More than any other city, Barcelona is a paradigm of designed urbanity – an admired exemplar of how a city can reinvent itself as a desirable destination.

The question of how it has been done has been studied ad infinitum. Its genesis is usually attributed to the fall of the Franco regime and the subsequent revival of Catalan cultural identity combined with the city’s hosting of the 1992 Olympic Games.

Since then, the awarding of the Games has been seen as an opportunity for regeneration and redesign, with decidedly mixed results: Athens and Beijing completely failed to capitalise on their Olympics infrastructure and emergence from a repressive regime has hardly made Moscow or Sofia design capitals.

Neither of these factors is enough, therefore, to explain the transformation. It is necessary to go further back to understand why the city has proved such fertile ground for reinvention.

The city is best known for one architect – Antoni Gaudí – the devout Catalan whose surreal, undulating works include La Pedrera, the Casa Battlo, the Parc Güell and the truly extraordinary Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia – which is still under construction.

Gaudí’s works create surreal explosions of organic form and colour within an ordered whole – which makes them all the more surprising. But it is the architect of that ordered whole, Ildefons Cerdà, the town planner who conceived the extension of the city beyond its Medieval centre as a grand grid.

It was the scale of this grid that allowed to city to develop at a density that is the envy of cities around the world.

It has proved able to accommodate a mix of uses within a tightly-defined urban area. It is this combination of density and intensity which has kept the city alive. Critically, the city can accommodate a social mix at its centre. While the centres of London, Paris, New York and now even Berlin have succumbed to gentrification which has forced the less wealthy and migrant communities out to the edges, central Barcelona continues to house a rich social mix.

Even the gothic quarter at its heart remains a traditional Mediterranean barrio – noisy, teeming and vibrant. Unlike many medieval city centres, it has not been allowed to become a heritage tourist ghetto.

If Barcelona has remained one of the world’s most livable and best designed cities, it is not by accident.

Mayors, architects and urbanists have shown what can be done. The socialist municipality (notably under mayor Pasqual Maragall) led the way in revitalising a tired city through its neighbourhoods as well as through grand plans. In concentrating on infrastructure – social and cultural as well as utilitarian – the city’s fabric was revived.

A combination of new social housing, health and community centres, market buildings and, perhaps most importantly, public space has transformed the city.

Of course there is the Ramblas, arguably the most successful mixed-use boulevard in any city anywhere, but there are dozens of other innovative examples.

The Moll de la Fusta provides the broad, open, art-strewn waterfront to counterbalance the dense city-centre, as does the sophisticated restructuring and landscape of the Montjuic hilltop, whilst the Jardí del Museu Can Framis has romantically enveloped a piece of the old industrial city.

Elsewhere, “starchitects” have been attracted to add to the city’s skyline.

First came Frank Gehry’s huge harbourside fish sculpture, a forerunner of the Bilbao Guggenheim.

French architect Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar also became an instant icon – a contemporary of London’s Gherkin, its iridescent sheath makes it the more elegant of the two. Yet more organic is the big, red rubber welly of a tower by Toyo Ito in the Plaza Europa.

Architects of the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium and London’s Tate Modern, Herzog & De Meuron, built the vast, dark Barcelona Forum by the waterfront and Britain’s David Chipperfield built the huge City of Justice in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat – both structures are ambitious but intimidating.

Most recently there is British architect’s Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners’ revivification of the city’s bull ring, Las Arenas, a mixed use scheme that promises to revitalise a big chunk of the city when it opens later this year.

These blockbuster structures may suck up the attention, but it is the subtler public buildings that have made Barcelona such an exemplar of urbanism.

In recent years Josep Llinás’s Jaume Fuster Library with its complex and generous canopy and the fragmented literal curtain wall enveloping the Sant Antoni district library by Aranda Pigem reinterpret public space and architecture in wonderful ways.

Then Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue’s Santa Catarina Market with its wavy roof, a starburst of Gaudí-esque colour, resurrected the spirit of the city’s greatest architect while revelling in its culture of food.

A stroll through any of the city’s big design stores, BD Barcelona or Vincon, set in wonderful modernismo palaces reveals the depth of the city’s design culture – as do the fashion labels it exports from De Sigual to Camper.

Architecture, design and public space are still seen both as a form of political and democratic expression and are used to differentiate the fiercely independent Catalan city.

That political drive seems to have survived the reflection of the immediate post-Franco era to create one of the world’s few real design cities.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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