On the way to Barcelona’s Spanish Village (Poble Espanyol), we first passed the reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s Spanish Pavilion, the original of which had been built for the city’s International Exposition of 1929. Mies’ pavilion was everything that I had expected it might be: graceful, epic, monumental, and yet so restrained in its detail and substance, that if it had been assembled, Ikea-style, from flat-pack elements, it could probably have turned up on-site in the back of a single Ford Transit van.
Further up the hill was the Poble Espanyol, of which I knew little, except that it was a compendium of Spain’s vernacular architectural styles, and built, like Mies’ pavilion, for the 1929 International Exposition. All of this at a time, of course, when Catalonia was struggling against the Spanish yoke, and a few years before the country dissolved into terrible civil war. Beyond these basic facts, I hadn’t known what to expect of the Poble Espanyol, and one thing I certainly hadn’t accounted for was the possibility that, besides ourselves, half of Barcelona might also be here, queueing to get in.
Fortunately we did not have to wait for long, and very soon we were being ushered past ticket desks housed in a mock-medieval gatehouse. Inside, we were confronted by a large (mock) town square, off of which numerous meandering mock-streets threaded their way through dense mock-neighbourhoods, each representing a different region of Spain, and each packed with clusters of mock-houses, mock-churches and mock-shops.
Even more striking than the unrelenting superficiality of every surface in this town of façades was the sheer number of visitors crammed into the place. The mock-streets thronged with people, and in places the crowds were so dense that they were impossible to negotiate with any sense of independence. You simply had to move, slowly, at the same pace as everyone around you.
Moving in and out of the claustrophobic crowds, the enveloping superficiality helped create a series of weird and wonderful juxtapositions, giving me the impression that space was alternately expanding and collapsing in rapid succession.
For example, at one moment I was pressed up against the looming façade of a church, in danger of being crushed by a slow-moving crowd, and then, moments later I had escaped into the church, to find not a church, with all the attendant weightiness and gravity that one might associate with a church interior, but an open, wooden structure, more or less a barn, in which glass-blowing demonstrations were taking place.
Next, our desire to escape the crowds meant that we were more susceptible than usual to the lure of a glass of Spanish red wine and some slices of Iberico ham, and—lo and behold—there were plenty of shops offering such delights in the Poble Espanyol. From the outside these shops looked as one might expect a shop in a provincial village to look. However, the shop into which we stepped was less a shop than a cubbyhole hidden behind the thin veneer of a shopfront, and contained just enough space for a counter and a couple of tables and chairs.
Further on, having escaped from the crush of a tiny plaza in which a music troupe was performing, we found a quieter, picturesque lane. A brick arch framed the scene ahead, making me think to myself that I quite liked the Poble Espanyol, in spite of all the crowds, and in spite of it being little more than an elaborate and artful pretence. Nevertheless, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the place was toying with my senses. After all, if I was actually outside in the street of a rustic Spanish village, would there really be this many plastic-green emergency exit signs everywhere I looked?