HOME TO TOMORROW’'S VISIONARIES
Barcelona hosts a colourful array of top notch universities, design schools and educational programmes, attracting an international crowd of students from every corner of the world. To our astonishment, the small neighbourhood of Poble Nou boasts three schools that couldn’t be more different, though they all have one thing in common: they are hothouses for architects, designers and merchandising stylists of tomorrow, with global outlooks and aspirations.
Text Aina Fava
Photography Bartomeu Calix
INSTITUTE OF ADVANCED ARCHITECTURE OF CATALONIA
You would never guess that this a simple iron door is the entrance to one of the most cutting edge architecture schools anywhere. The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) offers a Masters degree that covers the many facets of new forms of practice in architecture and urbanism. The Institute works with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and various other top-notch universities in the US, collaborating with experts in engineering, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines. Working closely with IAAC is BCN Fab Lab, a member of MIT’s international community of digital fabrication laboratories, which uses the latest digital tools to create prototypes and scale models for architecture, construction and industrial design. Fab Lab laboratories all over the world share their knowledge of digital manufacturing via internet and video workshops. The idea behind this is that anybody can create anything when digital and technical knowledge is shared. Fab Lab uses advanced techniques and technologies which are made accessible to everybody and they are equipped with state-of-the-art equipment such as laser cutters, 3-D printers, and electronic components for artificial intelligence.
I observe people in the Fab Lab in front of their computer screens. One is on a live video chat with somebody on another continent, probably exchanging project ideas for his Masters thesis. Then I spot a beautiful dress hanging on a wall, I get up close and try to figure out what the fabric is. A woman’s voice behind me asks if I need help and I meet Anastasia, the Fab Lab coordinator, who tells me she and Jin Shihui, one of the Masters students, made the dress. She goes on to explain that it is made entirely of natural hemp fibre and organic glue. The fibre is spun into some sort of hand built device, which Anastasia calls smilingly the ‘candy gun’, which then weaves the fibre into a dress. This is absolute catwalk material. I remark that it must be every fashion designer’s dream to invent a new technique to construct a dress. Jin Shihui and Anastasia just smile at me. Could be because they know they are onto something big here, could be that they are just having fun and playing. And this school does have the feel of a big playground to me, though the faculty consists of world-renowned master architects and urban gurus such as Enric Ruiz-Geli from Cloud 9, Peter Cook, other architects from Japan and the US, and the list goes on. With the Olympic Games boom, Barcelona became a magnet for architects, urbanites, landscapers, cityscapers and maybe a few visionaries. Not all buildings are as jaw-dropping as Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, which is now a landmark on the edge of the Poble Nou barrio, or the Media-TIC building in the 22@Barcelona project, the façade of which interprets how Gaudi would construct today. Some were clearly designed by anonymous architects to attract multinational companies, and all are bound to the budgets and demands of the construction companies. But, when walking around in Poble Nou, I feel that some of the newer buildings at least try to respect the neighbourhood’s heritage: a modern steel construction making a friendly nod to the old building next door, confirming that old and the new can co-exist and there’s no need to knock everything down. I hope that this spirit prevails at IAAC and that the students there aim not just for high tech inventions, but also on respecting our heritage, finding new ways to incorporate the old in modern living.
When I look up the term “merchandising”, Wikipedia spits out the following explanation: “In retail commerce, visual display merchandising means merchandise sales using product design, selection, packaging, pricing, and display that stimulates consumers to spend more. This includes disciplines and discounting, physical presentation of products and displays, and the decisions about which products should be presented to which customers at what time.” Dori, the communications manager at Artidi prefers the term, “window dressing” or simply put “visual merchandising”. The roots of Artidi go back to the 80’s and a course offered through Barcelona’s Chamber of Commerce by a group of people working in the industry. In 1995 a link with the University of Barcelona was formed and demand for the courses grew to the extent that Artidi, a school specifically for this discipline was founded, and it is still the only school in Europe of its kind. I was sceptical at first: a school for window display? But think about it: ever since shopping and visual stimulation have become permanent invaders in our daily lives, it has become more and more difficult to stop potential clients in their tracks. After my first visit to Artidi I paid more attention to window design and what irritated me was that I stopped at totally unexpected and intriguing windows, but I also interrupted my walk for some that were really bad. The only difference was, I spent much longer in front of the ones that were really good – and they were also the ones where I might have been tempted to spend some cash.
Dori walks me through the facilities and tells me about Artidi’s approach to training: very much hands-on, as quickly becomes apparent. There are windows everywhere, just like real shops, and some of them are darned attractive. And that’s exactly the plan, Dora explains: “We have a “dummy shop” where our students are forced to create an entire environment within a very short period of time. Everything is totally realistic: this is not just theory, this is three dimensional.” There is a window colourfully arranged with a brand that uses a crocodile as its logo. Right next to it, I spot a mannequin wrapped in dollar signs. A bold statement, an eye catcher that makes you question your own behaviour for a second: “Money whore, shopping whore.” It made me laugh – a rare response to a window display for me.
Artidi is a small school. The students all seem to know each other, and there is a real family-like groove going on. They greet me as I make the tour, with Dori answering my questions, and every now and then she stops for a quick chat with people we pass. Dori is a PR pro and she knows how to sell the school well, but you also get the feeling that she truly means what she says. Being a window stylist is not just about making things look nice. It is much more about the psychology and behaviour of the potential client and that’s where the really interesting factors come into play. I came away impressed by the school and if I had a shop, I’d invite Artidi to give it a makeover!
BAU, Design College of Barcelona
Bau is Barcelona’s College of Design, offering Bachelors and Masters degrees and workshop classes. Not far from Artidi and just across the street is La Plataforma, an art gallery featuring local and international artists. The gallery owner, Claudia, told us to go and see Bau. The school was started in 1989 by a consortium of designers who wanted to pass on their knowledge to future generations. Nowadays Bau is on a par with top notch design schools. Though its main programmes are not as diverse as the School of Visual Arts in New York or the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bau has a similar “cosmo” feel to it. Very international, very functionally orientated, yet like Artidi and IAAC, Bau also has a very homey and cosy atmosphere. There’s no hint of a factory-like school where future design brains are churned out like battery hens. Christian, the communications manager shows me around the place and after a while lets me explore on my own. Unfortunately, it’s holiday time at the moment so very few students are around. I take a seat outside on a little patio and for a moment dream about going to school here. Learning about all the new technologies, on top of a firm understanding of the basics. Sharing a totally exclusive environment with peers who have the same passion. And all that in such an inspiring neighbourhood as Poble Nou. While contemplating my hypothetical studies at Bau, I spot two folks discussing a dress that they have designed or are about to. The world lies at their feet, they have the chance to completely reinvent themselves. They haven’t yet experienced that comfort zone feeling in which security — money, your own four walls and certain daily patterns, always remain the same. In many ways, their naïve non-jaded thinking opens their horizons and lets them turn visions into reality. Not taking risks is the biggest risk, because what you lose is not having tried.
That’s what Barcelona and especially the neighbourhood of Poble Nou is all about. It’s a progressive place that grew at a rapid pace around the turn of the last century. Later, as the local manufacturing industry waned, the barrio turned into a ghost of its former self, but a dramatic resurgence of energy came with the Olympics. The city of Barcelona planned a complete modernisation of the area, which involved flattening most of the 800 factories, but a large number of people, including the younger generation, wanted to preserve the heritage of Poble Nou, while welcoming contemporary influences. Know where you come from, apply basic principles, and experiment with what the future has to offer. This is the philosophy that the people of Poble Nou as well as Bau, IAAC and Artidi share. And it’s one that will continue to shape the neighbourhood and inspire the students who are the visionaries of tomorrow.