Deserted industrial quarter becomes a home for Barcelona’s “creatives”

Story by Chloe Bayhack and Madlen Gubernick

BARCELONA–Ángel Tello has deep creases in his forehead. His hands are covered in white paint and his smock is slightly open at the bottom. Tello works in a studio by night. By day, he works in the administration office for the trains.

Angel Tello, a wood-carver, works in his studio in Zona Artistas, a building that holds different studios for a variety of artists in Poblenou, Barcelona. Photo by Madlen Gubernick

Ángel Tello, a wood carver, works in his studio in Zona Artistas, a building that holds different studios for a variety of artists in Poblenou, Barcelona.
Photo by Madlen Gubernick“It’s impossible in Spain to live off an artist’s wage,” he says.

He shares a studio with Javier López, a performance artist with thick shoulder-length hair. They’ve been working alongside each other in Poblenou for years.

López and Tello are just two of hundreds of creatives operating in the area. Painters, sculptors, graphic designers, filmmakers, advertising agencies and architects have engaged in the mass immigration to the neighborhood, just minutes from metropolitan Barcelona.

This demographic has collaborated, grown and built communities among the wrought iron and rubble that once housed heavy industry. Natália Chillón, project manager of the Urban District, an artist association based in the area, explains: “This is the newest cultural and entrepreneurial epicenter inside the metropolitan frame of Barcelona.”

The transformation

In native Catalan, Poblenou directly translates to “new town.” As a post-industrial neighborhood, Poblenou underwent radical transformation over the last 20 years — the exact amount of time Canada native Stuart Lewis has lived in Barcelona. An English teacher and sometimes tour guide at the International House Language Training Center, Lewis remembers when Poblenou was comprised of only two entities: factories and their workers.

Dark smoke and raw metal characterized the neighborhood, giving it a reputation for being dirty and taboo. “Poblenou was traditionally working class,” says Lewis. However, due to economic changes in the growth of metropolitan Barcelona, manufacturing ultimately collapsed as this industrial work was being outsourced to Asia and Africa, Lewis notes. Poblenou became an instant wasteland.

But after the Olympic Games in 1992, the municipal government began an initiative to revive the area. Situated close to the water and minutes away from downtown, Poblenou was ready to be repurposed.

The socioeconomic changes weren’t instant. “The conditions were bad,” Lewis says. “People had to install their own electricity and water.” But slowly, more people moved to the area, establishing a mission to create a space conducive to creativity and networking.

In the past couple of decades, Poblenou has morphed from an industrial neighborhood to an artist hotspot due to “creatives” who have taken over the abandoned factories.
Photo by Madlen Gubernick

Poblenou was left with a charm particularly attractive to creatives across Spain. Factory owners had abandoned their warehouses, leaving their high ceilings as empty canvases for nearby artists. The vast factories that sit on each block of the neighborhood began to double as artist studios and creative spaces, leaving it to be what University of Barcelona’s Juan Luis Campoy Soto calls, “a collage district.” The associate professor in design and image went on to say that Poblenou was part of an urban development movement that promoted cultural work.

Many artists of the community agree it was due to the industrial design that they flocked to the neighborhood, which spans 25 by 15 blocks. “Like any city, creatives often migrate to industrial spaces,” says Skye Maunsell of Espacio 88, an architectural and design firm. Artists seem to have a natural affinity for wrought iron, impossibly high ceilings and empty space conducive to creation. They personalize; they revamp.

The dichotomy of architecture in Poblenou is astounding. Warehouses with tattered walls, swaths of graffiti and chain-link fences sit next to newly renovated modern glass towers. Yet somehow, it’s harmonious.

Martin Noaksson of the Noak Room, a vintage Scandinavian furniture store, calls Poblenou a “synergy” between industrial space and creative people. “The space would be different if we were in a different place,” he reflects. “It works very well together.”

Ana Ramirez is manager of events and communications at the Folio Club, a printing press inhabiting an expansive white space in the community. Location is everything to her. “We are here because the space is too difficult to find in the center,” she says, pushing her thick-rimmed glasses up on her nose. What was tiny and expensive in the city center of Barcelona was vast and cheap in Poblenou.

Community

Sitting right off the Llacuna Metro stop is the Urban District headquarters, a major player in the development of the area. While a small gallery occupies the front of the office, square glass desks fill the back of the space, where project manager Natalia Chillón has her office.

Many cities have post-industrial territories rehabilitated by art and innovation. While Poblenou can be compared to New York City’s Williamsburg or Meatpacking District, and Miami’s Wynwood Art District, it stands out. “It’s transforming itself into one of the most genuine and prolific metropolitan scenes,” she says.

The Urban District, that is comprised of approximately 130 creatives, strives to unite artists, galleries and creatives of all walks of life. Since its conception in early 2012, the Urban District has worked to establish the area as the most up-and-coming cultural hotbed in Barcelona. Chillón explains, “We want to show the richness and quality of the artistic, historical and cultural heritage the Poblenou has.”

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Tucked away on Roc Boronat is the Noak Room. The space was empty for 15 years before Noaksson turned what used to be a carpentry warehouse into a furniture store. From the high ceilings fall orange- and cream-colored light fixtures that float over vintage furniture Noaksson buys online from Sweden and other countries.

“We live up here, on the top floor of this building,” he says, pointing upward. He lives with his girlfriend, Sara, the co-owner. “It has more soul than other areas,” he says of Poblenou.

Much like the other inhabitants of Poblenou, Skye Maunsell fell in love with the neighborhood’s industrial heritage. Maunsell has turned what was once an abandoned lot into a triple threat: coffee shop, shared office and exhibition space.

It may have been the industrial nature that attracted creatives to Poblenou, but it is the artists themselves who have sustained the community. Daniel Antequera of Alkeme, a film production company, believes the successes of the neighborhood are due to shared resources. As he speaks, Antequera leans against the door of the set for a new Netflix series called Magnus Opius.

The new town

As old factories transform into design studios and art galleries, the population of Poblenou is changing. The people are getting younger and more diverse, and the streets are getting louder and more crowded. When asked if tourism was inevitable, the creatives of Poblenou often sigh in agreement.

But while tourism increases, so do rent prices. The previously uninhabited neighborhood was known for cheap property, but the influx of young professionals has caused studio apartments and flats to skyrocket in price. Prices can now range from $750 to $1,500 a month.

The inside of Bau University, also housed inside an old warehouse. The school teaches students art and design in the heart of the creative community.  Photo by Madlen Gubernick

The inside of Bau University, also housed inside an old warehouse. The school teaches students art and design in the heart of the creative community.
Photo by Madlen Gubernick

The design school, Bau University, is located in the center of Poblenou, with buildings dispersed throughout the neighborhood, as indicated by flags with a large B and a pop of color.

Bau’s students represent the transformation taking place in Poblenou. The university is helping the neighborhood to attract a younger, more vibrant population — from all over the world.  “You have a contrast of people working here, working class people and artists,” says Jordi Àlvarez, who works in the international relations department at the school. The infusion of vastly different characters is, according to Àlvarez, what makes Poblenou a place of infinite creative potential.

Behind the glass doors of Zona Artistas are Javier López and Angel Tello. The two Spaniards walk around their studios, covered head to toe in paint and dirt. They move from studio to studio, showcasing a variety of work from woodcut pieces to a hand-made lion sculpture whose eyes light up upon remote control.

They nearly do it all. Alongside six other artists that share the space, they mold and construct, as well as paint and write.

What they don’t do, Poblenou compensates for. “I don’t know how to use the sound mixing technology,”  López admits. Luckily, Poblenou is full of professionals who can collaborate with artists such as López to create magic.

Tello stands beside him, wiping his hands on his smock. The two smile as they hold out a map of nearby artists. If nothing else, the colony fosters a feeling of community through a common goal, they agree: to wake up Spain and to enlighten the public.

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