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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona

What is Plaça de Catalunya?

Plaça de Catalunya is a public square in central Barcelona that was built in the early 20th century and is synonymous with Barcelonan artistic, cultural and political identity.

Plaça de Catalunya aerial

Plaça de Catalunya History

By the mid-19th century, Barcelona teetered on the brink of collapse. The industrial revolution had caused the exponential growth of its population, but now more than 187,000 people lived densely packed in a city unable to expand, squeezed by the limits of Barcelona’s medieval walls. To tackle this increasingly urgent issue, the city’s barriers were eventually demolished in the 1850s. As a result, the ground on which you now stand, and the surrounding areas, were assimilated into the city.

In 1860, a project by engineer Ildefons Cerdà was adopted as the development plan for the new Eixample (or Expansion) district. His strictly rectangular grid plan included a monumental open space – that would later become the Plaça de Catalunya – which would unite the old town with the new district. However, it wasn’t until the following century that the project began in earnest. Until 1923, the project was led by architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Work on the square developed slowly, halted periodically by the need to demolish various structures that had been put up since the Cerdà plan was adopted. The project faced a new obstacle in 1925, when dictator Primo de Rivera, objecting to Puig i Cadafalch’s liberal-nationalist leanings, replaced him with Francesc de Paula Nebot. Nevertheless, the square was eventually inaugurated by King Alfonso XIII in 1927.

The five-hectare square is renowned for its famous illuminated fountains, compass base design, and six sculptural groups that represent Catalonia’s four provincial capitals and the virtues of wisdom and labour. On the southern corner of the square, you’ll find Josep Maria Subirachs's Monument to Francesc Macià, which commemorates the liberal Republican president of Catalonia in the 1930s. Placed on a pedestal over an inverted, unfinished staircase, the monument symbolises the history of Catalonia, built step by step, day by day, and suggests a vision of an unrealised but potential future.

Plaça de Catalunya fountain

Quickly, following its completion, the square became central to Catalan life. Until the start of the Spanish Civil War, its cafés and restaurants hosted many of the city's literary, artistic, and political gatherings; department stores and hotels sprang up around the square. In fact, during the war, many of these locations were used as bases for the resistance fighters, as Barcelona’s Republicans held out against Franco’s fascist rebels. In particular, the Hotel Colón (which once dominated the square’s northern end) became the impromptu headquarters of the Catalan Socialist Party. At the time, its façade was covered with portraits of Lenin, Marx, and Stalin.

Franco’s government stripped the square of any trace of its former political identity – now the defeated cause – and even renamed it Plaza del Ejército Español (or Spanish Army Square). Yet the Plaça de Catalunya never lost its spirit of resistance and independent identity. Throughout Franco’s dictatorship anti-dictatorship posters could frequently be found in the square, which also hosted some clandestine demonstrations. It took nearly 40 years, however, for the square to recover its original name. For the first Diada Nacional de Catalunya (or National Day of Catalonia) in the new era of Democracy, Barcelonans gathered around the square for one of the largest public demonstrations Spain had ever seen.

Today, the Plaça de Catalunya functions as the city's main commercial and transportation hub, though it has taken care not to divest itself of an older rebellious spirit. Since the early 2010s, it has served as a stage for radical populist, anti-government protests and sit-ins. These recent events, to an extent, echo images of resistance, activism, and national identity in Barcelona during the 1930s. Despite its late arrival into the city’s centuries-old fabric, the Plaça de Catalunya has firmly remained Barcelona's hub of social life to this day.

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