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Miquel Molina

Miquel is the Deputy Director of La Vanguardia newspaper and he is the author of Proyecto Barcelona. You can listen to our conversation with Miquel in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Barcelona.

Photo credit: Logan Armstrong via Unsplash.

On the DNA of Barcelona… 

I think that the DNA of Barcelona is definitively linked to creativity. I mean creativity in many, many levels, in many ways. The main one, of course, is cultural because it's obvious because Barcelona is a city with more than 2000 years of history. Cultural creativity in art, design, architecture, literature, performing arts, music, and also sustaining it in a prestigious public private education system in art, music, literature. And, you know, Barcelona is a first class hub for literary studies, and it's not so good for art for now.

Of course, we can also talk about creativity in technology. This is a more recent phenomenon, but it's based on the Catalan tradition, on research. And this is the reason why what we have here in Barcelona is still a very important concentration of research centres, maybe the most important one in the south of Europe. I mean, we have centres like Barcelona Supercomputer Centre, the Institute of Photonics, the Biomedical Research Institute.

And I know this is another aspect that I would definitely include in this definition of creativity as the main DNA of Barcelona is its politics. I would rather talk about political energy, you know, going a little back since the beginning of the 20th century, Catalonia has been a testing ground for all kind of political tendencies, meaning socialism, communism, anarchism, live here before the civil war and during the Civil War, very conclusive experiences that then later were exported to other territories.

And, you know, at the time, Barcelona was known as the La Rosa de Foc, which would be translated as the rose of fire, meaning all these clashes, all these disturbances, all this fighting mainly around the first 20 years of the century. And this phenomenon is still going on. I mean, then after the victory, the dictatorship, we find that Barcelona was one of the first cities in the world to have this big demonstration against the globalisation, that the anti-global struggle has in Barcelona, also Madrid, one of the capitals in the world. And we have seen in Barcelona, also in Madrid in this case, the biggest demonstration against homophobia or the feminist demonstrations each March 8th. Barcelona and Madrid are the capitals in this kind of situation.

And then we have seen five, four years ago that the city has also been on the forefront of the movement of cities that defends things like asking for the data to return to the citizen and fighting against platforms like Airbnb and so on. And now Barcelona has this struggle to become a kind of capital hub of a technological humanism, taking advantage of the presence here of the industry through the Mobile World Congress. This all has to be with tolerance, no? And this is maybe the answer to the question of what makes Barcelona Barcelona.

I mean, summing up, I would say that the DNA of Barcelona would be an addition of creativity to its cultural design, technological and political science.

On the underpinnings of Barcelona’s defining traits and characteristics… 

Yes, I think Barcelona, as far as a cultural hub, has the help or a very important role of the budget. What was the policy of the local budget here after the industrial revolution here, also in Spain that have had this motivation to invest in art and in very important changes, urban changes? I mean, this is about after the World exhibition in 1888 when Barcelona broke the barriers that they started living out the Roman city, the Roman and Medieval city. And they began to build the Eixample. You know, this is a very modern suburb by Ildefons Cerda. And then there was this investment in cultural institutions like, for instance, the School of Art where Pablo Picasso came to for his formation years here in Barcelona after being born in Malaga, Andalusia. And there was all this cultural ecosystem that became the place where the talent came. Dali came from the north of Barcelona. And there was this very important coincidence of a great artist from the first half of the century, Picasso, Dali and Miro, here in Barcelona. 

And then on the other side, Barcelona has always been a capital of the publishing in the Spanish language. And we find about it even in El Quixote in the beginning of the 17th century when Don Quixote comes to Barcelona, Barcelona is the only great city visited by Don Quixote in his travel along Spain. He comes here to Barcelona and he goes to a printing shop where his books are being printed at that time and we are still there, but still the capital of publishing houses in a Spanish language, of course, in Catalan, but also in Spanish in competition now with Mexico. So I think all this investment in cultural institutions serves to attract the talent and bring new talent from Barcelona.

On Barcelona’s most world-changing creators and innovators… 

I mean, we have here the first pioneering submarine constructed in Barcelona in 1858. Its name was Ictinio by an engineer, Catalan engineer named Narciso Monturiol. I can send you later the names. And you know, we have kind of a role in Christopher Columbus' story. Barcelona is one of the many cities that claims to have a capital role in the history of Christopher Columbus, that people here who even says that he was born in Catalan. Anyway, a key meeting with the Catholic kings just after his first travel to America. But there are not major contributions in science. I would put it again in the cultural side. We have talked of Picasso, Dali and Miro. Previously we had modernism, art deco if we want to say it, with Gaudi, who are somehow the responsible people of Barcelona becoming now a mass-tourism city. And then we have another one linked to the fact of being a capital of publishing houses, which is-- I think it may be the biggest contribution from Barcelona to the world in terms of culture, it is when in the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, a lot of major Latin American writers were in Barcelona living together. And we are talking about Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, Cortazar, even Cortazar was here for a short time, they were all brought together here by the literary superagent government bosses. And we have this very flourishing Latin American boom in Barcelona that somehow infected the whole world for good, I mean with very good literature.

Even this figure of the literary agent is originally from Barcelona. This is a curious contribution to the culture community. And this is the success and the resonance of this literary boom in the late 60s, early 70s, and has even continued now with a lot of the young Latin American writers we have who are living in Barcelona. And we have the example, he's dead now, but we have the example of Roberto Bolano, who lived here in the late 90s, early 2000. And it's the most relevant example of this tradition. By a very strong woman with very strong character. She died five years ago and she was able to bring them all together to Barcelona, to feed them when they have no money, no money to look for school, for their children and to build this very strong community, which ended with a fight between García Márquez and Vargas Llosa.

On contemporary culture in Barcelona… 

We have now a lack of cultural debates. We don't have at this moment the debates we had 20, 30 years ago when, for instance, Antoni Tapies wanted to put a very big foot with a sock in the museum. And there were all kinds of letters to the editors on the papers and a very rich debate. We don't have these debates. And somehow the people who are trying to project this culture, I mean, that this is the literary capital or the musical capital in some way, they are finding that they are very alone because there is not the debate that there used to be around about all these things. For instance, there is – we have this capital of – literally we are there a literary city by UNESCO.

And I remember you in one of your conferences in Barcelona that you said that you didn't know this. And this is the evidence that we haven't been able to promote us as a capital of literary lives. And in fact I was confused when I saw your question about the myth of Barcelona. I thought it was very interesting because there is one of them, the key myth about the city, because we all assume here in Barcelona that we are a very open city, very welcome for people who come from abroad. And it's true that Barcelona is a tolerant city and likes to be visited and likes to be talked about. But it's also true that it's not easy for a person from Barcelona to open his door or her door or the house and invite someone to have dinner. So I think there is a myth about this. We are not so welcome people like we think we are. That creates the problem, in my opinion, that we are not taking advantage of the brilliant expat community we have here. And sometimes they live in inside a bubble, which has its centre in the schools or the country's companies. But we have difficulties to manage to have a real internal relation with this expat community. In recent years, associations like Barcelona Group are doing a very, very good job to change the situation. But it's true that people in Barcelona have a hard time opening the front door for people to come in. And so we are not so open like we think we are. 

On the stories that people tell about Barcelona… 

Well, the story we are telling now, it's not a very positive story. We are trying to cope with this very difficult situation because we are even in in the group of the small group of cities most affected by the pandemic. And it's going to be difficult to change this perception out of this. But before the pandemic, the story we are we are telling the world was still the same story that we started to tell about 1986, 85, 87, just when we were starting all the preparation for the Olympics, the Olympic Games in 1992. We haven't been able to change this story, even if in the recent years we have moved, we have to incorporate more strong points of Barcelona besides culture and creativity and gastronomy.

And we were talking about technology. Barcelona has now a very rich and very positive community of not only the research centres I talk about before, but all the start-up community, and some of them were taking profit of the presence here of the Mobile World Congress in the last year. So I think we haven't been able to change the perception of the city, which was somehow fixed by the opening and final ceremonies in 1992, when we changed the model of something more linked to gymnastics, gymnastics, and we moved to theatre, to music. And that image was very strong. And I think we have been living there thanks to that image of the creativity of Barcelona, not being able to improve it or to include other strong points of Barcelona.

On Barcelona’s experiences of shock, trauma, recovery and reinvention… 

Yes, it has managed to come even with more strength after some important shocks. No, Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War, was one of the first cities in the world to be bombed, from the airplanes. And luckily, it was like a kind of essay of what goes on, what's going to come later in London or in Germany during the Second World War. Even Barcelona was one of the cities in Spain which experienced it tougher, a tougher post-war period and more repression than other cities. But it was able to recover quite well thanks to this industrial drive by the bourgeoisie and its open cultural mentality. No, Barcelona was during that time the capital of anti-Franco opposition in Spain, very linked to France because of the proximity. And we were in, I think – this is not – we have not a long perspective, but I think we were being able to move on from this very difficult moment we had here in 2017 and 19 with the independence, political conflict and all the effects it had in Barcelona. I think we were being able to go on. But I'm not sure what's going to happen now because this is a major, major achievement now. It's very difficult. It's going to be very difficult to go out of this.

Well, I think you have mentioned some reasons for the end of this organisation's culture. One of you said economic crisis, of course, a housing problem, but I think the main one was the separatist movement and its influence. And this was a big challenge for Barcelona. And it's still a big challenge for Barcelona, as we are seeing now during the pandemic, because there are still these problems going on. I think that the best way to illustrate the concerns is that the ability of having a very important concept in Barcelona was that the rebuilding of, say, you know, we have this fire in 1994 and in 1998, it was rebuilt with very old administration, social groups and institutions working together, while in Venice they took I think it was eight or 10 years to rebuild the village. But I'm not sure we are going to be able to rebuild these kinds of agreements and to have this consensus again, because I think the influence of the separatist challenge is going to last for many years. And Barcelona is being caught in the middle of this fight between Spain and Catalonia. And it's a way of losing a strength or being busy in things that are not the main ones for a global city at this moment.

On Barcelona’s leaders… 

Well, it's a pity Lionel Messi is getting older and is not going to be a leader anymore, but I think at this moment is in a moment of lack of leadership, of high leadership. This is even the case, I think, my opinion of the mayor. She has a strong leadership among the social movements. And she's doing very interesting things in this and even leading all this debate on Barcelona becoming a greener city, a green city and fighting pollution. But she has no connection with the economic world and very little with the cultural one. So we are not talking of a politician or a mayor like others we have had in the past that were able to connect all these world social movements, economic and cultural sectors. And I'm slightly optimistic about young people who are now people who are in their 40s or just 50s who are working in different sectors. I will mention people like one of them.

You know him well. Mateu Hernandez in Barcelona Global is a key reference here. But we have, for instance, Núria Cabutí, who is the CEO of Penguin Random House in Spain. We have all these people, this guy from the haute cuisine, like Ferran Adrià and his brother Albert, who are also leaders of opinion here, and also in in in in the theatre sector we have people like Alex Rigola, and we have very talented people now gathering around Liceu and Palau de la Música, who are going to do interesting things in the next years.

But I'm not sure about it. I don't think we have now the kind of leaders we had just before the Olympics, the people who were those people who were able to help the city council, or more than to help, to push the city council to act. And it's a problem, I think, a generational problem. I don't have a thing of the literary agent, but you put a very good example of the kind of leader that can make a city more rich, richer.

And of course, when we think about the leader, we all think of Pasqual Maragall, who was this politician in the Socialist Party, but he was able to be in good terms with everybody in the city and the building sector, industries and cultural sector and people who were around at that time. I'm thinking about Leopoldo Rodés, who was the one who had a key role in creating the MACBA contemporary art museum in Barcelona. And all the people of his generation that – there was this other one. This happened to him. José Miguel Abad was the CEO of the Olympic Committee and he came from the Communist Party. But he was able to do this job with a strong leadership and with any cloud of corruption, which is a very, very interesting thing when you are moving the money, all the money that the Olympics move.

On the future of Barcelona… 

I would say that Barcelona has had this tradition of being strong after breaking barriers. After I told you before that, after the university, the reversal exhibition of 1888 was with the help of Cerda, Cerda that you mentioned, Greg, planning all this at the new Eixample, it was able to be, to grow. And it happened later also with the Olympics, when Barcelona was able to remove all the factories and train tracks that separated the city from the sea. And this is the region of this Mediterranean design. It has also in history the ability of reinvent herself doing things that there is a very interesting example with the Gothic quarter. You know, it was an invention in the beginning of the 20th century. A number of people in the city decided to turn the city centre into a Gothic quarter. And they did it, bringing Gothic elements from other houses in the city. So the elements are not fake, but the quarter is fake. And it was a great success. And one of the reasons of the success of the residency. I think Barcelona should look for these new DNA being able to break physical and psychological barriers. The physical ones are, of course, trying to succeed, building a real metropolitan area like that you have in London or the one they have in Lyon or in Paris. And this is one that to break the physical barriers, which in the case of Barcelona is, you know, a city which is confined between the mountain and the sea. And the other one is the psychological and be able to change from, to move from the city we had until last March, which was still the city of the Olympics, and moved to this new DNA built of culture, technology, political creativity.

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