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Vila Olímpica

A suburb in the city

Vila Olímpica towers

Until the late 1980s, the dreary sprawl of Poblenou, one of the cradles of Barcelona’s industrial revolution, filled the seafront between Barceloneta and the river Besós. Even if you could find your way to a beach through the derelict factories, train tracks and warehouses, the water stank. The whole area had a reputation as savoury as toe jam.

The need to house 15,000 athletes for the 1992 Olympics prompted the creation of Nove Icaria Ltd in 1986, which undertook Barcelona’s biggest urban-renewal project of the 20th century. Coastal train tracks were moved inland; 500 acres of Poblenou were expropriated to create the Parc de Mar, and sand was found to open up 5km of new public beaches, and the Vila Olímpica was created — a district as rigidly planned as Prosper van Verboom's Barceloneta, but in many ways its total antithesis.

The master plan was entrusted to old hands Martorell, Bohigas, Mackay and Puigdomènec, who laid out the streets and plotted the housing that would become some 2,000 apartments after the games, along with a church, sports centre, hotel, office buildings and service buildings linked to the remodelled Hospital del Mar, which served as the Olympic hospital.

To make sure the Vila Olímpica would be as special as the occasion, each building was commissioned from a past winner of the FAD Arquitectura prize. It's fair to say the architects decided to sit on their laurels. Even the opportunity to make a focal point, or even something interesting, out of the deluxe Hotel Arts and the Torre Mapfre, at the time Spain’s tallest skyscrapers, was declined, leaving two boring boxes by the beach. Bohigas stated that Nova Icaria's Vila Olímpica would be ‘a homage to the utopian socialism of the 19th century’ and promised that at least some housing would be subsidized and affordable.

But that was just a promise: the wealthy snapped up all the flats, and the few businesses that have moved into the American-style commercial areas are not exactly neighbourhood shops. Instead of the vibrant density that characterizes the rest of Barcelona, this is the one place in the city clearly more friendly to cars than people, with its wide streets, car parks (even along the marina), gated buildings, and big desolate spaces between the traffic, decorated with outsize fountains and sculptures.

One of these, in Parc de les Cascades, is the ironic David and Goliath (1992) with spindly figures and kite faces, by Antoni Llena. Another, the big Culo de Úrcolo (Úrcolo’s arse) nicknamed after its Basque sculptor, moons passers-by in Parc de Carles I, while the metal Pergolas by Enric Miralles along Avinguda d’Icària resemble dead trees crossed with TV antennae.

While there are many empty shops up for rent in the centre of the Vila Olímpica, the Port Olímpic remains extremely popular day and night, a confluence of restaurants, cafés and trendy clubs topped with the enormous, headless Copper Fish by Frank Gehry, a glistening hunk of postmodernist bait that lures in the crowds from the beaches and promenades.

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metro: Ciutadella- Vila Olímpica

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Kiko Alario Salom, Francesc_2000