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Conference 'Barcelona, from Textiles to Technology: The Development of a Great City II'

Wednesday 28 May 2014
Barcelona, from Textiles to Technology: The Development of a Great City II
Speakers: Chris Ealham and Helen Graham
With the participation of Antoni Vives
Chair: Prof. Paul Preston
Time: 16.30 h.
Place: LSE, Portugal Street, Cowdray House, 1st floor, Seminar Room 1.11
PowerPoint Presentations by Chris Ealham

With the collaboration of:

This conference is the second of a series of events on the history of Barcelona from the nineteenth century to the present day. 


  • 16.30 h. Welcome by Prof. Paul Preston and Antoni Vives (Deputy Mayor for Urban Habitat, Barcelona City Council)
  • 16.40 Dr. Chris Ealham (Saint Louis University, Madrid)
  • 17.30 Screening of Ramon Perera, the man who saved Barcelona (2006, Spain, 58 min), in Catalan with English subtitles
  • 18.30 Prof. Helen Graham (Royal Holloway University of London)
  • 19 h. Debate


  • Creating the democratic city or re-casting bourgeois Barcelona? Urbanism from above in republican Barcelona (1931-36) by Chris Ealham

1930s Barcelona witnessed an escalation and intensification of urban conflict. In effect this was a clash of two urbanisms, of two visions for a greater, better Barcelona: one emanated from below, spearheaded by the city’s labour movement, essentially the anarcho-syndicalist CNT; the other came from above, and was the work of Barcelona’s new republican masters. This talk will examine the urbanism from above of the local republican authorities after 1931, a project that was effectively curtailed by the start of the Spanish civil war. Like the anarcho-syndicalist project, this official urban project was conceived as a way of creating a fairer urban system, although it was premised on the assumption that this could be attained through gradual, not revolutionary, change. The general context in which urbanism from above took shape will be analysed, exploring the fascination of Catalan republicans with urban planning, along with the fundamental problems of effecting change from above in pre-civil war Barcelona. Particular attention will be paid to the cornerstone of this project, the ‘Macià Plan’, which, inspired by Le Corbusier, is frequently regarded by commentators as a progressive and democratic vision for the city. This view will be interrogated, arguing that beneath the promise of a new Barcelona was a classist agenda, designed to transcend socio-urban conflict through urbanism. It will also be demonstrated how aspects of the ‘planning’ agenda advanced during the Republic, particularly the bid to ‘tame’ the ‘savage’ in the inner-city Raval district, continued to fascinate urban authorities throughout the twentieth century, during Francoism and beyond.

  •  Ramon Perera, the man who saved Barcelona, directed by Montserrat Armengou and Ricard Belis

The Spanish Civil War saw the beginning of a new form of warfare, the aerial bombing of undefended civilian population in the rear-guard was a tactic practiced by Franco’s German and Italian allies. It would cost thousands of lives in Spain and many more in the Second World War. The Germans carried out blanket bombing of Madrid and the Basque Country with the bombing of Guernica merely the most famous incident. In the case of Barcelona, Italian bombing raids started in February 1937. The number of casualties, although large, was surprisingly lower than the intensity of bombings might have been expected to cause. The reason was the success with which the Catalan civilian population had been mobilized to build underground shelters. In February 1938, the Generalitat named Ramon Perera, a brilliant thirty-one year-old engineer, as head of the department for the construction of air-raid shelters. He worked feverishly during the last year of the war, during which the intensity of bombing raids on Catalonia escalated massively. He visited areas that had been bombed and came up with ever better methods of building underground shelters. The brilliant work that he did in improving construction techniques impressed Cyril Helsby, a British engineer who, with the aid of the British secret service, managed to get Perera to England at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The idea was to use Perera to convince the British government of the need to take measures to protect the civilian population if the feared confrontation with Germany came about. Perera’s experience was crucial: the air-raid shelters in Catalonia had saved thousands of lives. Despite this, for a series of reasons, political, economic and ideological, the Conservative government of the day disastrously paid no heed to the advice of Perera and Helsby.

  • Wars of development: Margaret Michaelis' images of 1930s Barcelona by Helen Graham

Margaret Michaelis was born Margarethe Gross at the turn of the twentieth century in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an affluent, assimilated and progressive Jewish family. She trained in some of the leading modernist studios in Vienna, Berlin and Prague. Today, posthumously, she is becoming recognised as a world class modernist photographer, a talent that the vicissitudes of her life have long obscured. Arriving in Barcelona as a racial and political refugee in 1933, Margaret took her ‘little Leica’ onto the city streets. There she captured a unique and compelling record of social change through her images of elite architecture and new urban planning, but also through her rich and humane street photography showing everyday life at a time of rapid change – and which can be read as a critique of certain utopic/modernist prescriptions for change. Michaelis portrayed a new Barcelona emerging onto the Republican horizon. Yet hers was also an outsider’s depiction, and all the more evocative for that.  Michaelis’ unique record derived from her layered identity as a woman outsider (but one with fortuitous insider connections among Barcelona’s architectural vanguard) as well as to her professional training, technical sophistication, single-mindedness and clarity of aesthetic vision. When the war came she stayed on, although she was never a war photographer like Gerda Taro or Robert Capa. Her work (including for the Generalitat) was produced behind the lines, depicting home front mobilization and the exhilarating social transformations impelled by the war, but also its dislocating effects on women, children and other non-combatants. This too was the war, of course. All of Michaelis’ work testifies to a longer, continuing war. For she created it as a refugee, in conditions of extreme personal insecurity arising from Europe’s radical political and economic instability. In her personal life she would never truly outrun it or recover, but she has left us an extraordinary body of work, including  from her years in Spain.

Chris Ealham
Dr. Chris Ealham discussed the 'Macià Plan', a way of creating a fairer urban system in republican Barcelona

Helen Graham
Prof. Helen Graham talked about an Austro-Hungarian Jewish photographer who portrayed a new Barcelona emerging onto the Republic and then the war

Paul Preston and Antoni Vives
Prof. Paul Preston and Mr. Antoni Vives welcomed participants and the audience

Among those present were speakers from the first session of this series and of future sessions. Left to right, front: Dr. Francisco Romero, Dr. Angel Smith. Behind: Dr. Claire Colomb, Dr. Olivia Muñoz-Rojas, Dr. Nick Rider

Ramon Perera
A portrait of the engineer Ramon Perera, an unsung hero, who designed bomb-resistant air raid shelters that saved thousands of lives in Catalonia during the war