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Barcelona: An Urban History of Science and Modernity Review

Ryan Thomas is a university student with extensive interest in the histories of various societies and cultures around the world.

"Barcelona: An Urban History of Science and Modernity" by Oliver Hochadel and Agusti Nieto-Galan

"Barcelona: An Urban History of Science and Modernity" by Oliver Hochadel and Agusti Nieto-Galan

Barcelona's Scientific Development

Barcelona: An Urban History of Science and Modernity, 1888-1929, edited by Oliver Hochadel and Agustí Nieto-Galan, concerns the period between the Barcelona World Expositions of 1888 and 1929 when much of modern Barcelona took shape.

During this period there was a wide range of scientific developments, including dramatic changes in medicine, leisure through amusement parks, museums, radio, electrification, scientific-religious movements, and urban planning, played out by actors including left-libertarians, anarchists, republicans, conservatives, bourgeois leaders, and simply put, the average man, which transformed Barcelona. This book is devoted to studying these changes, and looking at how science and modernity were developed, contested, implemented, and lived in Barcelona in these vital years, which it does in a range of chapters written by a variety of historians.

The introduction, by Oliver Hochadel and Agustí Nieto-Galan, serves to set the stage, writing that between the two World Expositions there has been substantial study of the development and influence of Barcelona, but that the scientific developments and sphere which emerged during this period has been largely ignored. The intent of the book is to better integrate science into the development of Barcelona, seeing it as part of the spatial turn of scientific history which aims to focus both on traditional and non-traditional sites of science, and the way this affected, generated, and modulated the transfer of knowledge in Barcelona—a subject which has been studied in metropoles but has been neglected in Barcelona. Studying it will be important to broaden our knowledge of how science was promulgated and spread, and the book wishes to move beyond an elite circle to its relationship with the masses. In city environments such as Barcelona, concepts of modernity, degeneration, creativity, and progress were all on display, promoted by different social groups (in Barcelona there were conservatives, liberals, anarchists, spiritists, and many more) and critiqued by others, and a pluralistic understanding of society must be taken into account.

When your city has a design like this, there has to have been some quite fascinating urban development and thus modernity projects going on.

When your city has a design like this, there has to have been some quite fascinating urban development and thus modernity projects going on.

Part I

Part 1, "Control - Elite Cultures", starts with one of these groups, the conservative, Catholic, dominant voices, and their plan for society. Its opening is Chapter 2, "Civic Nature: The Transformation of the Parc de la Ciutadella Into a Space for Popular Science", by Oliver Hochadel and Laura Valls, discussing how the Parc de la Ciutedella was part of a civic scientific order which helped to transmit Catalan nationalism, bourgeois order, and fulfill economic objectives. This was part of a progressive movement to develop parks as part of a reaction to social ills and anxieties. The new park, created in 1872, stood at the heart of scientific programs which aimed to "acclimatize" exotic, non-European animals for economic benefit, in a mix of both romantic naturalism and functionalist science. It also utilized displays of sculptures of mammoths, discovered in Catalonia, as part of a nationalist project after 1906, as well as a fish breeding program and a display of a large stuffed whale. This project aimed to "civilize" and modulate the behavior of the working class visitors, but ran into certain contradictions between its imagined visitor and the real visitor, who the governing organization feared was insufficiently cultured to comprehend it.

The centerpiece of the parc, its fountain.

The centerpiece of the parc, its fountain.

Chapter 2, "Reconstructing the Martorell Donors and Spaces in the Quest for Hegemony Within the Natural History Museum", by Ferran Aragon and José Pardo-Tomás, deals with the Martorell natural history museum, another element of an elite project for society. It transformed itself from a highly eclectic initial presentation to a natural history museum because of the nature of donations and contributions to the museum, which the chapter analyzes. This started with principally elite contributions, but ultimately reached a much larger section of the city, as people sent in strange animals they had discovered, demonstrating that the museum had achieved an extensive outreach, although the nature and extent of this can be debated. The museum's project was part of a conservative and Catholic project, to discover Catalonia's natural history while reconciling science and faith. In addition to its role in educating the general public, it also dealt with education for (principally) middle- and upper-class individuals interested in the natural sciences, which formed an increasing element of its focus by the 1910s and 1920s.

Chapter 3, "Laboratory Medicine and Surgical Enterprise in the Medical Landscape of the Example District”. by Alfons Zarzoso and Àlvar Martínez-Vidal, uses the example of Dr Cardenal’s "casa de curación", a surgical establishment (after a dramatic remodeling) which represented a transition of medical practices and the display of medical technology to the public. This transformation represented the discourse of modernity and its progress in Barcelona. This altered communication to the public, the layout of the space of medicine (through new architecture and systems), and the networks of medical knowledge. It accomplished a change from general hospitals to specialized surgery clinics, where doctors interacted with their patients in very different ways and in very different contexts.

The façade of the Martorell museum, still there.

The façade of the Martorell museum, still there.

Chapter 4, "Technological Fun: The Politics and Geographies of Amusement Parks” by Jaume Sastre-Juan and Jaume Valentines-Álvarez, covers the topic of amusement parks, the transformation of leisure, and its political and social ramifications. It begins with a return to the Parc de la Ciutadello, where the roller coaster first located in the amusement section of the world fair was relocated after the end of the world fair. There were earnest political disputes over the appropriateness of the amusement park in the park, but regardless the new mechanical and scientific production of fun and leisure emerged as a dominant theme, whatever the debates might have been over it. Modernity was exalted through them and adverse comparisons displayed to "primitive" cultures, and they served as a device for the advancement of the "American style of life", through their earnest imitation of the United States.

Part II

Part II, "Resistance - Counter-Hegemonies”, opens with its first chapter, "The Rose of Fire: Anarchist Culture, Urban Spaces and Management of Scientific Knowledge in a Divided City", by Álvaro Girón Sierra and Jorge Molero-Mesa, to discuss the relationship of anarchists to science. Barcelona was the international capital of anarchism, and anarchists were firm believers in rationalism and science, although not necessarily bourgeois scientists. They constructed their own networks for promoting scientific knowledge, rationality, and education. Science to them was the universal heritage of mankind, and its dissemination, freed from bourgeois control, was even more vital than simply its expansion. The transmission of science offered an alternate, proletariat-based way of providing entertainment, and as a way for anarchists or their libertarian (left-libertarian) counterparts to elevate themselves and provide for their defense against the charges of bourgeois society by their self-education.

Anarchists were not scarce on the ground in Barcelona, as the 1870 congress which was dominated by them showed.

Anarchists were not scarce on the ground in Barcelona, as the 1870 congress which was dominated by them showed.

Chapter 7, "The City of Spirits Spiritism, Feminism and the Secularization of Urban Spaces”. The city of spirits Spiritism, feminism and the secularization of urban spaces" by Mònica Balltondre and Andrea Graus, deals with the phenomenon of Spiritism, a quite popular and influential movement based on communication with spirits, which believed itself to be rational and scientific. Although founded in France, it spread rapidly throughout the Latin European world, and Barcelona served as the site for its first international congress, in 1888. Spiritism was particularly political in Barcelona, due to the fractured nature of the city, and it constituted an important means of mobilizing female political action and participation when other avenues were closed. While these feminists were markedly different than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, not pushing for political rights for women, they aimed to bring empowerment and equality for women in Spanish society, and dignity in their labor, as well as supporting the secularization of society. One of their most intriguing developments in Barcelona was setting up a clinic to heal people through Spiritist methods.

A French Spiritist event from 1853.

A French Spiritist event from 1853.

Chapter 8 “Anatomy of an Urban Underworld: A Medical Geography of the Barrio Chino", Alfons Zarzoso and José Pardo-Tomás, delves into the subject of projects for the urban reconstruction of the Barcelona 5th district, the Barrio Chino. This was a chaotic, crowded, and "unhygienic" district, and plans in the 1930s called for it to be entirely rebuilt into a "modern" part of a city, along the lines of Le Corbusier. This did not succeed due to inhabitant opposition, lack of political support, and the intervention of the Spanish Civil War, but it did result in the construction of an anti-tuberculosis dispensary. A variety of discourses upon the uncontrollable fifth district existed, in particular connecting it to the dangers of disease, both actual and of the hygenic-moral kind. There were a wide variety of novels which provided for this window. The chapter mostly looks at these different interpretations and facets of the 5th district, focusing particularly on the relationship of people to medical knowledge and culture.

Part III

Part III, "Networks - Experts and Amateurs", debuts with Chapter 9 "The Sky Above the City Observatories, Amateurs and Urban Astronomy", by Antoni Roca-Rosell and Pedro Ruiz-Castell, concerns both astronomy in Barcelona, and also the relationship of scientists to their society. Astronomy had been little developed in the mid part of the 19th century and unprofessional, but the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, RACAB, promoted its modernization and development, culminating with the establishment of an 1894 astronomical system. The placement of an observatory on the Tibidabo hill near the city was caught up in discourses of modernity, expansion, and conquest, promoted by the Barcelona bourgeois, as a triumph of Barcelona modernity. There was widespread amateur interest in astronomy, and this was in part the reason for the establishment of the Barcelona Astronomical Society, and the chapter explores how this organization competed with others and evolved. Astronomy was furthermore seen as a moralizing factor, one to heal society in divided times and to bring the social classes together.

Chapter 10, "The City in Waves; Radio Barcelona and Urban Everyday Life”, by Meritxell Guzmán and Carlos Tabernero, deals with radio in Barcelona in the 1920s, starting from the establishment of Radio Barcelona in 1924. This was a highly competitive new sector, where a variety of firms struggled for success. A construction boom of radio antennas resulted, with a radio company discourse promoting their civilizing and progressive role. Radio was, however, also defined by the continuing influence of amateurs, vital for its success and propagation. Battles emerged from ordinary people over ensuring its diffusion, via their own reception antennas. The transmissions included commercial programming of course, but one of their key features was radio-education, to educate the so-called ignorant masses in a wide range of different fields, part of the project of modernization and justification of radio. It is tightly connected to previously mentioned astronomical education, as well as meteorology.


Chapter 11, "The City of Electric Light: Experts and Users at the 1929 International Exhibition and Beyond", by Jordi Ferran and Agustí Nieto-Galan covers the electrification of Barcelona. Barcelona electrification proceeded at a much more rapid pace than in the rest of Spain, so Catalonia used more than twice as much energy per capita as the rest of Spain by 1922. In the 1929 exposition in Barcelona, lighting and electrification were key elements, both for the exposition and to popularize and promote them. Promoting the advantages of electric lighting was done under the "EL" model, aiming to make it the standard and the basic assumption, through things such as paying shopkeepers to keep their lights on until midnight to encourage new habits, and electric light competitions to promote publicity. Promoters of electrification also shaped their arguments in cultural and gender ways, attempting to make electricity familiarized and to vaunt its utility to housewives, through international demonstrations and showrooms.

Thus ends the book, save for the index.

The Good and the Bad

What to make of this book? To me, it seems like a mixed bag. The authors have a great ambition, to cover Barcelona's development in relation to science and technology. Sometimes, this is done in quite a fascinating way; the third segment of the book, on networks, was quite an intriguing one, complete, and one that linked together well. It had intriguing concepts, such as covering Spiritism's relations to feminism. The Parc de la Ciutadella is covered in a great amount of depth and it shows the nationalist and bourgeois attitudes behind its transformation. The holy trinity of modern social history, the dominant narrative, the resistance, and the networks in which they operate all formally appear. It covers a fascinating topic, and it does make one ask questions and examine things from alternate angles.

But it is also a work which is flawed. While it formally covers dominant narratives, resistance, and networks, none of them fit together very well, with the only works which make reference to each other being astronomy and the Parc de la Ciutadella. In individual chapters, the screenshot of life is narrow and limited, and mostly from the perspective of the group which they examine. As an example in section II about counter-narratives there is plenty of talk about women and their participation in Barcelona, but there is little examination of the gendered aspects of the first section. The various projects are isolated from each other and not placed into context: section I talks about Catalan nationalization, and this rarely appears again. Even within this section, the degree of focus on nationalism varies quite a lot from author to author, without consistency as to where it appears. Even in spatial terms, there is little discussion: the new projects make allusions to the infrastructure developments which made them possible, but little reference occurs here. The book is very much a compilation of projects combined into one, rather than a single piece.

The authors also seem like they truly wish to look at a somewhat later era, as they constantly make references or draw quotes from the 1930s. Furthermore, they can sometimes be sidetracked into things and not explore how they relate to the broader picture: Chapter 2 for example, an otherwise quite intriguing and good chapter, had talked about a fish breeding program, but not mentioned why this was relevant in broader terms. I have no doubt that all of them are highly talented and good historians, but their works simply do not fit together and seem to be thrown together for convenience sake to make a book about Barcelona, rather than trying to tailor them in a fashion which fits. A book devoted to a specific topic, such as the Parc de la Ciutadella which much of the initial section dealt with, or astronomy, would have been better to enable the works to compliment each other. Even simply a more proactive editor, who could go back and integrate together with the sections with a consistent application of the various things it analyzes—nationalism, Catalanism, women, working-class resistance, anarchism, and networks—would have meant a book which fits together much better. As it stands, it is just a series of brief snapshots of Barcelona. Some of these snapshots are quite good, as noted above, while others, such as Chapter 8 on the Barrio Chino, seem limited and difficult to comprehend.

Does this make it a bad book? No, but one which is somewhat mediocre in my opinion, as it fails to give an integrated and holistic grasp of Barcelona and its history, which is neither sufficiently specialized upon a single topic nor broad enough to look at the entire city, and which instead falls into a disjointed center. The audience that results is I think, somewhat limited: those interested in Spanish history, scientific history, Barcelona's history, and a limited scattering of those interested in anarchists, Spiritism, Spanish radio, electrification, and amusement park history, although these latter groups have to face that the book will only contain limited sections relevant to them.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas