"What we ask from you architects is to help us to figure out how to operate on the metabolism of the city, not just on its buildings." That was the challenge Antoni Vives, the deputy mayor of Barcelona, gave to those of us gathered to celebrate and discuss the 25th anniversary of the Mies van der Rohe Prize for European Architecture. Vives specified that what he was looking for was ways to make more productive neighborhoods, a smart and hyper-connected city, with factories both of the traditional and the creative or virtual kind, and a smart, efficient city, all dedicated to what he felt was one of the values of the European Union threatened by the economic crisis—namely the idea of shared welfare for all. He wants architects to help.
It was quite a challenge, and I am afraid that the assembled architects, critics, academics, and students did not rise to it. When it came time to discuss, most of them complained about the state of their profession. Only occasionally did the matter of why we make architecture, let alone “shared welfare,” even come up.
What to me was a particular shame was that the group didn’t focus on either the list of 25 prize winners, which range from this year’s Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik by Henning Larsen Architects with Batteríið Architects and Olafur Eliasson to a bus stop by Zaha Hadid, FAIA, and a modest school by Alvaro Siza—nor on the products of the Emerging Architect Prize, which this year went to Langarita-Navarro for its funky Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid—nor on any of the runner-ups also shown in an accompanying exhibition. What is more, there was no chance to learn from what I think is the most thorough and successful sustained experiment in urbanism since World War II: Barcelona itself.
So, here is what I find worth reflecting on the Mies van der Rohe Prize and its location:
If the European Union is to survive the current crisis and ever become a reality, that fact must be constructed. It must be built as connective infrastructure (the high speed trains are leading the way in that respect), but also as a translation of local conditions, whether they are physical or social, into places we can experience. The best structures I saw at the conference, and when I was a juror for the prize in the mid-aughts, had the sense of anchoring a place, making you aware of its nature, and drawing you into its precincts. These buildings become frameworks for social cohesion and shared knowledge.
An analysis of the tactics architects have used in the last quarter century might be good. Out of that, I can envision a taxonomy of parts, materials, relations, and even details that could prove useful in making and judging designs.
Start by driving around Barcelona, as I did with the city’s chief architect, Vicente Guallart. You could see public spaces at every scale and kind: from the monumental vestiges of the 1992 Olympics, designed by Oriol Bohigas, to Turo de la Rovira, designed by David Brado Bordas, as a rough-and-tumble promontory partially built on the remains of illegal houses torn down by the municipality and filled with viewers of Barcelona, people working out, lovers, a photography shoot—even a vest-pocket vineyard that Guallart had planted at a bus stop. You can find the stadia and the usual convention centers to admire in Barcelona, but also small libraries squished into the city’s fabric. My favorite new structure was a former market hall, which was slated to be a library until excavation uncovered part of the city torn down by the French when they conquered the city in 1714. It will now be a viewing platform for those remains, and a reminder—planned by the city’s nationalist government—of Catalonia’s loss of independence.
I don’t always agree with the picks for the Mies van der Rohe Prize. Yet it allows us to see what may be the best architecture you can find in Europe. Barcelona lets you understand how to keep making a city better. Both Europe and America, so proud of our big cities, big buildings, and unified culture, have a great deal to learn from Barcelona and its prize.