Industrial Heritage… Literary Technologies…  the Urban Struggle

In Barcelona, there is a long tradition of struggle for the urban space. During the transition, conflicts over the designation of urban resources were instrumentalized in overthrowing Franco’s political regime. The CEU (Centre d’Estudis Urbans) was established, in secret, in 1972 by members of the Bandera Roja and PSUC political parties in order to exacerbate the crisis of the Francoist state and its anti-democratic policies. A year previously, the founders of the CEU had been fired by the city government within 24 hours of publishing La Gran Barcelona, a Marxist critique of the urban policies of Barcelona’s mayor at the time, José María de Porcioles.

Marc Andreu, historian, journalist and long-time participating member of the FAVB, attributes the toppling of Porcioles’ political career to 4 factors, two of which are conflicts over urban planning in which the municipality was forced to back down: the Pla de la Ribera and the Pla Parcial de Nou Barris. A third factor he attributes to community backlash after several natural gas explosions killed 32 people in the early 70’s. Neighborhood associations were instrumentalized by pro-democratic communities who capitalized on the galvanizing effect of the tragedy in order to organize against the Francoist power structure. The fourth and final factor which, according to Andreu, brought down Porcioles, brings us to perhaps the central issue of all urban planning, the need for adequate housing. In the case of Barcelona, a massive influx of the population of the city had led to vast shortages of housing and social resources, the rapid growth of shantytowns popping up on the city’s periphery, and consequently to the organization of city-wide protests by the OSH (Obra Sindical del Hogar).

The confluence of particular urban, social, and political factors in the recent history of Barcelona has lent the city its distinctive character. As a foreigner living in the city for three years, I have experienced these particularities with all the enthusiasm and disenchantment that comes part and parcel with playing the role of “outside observer.” For example, I remember during my first year of living in Barcelona (on a narrow street of the old city, near the Palau de Musica) the many evenings that I would spend out on a terrace somewhere, Estrella Damm in hand, while Catalan colleagues hassled each other with political discussions. My Catalan that year was very bad. I understood almost nothing, but instead focused on the little beads of perspiration that collected on my beer bottle while I turned over in my mind the single words which managed to make their way through the language barrier and presented themselves to me like one-word riddles—words like: …hipsters… Japoneses… …hotel de lujo….

After three years of living here, numerous terraces, and countless bottles of Estrella Damm, I think I am getting closer to cracking the riddle. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

FARCELONA is a theme park of multi-nationalspeculativereal estate financiers exporting an inauthentic city brand for consumption by foreign gentrifiers and Irish spring-breakerswhile locals live in misery and must continually fight for basic public resources like adequate transportation, education and housing.

Of course, when write it, this phrase comes out overblown and unconvincing, but spoken by a local, preferably in Catalan, this discourse is not only totally sincere, it even sounds cool. In my assessment, this is because of Barcelona’s long tradition of what one might call “the urban struggle”. The centerpiece of this struggle, and the stage on which it is set, is the city street itself. Catalan children take to the streets like fish to water, almost before they can walk, waving banners, denouncing corruption and demanding public resources. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life, but maybe that’s partly because I’m from North Carolina where Marxism hasn’t been invented yet. Here, it seems to me, almost everyone has their hand in the Urban Struggle. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living. You could be an expert in the obscure field of, let’s say, the historical production and display of wax anatomical models, and even so you could find a way to relate this back to the Urban Struggle, be it even through the use of a vague metaphor like “Urban Anatomies”.

These wordplay techniques are nothing new in the field of History of Science. John Heilbron talks about them in an essay linked previously to this blog. It’s a fun read. In the following segment we find Heilbron bashing on Shapin and Schaffer’s constructivist program popularized through their award-winning book, Leviathan and the Air Pump:

Shapin and Schaffer understood that a special vocabulary, or, rather, the use of ordinary words in special ways by initiates, would help believers to recognize one another and to proselytize further. In addition to special usage of ordinary words, like authority, discourse, gesture, local, negotiation, space, and technology, they make extensive use of puns to veil meaning and affect profundity. “Body,” as in human, politic, and knowledge; “spirit,” as in soul, angels, ghosts, and alcohol; “power,” as in authority, prime mover, and affectations of matter, are manipulated to suggest connections never demonstrated and probably undemonstrable between knowledge, church, and state. Schaffer, who has been the cult leader through his extensive and brilliant if far-fetched articles and his teaching at Cambridge, has added an apocalyptic style to the “literary technology” of constructivism.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing these metaphors/puns/“literary technologies” but rather I am standing on the sidelines in “outside observer” mode and admiring this case of literary tech in action. Just like with puns, some people just have the gift, and others don’t. But Barcelonians, I can’t help but notice, are absolute naturals. It’s practically tradition here: loading words with vibrant meaning, arming them on banners and in slogans, and launching them against political enemies. And of course Barcelonians are good at it—it’s the basic weapon of the Urban Struggle. Guiri go home! It’s so fun to say that I can’t help but join in the chant as I march down the Passeig de Gracia with an anarchist group protesting a recent eviction. The anarchists have done such a good job with this slogan you might not even notice their brilliance. Everyone knows what a guiri is. He can either be a ridiculous figure to be laughed at as the punchline of a joke, or he can take on his more sinister form as a sort of urban boogeyman, the nemesis of the authentic Barcelona de tota la vida.

So….” I find myself asking, “What do guiris have to do with the eviction that the anarchists are protesting?” But if I’m asking this question it’s only because I’m not from around here and I don’t fully understand the power of this literary technology.

Academics don’t just study literary strategy, they use it. I’d like to conclude this article with some more examples of literary technologies taken from my investigation of the musealization of Barcelona’s industrial past. Essentially, the goal of my research is to find out which groups have shown interest in telling stories about Barcelona’s industrial past, what stories they have told, and what story-telling techniques they have used. This is a topic I first became aware of while working in the neighborhood of Poblenou. The discourse I remember hearing at the time went something like this:

Poblenou, the Manchester Catalan, is a symbol of the competitiveness of the Catalan industrial revolution and its historical importance for the nation and in shaping the identity of the neighborhood and its residents. This invaluable industrial heritage is at risk of destruction by speculative public-private initiatives which target foreign investment while sacrificing authentic, local character as part a political strategy of selective amnesia.

There is an arsenal of keywords here, loaded with meaning and ready to launch, like one-word grenades, at the opposition to the Urban Struggle. Imagine you are an urban planner tasked with the job of creating an “Olimpic Village” in preparation for the 1992 games. You have a limited budget and an inflexible deadline. Your construction site is just past the Ciutadella Park in what might be described as a post-industrial wasteland. Now somebody comes along and drops a grenade on you: “you can’t build here, this is industrial heritage. Those words can turn your job into a nightmare.

If these “word grenades” are effective, it’s partly because of how they simplify the issues in order to instrumentalize them for social movements. If the concept of “industrial heritage” has been useful for militants of the Urban Struggle in Barcelona, it is no coincidence. The first factory to be granted legal heritage status here was the Vapor Vell of Sants in 1985. This conservation victory was won through sustained pressuring from neighborhood associations in Sants with the express purpose of municipalizing the building as a public resource for the community. The factory is now a public library.

But Barcelona’s industrial past is not just a strategic resource for leftist activists. Other groups have laid claims on the city’s industrial legacy, and they have done so for various reasons and through various means. I’d like to end this piece with a few examples taken from my case study of the Vapor Vell. To my eyes, these are beautiful, cutting-edge works of artisanal, Barcelonese literary tech:




This map of Sants (circa 1984) presents a reality in which industrial sites “pop”. They are identified and invested with interest and value.

Maps/Urban Plans: Maps don’t just represent reality, they create a new reality on the page. A map is often the first step in an urban planning project, a first iteration in the materialization of an idea. A city map presents a particular value discourse which emerges from its basic vocabulary: the demarcation of territories, buildings, infrastructure, and natural elements.


This itinerary gives practical information such as the closest metro and bus stops–bridging the gap between the historical object and the present city.

Itineraries: An itinerary is a great example of a word I normally have trouble defining: musealization. Here, the city itself becomes an open air museum and the object of our expository gaze. The object of an itinerary is typically something visible from the public space. This visual value discourse is supplemented with educational information which can be historical, anecdotal, or statistical in the “fun-fact” sense.


This curriculum poster was developed by the Grup de Didactica (UB) as a proposal for how teachers could apply industrial archeology towards a range of disciplines: Experimental Science, Technology, and Social Sciences.

Didactic Materials: The industrial heritage movement arrived in Spain during pedagogical reforms which sought to establish a national curriculum. This curriculum incorporated local and regional history, culture, and most importantly, language. Industrial archeology was envisioned as an interdisciplinary opportunity to bridge the “two cultures” of science and humanities.


This hand drawn cross-section of the Vapor Vell presents an artists’ vision of how the factory may have functioned over 100 years ago.

Cross Sections: This technique of pedagogical illustration opens the object up for exposition. Here, we can observe the processes that make something work. This object could be a machine, or a machine-like factory, or even a machine-like human body. A cross-section is the product of the technical discourse and means of valuing an object.


This is an example of a paper cut-out model of the Vapor Vell designed for classroom use and included in the pedagogical materials for the Vapor Vell.

3D Models: These models serve a similar function as cross-sectional drawings, allowing the observer to see inside. They focus our attention on the technical and aesthetic aspects of an object, its form and function.


This study was published in 1988 by the Grup de Arqueologia Industrial “El Vapor”.

Academic Studies: These studies establish the historicity and character of the object in question, often contributing visibility and adding value. For these studies to be legitimate they must be conducted by recognized experts, a circumstance which in the 1980’s prompted the birth of a new discipline and class of amateurs-turned-experts in Spain: Industrial Archeologists.


This public exposition to “Recover the entire Vapor Vell” was organized by the Centre Social de Sants and set up in the central neighborhood plaza in 1986.

Public Exposition: The objective of this collection of strategies, the legacy of 20th-century grassroots social movements, is mass communication, education, and organization. Slogans and iconography are developed to unify and mobilize constituents around a shared concern. With regards to heritage conservation, these movements have been, in practice, reactive.

vapor vell

This photograph of the Vapor Vell was part of the Ciutat i Fabrica exposition (circa 1999), with the goal of raising awareness of Barcelona’s at-risk industrial heritage. 

Photography: Photography has been key in establishing the value of industrial objects in Catalunya. The photographic value discourse is a purely visual one, and tends to favor the aesthetic over the ugly, the unique over the normal. Architecturally interesting modernist factories have traditionally benefited much more from this technique. 

Vapor Vell Expedient Declaracio BCIN-page-004


Official Heritage Lists: Industrial heritage remains an unrecognized heritage category in Spain. Currently, industrial sites are listed under the category of Patrimonio Historico-Artistico, a designation which has made inclusion difficult. In practice, heritage status for industrial sites is granted based on architectural merit, or as a response to public demands. The gap between official protection and actual preservation remains a topic of debate. 


A protest campout at the Vapor Vell in 1985, claiming the property as a public resource. 

Protest Songs: Perhaps the most ancient and effective literary technology, songwriting is a strong and deeply-felt Catalan tradition. The lyrics that follow are taken from the song, written by Francesc Mir, “We Want the Vapor Vell.”




«Galileu, Valladolid», passejant una amic em deia: 
Sembla que senyali el cel, aquesta esvelta xemeneia. 
El vaig desenganyar, ell no sabia que perillava. 

I per poder-la conservar vam començar a cantar: 

Pensem deixar la pell, lluitant pel VAPOR VELL 
Cauran ben de clatell si ens obren JOAN GÜELL 
Si ens obren JOAN GÜELL cauran ben de clatell. 
Pensem deixar la pell, lluitant pel VAPOR VELL 

Nois que aquest barri ja està prou esquarterat, 
amb vies de tren i avingudes de gran pas. 

No n’han fet prou de desgràcies que volen continuar, 
ara han d’obrir un gran carrer que tot ho assolarà, 
ens trencarà moltes cases, s’endurà el VAPOR VELL 
de tot això, que en diria el senyor JOAN GÜELL? 

I a la història constarà, que la gent de Sants 
cridàvem!! del més gran al més cadell... 

Francesc Mir