Antoni Gaudi's La Segrada Familia church is just one of Barcelona's many architectural attractions.
Antoni Gaudi's La Segrada Familia church is just one of Barcelona's many architectural attractions. Supplied

From sweaty shambles to jewel

THINK of Barcelona and exuberance and optimism, culture and Catalonian style may well leap to your mind.

There is Antoni Gaudi's modernist basilica, the Sagrada Familia, still a work in progress after its first stone was laid in 1882. Soaring modern architecture like the Torre Agbar, an office tower shaped like a colour-changing fountain. Beaches lapped by azure waves, overseen by a giant golden sculpture of a fish. And there's the Barri Gotic, a maze of lanes and stone houses, thronged with partying youngsters and restaurants.

Two words in Catalan - "seny", meaning prudence and common sense, and "rauxa", vitality or eccentricity - are a good way of describing the city.

Squeezed into a plain between hills and the northwest Mediterranean, Barcelona is Europe's fourth most-visited city after Paris, London and Rome and fourth in terms of per-capita wealth.

Experts consistently place it in the continent's top six as a cultural attraction. Barcelona buzzes.

It was a hot, sweaty shambles of a city, a port that had turned its back on the sea and looked inland.But a quarter-century ago, Barcelona barely flickered on the world's radar screen, unless as the home town of Manuel, the hapless waiter in Fawlty Towers.

Then came an event which hauled the city's four million people out of a historical rut of dictatorship, wars and cultural repression: the 1992 Olympic Games.

Cities such as Sydney have "good" Games, boosting status and generating money, or like Montreal and Athens have "bad" Games, saddling them with debt and unused facilities. But Barcelona is widely touted as the finest example of how a big sporting event can transform a city in the right way.

Earlier this year, former London mayor Ken Livingstone admitted planners had turned to the Barcelona model as their blueprint for the London 2012 Games. In Scotland, officials have been sent on missions to Barcelona to inquire how the 2014 Commonwealth Games can give a beneficial legacy for Glasgow.

The 1992 Games are popularly remembered as a joyful event. It was the first boycott-free Olympics since apartheid was scrapped and the first since the Berlin Wall had tumbled.

In the brand-new stadium, Antonio Rebollo shot the arrow to light the Olympic Cauldron. At a pool on the hill of Montjuic, views down towards Barcelona made it seem as though divers were actually plunging earthwards to the Sagrada Familia.

After two weeks of flawless fun, Barcelona was firmly on the world map. But it was afterwards that the real benefits came.

Of the US$8.01 billion invested in Barcelona between 1986-1993 in the context of the Olympics, only 9.1 per cent went on sporting infrastructure, according to an analysis by Ferran Brunet of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. The private sector accounted for 32.7 per cent. The biggest spin-off was to re-open the city to the sea. Before, the port area was a wasteland and the city was cut off from the sea by a train line that ran along the waterfront.

A new marina was built with deep-water docks for cruise ships and several kilometres of beaches were laid, using sand from the Middle East.

Adventurous architecture was required, each apartment building, office block and hotel seeming as unique today as it did then. The city gained new roads, sewerage and telecoms and extended its subway lines, becoming a magnet for businesses. The Olympic Village, built to house athletes, created 2000 new apartments in the working-class area of Poblenou under a public-private joint venture.

According to official figures, the number of beds in the city leapt from 18,569 in 1990 to 61,942 in 2010. In 1990, just 115,137 cruise passengers passed through Barcelona, compared with 2.3 million in 2010.

The original 2.5km of beaches has been extended by 2km. The once down-at-heel port district of Barceloneta is now a mix of subsidised housing, restaurants and designer shops. Last weekend, it hosted the International Buskers Festival, with 12 stages set up for musicians.

Not everything in Barcelona is perfect. There is no lack of critics who say the Olympics were not a glittering success or complain the city has become a commercial brand.

The Olympic Stadium has still to find an owner. Barcelona's second football team, Espanyol FC, used the stadium for awhile but abandoned it, complaining the athletics tracks separated fans from the action.

Housing prices soared by about 250 per cent between 1986 and 1992, a cost that, along with expropriation of old buildings, drove many low-income households from renovated areas.

"[It was] a made-to-measure operation for private capital that has been a real fiasco for the city," said the London-based group Games Monitor.

The Ramblas boulevards and the Barrio Gotic are crammed with visitors from all over Europe, diluting the quirky Catalonian feel of the city centre, and triggering complaints about litter and late-night noise. Pickpocketing has become a curse.

Even so, the Olympics are proudly recalled locally as a shining success.

Yes, Barcelona rode its luck. Its bid was secured by a favoured son of the city, Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

And the timing, too, was unique. Catalans craved to revitalise their city and regain their identity after the dead decades of fascist rule from Madrid. The chance of uniting every sector, public and private, around a goal to remake an entire city was exceptional.

"The Olympic nomination was the spark that lead to the application of a previously elaborated urban plan concerning the project of Barcelona," noted Ferran Brunet.

"Beyond the Olympic Games there has been a leap forward in the perception of the city of itself."

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