Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
In the 1930s, Swiss architect Le Corbusier was invited to Barcelona to give his opinion on the Raval. The neighbourhood was poor, physically and morally degraded, and saturated with people. To Le Corbusier the verdict was clear: the Raval must be demolished.
Le Corbusier had been beckoned to the city at the dawn of great political change. The Second Spanish Republic had been declared in 1931, followed by the formation of the Catalan Republican government, the Generalitat. Along with the new political environment came ambitious aspirations for Barcelona and a desire to improve and renew the city. The changes proposed began under the direction of Fransesc Macià, then president of the Generalitat, but were driven by a group of architects named GATCPAC (Catalan Artist and Technician Group for the Progress of Contemporary Architecture).
The leading figure of GATCPAC, Josep Sert, had studied under Le Corbusier in the 1920s and was eager to draw up a plan for Barcelona following his former master’s ideas of a modern city; one focused on controlling its growth and hygiene. The plan that would materialise would be drawn up with Le Corbusier’s guidance and include four major focus points. Amongst the changes to be made, the proposal to eradicate the neighbourhood of the Raval was the most radical of them all.
The Raval had gotten a name for itself as the most unruly neighbourhood in Barcelona, synonymous with working class identity and struggle. It had become home to the first factories of the Industrial Revolution and so was the first area in Spain to inhabit the steadily growing working class population. Characterised by the same narrow medieval streets of the Gothic quarter, the streets of the Raval had been forced to make space for the construction of smoke-bellowing factories and tenement blocks. Although the removal of the medieval wall, which surrounded the old city until 1859, started the rapid development of the city beyond its original parameters, urban planner Ildefons Cerdà’s dream of Barcelona as an expanded, interclass living space did not become a reality. Instead, by the end of the 19th century the bourgeoisie had packed up and headed eastwards to the Eixample, leaving the Raval to become home to a blue-collar community with a density 10 times that of the average European city at the time.
Among the changes to be made to the city, the proposal to eradicate the neighbourhood of the Raval was the most radical of them all.
But it wasn’t just overcrowding. The long working hours, miserable pay and abysmal living conditions led to increasing frustration among the inhabitants of the Raval. It was these frustrations that would shape the history of this district in the form of protests, uprisings, barricade building, violence and union organisation right up until the 1930s. Those small, winding streets, devoid of light and clean air, which stifled their inhabitants, became a hotbed for the politicisation of the working class, namely under the banner of revolution, and more specifically, anarchism.
By the 1920s, the Raval had become baptised as ‘Chinatown’—not because of a sudden influx of Chinese immigration, but for its dense population, slum-like living conditions and its reputation for being the underbelly of the city. It was labels like this, coupled with the revolutionary fervour rising from the neighbourhood, which caused political concern over the future of the barrio and its inhabitants.
Demolishing the birthplace of Barcelona's working class implied eliminating its historic and symbolic spaces.
With Le Corbusier’s proclamation in mind: “Architecture or revolution. The Revolution can be avoided”, the Raval became a focal point for the proposed changes to the city. The neighbourhood was to be sanitised, order restored, and the revolutionary air of its streets eliminated.
The plans for Barcelona by Le Corbusier and GATCPAC were drawn up by 1932, and would receive the title of ‘Nova Barcelona’ or the ‘Plan Macià’, the latter named by Le Corbusier who was a great admirer of the first president of the Generalitat. In 1934, the first exhibition of the Plan Macià took place in a subterranean space in Plaça Catalunya. It outlined four major lines of intervention and development. These included the classification of the city into ‘zones’, including housing, trade, industry, and leisure; the immediate halt of growth in the Eixample area and the determining of a new layout, better designed to meet the needs of the city; the continuation of the Gran Via to the coastal area of Castelldefels, where the construction of a ‘City of Leisure and Holidays’ was to take place; and the sanitisation of the Old City. The sanitisation of the Old City included both the Gothic and Raval areas, but in the case of the former, special attention was given to preserve its sites of historical interest.
Under the premise that ‘the revolution can be avoided’, the plan outlined the reorganisation of the Raval via a system of linear streets and major thoroughfares. This new layout was designed to allow greater and more fluid movement of goods through the area, as well as giving the neighbourhood a fresh sense of order. The new Raval would leave behind the turbulent times of barricade building, protests and proletarian uprising, and make way for easier policing and the supervised use of public space.
Le Corbusier’s plan proposed that the displaced residents of the Raval be relocated to multi-storey blocks akin to the Bauhaus style of architecture in the Sant Andreu neighbourhood. The Raval would be flattened and then rebuilt in phases, with single-storey, uniform housing blocks arranged in a linear fashion, to be inhabited upon their completion.
Demolishing the birthplace of Barcelona’s working class implied eliminating its historical and symbolic spaces, spaces which had shaped the history of the neighbourhood since the 1830s. Replacing the streets with major roads and uniform housing meant paving over this history and redefining the character of the Raval through order and uniformity.
The plans never materialised and the revolution was not avoided. Due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the Macià plan remained on the drawing board.
By 1938, Italian and German fascist planes systematically bombed Barcelona from the air, and the Raval was one of the hardest hit places. The destruction of tenement blocks across the area meant that after the war, parts of the neighbourhood were entirely reformed, such as the Plaça de Vicenç Matorell and, on a greater scale, the Avinguda de les Drassanes. Uncomfortably, it was the destruction of parts of the Raval during the Spanish Civil War that have been referred to as the first examples of sanitisation to take place in this disputed neighbourhood. The sanitisation the Plan Macià never had a chance to realise.