, and sometimes re-invented together. in the resulting mosaic, the different cultures and generations making up the community are respected, leading to social cohesion and, often, an important sense of individual comfort. Participatory arts is an enormously useful tool in the community building process."

This quote is from the presentation "local models of participatory art" by Ljiljana Simic (1). she continues: "By social creativity they understand the energy, ideas, and experiences that arise from citizens. social creativity makes conflict visible, strengthens the sentiment of belonging to a community, and opens the possibility of creating viable alternatives.

For that reason, we consider it necessary to value and support these initiatives confirming their role within the transformation/ construction of the city."

Even thou new Plaça Lesseps, with all the excitement and obvious love [expressed by how neighbourhood is using it], started with intensive conflict, required mediator to proceed, imposed significant changes to the initial plans and serious rethinking by the professional part of the planning team, it is leaving strong mental impact to the urban enthusiasts [like myself]. Community is still alert, organized, very protective of their success and very vocal about what was expected but not there jet. It is encouraging similar initiatives elsewhere in Barcelona, Spain and EU. What we can learn from this process is how essential this participatory approaches are.

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Association of residents and commercial space users of the Plaça Lesseps is very active in shaping the final stage of the area and if you are interested you can follow their activities on their official website [http://www.avclesseps.cat]. Of course site is only on catalan language. most interesting part, in my opinion, is ecological map covering public usage, traffic, future development and population, waste, energy and water usage and other environmental activities. this part is available on english. [http://www.mapaecologic.net]

"Discovery of participation as one of the priorities within development has led to the search for means to promote it. Some donors have sought to use participatory development projects and programmes to strengthen civic associations and create new mechanisms through which state institutions can be held responsible for their actions. It is in this light that the participation and governance debates have led donors to collaborate with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs), and to support locally derived solutions to poverty alleviation and “sustainable development”. [2]

"Participatory urbanism builds upon a large body of related projects where citizens act as agents of change. There is a long history of such movements from grassroot neighborhood watch campaigns to political revolutions. Our primary motivation from an urban standpoint comes from the insights of leading urban practitioners such as Jason Coburn, Jane Jacobs, and the sociologist Ulrich Beck. Our work leverages Coburn’s “street science” framework which emphasizes local urban insights to improve scientific inquiry and environmental health policy and decision making. Coburn underscores the importance of local (community) knowledge as “the scripts, images, narratives, and understandings we use to make sense of the world in which we live”. [3]

As a conclusion I would like to quote O. Solovieva's article "Barcelona dream: Plaça Ferdinand de Lesseps" published in daily blogzine on culture, politics and academic life: "while stepping firmly and safely over the plaza’s dancing double-deck in happy fulfillment of my long-cherished desire for the urban sublime, I was contemplating the audaciousness of spanish architects which can be observed everywhere in Barcelona.

From Gaudí’s cave-like, organic buildings to Viaplana’s stormy plaza, urban planning here is not calculated to insulate culture from nature, as is the case in most European cities, but rather the other way around: it is meant to challenge the safe notion of culture, with its geometrical and symmetrical forms, by imitation of the unwieldy elements. Barcelona’s urban landscape is sublime by definition. In awe of the dark play of the elements, this culture does not shy away from facing and subduing them at the very limit of the destructive. The audacity of Barcelona’s urban spaces attests to profound spiritual security and rationality, to a mentality that is not afraid to be challenged."

That's why Plaça Lesseps deserves perfect score in my evaluation system. Plaça is more than simple urban square equal to others. It is combining values and functions of the higher level. Urban life is reaching level of ultimate integration of needs and achievements, environmental health and well-being of both local citizens and their government representatives.

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[1]. Ljiljana Simic, Brussels, Belgium, Innovative cultural practices: Local Models of Participatory Art Projects in the Framework of SUS. DIV. project.

[2]. Diana Mitlin and John Thompson, Participatory approaches in urban areas: strengthening civil society or reinforcing the status quo, Environment and Urbanization 1995; 7; 231 [p233]

[3]. Eric Paulos, Ian Smith, R. J. Honicky: RE: REempower and REcycle, Carnegie Mellon University, Year 2007.

Since posting this article in August 2009 I received several quite oppressed opinions about this square.

This is latest one from November 2011: "I do know Plaza Lesseps and with Vilaplana permission, I would say that is a misslocation of resources. Time have passed and still hurting one sight. Too many elements togheter!!! and NO SENSE OF PLACE at all. I will never grade it so gentle!" – Architect Isabel Sanchez, teaching about Pubilc Spaces in Barcelona.

September 2009 – Martin from Barcelona: "Yeah, to judge from the banners people living in houses round the square hung on their balconies, and the letters to the local press, looks like you're in a minority there, Aleksandar! Peeple in Barcelona have always hated the concreted-over squares that they always get. Read the letters to the editor in the local papers, if you want to know what people think."

For the end compare old Plaça Lesseps withthe new one, what do you think?
[info@urbansquares.com]

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sociability
10
ceremonial
x
uses & activities
10
religious
x
access & linkages
10
social
x
comfort
10
residential
x
image
10
court yard
x
tourist value
10
with park
x
total
60
street, shopping
x
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Last time updated on Saturday, December 14, 2013, 3:48 PM