Victory for Barcelona signals new agenda

Not only is Barcelona an inspired choice to receive this year’s Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects, the mould-breaking decision could set a new “official” agenda for architecture in the UK, taking account of urban planning, art, design and landscape, not just buildings.

It might also boost Glasgow’s standing as 1999 City of Architecture and Design, given that the Scottish city has long styled itself on the Catalan capital (see feature, page 20). Glasgow 99 director Deyan Sudjic even involved Barcelona graphics star Javier Mariscal in projects such as the conversion of the Charles Rennie Macintosh building in Buchanan Street into The Lighthouse design centre.

Architects should love the idea, given their traditional obsession with “the city”. That “debate” is too academic for most. But star architects such as Nigel Coates, now architecture professor at the Royal College of Art, and Terry Farrell persist in trying to match the vision with reality.

Architects might be surprised that their profession’s top accolade has not gone to one of their own. The award goes to the city and the people responsible for its transformation during the Eighties and Nineties into a lively modern centre for tourism and commerce. Singled out for praise are three Barcelona mayors, including Pasqual Maragall – who seized the opportunity for change offered by the 1992 Olympic Games, which the Spanish city hosted.

Oscar Niemeyer won RIBA gold for this work on Brasilia in South America; François Mitterrand wasn’t honoured for the Grands Projets that revitalised Paris during the Eighties. Niemeyer was an architect, the French president was not.

It’s great news for design though, recognising that vision isn’t just the province of “creatives”. It can rest with the client. Glasgow is benefiting not just from Sudjic’s involvement, but from the apparent design-awareness of the Glasgow Development Agency. Support for design from the Government, notably from Tony Blair and Culture Secretary Chris Smith, will move it higher up the agenda. And design could benefit from London’s incoming mayor, if he or she is persuaded that it is a good thing.

More importantly the RIBA award acknowledges that any city is about more than buildings, however great the architecture. Transport, litterbins, signs and art programmes all play a part. It’s a welcome boost for all involved in the urban fabric. Let’s hope it stirs those with the power to make things happen to visit Barcelona to see what can be done. Maybe we should all go.

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