Public Art and Building for the Ages

by James A. Bacon

It’s probably not fair comparing the public art and architecture of Virginia cities, none of which are much more than 200 years old, with Barcelona, whose history stretches back 2,000 years. But I’m going to do it anyway. But before I start, let me be clear about one thing: I am not suggesting that Richmond, Norfolk or Charlottesville should try to be like Barcelona. They never can be, and it is futile to try. We can never make up an 1,800-year history deficit. But perhaps we can learn from and be inspired by the example of other cities and regions.

Here is an example of how a flat building surface can be converted into playful artwork.

One of the first things that strikes visitors to Barcelona is the prevalence of art. Indeed, one could say that the city itself is a work of art. As can be seen in the photograph at the top of the post, builders of nearly every building have paid incredible attention to the details, be they the stone facades, the iron grill work or the architectural adornments. Even the city’s newer buildings, which incorporate elements such as tile roofs and colorful awnings, are visually arresting. Add to it the acknowledged  architectural masterpieces like Antonio Gaudi’s cathedral, still under construction, and the result is a city where visitors (and, no doubt, residents) find themselves delighted at every turn.

Barcelonians have created an urban fabric worth preserving. Even when developers gut the interior of buildings, they often retain the masterfully decorated facades. Yet the city does not slavishly hew to the past. Barcelonians have encouraged architectural and artistic innovation. Thus buildings of startling different looks (though not size and scale) often stand side by side. Somehow, builders (or planners) are discriminating enough to know what works and what doesn’t.

Every city has telecommunications towers. Not every city turns its towers into works of art. This tower is located near Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic complex.

How can Virginia compete with an architectural legacy accumulated over 2,000 years? It won’t be easy. But only the tiny Gothic district of Barcelona goes back a full 2,000 years; the modern city dates back only to the mid-19th century. Even Richmond has 150-year-old neighborhoods. The difference is that Barcelona stuck with a winning model while Virginians abandoned traditional urban development after World War II in favor of building the scattered, disconnected, low-density places that we call the “suburbs.” For the past half century, we have poured our resources into throw-away communities that, offering little more than their newness, depreciated rapidly. As a result, across innumerable communities, many  buildings have so little intrinsic value that it makes more sense to tear them down and rebuild from scratch than to renovate them.

Barcelona is chock-a-block with monumental art that memorializes Catalan heroes.

Now, consider the difference between those two approaches from the perspective of long-term wealth accumulation. Take a suburban Virginia mall built in 1960. After 50 years, the buildings and structures have zero value and must be replaced. That represents an average depreciation of 2% annually. (Forgive me for not calculating an annually compounded rate of depreciation; I’m using rough numbers.) Then take a mixed-use apartment/commercial building built in Barcelona. After five decades, the building needs a major rehab but the basic structure and facade are preserved intact. Let’s say, for purposes of argument, that the building experiences an average depreciation of only 1% annually. The Barcelona model preserves economic value. The Virginia model squanders economic value. Extrapolate the difference over an entire region. After a half century, the Barcelona model preserves billions of dollars more in economic value than the Virginia model. That measure of wealth creation and preservation is not reflected in traditional economic indices of such as Gross Domestic Product but it is no less real. Barcelona has built a storehouse of real estate value that leaves Virginia eating red-clay dust.

It helps to have world famous artists like surrealist Joan Miro. This whimsical piece appears outside Barcelona’s Miro museum.

An argument also can be advanced that Virginians under-invest in public art and monuments. When I say “public” art, I don’t mean “public sector” art, although I don’t exclude it. I refer to art placed in public spaces for public enjoyment. Also, I don’t necessarily mean monuments of dead white men on horses like that on Richmond’s Monument Ave., as much as I happen to think that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson represent a heritage worth remembering. (I admire their personal honor and military valor, not their defense of a slave-holding state, so please don’t rag me about that.) Rather, when I talk about public art, I refer to the full range of art, from heroes on pedestals to abstract statuary, from ornamental stone carving to urban painting on brick walls.

Antonio Gaudi converted the humble park bench into delightful works of art.

In Barcelona, you can find art and statuary everywhere. Some of it honors figures from Catalonian history that mean absolutely nothing to Americans, but some of it is whimsical and delightful. Sometimes it is displayed in public squares, like Gaudi’s colorful benches at Parc Guell. Sometimes, it is tucked away in urban nooks and crannies like the anonymous painting on a garage door show below. Art is omnipresent — you can’t get away from it. And that is part of Barcelona’s charm.

Some of the most delightful art is anonymous and transient, such as this painting found on the corrugated metal door of a parking garage.

No doubt I have confused many readers with my previous panegyrics to public art in Richmond. Certainly, there is no way to measure the economic benefit of such initiatives. Yet art is a critical part of “place making”: creating the kinds of public spaces where people enjoy spending time and interacting. And making great places is a critical part of building a vibrant, dynamic community where creative, skilled and educated people like to live. If my recent discourses on Barcelona have shown anything, it is that the building of prosperous, livable and sustainable regions will require Virginians to pull together many strands of thinking — and public art is one that cannot be neglected.

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  1. Something I’ve always found curious and I’ll admit maybe it’s my own ignorance but does Barcelona have places like we have in Richmond that are less than wonderful… in terms of crime and in general – not particularly beautiful or inviting?

    what causes this? I’m sure there are folks in Barcelona of modest means but they seem to live in different style than folks in our cities of limited means.

    You talk a lot about the bricks and mortar aspect of Barcelona but what about the culture and society?

    1. Potomac Clubber Avatar
      Potomac Clubber

      Spain is a land of apartment buildings an yes some of them will remind you of the projects. Especially the areas that have high immigrant populations.

    2. Good questions, Larry. I cannot answer them. I’m Rosetta Stone 1.o-level Spanish, which is not sufficient to carry on a conversation. And much to my surprise — mainly because so many people said *everyone* speaks English in Europe — I found that even the people in the hospitality industry speak only enough to communicate the basics. Therefore, while I observed a lot of the physical infrastructure and learned something of the history in museums (with English placards), I learned very little about the people…. Except that most were helpful and friendly.

  2. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    It’s an extremely warm, friendly, and open place. A wonderful culture radiates in the City. (Far more so than, for example, Majorca, the more expensive Balearic Island off the coast.) I believe the city’s land use, geography, architecture, location, and culture, all feed off one another. So 2+2 = 5. And I suggest that most all cities hold this potential. I found the same experience in Oslo, Norway, hardly a southern Climate, for example.

  3. Well, Jim did say that all the businesses in Barcelona had steel fences that roll down when they are closed so there must be a reason why…. probably the same reason we do it over here.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Folks been doing that everywhere in Europe far farther back then I can remember landing in Naples in 54. Remember these people have spend millenniums at war or being occupied by foreign powers, you better damn well pull your metal up at night.

  4. Darrell Avatar

    US cities used to have artful buildings. They were torn down to be replaced by office towers. There is also plenty of art in American cities. Too bad the power brokers consider it to be graffiti. America is about making money. They don’t have time to be artistic or millennial.

    That’s why you make your money and then retire to a third world country before you lose it or government takes it. Steel walls are useless here.

  5. Darrell Avatar

    Oh and if you do decide to retire overseas, don’t pick the popular Belize. They are going broke, which is important because you want to pick third world countries that are already broke. Not a second world nation that’s still thrashing around.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “It’s probably not fair comparing the public art and architecture of Virginia cities, none of which are much more than 200 years old, with Barcelona, whose history stretches back 2,000 years.”

    No, it’s not fair.

  7. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    The Victorian Building Streetscape that starts off this article could also be Buenos Aires today. Or it could be late 19th – early 20th century F Street, downtown DC. Or countless other priceless urban neighborhoods that our misguided urban planning, and our clueless lack of culture and respect for the past work of our ancestors, have mindlessly destroyed.

    Hence, far too often we tear far too many street buildings down – it’s like ripping old photos out a priceless family album. When we rip our past apart, we empty out our soul. And damn our ancestors and their souls to oblivion, which should be a crime against humanity. A society that disrespects its legitimate past, and those who built it, disrespects itself.

    We then add insult to the injury by replacing fine old wonderful buildings that mirror the spirit of those who designed and built them, with Disposable buildings. Far too many of which are cheap and sterile. This in turn deletes the souls of those who follow us, our epidemic of rootless lost children.

    One is reminded to Henry Miller’s “Air Conditioned Nightmare.”

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One of the biggest tragedies was the old Penn Station in New York — a fabulous building replaced by an eye sore.
    Yet there is something to be said for large city architecture — Miesian stuff came into play by mid 20th century and it did create some spectacular buildings especially since higher strength steel and structural engineering techniques allowed taller and slimmer buildings to be erected. Some are truly ugly, such as the collection of sterile boxes around places like Rockefeller Center in New York, but there are standouts in that city, certainly in Chicago and other spots. Another aspect is that the older, more ornate buildings of a couple of centuries ago are hell on HVAC. So what you gain with aesthetics you loose in heating and air conditioning cost.

  9. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    The advent of Structural Steel combined with invention of the Elevator to make a radical changes to the landscape, lifestye and skyline of Cities. The Trolley, auto, and subway added to the revolution.

    With structural Steel a tall vertical building at last could be built on a narrow base. This allowed far more physical height and space to rest on a far smaller footprint. This was huge – value created out of thin air.

    The invention of the steel and electric motor elevator put these new physics of building construction on Steroids. Suddenly value created out of thin air became exponential. The upper floors were now suddenly as convenient as the lower floors, yet the upper floors had the height and views that deeply touch human psyche, a closeness to the Gods, with its resultant increase in one’s Status, a living symbol of one’s success.

    Thus the skyscraper became both economical but a money creator. Steel reinforced, elevator serviced buildings that radiate verticality birthed a new age. The second built (round 1873) and oldest still standing resides in DC.

    But you’re wrong about HVAC. These early Victorian buildings (including early skyscrapers) were extremely energy efficient. The reinforcing steel was typically embedded in Terra Cotta clad in granite. And window glass was small and recessed. The horrible inefficient (heating and cooling) of our tall, plain and ugly steel and glass facades came much later.

  10. Richard Avatar

    Big generalization, but my sense is that many Americans don’t have the same “sense of place” as the Catalans of Barcelona. The citizens of Barcelona have an ownership of the City that your regular Richmonders do not. The rights of a developer in Barcelona are likely more restricted than in Richmond because in Barcelona you have traditions, neighborhoods, and residents that are protective of the past and the City itself. Americans don’t have the same sense of place – their loyalties change with their economic situation, and they are much more likely to move to a new place with greater opportunities.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      Richard – you make an excellent point.

      So much of Barcelona (and similar places) reflect the deep rooted cultural values of the society that built it. I can’t speak to the rights of developers there as regards written regulations, but these people likely value their past to a far greater degree than most Americans. Indeed it a reverence woven deep into the bones, so deep that likely much of it is unconsciousness.

      So, to tear down the city of the Parent’s, Parent’s Parents, and all The Parents before their Parent’s Parents, is simply unthinkable.

      On the other hand, to the degree that Americans are highly mobile, so can live anyway, the particulars of a place and value they put those particulars are of a far different order and kind that those in Barcelona, I suspect.

      But note all the New Innovative Art in the Photos above. Where did that come from? Likely it grows out of the culture’s veneration of the past, this heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings and how they have evolved over 2000 years. All this change over this changeless base somehow creates a felt obligation to continue the tradition – hence tradition breeds art which breeds non destructive change under the right circumstances.

      But much of it is paradox, too. Paris built the Static French Academy. And Modernists Art at the same time. While also trying to freeze its language in a plaster cast. It’s complicated.

  11. DJRippert Avatar

    Your point about the Civil War statues in Richmond is interesting in the context of Barcelona.

    Both cities were the centers of civil wars within their countries.

    Both cities fond themselves on the losing side.

    One city can’t seem to shake off it’s infatuation with the war.

    The other seems to hide its involvement.

    You’ve spent a long time looking at the architecture of Barcelona. How about some sense of history?

    Apparently, there is a walking tour of Barcelona’s role in the Spanish Civil War….

  12. DJRippert Avatar

    Also, Jim – you disdain for publicly financed sporting venues is well known. You prefer to let things “bubble up”.

    How did the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona affect that city? Some claim that those games had a major impact (for the better) on Barcelona. It would be interesting to know what those who live there think of the impact of the olympics.

    Would you support an olympic bid from Richmond?

    How did you like the Barcelona Airport?

    1. From the bits and pieces of information we picked up, the Olympics had a major impact on Barcelona. The Olympic stadium is a tourist attraction, one of several on Mont Juic. The Olympics provided the impetus for making major capital improvements, including a clean-up of the beaches. So, clearly, there was a major positive impact. Was there a major debt overhang from all that spending? I don’t know. From what I’ve read elsewhere, the Olympics are a mixed bag. It has been a boon to some cities and a bust for others.

      As for Richmond, surely you jest. Our local governments are haggling now over hosting the 2015 world bicycling championship. We could never host an Olympics.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    One wonders where Bacon would have enlisted in the Spanish Civil War.
    The Ayn Rand Brigade?

  14. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    And by the way, Jim,
    Your photography is truly impressive. No joke! These “Sketches of Spain” (apologies to Miles Davis) are not only good to read but great to look at at.

  15. Thanks — I think you’re the first person to ever praise my photography. I’m a raw amateur (still figuring out what all the gew-gaws on my camera do) but the photos do help tell the story.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      your a quick learner and natural talent then.

  16. Jim B – don’t you have one of those smartphones that can convert your questions into Spanish and “speak” them to the locals and then take their responses and convert them to English?

    1. Nah, I tried to learn the language by actually speaking it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far.

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