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Britain's regional centres could use the Barcelona touch


Each of the mayoral candidates who spoke at the riba last week had done their homework. Ken Livingstone, Jeffrey Archer, Trevor Phillips (representing Frank Dobson), Lib Dem Susan Kramer and Green Party candidate Darren Johnson all managed to give the impression that architecture and the environment were high on the agenda.

Given that London has just gained the Wheel and the Dome, and is currently transforming many of its major cultural institutions, it is hardly surprising that the candidates steered clear of advocating signature buildings. Instead, they spoke of affordable housing, public participation, regeneration.

It seems that none of them aspire to model themselves on Pasqual Maragal, the former Barcelona mayor who is associated with Barcelona's Olympic building programme, and widely credited with procuring contemporary architecture to rival the city's Gaudi buildings or Gothic quarter, hence putting contemporary Barcelona on the architectural map. Much as the architectural world loves Maragal, London's mayoral candidates are right not to emulate his example. Barcelona, after all, is remarkable for the speed and the means by which it overcame its second-city status (whatever the importance of its position as the Catalan capital) to become the most stylish and economically important city on the Mediterranean. London is already a major world city, with more than its fair share of world-class buildings. Public transport, a shortage of affordable housing, and social divisions are its real problems - issues which call for massive bureaucratic restructuring, and need to be addressed by government. Issues which may not be easily fixed through the inevitably personality-based institution of a mayor.

The problems most successfully addressed in Barcelona - declining industries, lack of identity, and a shortage of civic pride - are those most urgently facing Britain's primary regional centres. We should welcome the London mayor, as a sign of returning municipal feeling, but only on the basis that the country's other important cities will gain figurehead mayors just as capable of fighting for their own town's position on an international stage.

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