Features

Barcelona: Creative solutions

29 Jun 2015 by GrahamSmith
The financial crisis forced Barcelona to embrace entrepreneurship – and now it is reaping the results, says Christopher Beanland Barcelona is a survivor. No matter what history throws at it – civil war, political turbulence, millions of tourists with selfie sticks – it keeps going. The Spanish economic crisis was another stern test for the city, when indignados (protestors) set up communes in and around Plaza Catalunya and took part in a series of rousing marches. Youth unemployment remains a huge problem – 46 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds in the Catalonia region are out of work, according to the latest figures from the Institut d’Estadistica de Catalunya. If you look out of the window of the Melia Barcelona Sky hotel, you see a half-finished skyscraper with bits of wood lying around, as if the workforce has been suddenly sent home and never returned. Still, green shoots are appearing. A few minutes’ walk from the hotel along Avenida Diagonal, the previously grotty Placa de les Glories is finally being transformed. The city’s new Design Museum opened here in December, while the roundabout is to be replaced by a park and plaza by the end of next year. Offices are also scheduled to spring up over the next five years in the shadow of Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar, the Gherkin-esque HQ of water supplier Grupo Agbar. “Many buildings in this part of the city were designed by internationally renowned architects, making this a fascinating neighbourhood for those interested in contemporary architecture,” says Xavier Roig Puig, communications manager of the Design Museum. All around Port Vell, which is tucked in south of Barceloneta and east of the Barri Gotic, construction has also been taking place. Next to the seafront W hotel, Spanish fashion retailer Desigual opened a four-storey HQ in 2013 for 800 staff, while nearby is a new office for native energy company Enagas. Catalonia’s GDP growth rate for this year is set at 2.5 per cent – up from 1.3 per cent last year. Key sectors driving this growth in the region’s capital are business services, life sciences, food and drink manufacturing, tourism and leisure, construction and transport. Barcelona also boasts more than 100,000 jobs in the creative industries, representing 11 per cent of the workforce. Half of all companies from Japan, Italy, the US, France, Austria and Switzerland that operate in Spain are based in Catalonia. They are lured here by good connectivity – the 500,000 sqm Terminal 1 opened at Barcelona El Prat airport in 2009 and now operates 70 per cent of the airport’s flights, while high-speed rail services to Madrid and France launched in 2008 and 2013 respectively. As a beach city with plenty of culture, it also ranks highly in terms of quality of life. Last year, foreign investment in Catalonia was up 35 per cent on 2013. There are more than 438,000 companies in Barcelona, many of which are SMEs and start-ups. Philippe Gelis, chief executive of online Forex trading firm Kantox (based in London as well as the Catalan capital), says: “Barcelona offers a mix of a growing tech ecosystem and an amazing way of life, for half the price of London or Paris.” A non-binding referendum on whether Catalonia should become an independent state took place last year (80 per cent voted in favour) and, in September, Catalonia’s local elections could prove ground-breaking, depending on how well pro-independence parties such as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) fare. Would independence be a good thing? Anti-independence groups argues that it could cost 447,000 jobs and a €20 billion loss in foreign investment. Still, that may not put off those who are in favour. The region is one of Spain’s most economically sound, accounting for about 20 per cent of its GDP. Last year, HP revealed it would base its global 3D printing business in Catalonia, thanks to the region’s talent pool. The financial crisis has forced residents to think differently. Ernest Sanchez, country head for mobile payment system Zapper, says: “The crisis produced a big mindset change and boosted entrepreneurial activity.” Zapper targeted Barcelona as the main city to develop its strategy in Spain – according to research by the European Samsung Lifestyle Research Lab, Spain is the most tech-addicted country in Europe, which suggests Barcelona is a good market for launching mobile start-ups, and the city will host the annual Mobile World Congress until 2018. Other major trade events include Primavera Pro (May 27-31), a spin-off from the popular Primavera Sound music festival. Attracting 2,300 music industry professionals, it highlights Barcelona’s allure for creative industries, and the business potential of the city’s fun-loving side. FIVE NEW ARRIVALS Barcelona Design Museum The Design Museum opened in December in the Glories district, the part of the city that’s witnessing the most dynamic architectural change. Its four collections span product design, fashion and textiles, graphic and decorative arts. museudeldisseny.cat/en Cotton House Hotel Opened in February, this 83-room property is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. Located in the former HQ of the Association of Cotton House Manufacturers on Gran Via, it has a restaurant, a library, an outdoor pool and free wifi. hotelcottonhouse.com Barcelo Sants This 378-room hotel was recently given a multimillion-dollar revamp and is well set up for conference delegates, located near both the Fira Barcelona institute and Sants station, and boasting 3,000 sqm of event space across 14 function rooms. The interiors have been inspired by space travel, with 1960s curved flourishes in the furniture and a monochrome colour scheme. barcelo.com The Serras Design Hotels member the Serras opened in January. Architect Ferran Gelabert and interior designer Eva Martinez Torres turned this historic building (it once housed Picasso’s art studio) into a modern, 29-room hotel poised between the Barri Gotic and Port Vell. hoteltheserrasbarcelona.com New Camp Nou FC Barcelona’s historic home ground in the west of the city will be re-modelled in 2017, so that by 2021 it will have 105,000 seats – 5,000 more than the current stadium. The €600 million expansion is likely to be part-financed by Qatar Airways’ sponsorship of the team (the current deal runs until next year). Some reports suggest the airline could get naming rights to the ground, too. fcbarcelona.com
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