Functional Romanticism: European Experience of Public Space Development

Europe has gradually turned its face towards the sea. 

Functional Romanticism: European Experience of Public Space Development

Even at the turn of the 19th century the landscape of dock areas in most European port cities was defined by huge ships and wharf gantry cranes. In the evenings only drunken sailors and prostitutes were to be seen wandering around the maize of dockland warehouses. And right up to the middle of the 20th century it was general practice to build factories and noisy highways here cutting off city-dwellers from the sea in such quarters. Thus Avinguda Diagonal (the avenue crossing Barcelona) used to lead to wastelands near the dockland warehouses. And the shore of the warm Mediterranean Sea instead of beaches was occupied with car parks, waste disposal incinerator plants and even the city’s women’s prison.

The situation in Hamburg, Germany was not much better. Most of the Elbe riverside (except for the prestigious Alliona-Blankenese western direction) was inhabited by the motley crowd of the underclass. And Speicherstadt (Warehouse District), the great monument in Wilhelminian style, adjoined unsightly industrial estates. With the invention of the railway and later the arrival of air transport the sea ceased to be of exceptional value for the Europeans and became just a way of maritime trade shipping bulky cargoes across the world.

In everyday city life the role of the sea was becoming increasingly less important. A solicitous attitude towards coastal landscapes is evidence of a serious structural sea change on the Continent in the fields of economics, culture and social life. The extensive urban sprawl has reached its limit. That is why the need to redevelop inner-city areas has become so pressing. Moreover, rising real estate prices have made central urban areas more attractive for potential investors. And the European cities as a rule are situated along rivers and other inland waterways. After all, the proximity of sea ways was the main factor of urban growth and development in the past. It is only when people realize that the close resemblance of Hamburg to London and Scandinavian cities, that the strong traditions of Mediterranean African and Asian countries in the southern provinces of Italy and Spain will cease to amaze them. The reappraisal of attitudes towards Mare Nostrum in European cities was promoted by the growth of the activities of the Green Parties.

If industrial plants are removed from river banks the unregulated dumping of waste will stop and it may become one of the more effective methods of improving the urban environment.

 Montjuïc Olympic Ring. Palau Sant Jordi (Arata Isozaki, 1985 – 1990) and the Olympic Stadium. BarcelonaMontjuïc Olympic Ring. Palau Sant Jordi (Arata Isozaki, 1985 — 1990) and the Olympic Stadium. Barcelona © Arata Isozaki

Forum Esplanade with solar panels. BarcelonaForum Esplanade with solar panels. Barcelona © Robertino Nikolic/arturimages

Main images © Roland Halbe