The 'European' City Today – What Is It and Who Is It for


Number of European cities' heritage is being put into the service of tourism development, and Spain's Seville is one of them.

The 'European' City Today – What Is It and Who Is It for

by: Jelena Prtorić

In the time of Brexit, as EU border controls get tighter and a new Commissioner is appointed to promote “the European Way of Life”, yet against the background of globalization and increasing flow of goods and people, one has to question what it means to belong to a certain place and how does one define belonging to a certain culture. A possible answer is proposed by Owen Hatherley in his 2018 book, Trans-Europe Express. In this volume, the British journalist looks at the distinctiveness of architecture in about two dozen European cities (from Leipzig in Germany and Bergen in Norway to Split, Sofia, Skopje and Thessaloniki, which he groups in the chapter "The Balkans"), wondering all the while what exactly is a ‘European city’, and which characteristics exclude other cities from this designation.

In the introduction, Hatherley defines the 'European city' in opposition to the British one, to its architecture of “blind alleys, faux Victorian style buildings and endless parking allotments”. For Hatherley, the European style is first and foremost defined by its openness of spaces, made to fit the human measure, its cleanliness (in architectural, but also literal sense), a penchant for experimentation, a rich history, and an urban space suitable for walking but equipped with a network of public transports. The 'European city' has a historical centre with enough space for modern theatre, museum buildings and opera houses, imaginatively constructed public spaces and affordable housing.

Nevertheless, after his initial praise for the 'European city', Hatherley soon abandons the position of sentimentality, noting that, because of the lack of public investments and decreased investment in public space for the general population to enjoy, the 'European city’ has since the 1990s started to resemble its 'British' counterpart, where construction and development are concentrated on spaces that generate (instant or quick) profit. In his walks across the European continent, the British journalist is thus both admiring the architecture of its cities and deconstructing the myth of their superiority.

Issues of turistification and gentrification Hatherley addresses only indirectly, when discussing unequal urban development, over-construction, or when contemplating multicultural aspects of the city. He notes, for example, that for all their multicultural past, cities nowadays tend to go for an undefined ‘modernist’ and/or trendy style, rather than reflect the different cultural backgrounds of those who inhabit them.

In his travels around Europe, Hatherley never stopped at Seville, the capital of Spain’s Andalusia region, which could have made for a perfect mini-lab to explore the topics he touches upon – who does the city belong to once it has become a major tourist mecca in the country? What happens to multiculturalism and development of (free, participatory) urban resources for residents if approximately 15% of the city's economy depends on tourism? In the city where centuries-old influences of Moorish, Andalusian, Christian and even revolutionary traditions meet (the cathedral of Seville was built after the Reconquista on the ground plan of a former mosque; across from the cathedral is a castle built on the site of an ancient Moorish palace; in the nearby streets there are taverns which in the last century attracted anarchists and anti-fascists) – how is this past appreciated today?

All in the service of tourism

Zemos98, an association from Seville which deals with participatory culture and social change, addresses precisely such issues of tourism, gentrification and cultural heritage. These were some of the topics they focused on during The City is Ours hackcamp, which was held in Andalusia’s capital in late October 2019, as part of MediActivism.

Seville’s rich past has been put into the service of tourist development. Dozens of tourists scurry through the streets of its historical city centre on electric scooters. Bars, cafes and restaurants in the centre have adapted their gastronomic (and musical) offer to them. The Alameda quarter, once known as a multicultural neighbourhood, where jazz musicians learned about improvisation and art students put on performances, has grown into an Airbnb zone. Feria, the central market, which used to sell seasonal fruits and vegetables to residents of nearby streets, has been all but converted into a gourmet area of bars and restaurants. Last autumn, the University of Seville's rectorate became a site of tourists’ interest too, as one group, in search of an authentic undiscovered location, found themselves in the building and would not leave before they could take pictures of students.

Paco González, an architect who was born and raised in Seville and now lectures and practices architecture in the city, claims he is not trying to romanticize cities and their past. "The city you live in is not the same city your friends live in. It's a symbolic social construct”, says González. Still, he regrets that Seville, like so many other cities in Spain, has suffered such aggressive commodification of its resources. "It has happened to public spaces like terraces of bars, but also in the way people make a living – hotel workers are very poorly paid. And the city itself is flooded with people who spend money because Sevilla has great historical heritage. But where does that money go? Do people live better than they did ten years ago? Why does everyone accept tourism as the only way to make money in Seville?”, González wonders.

According to an analysis by Zemos98, the city of almost two million has a shortage of non-tourism-related jobs. The people of Seville are left with no choice but to dwell among the "consumers of tourism", be "extras" in the city image as seen by tourists or "losers" – those who failed to find their place under the sun of an economy almost entirely based on serving tourists.

The way city infrastructure is developing is being increasingly adapted to the habits of tourists rather than the needs of residents. For example, the new terminal for cruisers docking in the city was built on the Guadalquivir river bank, three or four kilometres south of the city centre, so as to accommodate more passengers. Also, part of the centre has been turned into a no-car zone, and new tram lines link attractions in the centre with the bus terminal. While it’s positive that the city centre was opened to pedestrians and that additional tram lines, much used by residents, were introduced, the question remains what do people of Seville actually need apart from that; what will they be left with once the tourists had left.

Jose Pérez de Lama, who was born and raised in the city and lives and works as a professor at the Higher Technical School of Architecture, University of Seville, believes that commodification and tourism are merely a reflection of the general economic and social crisis that is plaguing Southern Europe. "For regions like Andalusia this means that they have become economically very dependent, as if they were colonial extensions of today’s richest and most powerful countries. It’s generalised social precariousness that permeates the future development of the city, making sectors such as tourism and construction its strongest industries”, he says. For him, new ways of developing the city will come first and foremost from the changing of social and cultural practices. “The ‘new city’ will be a result of new or different social and cultural practices, rather than a result of us thinking what the city should be like, while we keep doing the things we have done in the last decades”, says Pérez de Lama.

“Not a neighbourhood but a zone”

What sets Seville's urban development apart from other tourist meccas in Spain and the Mediterranean is the fact that on the islet of La Cartuja in the midst of the river Guadalquvir its residents have a visual reminder of what happens when large investments are not accompanied by thinking about the future development of space.

The space of La Cartuja island underwent a complete makeover for the 1992 Expo, which was held in Seville under the title "Age of Discovery" to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus's ‘discovery’ of America. Before that, La Cartuja had been a 'no man's land', a remote part of the city through which the railway was passing, and an occasional gang of teenagers were sipping beers.

For the Expo ‘92 the entire infrastructure on the island was made from scratch. The exhibition itself had a special meaning for Seville. "One should bear in mind that this wasn’t long after Spain had become a democracy after the dictatorship. The new democratic constitution was approved in 1978, and the country joined the EU in 1986, which was then perceived as an important step toward the modernization of society. The Seville Expo ‘92 and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were part of this (modernization) spirit”, Jose Pérez de Lama explains. Many thoroughfares were built at this time to connect Seville with other large cities in Spain; a new airport was built; local roads were restored; but major urban transformations and infrastructure developments were restricted to the world exhibition site. The Seville Expo ‘92 has been remembered for its imposing buildings and luxuriantly designed pavilions, many of which now stand neglected and half-decrepit. After the exposition, the city authorities attempted to redefine the La Cartuja district as an 'innovation zone’, called Cartuja 93, because it was difficult to redevelop the then-existing infrastructure into a residential area. Later on, the mayor Alejandro Rojas-Marcos decided to bid for the Olympics, so a stadium was built (that was later used for the 1999 World Athletics Championships) and in 1998 the Isla Magica theme park opened on the island.

We can view the development of the islet of La Cartuja in the aftermath of Expo ‘92 through two emblematic buildings: the Cajasol Tower, a 180.5-metre tall 40-storey building which was completed in 2015, and the Central Theatre, built on the eve of Expo ‘92.

The tower’s construction was met with disapproval and resistance of a large portion of locals and civic associations. Owing to its "negative visual impact", UNESCO allegedly warned the local authorities that it would withdraw some of the city’s monuments from the World Heritage Site List, though nothing came of this (even if the authorities refused to lower the planned height of the tower). Next to the tower there is a huge parking lot, a private cultural centre and a shopping mall; the skyscraper is now an eyesore on Seville’s skyline.

The central theatre is a building of much more discreet shape and size; it’s covered in natural brown stone and situated on the riverbank. Unlike the tower, the theatre doesn’t pop up from the surrounding scenery, but its position towards the river and the city is nevertheless interesting. Namely, as the embankment promenade that leads to the theatre is altogether neglected, the visitors, consumers of culture, are ushered through the back door, to the side facing away from, rather than toward, the city centre.

Although both buildings are landmarks familiar to Sevillians, they are symbolically cut off from the city centre, as are most of the other neglected spaces on the island, which were built with disregard to the needs and wishes of the citizens.

"What has been lost due to the privatisation? The original landscape, coastline and connection to the city. Seville may now have a skyscraper and an urban innovation zone, but it has lost the opportunity to become a better city to live in”, says architect Paco González. “This zone is one example of global urban solutions that focus on investment to attract capital – from the Expo to the innovation district, enterprises and university buildings; from organizing large sporting events to a theme park, a big private museum, a shopping mall and a hotel. Nobody lives there – people go to work there; they go there for shopping and leisure. But it's not a neighbourhood where people live; it's a – zone”, says González.

By looking at the vast skyscrapers and abandoned buildings on La Cartuja Island, and talking about the aggressive redevelopment of the former exhibition space into an 'innovation zone' that caters to the interests of private capital, Seville today seems incongruous with Hatherley's original definition of a European city. This model of development, according to Pérez de Lama, will not change itself just by thinking about what a city should be like – not until it is accompanied by a fundamental change in the way it operates.

This article was originally published on as part of the project MediActivism – Courageous young citizens test new ways to reclaim their cities, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union.