Though the Olympics are the world’s foremost sporting event, Barcelona ’92 did as much for the city’s public art as for its sports facilities. Massive investments transformed the urban landscape almost beyond recognition. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the demolition of the Somorostro neighbourhood and on the Barceloneta shoreline. Yet out of this upheaval came exciting projects such as Configuraciones urbanes (Urban Configurations), a project which aimed to form a chain between two historically linked Barcelona neighbourhoods—la Ribera and Barceloneta.
This historical association was forged in 1714, on the occasion of Catalonia’s defeat in the War of the Spanish Succession. After his victory over the Catalan, British and other forces, Philip V of Spain ordered the neighbourhood of la Ribera to be partially razed to make way for construction of the Ciutadella—a fortress designed (like Montjuïc fortress) not to protect citizens from outside danger but to suppress further civil insurrection. It took a couple of years before the ousted former residents of La Ribera were assigned plots of land on Barceloneta sand spit, where a fishing village had been haphazardly growing since the Renaissance. Over the ensuing years a shanty town developed. Then, in 1753, a rational new street plan was implemented, based on the plans of Joris Prosper van Verboom – the Flemish military engineer who was primarily responsible for Barcelona’s fall in 1714. Housing priority was given to residents engaged in activities connected to the sea.
Over two hundred years later, in the lead-up to the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics, the Somorostro neighbourhood and the Poble Nou and Barceloneta seafront were redesigned to open up the shoreline to the city and remodel Barcelona’s neglected port and beaches.
Urban Configurations, a permanent, open-air collection of eight works, conceived by Barcelona curator Gloria Moure, was inaugurated just days before the Olympics. This show sought to combine foreign, Spanish and Catalan artists while bequeathing works to the city that would epitomise creative tension, art that was accessible to its public, in harmony with its physical and human environment and engaged in a dialogue with the space in which it was installed. The results are one indoor and seven outdoor sculptural installations, by one Catalan, one Spanish and six international artists.
Heading from carrer Comerç down towards the beach, these works are:
i. Deuce Coop, James Turrell. This US artist’s neon installation in an eighteenth-century building—now a civic centre—revitalises and accentuates the old architecture. It contains an iconic Turell reference in the oculus and use of light. Its lustrous tranquillity encourages the viewer to take ample time to appreciate the installation fully at a meditative pace. Installed in the Civic Centre, the installation is only available during opening times and activated by a sensor that turns it on after dusk: around 6 pm in winter and 9 pm in summer.
Deuce Coop, James Turrell, 1992. Centre Civic Convent de Sant Agustí, c. Comerç, 36, la Ribera. Opening hours (after dusk): Mon to Fri, until 10 pm; Saturdays, until 9 pm. Coordinates: 41.387659, 2.181615
ii. Born, Jaume Plensa. Consisting of several scattered iron forms—a large coffer and spheres evocative of cannonballs—this work focuses attention on the urban landscape of the tree-lined avenue, evoking the form of a ship. Yet it also references the Born’s history as a Medieval jousting yard, the site of the main wholesale market and as a key scenario in the 1714 siege when the city fell. Under the defunct market structure at the avenue’s end—a sublime example of late nineteenth-century ironwork—archaeological excavations have revealed the original neighbourhood of 1714–15. The site has been turned into a permanent exhibition, and this is one of those times when paying a few euros’ entrance fee is worth it.
Born, Jaume Plensa, 1992. Passeig del Born/volta d’en Dusai, Born. Coordinates: 41.384281, 2.182506
iii. Sense títol (quatre falques) / Untitled (Four Wedges), Ulrich Rückriem.
This Düsseldorf artist, trained as a stone mason, installed four massive pieces of granite in the Pla del Palau, distributed in two pairs, which face the traffic like spectators. While much of his work conjures dramatic geological splendour, here the location is poor, causing many people to pass them by unseeing, as oblivious as to any other piece of urban furniture. It is a shame as the works deserve more attention.
Sense títol (quatre falques) / Untitled (Four Wedges), Ulrich Rückriem, 1992. Pla de Palau. Coordinates: 41.382538, 2.183644.
iv. Rosa dels vents / Compass Rose, Lothar Baumgarten, 1992. Plaça Pau Vila, Moll de la Barceloneta. Coordinates: 41.381383, 2.186168 to 41.379325, 2.186937
v. Crescendo appare / Growing in Appearance, Mario Merz, plaça Pau Vila, Moll de la Barceloneta. Coordinates: 41.377711, 2.187846 to 41.376372, 2.187541
viii. Balança romana / Roman Scales, Jannis Kounellis, 1993. Corner of carrers Miquel Boera and Andrea Dòria, Barceloneta. Coordinates: 41.380328, 2.192197