Story by Ethan Parets
BARCELONA – Every Sunday, thousands would flock to La Plaza Monumental bullfighting ring, in the Eixample district of Barcelona, to witness Spain’s age-old tradition of pitting matador against bull in the corrida de los toros.
However, since the Parliament of Catalonia, which oversees one of Spain’s several autonomous regions, voted to ban bullfighting in July 2010, the massive brick and tile Monumental de Barcelona has fallen into disarray and caused many businesses and residents to pack up and leave. Now the city of Barcelona is weighing various options for the abandoned arena’s future.
One option at the forefront of the debate comes from local architect Xavier Vilalta. A Catalan native who has won several awards for his sustainable designs, Vilalta has proposed plans to turn the 19,582-seat ring into a multi-faceted ecological center.
“What would happen if we think of the totally opposite use of what is there, while preserving the existing structure as it is. When you do judo, you use the force of your enemy for your own benefit. They kill animals, a few events for six months out of the year; animal cruelty. Let’s think of the total opposite,” Vilalta said.
His plans include spaces for organic farm-to-table restaurants, labs to research animal protection and an area for various sports and leisure activities open to the public – all of which would maintain the original infrastructure of the ring, including the iconic open top.
“I have a lot of people supporting my idea. Even private emails to me. Animal protection groups and neighbor associations have written to me, thanking me. We have even been invited to speak at an event about building conservation,” Vilalta said.
Although his firm has received confirmation of receipt of his plans from Grupo Balaña, the family company that owns the bullring along with several cinemas and multiplexes throughout Barcelona, Vilalta said that the family is putting up a wall in regard to negotiations for control of the ring. He also noted that the municipality has largely kept silent on the issue.
“We still haven’t gotten a clear response from the owners. They are still fighting from the law point of view, trying to have bullfights again. Plus they have been paid quite a bit of money from the government to keep it closed,” he said.
Then in June of last year another plan was proposed when several Spanish news sources reported that the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, had offered Grupo Balaña the equivalent to $2.45 billion to turn La Monumental into what would be the world’s third largest mosque behind Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina and Masjid al-Haram Mecca.
However, according to an article published last year in La Vanguardia, a Spanish paper, Grupo Balaña and Xavier Trias, mayor of Barcelona, have jointly denied the existence of negotiations with the emir.
Aside from this, Grupo Balaña, whose representatives were reached via email for this article but refused comment, have not made any announcements publicly regarding the bullring’s future.
La Monumental would not be the first bullring in the city to be repurposed. On the opposite side of the Eixample district, the smaller Las Arenas ring, which could hold 14,000 spectators, was fully renovated into a shopping center complete with a closed top back in 2011.
Alongside efforts to repurpose La Monumental have been concerted attempts by members of Parliament and some locals to overturn the 2010 ban on bullfighting and bring the Spanish tradition back to Barcelona and the bullring.
“[Those against bullfighting] are trying to impose their thinking against the fundamental rights of the Spanish people to freely choose whether or not they want to see a bullfight,” said Mónica Parés, advisor to the municipal board of the Partido Popular.
The Partido Popular, known as the “Popular Party,” is the conservative ruling party in Spain and the main proponent of the parliamentary pro-bullfighting movement. It has attempted to push legislation that would protect bullfighting as a national heritage and therefore force it back into Catalonia – the four-province autonomous region in northeastern Spain that includes Barcelona.
“Bullfights are part of the tradition of our country and have formed part of our culture and art for hundreds of years. It has also inspired great intellectuals of our country in their works throughout history: Ortega and Gasset, Federico Garcia Lorca, Picasso, Dali …,” Parés said.
She also noted that bullfighting had been declared a cultural interest in more than 4,000 municipalities in Spain and that it creates a synergy between culture, tourism and economy.
Rosi Carro, a member of the Popular Legislative Initiative for the abolition of bullfights, said that while the Popular Party of Spain is attempting to protect bullfighting as a national tradition, the number of Spaniards who actually support bullfighting is dwindling fast.
“There has been much talk about the possible uses of La Monumental. It would certainly be an example of the moral evolution of society that a space dedicated to a show involving the torture and death of an animal should become a space dedicated to education to protecting the environment and animals,” Carro said.
Her group, PLI, pushed the law to ban bullfighting through to Parliament on their “Prou!” (Enough!) campaign in 2010.
La Monumental, which was inaugurated in 1914, packed visitors into its 26 rows of stadium-style seating. The monolithic arena takes up an entire city block of the Eixample district and looks down upon the surrounding neighborhood.
But while the city and owners mull over the options laid out for them, local businesses around La Monumental are left to suffer.
Fabiola Molla, the owner of La Rourera, a pastry and coffee shop opposite the bullring, has struggled in the years following the ban.
“When the bullfights were on, it was very active and lively. During the season, the neighbors were all very happy and people were coming in and out. When the law came into effect, people left. La Monumental is now this big black space,” Molla said.
Molla, who has owned the shop for eight years, said that the bullring used to be the only attraction in the immediate neighborhood and that now people just go to Las Glorias, a mall about a half mile north.
“I could just see a decrease in business after La Monumental closed down. People felt insecure and not safe, so they sold apartments and just left,” Molla said.
She said that something like Vilalta’s proposed eco-center would be great for the area as it would attract tourists and bring business back to her shop.
Isidre Martinez, who operates a newspaper kiosk across the street, has been a witness to all the change the neighborhood has undergone.
“The most affected sector are the restaurants. There aren’t many locals here now any more. Businesses shut down and many are owned by foreigners,” he said.
Montse Ruiz, a barista and server in her husband’s cafe, Ca l’Arques, just wants some forward movement with La Monumental, which only sees life when the circus takes up residence for a month each year in the fall or winter months.
“Anything functional would be great. There are so many different options, but it all depends on the owners. It’s a shame that there is nothing there right now. It’s active during the circus, but that’s it. We need to bring life back to the neighborhood,” she said, looking out the windows toward La Monumental.
Until Grupo Balaña, the city and the various parties vying for control can reach an agreement, the bullring will only serve as a hollow reminder of la corrida de los toros.
At the entrance of the eroding bullring stands one Spaniard who will never forget. Feet up on the rust-eaten seats behind the main gate of La Monumental, he helms admission to the bullring still, and the small museum it houses. He alone reigns over the empty relic.
“This bullring used to be full of people every Sunday, and then just because six or seven separatists decide to protest, we have to close down,” he said.
While he declined to give his name, the man said he worked at La Monumental for his entire adult life.
He seemed to think that Barcelona would weigh its options with La Monumental and eventually overturn the ban to bring life back to his domain.
“The bullfights are going to come back,” he said.