The Barcelona Urbanism Laboratory, an observatory of cities

In memory of Manuel de Solà-Morales

The LUB awards the biennial Manuel de Solà-Morales European Prize, which offers €7,000 for the best doctoral thesis in the field of urbanism presented at a European university. It is held in memory of the professor and architect Manuel de Solà-Morales, the founder of the LUB and a master of urbanism, which he understood as a creative intellectual activity for improving the city through “persistent search”.

The UPC’s Barcelona Urbanism Laboratory (LUB) celebrates its 50th anniversary this academic year. The research centre provides a critical and constructive look at the evolution of the metropolis and has become a benchmark in urbanism and regional policy.

May 06, 2020

The Barcelona Urbanism Laboratory (LUB) is a UPC research group located at the Barcelona School of Architecture (ETSAB) and attached to the Department of Urbanism and Regional Planning. It is made up of twenty professors and researchers and it has been recognised as a consolidated research group by the Government of Catalonia. Since the beginning, the LUB has regarded cities as experimental and innovation laboratories, and it is permanently and mainly committed to the progress of teaching urbanism to architects. Its areas of study are growth forms and urban morphology, the development of modern Barcelona, the theory and practice of urban design, studying metropolitan mobility, and the evolution of urbanism teaching around the world.

During the 1968–1969 academic year, the architect and professor Manuel de Solà-Morales founded the Laboratory and brought together the professors Joan Busquets, Antonio Font, Miquel Domingo and José Luis Gómez Ordóñez in order to restart urbanism research and teaching at the School. Since then, students from several graduation years have participated in the Laboratory’s initiatives and a number of professors—some of whom are currently teaching at other European and American universities—have conducted their research there.

It has helped to raise awareness of the urban impact of architects’ work by gathering a group of activities such as research projects, publications, exhibitions, seminars and lectures. Since 2010, the LUB has been publishing the digital version of UR to give continuity to UR - Urbanismo Revista (1985–1992), which used to be a leading journal of urbanism in Europe. The Laboratory’s website introduces and compiles the academic work of a wide team of collaborators. It is also a place for sharing and reflecting on current matters and debates, and presenting innovative initiatives and projects linked to public space as a catalyst for social cohesion and citizen identity and to urbanism as a reference framework.

Creating trends

In these 50 years, the LUB has helped to lay the foundations of a particular urbanism that has been applied in many actions everywhere, especially in the city of Barcelona.

The LUB has published global urban trends and has produced numerous studies, doctoral theses and projects that have made a significant contribution from the point of view of urbanism. The analysis of urban evolution in Barcelona started in the 1970s and was significantly marked by the first doctoral thesis on marginal urbanisation by the architect Joan Busquets. Such analytical knowledge was a spearhead to identify the elements of the dynamic decomposition of material cities and to understand the value of time in explaining different urban forms. This “theoretical synthesis” defines the way that the Barcelona School of Architecture students start learning about the city, and it is also a protocol adopted in other European and American schools.

The reading of the territory on a scale that is neither geographical nor local is another relevant contribution by the LUB. In this field of research, the atlas of Catalan cities and counties maps, published by the Laboratory in 1977 for the exhibition “La identitat del territori català: les comarques” [The identity of the Catalan territory: counties] on the occasion of the Conference on Catalan Culture, provided an unprecedented vision of Catalonia in terms of regional architecture. The atlas, which compiled materials from various sources, was a joint description of all regional forms. It had a wide range of diffusion and served as inspiration for the planning of Catalonia from the first democratic governments up to now.

Additionally, the LUB is and has been a benchmark in analysing urban systems. The complexity of urban systems and the geographical approach to regions were considered in the studies on accessibility measures applied to the Barcelona region in 1971, led by José Luís Gómez Ordóñez, the civil engineer of the original team. More than 20 years later, they were the background of the research on metro and metropolis by Maria Rubert and Josep Parcerisa, who published Metro: galàxies metropolitanes in 2002. The book presented an unprecedented urban comparison of 28 cities in the world with metro. It had a decisive influence in the campaign for resuming the construction of the metro network in Barcelona, which ended with the political decision to build lines L9 and L10—still under construction.


Lessons on the city

In recent years, the LUB has taken a keen interest in analysing the city of Barcelona, with Manuel de Solà-Morales paving the way with his studies on Ildefons Cerdà and the Eixample and his book Ten lessons on Barcelona, in which he explains the most relevant urbanism actions carried out in today’s Barcelona.

Numerous studies, many of which were conducted in doctoral theses, have allowed to fully understand significant milestones in the formation of the metropolis, such as the first steps in building the Eixample on the Pla de Barcelona and the residential estates (Sant Ildefons, Bellvitge, Montbau, etc.) in the 1960s and the works on the districts of Gràcia and Ciutat Vella, and the morphological taxonomy derived from reading suburban Barcelona. All these contributions have influenced the School’s teaching and the international knowledge of urbanism in Barcelona.

Equally important is the LUB’s research on urban urbanism, which began in the mid-1980s by putting urban architecture and the urban commitment of public works projects ahead of administrative and bureaucratic urbanism. This line of research, in which urban development plans have been studied as instruments for the creative transformation of cities, defines the Laboratory as an observatory of cities. The LUB has been a trailblazer in identifying the best examples of urban projects in Europe and America and the keys to their success.

The Laboratory is and has been committed to the evolution of teaching at the ETSAB and has contributed to the School becoming an international benchmark in urbanism teaching. Especially in recent years, through workshop teaching, it has become clear that “the role of urban architects is not only drawing plans and making general fittings, but also designing buildings as a whole with an eye on the future urban development of cities”, claims Josep Parcerisa, the director of the LUB. This has led to urbanism being introduced as a concentration option for the bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Architecture.


Urban links

In recent years, LUB professors have collaborated on several projects requested by public administrative bodies, which has had an impact on the courses taught at the ETSAB. And the other way round: initiatives arising from the School’s workshop subjects have inspired initiatives by administrative bodies, some of which being as ambitious as the first studies for developing the Urban Master Plan of the Barcelona Metropolitan Area.

As the video Barcelona Enllaços briefly shows, the LUB’s critical and at the same time constructive look has led to bringing up discontinuity problems in the urban fabric and looking for possible solutions by connecting areas of the metropolis and removing inner barriers. An ambitious challenge of this academic laboratory, which is continuously producing ideas for improving cities, especially Barcelona.