Words Patrick Welch
Photos Roger Ferrero
Sometimes you'd think all the architects here in Barcelona were skaters - there are more skate spots in one area here than anywhere else in the world." Pirkka Pollari, a pro skateboarder from Finland, is telling me why Barcelona is such a Mecca for skaters. We're sitting in our T-shirts in the January afternoon sun at Paral·lel, a curious, semi-abandoned park on the edge of the city's Poble Sec neighbourhood - one of Barcelona's many famous skate spots. In front of us, 30 or so people of all shapes, sizes, colours and genders, from children to middle-aged men, are skating around, weaving in and out of each other as if on a busy ice rink. Some are doing tricks while others are standing at the side with the tails of their boards clamped under their feet, clapping and whistling when someone lands a kick-flip.
It's a classic snapshot of skateboarding in Barcelona, a city that has become so synonymous with the activity that you'd be hard pressed to find a skate video or magazine from the last decade that doesn't feature its plazas, steps or handrails. Since the late '90s, when cheap flights made Barcelona an easy-to-reach destination, scores of skaters started coming here to session its curbs, benches and skateparks. Many have never left.
But why Barcelona? Gustav Tønnesen, a 21-year-old pro skater from Stavanger in Norway, says that though he's spent time in the heart of the skateboarding industry, in California, this city is better: "It's easier here - you don't need to have a car. The spots are more interesting. There is a lot of crazy stuffthat they don't build anywhere else. It's the best place in the world."
"There are some great spots in other cities and other countries," agrees Björn Holmenäs, team manager for Sweet, a Swedish skateboard company based here. "London's great, Copenhagen's great, but the weather makes it way easier here. It's the only big city in the Mediterranean area where the weather's good enough to skate all year round. I guess you could say Rome or Athens, too, but it's not really the same thing. Barcelona is modern and vibrant, and a good city in pretty much every aspect - and you can skate."
Holmenäs and his friend Erik Pettersson first came to Barcelona in 2002 from Trollhättan, a town one hour north of Gothenburg, to escape winter and investigate hearsay about a city that was perfect for skateboarding - both now call the city home, and Pettersson is one of Europe's top pro skaters. "I'd heard the rumours and decided to get this loan that you get in Sweden to study abroad," says Holmenäs, before adding with a sense of mischief: "Basically, we had school from 1pm to 4pm but missed about half the classes and just skated."
Roger Ferrero is a local skater and photographer who was born here, and has made a living out of taking photos of the city's skate scene. He, like everyone else I speak to, thinks Barcelona's architecture has made it the skate capital of Europe. "The city changed in '92 with the Olympics," he says. "That's when they built everything new, in marble and granite."
It's hard to overstate the impact of the 1992 Games. After Franco died in 1975 ending 40 years of oppression - the Catalan language was banned during the dictatorship, for example - the Olympics were seen as a chance for the city to embrace modernity and progression, and mark itself out as a modern, stylish and independent metropolis. Architecturally, this meant building creatively.
So, while turn of the 19th-century, Modernisme buildings like Gaudí's La Pedrera are the draw for most visitors to the city, for skateboarders it's what came 100 or so years later, spurred by the Olympic regeneration, that's exciting. "I know the modernist influence of people like Gaudí and Sagnier made them not want to build straight angles, and that the materials they use here are different - the granite and the marble - and are way better for skating," says Holmenäs.
The ledges, benches and flat ground next to Sants train station are revered by skaters all over the world, while "starchitect"-designed projects such as Richard Meier's 1995 Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in the Raval are so famous you could ask a 12-year-old skater in San Diego and he'd be able to tell you its name: MACBA. The ledges, smooth ground and various dark granite steps of the Plaça dels Àngels in front of the huge gleaming white museum make up what is currently the world's most famous skate spot, up there with legendary spots of lore: Philadelphia's Love Park, London's South Bank or San Francisco's Embarcadero.
And while Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron's Museu Blau, or "blue museum", was lambasted by the local press when it opened in 2004, Barcelona's skaters love it. Never mind that this imposing, spaceship-like structure housing the city's natural history museum cost taxpayers €106 million (NOK787m), it created a skater's paradise. Its undercroft and the area surrounding it, Parc del Fòrum, which is the venue for the summer music festivals including Primavera Sound, are full of the sort of quirky structures and bizarre transitioned concrete that have brought skaters flocking to the city.
It's obvious skateboarders are fanatical about architecture, though they approach it in a different way. As Holmenäs says, "Skateboarding makes use of architecture in a way that it was not meant to be used, which makes it really interesting. When the majority of people see skateboarding, they think it's interesting. But there's always someone there to complain."
And complain, they do. Attitudes towards skateboarding in the city have changed over the years: "When I came here in 2002, it was like a dream for all skaters. I guess it is still, but it's been so saturated. It's different now. You can only go to certain places," says Pettersson, referring to a City Hall clampdown on skateboarding over the last few years.
In 2006, in an attempt to clean up a city that had developed a reputation for petty crime and unruly behaviour, civil disobedience by-laws were brought in to combat antisocial activity, prohibiting everything from graffiti and urinating on the street to walking around with your shirt off. The ban also included skateboarding in undesignated areas.
This being Spain, however, police attitudes err towards the more relaxed, though fines do occasionally get issued and boards confiscated, something that Holmenäs describes as the worst thing about living in the city. "They want to make Barcelona a safer city but I don't know if making the skateboarders disappear from the plazas is the way to do that. The only thing that happens when you take skateboarders away from an open space like this is that the area attracts junkies and people that are up to no good. I always think that whenever I see people skateboarding, you know that it's safe to be there."
Moreover, Holmenäs adds that skateboarders are a legitimate part of the city's tourist industry. "I'm from a small town in Sweden," he says. "There are maybe 100 people between 15 and 35 who skate, and I'd say that out of them, maybe half have been here at least three times in the last five years. They come here on a Norwegian flight, they take the airport bus, they stay at a hostel or hotel, they go out for tapas every night, they drink beers, they go to a nightclub, they spend money here, they buy stuffin the tourist shops for their mums and dads. They do everything that other tourists do.
"Say each one spends €1,000 (NOK7,400) - it's not that much, but it's 50 people; that's €1,000, three times over the last five years. That's €150,000 - and that's just my hometown. And those people would not have come here if it wasn't for the skateboarding. If you sum it up that way, I think changing a granite ledge every five years isn't that big a problem."
And he believes skateboarding is a great way to see the city: "I think that for a lot of people it would be good to walk away from La Rambla and the Sagrada Família, and see the street life of Barcelona, because it's really interesting. It's something totally different that you don't see in many cities. If you walk by MACBA any day of the week, you see hundreds of people skating, along with BMXers, breakdancers, hippies and Pakistani beer sellers. It's a really interesting mix that you don't see in any other city. It's a show, it's a circus."
Indeed, sitting in the sunshine on a bench at Paral·lel alongside an octogenarian man in sunglasses and a Latin American family watching said spectacle, it's hard to see how anyone would think this antisocial. If anything, it's hyper-social: I count 10 nationalities among the skaters in a sun-drenched scene that's enough to bring out the sort of golden-tinged nostalgia '70s surf films trade in - that longing for the perfect beach or the perfect surf spot, somewhere hidden away from the rest of the world, where different people come together in pursuit of a common interest. "Are you living the dream?" I ask Pollari. "Yup. Pretty much," comes the reply.