Photo by Carol Moran
Another Point of View
Sitting 262 metres above sea level, Turó de la Rovira offers one of the finest views over Barcelona and beyond you can find. The 360-degree panoramas captivate all those who make the convoluted ascent, but it was the unexpected sight of mismatched tiles underfoot that triggered my intrigue. Standing atop a former military base, a flash of pink glistened in the sun. Not standard army colours, you might say.
Located just north of its better-known neighbour El Carmel (home to Parc Güell), this turó (Catalan for hill) is a world apart from the glamour of the Modernista architecture and throngs of tourists found in that area. Here, an eerie sense of abandonment hangs in the air as the wind whistles through the lonely communications masts. Yet beneath the surface, an extraordinary history resides in the strata of this natural mound—from Iberians to industrialists, military post to urban slum.
Strategic lookout point
Since its first Iberian settlement (thought to date from between 800 and 200 BCE), Turó de la Rovira has been recognised as a natural vantage point over the surrounding area and a strategic post. However, it wasn’t until industrialisation and an influx of immigrants that increased the number of Barcelona residents in the 19th century that the city began to encroach upon the turó. Luxury summer residences sprung up, and the nearby quarry at Can Baró provided building materials to the expanding urban giant. The mood changed, however, when the Spanish Civil War broke out.
From early 1937 until January 1939, Barcelona was subject to massive and repeated air raids. It was one of the first cities to experience this terrifying warfare, a sinister precursor of what was to come across Europe throughout World War II. Franco delegated the aerial bombing of Barcelona to his Fascist allies, primarily the Italians, who launched a series of deadly attacks from their airbase in Mallorca.
On March 16th, 1937, the first of nearly 200 bombardments took place. In response, active defence strategies were quickly mobilised, while the construction, mainly by civilians, of nearly 1,400 air raid shelters was already underway, amongst other passive defence strategies. The active defence strategies aimed to impede the attacks and included coastal artillery, searchlights, acoustic devices, and a small number of anti-aircraft batteries. Turó de la Rovira was considered an ideal location for anti-aircraft artillery and, together with further batteries installed in Montjuïc and Poblenou, a triangular zone of protection was created.
In May 1937, the senior military engineer Manuel Vidal drafted an initial project for the Turó de la Rovira battery, although it didn’t become fully operational until March 3rd, 1938, having been modified several times. The built project consisted of four English-made cannons (105mm Vickers), the battery command post, located at the highest point, and accommodation situated between the platforms.
Defence of the city, however, was a difficult task. With no radar devices and only primitive detection systems, little or no warning could be given. Intense barriers of vertical fire, through which the enemy had to fly, were generated from the batteries, although inadequate ammunition and equipment limited effectiveness. This approach also posed a significant risk to civilians. In addition, the port and old town could not be effectively protected from here, and much of the damage was already done before the enemy came within firing range.
During the final months of the war, continuing air strikes combined with advancing overland troops proved too much for the Republican forces and the city fell on January 26th, 1939. The Republican army disabled the canons in Turó de la Rovira, although they remained there for some time afterwards. Throughout the period that Barcelona was attacked from the air, between 2,500 and 3,000 people died, a significant yet surprisingly low figure for such a massive and prolonged assault. Despite the lack of technology, resources and experience, Barcelona managed to organise a coherent and remarkably effective defence strategy—a fine example of its tenacity and capacity for resistance.
A room with a view
After the war ended, immigration rose once more as the difficult post-war era saw widespread poverty across Spain, with many coming to Barcelona in search of a better life and as part of a campaign by Franco to ‘de-Catalanise’ the region. This huge influx of inhabitants, combined with a chronic lack of housing, left the city bursting at the seams.
As a result, shanty towns, or barracas, sprung up in any available spot around the city, from the beach to the hills and anywhere in-between. This informal city reached its peak in the Fifties when up to 100,000 inhabitants lived in makeshift accommodation, accounting for approximately seven percent of the population.
Up in Turó de la Rovira, opportunistic immigrants spotted potential in the abandoned military structures and used them to form the foundations of a new neighbourhood in the Forties—and so Els Canons was born. Despite the challenging topography and harsh exposure of the site, the occupants colonised the former battery little by little, showing great ingenuity in adapting it to suit their needs.
Various elements of the military composition soon took on new identities. The officials’ house and command post provided ready-made accommodation, the soldiers’ quarters housed a school for children during the day and adults in the evening, and circular firing platforms morphed into circular-shaped dwellings and courtyards—part bunker, part barraca. Natural outcrops of rock became walls, forming cave-like structures, characteristic of traditional Andalusian architecture. This makeshift style reflected the origin of many of the inhabitants, but also symbolised the survival instinct that came forth out of necessity; architecture of the people, by the people. There were no plans or designs, just the need to provide shelter—a basic human right.
Whilst wandering around the site, I had the good fortune to meet local man Manuel Jover, who kindly shared his memories. His dad was in the Republican army here in Turó de la Rovira, and Manuel grew up just a stone’s throw away, regularly coming up to Els Canons to play. People lived everywhere, remembered Manuel, occupying every square inch with small, crowded shanties, where even irregularities in form were made useful. “Toilets were squeezed into any leftover corners and they connected to a very basic sewerage system,” Manuel explained as he showed me a triangular-shaped corner with a hole in the ground.
Limited resources were utilised to the maximum. “People gathered all the construction materials they could find and nothing was wasted,” said Manuel as we stood on the remnants of a tiled floor, paved directly over the battery command post. “The materials came from different sources—military debris, scrap from building sites—that is why the tiles are different colours and sizes.”
For many years, there was no infrastructure to support the settlement; it was a community forgotten by the authorities. A lack of basic necessities combined with the awkward, exposed location must have made life in Els Canons an unimaginable daily struggle. Water supply posed the greatest challenge, until the SGAB (Sociedad General de Aguas de Barcelona) installed a water tank close by and an ad hoc fountain was engineered.
With no formal access routes, the commute to work provided a compulsory workout. “No gyms were needed,” said Manuel. “People got their exercise just coming and going every day.” Residents constructed staircases within Parc del Guinardó to create more direct routes for their long climb up, some of which are still visible today.
The collective struggle formed a strong community spirit in Els Canons. “If something needed doing, people got together and did it,” remembered Manuel. In 1972, occupants of Els Canons and other nearby barracas formed the El Carmel Neighbourhood Association, which fought long and hard to obtain a basic service infrastructure, finally installed in the mid-Seventies.
Due to its relative isolation and a prolonged fight for suitable re-housing, Els Canons was the last slum to be cleared. This informal urban nucleus spanned five decades and several generations before finally being demolished on November 7th, 1990, thus bringing an end to shanty towns in Barcelona.
At its peak, there were around 600 inhabitants and 110 shanties. Today, the traces of human life ingrained in the architectural remnants here are testimony to the harsh reality that immigrants endured and surmounted, and a window to another world—a world that was set apart from the city, as forgotten then as now. For many it is simply a curious backdrop to a breathtaking view, but to those who lived here, a lifetime of memories is embodied in these fragments of the past, and a legacy of hardship and anguish.
An uncertain future
Less than a quarter of a century later, shanty towns like Els Canons are but a distant memory to the city of Barcelona, now changed beyond recognition. Yet they form an important, though often forgotten, chapter in the city’s history. The story of Turó de la Rovira was recovered when the site was excavated in 2006, removing graffiti, weeds and refuse, to reveal the remains of the past, and it became an official historic site of the Museu d’Història de Barcelona (MUHBA) in 2011.
For decades, there has been a controversial urban design project on the drawing board to unite the tres turons (the hills of Creueat del Coll, Carmel and La Rovira) into one giant green space. Plans from 1952 and 1976 failed to materialise, although the idea has not been forgotten. Whether nature will prevail remains to be seen, but currently the plans seem to be on hold, with neighbourhood associations, dozens of homes and a lack of resources standing in their way.
For now, Turó de la Rovira sits peacefully in its abandonment, content with its new historical status.
Visitors trickle through, some in search of the perfect panorama, others, like Manuel, to reminisce. It is still a relatively unknown mirador to many citizens, but as you gaze over the city with layers of history at your feet, it certainly offers another point of view, in more ways than one.
The MUHBA organises a series of English tours focusing on historic sites around the city. Turó de la Rovira is the subject of the ‘War and the Informal City’ tour, held on the first Sunday of the month from 10am to noon. Reservations must be made in advance; email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 93 256 2122, Mon-Fri. €6.
Bus 28 or 24 from Plaça Catalunya, or take the metro to Guinardó (L4) and enjoy the scenic climb up through Parc del Guinardó. Information plaques installed by the MUHBA guide you around the site.