Aristofanis Soulikias | Filmmaker-Architect
The city is a mysterious creature. Its purpose is to order human living, and yet it is multifaceted, unruly and unpredictable. It grows and morphs within and beyond our control. In certain ways, it represents the disparity between our collective intentions and our individual desires and fears. There are as many cities as there are inhabitants – each one, a unique story. As an architect interested in telling stories about cities, I constantly struggle to decipher them. What makes any given city what it is? What does topography and climate do to it? How do people, their music, their language, their thoughts, their food, their work give shape to their built surroundings? And in turn, how do these built surroundings give shape to people’s lives?
These and other questions inevitably reemerged at this year’s FABER residency on Urbanism, where a team of urban planners, architects, artists, writers, academics, and other professionals, including myself, gathered in Olot, Catalunya, to learn about the city and its surroundings and inform our own individual work.
Olot may not be a metropolis like those most of us come from, but the essential questions that preoccupy us are all here. n fact, Olot is a perfect microcosm of a modern city with some key traces of the history of Western Architecture and Urbanism: A city centre that is built upon a medieval urban fabric; remnants of the Baroque and the Art Nouveau; an entire neighbourhood modelled after the English Garden City; an industrial heritage; modern development schemes and expansion; urban gardening; housing challenges; and waves of migration from troubled lands. It is also a centre of a broader regional culture and economy.
It comes as no surprise then that at the heart of the city lies the technical office of Catalunya’s Landscape Observatory, housed in the historic Edifici de l’Hospici, a unique institution that collects, archives and disseminates all things related to the Catalan natural and built environment. The director, Gemma Bretcha and her colleagues ensured we had access to the plethora of books, maps and other resources that could help our study of the region.
Jon Aguirre Such from Paisaje Transversal, offered us a tour of the city centre’s less successful eastern part, where solutions are sought by participatory design and the creation of meaningful public spaces that can bring together the constantly changing demographic. The tour was followed by a brainstorming session where new proposals by each one of us were brought forward, such as how to aptly use certain public squares, what cultural activities can be initiated, and other ideas.
An impressive case study on renewable energy was presented by Frank Comino whose office grew into a rapidly growing enterprise, Wattia, providing solutions that combine geothermal and solar energy, as well as intelligent passive methods, as to achieve total self-sufficiency, even to the disbelief of government authorities.
An overview of what is happening in the Garrotxa region was given by a young team from the local authority, up from the peak of Falgars d’en Bas, underlining the history of the Vall d’en Bas region, its geography, the cooperative processes that led to its reform into a modern agricultural hub, the environmental challenges posed by monoculture and new high-speed motorways, the continuous interest in the re-use of abandoned farmhouses which dates back to the 1960s, and the dilemmas of evolution vs preservation.
The latter was further appreciated by our visit to the Mas La Coromina farm. A small family-run enterprise that seeks to bring value to sustainable local dairy production while making sensitive use of their natural and built environment. In the same light, the group met with glassmaker and artist Jordi Traveria, at an old farmhouse-turned-studio, who finds inspiration in the local nature in order to produce unique forms that cater to an international market. Similarly, craftsman David Dorca, in his own stone house, defies the forces of mass production and swears loyalty to his mastery of straw chair-making.
These are locals who at a time of financial uncertainty, find creative ways to rebrand their craft, make use of the riches of their talent and earth, and offer something that the conglomerates of the world will never understand, let alone provide. There is pride and dignity in working for one’s community, being connected to one’s earth while allowing individual and collective expression to reach out to the world. Above all, there is genuine love. It is evident in people’s warm conversation, the freshness of local food, the communal gardens of the city, the “platan” tree-lined streets, the well defined hiking trails and bicycle paths which people here foster. It is seen in the careful lime-based repairs of mortar joints of the numerous Romanesque churches and their various subsequent editions, across the valleys and in the middle of volcanic craters.
Back in Olot, the careful hands of hundreds of artisans left a legacy of sculpture and puppetry that supplied the Catholic world with religious statuettes for decades, some of them now housed in the city’s Museu dels Sants, an old workshop of this kind. There live effigies of a more pagan past: the giants, the rabbit, the cat, the rooster, the dragon! They parade every September amidst a frenzy of music and celebration, called Faràndula. And it is true: if love is the catalyst for taking action towards successful built environments, celebration is what recognizes and consolidates it, renewing thus the city and its human spirit. Interestingly, each creature of the Faràndula represents a different neighbourhood, a distinct urban setting. Perhaps these creatures of Olot’s popular imagination meaningfully articulate that mysterious creature that is the city, its energy, its past, its people, its soul, and much of what I try to decipher.