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Nationalism and Architecture August 3, 2012

Posted by akessler47 in Travel Log.

The history of Catalunya should be a class studied all on its own, but what is most fascinating to me is walking around downtown Barcelona and experiencing the almost overwhelming Catalan nationalism radiating from giant stone monuments and soccer flags. America has not experienced this degree of nationalism since the Cold War, and even then we did not carry the cause as far as Catalonia. Their identity is imbedded in every aspect of their life, it’s impossible to walk to the grocery store without see it, towering above you. I’d like to take time to talk about all the sights I saw in Barcelona and how they projected such a strong image of identity.

                First of all, I noticed that attempting to speak the amount of broken Spanish I know is futile in Barcelona. Since everyone speaks Catalan as their first language it is not even worth trying to communicate to them in a different dialect, English is the first language I try to communicate in

Jeronimos Monastery in Portugal

Jeronimos Monastery in Portugal

. It is amazing to me that a language so similar in structure but so different in spelling and pronunciation has survived so long in a unified country. Southerners in the United States certainly are proud of their culture and dialect, but by no means does Alabama require their state to teach Southern Drawl in school, or request the federal government to recognize it as an official language. 

                It’s clear that the Catalans are not only protective of their culture but outright and forceful with it. Aside from making the effort to preserve a dialect in a highly modern and connected state (which arguably causes a number of bureaucratic and economic difficulties), every cathedral, historic site, state, museum, and stadium is a testament of Catalan strength and independence. Barcelona’s dedication to synecdochic construction and tourism the past several decades has been to illustrate the city as the center point of culture, art, and wealth in Spain. The way they did this was not by creating plaques, murals, or reflecting pools, but rather supplanting historical monuments into a modern city. Paris has the Louve, the Notre Dame de Paris, and the Versailles Palace nearby, enormous constructions reminiscent of past kings and empires at the height of power, all constructed more than a hundred years ago. In Barcelona’s case city icons such as the Casa Batllo, Montjuic’s Olympic Park, Palau Nacional, Sagrada Familia, and especially Camp Nou are very recent constructions (less than 80 years ago) but are monolithic in size and mimic classical Europe’s grandeur

Barcelona Camp Nou

Barcelona Camp Nou


                Barcelona has constructed an identity through these colossal sites, one of seemingly overwhelming power and might, as if once a mighty empire set its throne on the hills and commanded provinces afar. When in reality Madrid was the seat of royal power in Spain and Barcelona was an industrial port until very recently. I find the city to be mimicking this classical European architecture (albeit mixed with newer ideas from Gaudi) in an effort to enhance Catalan nationalism and paint a picture of grandeur in the same image as Rome, London, Vienna, etc. In this way I see most recent developments in the city to be loud and unsubdued; the buildings are simply enormous and stretch to the sky, bedazzled with intricate carvings and statues. The Palau Nacional, for instance, has so many domes, steps, fountains, gardens, wings, and lights that it vibrantly outshines Buckingham Palace in London, where the royalty and head of government reside. Palau Nacional is just an art and history museum!

                On the other side of town, near the coast, glass skyscrapers stand diligently over the ports. I see this as the more functional side of Barcelona city improvement, creating the image of a 21st century city with all the modern amenities

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

. Clearly they were built close to the water so that by see people would see towering monoliths on Barca’s coast. Whether or not all these buildings are necessary or they are rented to their full potential, it projects the image of progress. The primary point between both modern and “classical” works in the city is that they are built as if they will never fall. Walls and pillars are made of solid rock or metal; arches line unbelievably tall ceilings and statues are etched into the exteriors like Roman deities. Even Camp Nou is one of the most impressive and unshakable buildings I have ever seen, with so many seats and levels it looks like another world wonder. The result being Barcelona looks constant, eternal, and stable, as if it had been around forever and will march forward in time relentlessly.

                Where Catalonia synthesized a European national identity, Lisbon, on the other side of the peninsula, retained architectural remnants of Portugal’s once great naval empire. Catalonia turns away from Spain’s past as a colonizer and instead embraces a classical western image. Portugal has kept many significant constructions from the 15th century and even earlier: the Jeronimos Monastery, the Palau Pena, and the Tower of Belem. Lisbon’s major cultural sights are not art museums or stadiums, but rather Royal Palaces and medieval watch towers, showing that the core of Lisbon identity stems from their history as a powerful port city and the seat of the monarchy. The Manueline and Neo-manueline architectural style also reemphasizes their deep relationship to the sea and colonies, as depicted by nautical themed stonework and armillary spheres. In addition, during the reign of Salazar the city saw the construction of an important work of fascist symbology, the Monument to the Discoveries. It is a massive, solid stone caravan sail reaching out into the river from the edge of the bank. The edges are lined with famed Portuguese explorers, monarch, scientists, and missionaries led by Henry the Navigator at the top, gazing out to the sea. This monument is extremely indicative of Portugal’s identity, it reflects the history of a people who to this day belief the spirit of a long lost King will return in the fog one day to restore order and former glory to the country.

                Both Barcelona and Lisbon have incredibly large and iconic buildings meant to generate a certain image to the world. While Barcelona’s identity is ahistorical (applying the theme regressively to generate a historical narrative of their own), modern, and European, Lisbon’s is nostalgic, historically nationalistic, and uniquely Portuguese. One last observation is that in the Jeronimos Monastery and the Palau Pena the structures have been redone and added to multiple times over the centuries. In this way the Portuguese view their history as fluid and continuous, they are still creating their historical narrative as they go. However, these alterations are still reminiscent or nostalgic of earlier styles, hence neo-manueline architecture atop regular manueline architecture. It seems as if the older Lisbon gets the more fond it is of the sea and their previous heroes, wishing to return to a Gold Age long past.



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