A former industrial centre, Olympic athlete housing and a space for clean-tech business: some of the diverse urban landscapes recently investigated by RMIT design students in Barcelona.
The transformation of the Poblenou neighbourhood, which began when industry across Europe started slowing at the end of the 20th century, was in focus as part of the students’ Master of Architecture and Master of Urban Design degrees.
RMIT’s Professor Mark Jacques and Gretchen Wilkins, Program Manager for the Master of Urban Design, travelled with the group of 13 students from Melbourne for the two-week studio based at RMIT Europe in Barcelona, Spain.
Wilkins said the studio involved developing a housing design proposal for Poblenou for 300 units, with the potential for a new community of nearly 900 people.
“The proposal needed to show how the existing community could connect with this new development,” she said.
“Poblenou first became the scenario for the testing of different urban futures with the removal of industrial activity when it hosted a brand new Athletes’ Village for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“The second step was a plan to convert the former polluting industrial zone to clean-tech business in the early 21st century, which more or less made use of the city as-found but missed a critical element of a housing program.”
And, as Jacques added, in 2007 the global crisis stopped the sequence of transformations and froze a scene that survives until today – an image of a fragmented reality.
In collaboration with local architecture firm Flores Prats, the students developed a proposal for the social and urban rehabilitation of the area with the aim to turn Poblenou into an inclusive neighbourhood.
Architect Professor Eva Prats, also from the School of Architecture and Design, guided the students through design decisions as well as provided local knowledge of the neighbourhood.
And the value of this hands-on experience resonated with the students.
“It has been amazing to travel overseas as part of the program, especially for someone like me who had never been to Europe before,” Erika Lie, who is set to complete a Master of Urban Design this year, said.
“We’re getting to know the city, meeting the people, understanding the lifestyle and going to places off the regular tourist routes.”
Neel, also studying a Master of Urban Design, said being able to explore Poblenou by foot was essential to developing the design proposal.
“It meant we were able to form an understanding of the area’s urban fabric and how we could weave in a housing project while forming relationships with the existing community,” he said.
“It was an interesting site because there’s so much going on in the area, which also made it challenging.”
But this presented an opportunity, according to Neel.
“I see it as adding value to our study. We don’t often get to work on sites such as the one in Poblenou,” he said.
The students measured doorways and windows, took photos of the streets, sketched houses, as well as met locals in the area.
And these are elements of a neighbourhood that often go unnoticed but go a long way when you redevelop a particular place, according to student Ed Bolton.
Bolton will be one of the first to complete the Master of Urban Design this year, after already taking part in similar design studios in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Melbourne.
“While the studio in Barcelona focused on inclusive cities and the incorporation of a residential area, we were able to follow our own paths from wherever our observations took us,” he said.
And for Bolton, his own path was into the home of a local resident he refers to as ‘Jose’, because it was “written on the outside of his door”.
“I was drawing at the front of the house when Jose came out and invited me in for a closer look,” he said.
“I don’t speak Spanish and Jose doesn’t speak English but I was still able to observe and learn. And it’s this interaction that I’ve used for my project.”
And Bolton’s thoughts on design studios as part of the master degree’s curriculum?
“For two weeks we’re embedded here in Barcelona. We have one particular interest and no other responsibilities and commitments,” he said.
“I think the intensive study model actually gives you more freedom.”
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Story: Karen Matthews