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Barcelona’s 22@ innovation district aims to become the main economic powerhouse of the city

Many international and national companies have set up their headquarters in the 22@ area during the last decade, located in Poblenou, an old industrial district known as the “Catalan Manchester”. The borough continues to change and grow in many ways. Improved traffic distribution for the Plaça de les Glòries or the Design HUB are just some of the new proposals. At the moment, Poblenou is a landscape of contrasts: from hi-tech buildings to abandoned factories. It is a unique urban landscape as well as an ongoing challenge from an architectural, economic and social point of view.

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18 July 2013 04:23 PM

by

Marc Ferragut

Barcelona (CNA). – Many international and national companies have set up their headquarters in the 22@ area during the last decade, located in Poblenou, an old industrial neighbourhood known as the “Catalan Manchester”. The district continues to change and grow in many ways. Improved traffic distribution for the Plaça de les Glòries or the Design HUB are just some of the new proposals. At the moment, Poblenou is a landscape of contrasts: from hi-tech buildings to abandoned factories. It is a unique urban landscape as well as an ongoing challenge from an architectural, economic and social point of view.


The breakthrough in the development of the 22@ district coincided with the construction of the Torre Agbar, designed by Jean Nouvel and unveiled in 2005. The tower is the headquarters of Barcelona’s water management company and was the first iconic building of the 22@ area. It changed the skyline of the city and has already become one of its main symbols. Five years prior to this, Barcelona’s City Council had approved a plan to revive the Poblenou district, which was a heavily industrialised area during the 19th century. The idea was to create a two-hundred-hectare technological and innovation district to draw in national and international companies, along with a development of residential and leisure zones. After a more than a decade the area has changed significantly, although the transformation is still a work in progress.

“The Catalan Manchester”

As the Industrial Revolution came to Barcelona, the city needed to expand in order to provide space for the new factories. The Poblenou neighbourhood originated as a marshland between the city walls and the river Besós, a space which had previously only been used for agriculture. Most of Catalonia’s textile sector built its factories there along with metalworking plants. Consequently, the area rapidly became the centre of Catalan industry and a focus of political worker movements, which gave rise to its name as the “Catalan Manchester”.

In the 20th century – and particularly in the middle of the century – these industries moved their production out of Barcelona due to financial reasons as well as noise and pollution complaints. Lots of factories were abandoned and Poblenou entered a phase of decline. Residents were aware of the problem and pressured local authorities to provide better services and prospects for the area.

The Olympics, a first transformation

With Barcelona’s Olympics, in 1992, the area went through a first transformation, eliminating rail tracks between the neighbourhood and the sea. Some old factories were torn down, although many of their features were conserved – such as iconic façades or chimneys – and residential buildings designed by eminent architects were built. This enabled Poblenou, but also the entire Catalan capital, to turn towards the Mediterranean and regenerate its seafront. This transformation mostly affected what is nowadays the Olympic village and the beach areas, which only represent a small part of the Poblenou district. However, most of the area continued with the previous problems.

The 22@ project was the solution: Poblenou would be an economic centre again and the regeneration of the neighbourhood would be possible thanks to the arrival of the technology and knowledge industries. The challenge was twofold: to keep the district’s historical heritage, while at the same time  attracting new companies to set up their headquarters there.

Modern architecture keeping an industrial look

More than a century of intensive industrial activity made the factories a key part of Poblenou. To preserve the district’s character, some companies and museums decided to adapt old buildings or combine them with modern architecture.

Palo Alto is the best example of this adaptation and it opened its doors in the 1990s, before the 22@ project. This cultural foundation was reconverted to host nineteen creative entities inside the manufacturing complex. There is also a garden between the buildings that provides green colour to this mainly orange and brown space. The idea of a centre of artistic and cultural production came from a private foundation also named Palo Alto. It was created in 1997 by six members including Javier Mariscal, the creator of Barcelona Olympics ’92 mascot Cobi.

Another interesting architectural proposal was the Communication Campus of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) which is already part of the 22@ plan and opened its doors in 2009. It combines two new buildings with the Ca l’Aranyó textile factory. The library of this faculty has kept the same industrial structure and façade but its internal space has been redesigned. In addition, the chimney was fully restored and now works as a thermal regulation system. The project won the Ciutat de Barcelona Prize of Architecture and Town Planning for the best urban space in 2010.

Spaces for international companies

Besides respect for historical architecture, many new buildings have been built in Poblenou. Whereas local institutions were more interested in old factories, some international companies demanded modern headquarters with technology facilities. MediaTIC provides a perfect business environment. It is a 14,000 square meter cube with spaces for research, training and offices. The Open University of Catalonia (UOC), the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the Barcelona Digital Technological Centre are already established in the building.

The MediaTIC has been especially designed to contain new international companies that decide to open a branch in Barcelona. Internationalisation involves many risks and that’s why 22@ launched the Landing Program which is a 5-year plan to receive, advise and consolidate foreign enterprises. The main goal is to rapidly connect a new company to the innovation system of Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain.

Design HUB, the new jewel of 22@

The 22@ district also aims to promote to Catalan industries. The most recent building with this goal is the Design HUB. It works alongside the Barcelona Design Centre (BCD) and the Fostering Arts and Design (FAD) foundation. Apart from business and innovation activity, exhibitions, conferences, debates, showrooms, or workshops are also held in the building, situated right next to the Torre Agbar. The Design HUB is meant to serve as an incubator for international relationships between companies and professionals in the design world. The president of FAD, Miquel Espinet, has declared that work at the Design HUB “is a step forward that will let us grow and project the institution to the world in a high capacity building that fosters creativity”. Moreover, the building itself is a revolutionary concept of architecture that has changed the appearance of the urban area.

Plaça de les Glòries, the necessary connection

The whole zone draws on creative knowledge and research centres along with many businesses in the Poblenou area, but what about the connections to the rest of Barcelona? The neighbourhood is relatively far from the centre, so it needs good transport to assure an effective relationship with other businesses in the city in order to attract locals or tourists.

For now, the Metro and Tram stops at Glòries and Diagonal Avenue are the easiest ways to arrive to the 22@ district. Access by car or on foot will be improved in the coming years as the Glòries roundabout will be finally redesigned after years of unsuccessful projects. In fact, it has been a very controversial issue because “it is the perfect example of what is totally wrong with town planning. Every time a project has been approved and is close to being carried out, an idea for a new plan appears” declares Jordi Giró, president of the Neighbour Associations Confederation of Catalonia (CONFAVC).

Currently there is a ring road in Glòries at the crossroads of the two most important avenues of the Catalan capital, Diagonal and Meridiana. This road will be demolished and a tunnel will be built. The square inside the roundabout will become a green space. With the new connections, Glòries and the Poblenou will become more integrated into the urban fabric of Barcelona, ready to become one of the city’s main centres in their own right.

A landscape of contrasts

In any case, the transformation of the district is still far from being completed. There are still many abandoned factories and sites that coexist with remodelled industries and skyscrapers. A walk through Poblenou is full of urban contrasts as in the same street we can find an industry in ruins and the headquarters of a hi-tech company. The most shocking example of an abandoned building is Can Ricart which was an important textile, metalwork and chemical factory until the late 1920s and later an artistic centre during the end of the 20th century. Now the building is in disrepair because the institutions have no money to invest in it and no companies plan on settling there.

Furthermore, some associations have complained about the way changes are happening in the 22@ district. The Organization Endavant and the Youth Assembly of the Poblenou edited a book titled ‘Torres més altes han caigut: El model 22@ al descobert’ (‘Higher towers have fallen: The 22@ model exposed’). This study explains that the project for the renewal of Poblenou has been mainly focused on benefits for big companies while social, employment and historical heritage issues have been left aside. There are more than 90,000 workers in the 22@ district according to the Barcelona City Council figures, but less than 25,000 are newly created jobs.

Among the residents there are contrasting views. Antònia, who has lived in Poblenou all her life, thinks that “the transformation is good because instead of noisy and dirty industries we now have clean companies”. In contrast, Jordi is more worried about the identity of the neighbourhood: “if historical heritage is damaged, it is clearly a loss for us. 22@ has to respect the industrial image of the area”.

The balance between economic and social interests is hard to find, but it seems to be the only way of consolidating the 22@ area as an important meeting point in Barcelona. If there is no consensus, the area could become a business centre isolated from the city and that would be negative both for companies and residents. The Poblenou project will have to be solved in the future as more international and local companies continue to base themselves in the 22@ district.

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  • The Design HUB building in Barcelona's 22@ district (by M. Ferragut)

  • Barcelona's Design HUB and the AGBAR Tower at the Glòries Square (by M. Ferragut)

  • An old factory next to high-tech buildings at Barcelona's 22@ district (by M. Ferragut)

  • The main entrance of Barcelona's Media TIC building (by M. Ferragut)

  • An old factory in Barcelona's Poblenou area (by M. Ferragut)

  • The UPF Communication campus in Barcelona's 22@ district, at the Poblenou area (by M. Ferragut)

  • The Design HUB building in Barcelona's 22@ district (by M. Ferragut)
  • Barcelona's Design HUB and the AGBAR Tower at the Glòries Square (by M. Ferragut)
  • An old factory next to high-tech buildings at Barcelona's 22@ district (by M. Ferragut)
  • The main entrance of Barcelona's Media TIC building (by M. Ferragut)
  • An old factory in Barcelona's Poblenou area (by M. Ferragut)
  • The UPF Communication campus in Barcelona's 22@ district, at the Poblenou area (by M. Ferragut)