Discovering “new world” in Barcelona

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The 20-story-tall Columbus Monument, having witnessed the vicissitude of the times, is unquestionably the most eye-catching structure, when looking at downtown Barcelona from a rooftop near the piers.

Perched atop the towering monument is a statue of Christopher Columbus, whose right arm raises high and points to the sea, as if proclaiming his belief that drove him beyond his peers – beyond the ocean lies land.

It was 530 years ago in 1493 when Columbus, triumphant from his first voyage to the Americas, walked up the curved steps leading to the gates of what was then the royal palace, situated at the corner of what is now Plaza del Rey in Barcelona. There, he informed his sponsors of the findings of his voyage, and Barcelona became the first place to hear his discovery of the New World.

Columbus, an Italian, now “stands” above the Barcelona skyline as one of the city’s most striking landmarks. This reveals the spirit of exploration and openness to new ideas that characterize Barcelona, known as the “Pearl of the Mediterranean.”

The old alleys and passages in Barcelona give an initial impression of the eclectic mix of East and West. There are remnants of ancient Roman walls, old Gothic-style structures standing in the core area, and buildings adorned with mosaic patterns that evoke the city’s history with the Arabs. The solemn King Martin’s Watchtower recalls the glorious past of Barcelona’s rise in the Mediterranean Sea.

Barcelona’s most iconic buildings are the works of the “maverick architect” Antoni Gaudi. Born in 1852 into a family of blacksmiths making boilers for generations, Gaudi developed a strong ability to deconstruct space and a unique intuition for sculpture. His childhood leg disability left him unable to play with other children, so he spent more time alone observing nature, inspiring his later architectural concept that emulates organic forms.

Gaudi keenly observed that nature contains no straight lines and very few perfect circles. Therefore, his buildings shun the two geometric figures, instead featuring undulating shapes, uneven surfaces, twisted door panels, leaning columns, meandering benches, and parapets of varying heights.

In his design, chimneys resemble huddles of helmeted warriors and ancient beasts, while doors and windows resemble mystical masks and gaping mouths. Mushroom-like works, candy-like buildings, rainbow lizards, and walls decorated with splashes of colorful mosaics all create his fantastical, fairy-tale world.

Some of Gaudi’s contemporaries regarded his architecture as “madness.” Yet today, seven of his works have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Over half of Barcelona’s tourist attractions are Gaudi’s creations, including Park Guell, La Pedrera, and Casa Batlló. In other words, Gaudi’s imaginative architectural works have practically upheld Barcelona’s tourism industry.

Gaudi’s most “insane” work is undoubtedly the Sagrada Familia. The structure commenced construction in 1882 and still remains unfinished today, but it has already been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Although the Sagrada Familia is surrounded by cranes and scaffolds, all who behold this edifice, into which Gaudi poured 43 years of effort, cannot help but be moved and awed by its imaginative details and intricate craftsmanship.

Still under construction, it is an undiscovered “new world” inviting imagination and exploration, because its final form remains unknown. This makes the Sagrada Familia one of Barcelona’s most thought-provoking marvels.

Barcelona nurtured not only Gaudi but many other brilliant masters, including artistic geniuses like Pablo Picasso.

Next to the whimsical Casa Batlló is the graceful, lace-like Casa Lleó i Morera, and the Neo-Gothic style Casa Amatller. Their contrasting styles earned the street the nickname the “Block of Discord.”

But through a lens of innovation and inclusiveness, such beauty of the differences is the harmony that is most in keeping with the form of nature. Meandering Barcelona’s vibrant streets, which embrace diverse inspirations, one may chance upon delightful discoveries of the “new world.” This is the allure that draws visitors from afar.

Barcelona has had its share of struggles between the old and the modern, between heritage and innovation. In June 1926, when the city was celebrating the opening of a tram, an elderly ignorant of the novel transport was struck down and soon passed away after being taken to the hospital.

The elderly was Gaudi. He was then immersed in his architectural imagination. This misfortune seems to symbolize the clash between the old and the new. Yet Barcelona’s spirit, nurtured through centuries as a port city open to the sea and the world, persevered in embracing both heritage and progress.

In the early 1990s, after decades of effort to win the 1992 Olympics bid, Barcelona’s concern was to integrate modern stadiums with the natural Mediterranean landscape.

Despite massive construction, the main Olympic complex redesigned from the prior World’s Fair site on Montjuic Hill retained the original facade and style, as well as the hill-shaped form. Looking up from the harbor area at the bottom, one can behold verdant slopes, which evoke a sense of natural harmony between the mountains and the sea.

Yet, just as the 1992 Olympics pioneered igniting the cauldron with an archer’s arrow in tribute to the ancient, Barcelona’s spirit of innovation endures. The Torre Glories, World Trade Center Barcelona, and Montjuic Communications Tower still showcase cutting-edge designs.

Even vintage sites like Casa Batlló and La Pedrera have become a part of the Gaudi Digital Museum built under China-Spain cooperation.

Wearing virtual reality and augmented reality devices, visitors to these sites can see fish materializing in abstract windows, and a giant turtle swimming from a fireplace painted with a tortoise back pattern. While rooms stand vacant in reality, devices fill the space with furnishings and objects from Gaudi’s era in visitors’ eyes.

This immersive experience is made available by the digital technology of Chinese tech giant Baidu, which brings Gaudi’s concepts and imagination to life and gives visitors an immersive and fresh experience.

As people have “personas” online, cities have “city personas” too. Barcelona’s seems like innovation and inclusiveness. In fact, innovation and inclusiveness complement one another, like wings on a bird. Exposure to diverse innovations nurtures acceptance; an inclusive mindset, in turn, draws in more innovation. This symbiosis – a discovery of the “new world” in Barcelona – is the true enlightenment of the “Pearl of the Mediterranean.”



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