The great cultural and urbanistic legacy of Manuel de Solà-Morales

Apr 06, 2012
Manuel de Sola Morales

The legacy of Manuel de Solà-Morales is extraordinarily important; without a doubt, his multifaceted work revitalized urbanism, creating new and enduring ways of understanding and conceiving the city.

For Manuel, urbanism was a question of ideas and their rigorous application to each specific reality. He saw urbanism as a social product and, as such, the object of complex, controversial political debate, in the framework of which he formulated strategies and projects that cast light on questions of urban space and social use of the agents involved. He proposed a certain autonomy as a guarantee that the city could be better.

In his early academic life, Manuel was a student at MIT, and of Josep Lluís Sert at Harvard Graduate School of Design. In Italy, he studied the “physical city” and the morphological interpretation postulated by Ludovico Quaroni. His early work in academia at the Barcelona School of Architecture (ETSAB) focused on sharing the wealth of such varied sources of thought, weaving a system of references and experimentation that served to guide students and young professionals on the new professional and intellectual paths that he was travelling.

In the late 1960s, Manuel participated intensely in the metropolitan planning of Barcelona. His work on this project halted with his sudden resignation, in line with his criticism of central government proposals that conflicted with the meticulous reurbanization of the periphery of the central city proposed by his own work.

Manuel created the Laboratorio de Urbanismo de Barcelona (LUB) in 1969 with a small group of young graduates. The foundational work was challenging, and it was his research work and teaching at the ETSAB that drew the group together to work on themes such as marginal urbanization, teaching urbanism, understanding urban processes by means of “The Forms of Urban Growth,” the impact of infrastructures in the city, and the Ensanche (expansion) projects in Spanish cities and their role in generating surplus value. The course “Ten Lessons on Barcelona,” followed later by a book of the same name that explained the city by means of the fundamental ideas and episodes of its construction, was an exemplary methodological contribution; for Manuel, methodology was an inalienable part of the body of research he interpreted and constructed.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the LUB grew, incorporating young graduates and visitors who conducted studies and doctoral theses. UR magazine was created to explain these projects and publicize other exemplary international experiences. The city of Barcelona was a recurrent theme, producing numerous hypotheses about the form of the city and its most pressing problems and priorities, new interpretations of the work of Cerdà, studies of the historic city and its districts, and history as a condition for understanding reality, because it casts light on the present and proposes actions for the future. Manuel’s concern with the world’s cities was excellently illustrated by the exhibition “Cities, Corners” at the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004. He saw corners as key to addressing the discussion of urban quality and urbanity in the most varied contexts. The exhibition showed that urbanism has a cultural dimension that goes beyond technology to invade the media and be reflected in mythical scenes created in film, painting, and other arts.

The complexity of Manuel’s profile increases when considering his professional contributions. It is as if he put his ideas to the test by demonstrating their viability in projects with very difficult locations or programs that he addressed with elegant and apparent simplicity. The Moll de la Fusta wharf in Barcelona was the proof positive of what the city’s Ronda beltway could be; Manuel took up the challenge and effectively solved the problem. The waterfront of the port has become Barcelona’s greatest point of civic attraction, influencing the construction of the beaches in the east, eight years on. Likewise, his projects for Leuven and its central station, the waterfront in Oporto, his intervention in Saint-Nazaire, and the consolidation of the dunes along the boulevard in Scheveningen are exercises in innovation in design technologies that accept the responsibility for materialization on the basis of specific local conditions. For Manuel, architecture, urbanism, infrastructure, and landscape were variables in the same equation, and his projects provided an integrated solution.

They were varied initiatives, combining scales not usually seen in a single project: Alcoy, Malaga, Tolosa, Badalona, Terrassa, and Manlleu are some examples. All illustrate Manuel’s moral commitment, seeking to create space to manoeuvre between the client’s program and the urbanistic project, realizing that the designer is answerable to the community, not just to the person or body who commissions the project.

Special mention must be made of his continued collaboration with Rafael Moneo, an unrivalled partnership that merits closer attention. Their initial projects for the center of Saragossa, the Lacuna residential area in Vitoria, the royal city of Aranjuez and its protective legislation, and L’Illa Diagonal in Barcelona, represent the judicious deployment of resources and a capacity for innovation stimulated by the force and the contrast of the two men.

Manuel was a keen critical observer, a professional who tenaciously won the autonomy necessary to practice, an experienced multidisciplinary researcher and, most of all, a great teacher and master who trained generations and was capable of building knowledge and creating the conditions to implement a new, highly valued urbanistic culture in Europe. It is fitting that his efforts be publicly acknowledged for the work he continually shared and placed at the service of so many students, colleagues, and citizens. The only way we have of thanking him for these efforts is to make good use of his professional, cultural, social, and ethical legacy.

Thank you, Manuel. You are always with us.

-Joan Busquets

Joan Busquets is the first Martin Bucksbaum Professor in Practice of Urban Planning and Design at the GSD. Prior to joining the GSD faculty, Busquets was Professor of Town Planning in the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Barcelona from 1979 until 2002.

Office: Department of Urban Planning and Design

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