The Phantoms of the City
Text for the book “The Stadium, the Pavilion and the Palace. Domènec, An Intervention at the Barcelona Pavilion”, edited by Fundació Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona 2023.
At MACBA in 2018, we presented the Domènec exhibition Ni aquí ni enlloc (Not Here, Not Anywhere), a survey of almost twenty years of the artist’s oeuvre featuring a number of his works and new
projects. At the same time, Domènec mounted an intervention at the Barcelona Pavilion linked to the exhibition at MACBA by means of the publication of a journal available in both venues. L’estadi, el pavelló i el palau (The Stadium, the Pavilion and the Palace) took its title from an article by Josep Maria Huertas Claveria, published in Destino magazine on 10 December 1966, that considered some of the iconic buildings erected on Montjuïc mountain for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. These edifices, part of the letter of introduction presented by a prosperous, modern, open and Cosmopolitan city to the world, concealed from view a pell-mell of overcrowded ramshackle dwellings on the far side of the mountain looking out to sea. These shanties, right next to the vast cemetery on Montjuïc, were home to the labourers, and their families, who had built this new city. This situation arose at the close of the 1920s and, far from being remedied over the following years, this ‘offstage’ area of the ‘official’ mountain gradually took shape as the permanent temporary place where workers from elsewhere would settle when they arrived in Barcelona in search of a better life.
Huertas Claveria’s article focused on the families living in the shacks on the city’s Somorrostro Beach, which were washed away by a storm in the autumn of 1963, as a result of which the residents were temporarily moved to the stadium on Montju.c, then not in use, while waiting to be rehoused. These people joined previous occupations of other buildings, also standing idle, from the earlier 1929 International Exposition, such as the Palau de les Missions (Palace of the Missions) workhouse and the Belgian Pavilion. This supposedly short-lived wait for something better went on for some time for almost 500 families, who turned these edifices into their homes for a number of years, transforming them into what Huertas Claveria called ‘ghostly shanty dwellers’, hidden behind the faded splendour of the buildings that had formerly been the public face of Barcelona.
Unfortunately, this was not an unusual occurrence but was far more common and went on for much longer than desirable. One paradigmatic case, still ongoing today, arose in a number of major cities in Brazil at the end of the military campaigns of the War of Canudos (1896-1897), when returning soldiers, who had been promised a salary that would enable them to acquire a home as a reward for their efforts on behalf of the country, settled as an interim solution in precarious buildings erected on hill and mountainsides. As the years and generations of inhabitants passed, these initially temporary favelas grew into large neighbourhoods on the fringes of Rio de Janeiro. The once temporary tenants became the new occupants.
Domènec’s work reflects on the idea of dwelling; on the conditions that architecture proposes and imposes; on the housing options put forward by modern architecture and on the utopias, realities and failures that derive from them; on the confrontation between projects; and the fracture driven by social, economic and political circumstances. One example of the artist’s work that addresses these issues in-depth is the documentary 48_Nakba, made in collaboration with Mapasonor, in which Domènec provides an opportunity for five Palestinian men and women to appear one after another before the camera and show the deeds of ownership to their homes and the keys that open their front doors; they also detail memories of their homes and villages; and at the end of each interview they hold up a poster bearing the name of their village. They describe how they were driven from their lands in 1948 and moved to temporary refugee camps: a political exodus triggered by a UN resolution to divide the land of Palestine and to create the new state of Israel; an exodus of more than a million people forced to leave and relocate to refugee camps set up as temporary settlements but where still today more than three generations of Palestinians remain, waiting for the constitution of their country or the restitution of their homes that were razed to the ground shortly after their departure. The elderly still dream of being able to return to their homes. At the end of each interview, however, the camera takes us to the places where these homes and villages once stood before they were demolished and wiped off the map. In this work, Domènec draws a now imaginary map of impossible desires on top of old realities. The clash between a past that will not be repeated and an abysmal present that no-one wants to acknowledge. A dwelling today amid conflicting longings and materialities, in which the clash is founded precisely on the false notion of the temporary, which is, perhaps, the only thing that makes it possible to still look ahead to the future.
These long-term settlements set up in response to particular circumstances, the appropriation of the space to legitimise the possibility of existence, are one aspect of the approach to architecture and the housing project of modern times, and part of a broader reflection, as remarked earlier. Domènec’s work moves back and forth in those places where desire and longings clash with diametrically opposed realities; something like a game between fiction and reality in which the fiction is based on legitimacy, but on the impossibility of being; and where reality is revealed in all its perversity.
The projects in question focus on housing in relation to geopolitical or representational strategies. In the case of Barcelona, the presentation of the growth of a city and its future prospects, even at the expense of its builders and the inhabitants of the other city, the ghost city. A two-fold phantasmagoria emerges. Firstly, in the non-place of the home waiting to exist and of the configuration of the provisional space itself. The spur-of-the-moment resolutions to what at a given moment is a specific problem but which then goes on to become entrenched long term. And secondly, the dissimulation, the hidden yet latent city. Who constructed those buildings? Who erected the city and its new streets? What was the labour force which, with its toil, made the modern city ‘shine’ before the world? The phantom limb and ‘the eternal habit of hiding unpleasant things, as if just showing the best things would make Barcelona a better city’, as Huertas Claveria puts it.
It is perhaps worth stopping to consider what it was that alerted Huertas Claveria to the situation and prompted him to write his article: the opportunity for the Real Club Deportivo Español to move to Montjuïc Stadium, a move pushed for by the football club’s chairman at the time, Juan Vilà Reyes, regarded by the Franco regime as a model businessman. This move meant that the stadium had to be remodelled to meet the new needs and to equip it with all the services required by a modern sports club. However, the move was thwarted by the temporary – temporary, of course! – move into the stadium of the people from Somorrostro affected by the storm in 1963. ‘Temporariness’. A word which, according to Huertas Claveria, ‘should be banned from the official language of our country’. Just ours? Since it compelled acknowledgement of the hidden, disguised occupation of the building by people who lived in it in deplorable conditions. Interestingly, Vil. Reyes played a prominent part in one of the biggest financial scandals of the Franco era, one in which numerous ministers and senior officials of the regime’s government were embroiled but from which they pretty well all emerged legally unscathed, with only the businessman sent to gaol, though on lenient terms bearing in mind the times.
What Domènec proposed in his intervention was to strip 15 the Barcelona Pavilion of its luxury attributes, such as its chairs and curtains, and to replace them with Formica dining chairs and with sheets and towels hung on lines, thereby suggesting the residential occupation of a mountain that presented itself to the world as a showcase of modernity, but whose bowels concealed the reality in which that city changed its name. The vision of a city that has broken the rules of self-respect and has descended into darkness and poverty. That Biutiful Barcelona of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film that never affords a single glimpse of the archetypal sites of the official tourist city, but which plunges into the deepest bowels, to the other side of the city that is never shown but nonetheless exists.
Perhaps the key is the need to hide, to mask these realities. While families crowded into shacks on the other side of the mountain, in the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition, King Alfonso XIII shared a cold collation with the German dignitaries before continuing on his royal tour to open the event. One of the gems of modern architecture provided a sumptuous stage for the representation of power. On the other side, the city was changing its name. Another name which, masked, would endure for decades.
Domènec’s work gravitates around the project related to the communal, around the residential project; the nature of the ideological and social keys that underpin them; and the clash with the real needs of the people who inhabit the place. The conflict between the city as a postcard or letter of introduction, as a tourist attraction, and the home as a dwelling place. The losses resulting from occupants’ moves and their need to survive what should have been seasonally temporary. Huertas Claveria himself extended his reflection to the issue of the state: ‘The state, and it is fitting that we review this concept, is us, and its decisions ought to be the outcome of joint endeavour, not four pen strokes dashed off in an office as impressive as those changing rooms praised by Mr. Vilà Reyes.’ It would take another few years for Barcelona to make those settlements in the Stadium, the Pavilion and the Palace disappear… But let us not forget that even in 2022, many families are evicted for financial reasons and that the right to a home, as set forth in the Spanish Constitution, remains a dream for some. Domènec’s reflection takes us back into the past, but it is a reflection that looks back from the present.
Exhibitions Curator at MACBA