More than in any other economic field, globalization has dramatically changed the maritime business and its landscapes. Ships have been continuously increasing its size in last decades, expelling commercial activities to remote berths, having containers and other specialized cargoes much to do with it. These new, expanded ports, seems to have much more relation with highways that with cities. Alleged motivations are deeper berthing, huge spaces to allow “container beaches” and other specialized cargoes and quick access to highways and to rail, none of which can be offered by a city center. We can consider this process as “natural”.
Old Ports, those that were at the origin of many of our cities, overnight became empties places at the city heart. And this change was praised by planners and architects, who understand it as a big opportunity, and they acted by creating the so called “waterfront” areas. These new-branded urban spaces sprawled all over the world, always following a more o less standarized project , in a “globalized fashion” that sometimes included lake and river ports.
But this pattern immediately starts to put at risk maritime heritage, as its main aim was clearly urbanistic: to attract a global tourist stream, a kind of public not much interested on maritime heritage issues. Rather, many tourists look for places with easy-to-understand referents, globally accepted sea-side symbols as can be palm trees, a repertoire of also global shops and, of course fish restaurants!, that usually results in the sole reference to the sea. It’s clear that the whole process has harmful effects to the capacity of this place to convey knowledge or feelings.
In fact, European waterfronts, and specially the Mediterranean ones, have become aseptic, empty, clean spaces that have nothing to do with those dirty, noisy, extremely vitally place
s that ports once were. It have been a very similar process that those followed by other industrial Heritage sites, as factories or industrial colonies. At the best, this activity has been supplanted by recreational activities, linked or not by the sea, but rarely linked with present or past maritime transport.
The main reasons are not difficult to found:
The interface sea-land has lost the “sea” part, as there are no more merchant ships berthing at these places. Ships calling usually are the very antithesis of any form of maritime Heritage, as can be the so called “mega-yachts” or the rescue boats.
To maintain an old steam or motor vessel is much more expensive and less profitable that to maintain a sailing ship, which can be very interesting and representative of a remote time, but having less than 40 m length. The reason is not only the size but the strong significance and emotional weight that sails have in our culture as a romantic, universal sign of liberty and adventure. It’s not the same for steamers and even less for motor vessels that have not yet achieved enough literature.
To maintain a central urban space as a maritime transport reminder is also difficult and expensive, as it would need a quantity of information about maritime history that people has not. On the contrary, global reclaims as franchised shops or restaurants are easily understand to the visitors.
As a result, waterfronts follows a kind of standard, a typical global landscape with few remembrances about it past as a port. On the other hand, modern port no longer holds interesting or culturally rich places, but inaccessible, ununderstandable areas where nobody likes to go.
But this is not the only future possible for Old Ports. Why not to convert in valuable cultural sites? Giving a chance to every port, we can offer a distinctive ambiance for every old port, a cultural resource and a added value also for tourism, although it shall be not so global…
Barcelona Port: gone with the Olimpic wind
The port of Barcelona, today a main touristic target, exemplifies very well the exposed process. Until the decade of 1980, the ports maintains alive its traditional environment that included not only the quays (then about 1/3 that at present), but also many streets that hosted the maritime business, the ship chandlers and any kind of services for ships and seaman, some of which had not the best reputation. But it was a port district…
By the time that the city was selected for the Olympic games , the Old Port (not so old, as it was completely in use by merchant ships) came under focus, as it was saw an area to be “regenerated”. That means, changed, destroyed.
The idea that city should to be “opened” to the sea had great success among authorities and, even, common people. But nobody spent a minute on explain to the people which kind of richness was stored there. Open the city to the sea was understood as go to beach which is, that’s true, the idea that common people have of the sea. But the city had been open to the sea trough the port for two thousand years.
Port warehouses where among the first victims, until the point than none of the historic ones remains. His numerous cast iron columns formed a transparent atmosphere where tradding should be easily captured. Odors of thousand cargoes seemed present in the environment.
Many ports have understood the value of such a buildings (Valencia) as a public space. Warehouses were replaced by empty hard surfaces. Thus, the “La Barceloneta” district, which traditionally housed sailors and fishermen, was “opened to the sea”, but at the same time, it lost his real relationship with the port. By breaking this relationship the very nature of the neighborhood was distorted .
A unique building symbolizes the whole process, the “Palau de Mar”, (Sea Place) as is know in its post-modern denomination that has nothing to do with its past. It was built In 1900 as “Almacenes Generales de Depósito”, that is, a as a modern, innovative sheltered warehouse, located at the innermost point of the basin. It was designed as a semi-automatic warehouse. Ships berthed beside and goods were directly distributed among the diverse floors by a system of moving ramps. On the land-side of the building, these moving ramps where visible from the street, as the system permits also to load, and unload directly to and from chariots and later, to trucks. Although the building survives the Olympic fever, the characteristic moving ramps, the cranes and other loading facilities disappeared, and it is no more in direct contact with the sea, loosing any attribute of its past. Today it hosts diverse activities not related with the port.
Views of the land side of the “Almacenes Generales de Comercio” around 1920, showing the moving ramps that remained until 1991. Source: MNHC
The same building view from the sea side Source: MNHC
Another extraordinary Heritage piece was the floating quay. It was built in 1895 at “La Maquinista Terrestre y Marítima” (Barcelona) following a design of British engineers Clark & Standfleld, and was scrapped in 1991. Moved by steam, it was asymmetric, with a sole structure containing the engines and ballast tanks in one of its sides and a comb-shaped platforms in the center, where ships were placed. It seems that only to two of such docks have been building, been the other in Hamburg. This port tried unsuccesfully to buy it to avoid scrapping.
Passenger ship “Infanta Beatriz” on the Nuevo Vulcano floating dock of Barcelona, 1924 ca. The image shows the particular, asymmetrical structure of the steam-powered quay. Source: Archivo Bas-Grau
Along the XX Century, its works very efficiently, decades after steamers disappeared from the seas. It was a impressive, nice structure, and a true symbol of the port.
Apart of many vintage cranes, the other great lost was the Barceloneta port warehouses, locally named “tinglados” . Old warehouses at “Moll de la Fusta” quay where demolished in 1961 in order to permit new traffics, basically tropical wood used for furniture from Spanish Guinea colonyi, as Big logs required open space to be discharged. But the port warehouses of Barceloneta wharf, built in the interesting industrial style that characterized a brilliant age of the city, remained on place and in use until the Olympic wind blows over it. They where formed by a great number of thin cast-iron columns supporting an interesting industrial roof. Curiously, others buildings contemporary and similar of the city have been object of careful reconstruction, as can be the Mercat de Sant Antoni. But today this place is a great empty esplanade, and the berth is more or less occupied by a number of luxury mega-yachts that, as is well know, rarely sail. It is perhaps a good business, for the moment. But is has little to do whit the port, the trade, the history or even, the people that is strolling there.
Planners seems to have made an effort to erase the true nature of the port. At the Moll de la Fustra, the most central and urban wharf, representative and unique ships have been berthing until it was closed by a pedestrian bridge that serves a Mall. Today is not possible to see such a ships from the city buses, as it was few years ago. And if people don’t see the ship, it is difficult to grow the interest on maritime world. preventing access of ships to facilitate the tourists to an area as uncharacteristic as is the mall “Maremagnum”.
Happily, the most significant Heritage of the Barcelona port, the cableway is still working, giving to their passengers a complete bird-eye view over the Old Port. Its two conspicuous towers on iron-style, over hundred meters high, are today the best memorial of a time on continuous merchant traffic and intense activity on the quays, where thousands of workers loaded and unloaded any kind of merchandise. Although, it’s not the case today, as few activity of this kind exist in this part of the port. Perhaps, the Port Maritime Heritage should be, in a future, the real attraction that can maintain alive the cableway.
Sant Feliú de Guíxols
Once main port in universally renowed “Costa Brava”, Sant Feliú has lost almost any memory of its past as a transport hub. The historic narrow-gauge railway disappeared, absurdly, in 1969, just when a increasing tourist flux could had transformed it on a main resource. This rail ended on the wharf, where an old fashioned crane was continued to work many years after the train gone. Ships were calling there until year 2000, but the remaining heritage elements were lost, one after other. In a wrong maneuver the crane was hit by a ship and fall. It was a jewel made in 1959, but was not repaired, and somebody says that the accident was no so casual… Rail warehouses were also shot down for a not clear reason. The place was cleared waiting for yachts and boats, the news owners of the Mediterranean sea.
Around 1926 the port lives its better times, with passengers ships calling regularly during the summer. The port was a busy place that maintains in contact the city with the rest of the world. Source: postcard.
Today, lots of tourists visit the city to enjoy its wonderful bay, and they see its quiet waters plenty of moderns pleasure boats. But they can not see the minor signal of its brilliant maritime past, other that the old pier and the ancient rescue centre, built by the “Sociedad de Salvamento de Naúfragos” (Shipwrecked Salvage Society)