The center of the town Olot, Spain, is almost half empty. The slow outward migration of development from the core of this 15th century Catalonian town 70 miles north of Barcelona has shrunk the population and led to a series of demolitions of aging buildings. To try to stop the town center’s decline, a local architecture office is working with the town council, local organizations, and community members to bring life back into these emptied spaces.
The demolitions “disfigured the space and contributed to a kind of atmosphere that has no urbanity. It’s not comfortable to walk, depending on the area,” says architect Eduard Callís. Along with Guillem Moliner, he’s the co-founder of Unparelld’arquitectes, a four-person firm based in Olot that is now in the process of turning these “disfigured” spaces into new centers of activity in this town of 35,000. In total, they are redesigning nine public spaces, ranging from plazas surrounded by vacant storefronts to a new gathering place built into the ruins of a demolished building.
“The project of the squares is seen as one of the main strategies to revitalize the central area of the town,” says Callís.
Before the pandemic, this slow-motion shrinking was common in towns across Spain, where the economy hit a deep recession from 2014 to 2018. In 2020, as the pandemic has slashed the global economy, the conditions in towns like Olot are being experienced around the world. The town’s efforts to stop the collapse could serve as a model for other regions hoping to avoid long-term decline in the wake of this economic disaster.
The firm’s first intervention was at the site of a newly demolished building on the end of a block. In the space the demolition had opened up, the town planned to create a simple plaza with stone pavement–the typical empty square that is common across Spain. Unparell’darquitectes proposed a different solution. They suggested shifting the budget, opting for a cheaper concrete pavement for the ground and using the leftover money to transform the rough edge of the building that was previously connected to the now demolished structure. On its ruined facade, they’ve added simple brick walls that rise to three arches, forming three small alcoves that look out on the new square and are illuminated at night.
Instead of becoming a blank wall on an empty square, the edges of the demolished building have turned into a new gathering place and backdrop for activity. Callís says within a month of the project’s completion, a local association had already adopted the square as the stage for its annual gathering. The pandemic has put a halt to large public gatherings, but Callís says that while walking to his office he often sees people using the alcoves, including a man who regularly sits under one and plays his guitar.
This focus on the edge of the plaza is guiding the firm’s approach to the other eight public spaces they’re redesigning in the town. “We are convinced that public space, especially in compact cities, is determined by the facades not by the pavement,” Callís says. “And more than the facades, but what happens behind these facades.”
To bring life to the edges of these spaces, Unparelld’arquitectes is working with local building owners and shopkeepers to add more openness and light to the buildings that surround other plazas. They’re adding lighting to storefronts, and taking down wooden boards that had covered empty storefront windows. They’re also working with the local art school to expand its campus into a garage on the edge of their next public plaza project, and are planning to turn its facade into a series of windows that can give passerby a view into the school and also display the work of students.
All nine interventions will likely take several years to be completed, as they rely on a small pool of funding from the town council’s budget, but some will be fast and cheap. The brick alcove project cost just around $42,000.
Callís says his firm will continue to work with the town council and local organizations to plan out how the edges of other public spaces can be revived. Local residents have made clear their desire for more places to gather in public, and traditional public space amenities like trees, benches, and fountains. Callís says these will be included, but they’ll hopefully also be augmented by surroundings that are no longer boarded up, vacant, and abandoned. “It’s through these squares we can put new foundations into the center,” he says.