(Written in Melbourne with my friend Matt Gleeson, in February 2005)

What might Melbourne be like today if the painter Salvador Dalí, the architect Antoni Gaudí, or the singer Montserrat Caballé had grown up here? Barcelona would undoubtedly be different as well, and who knows what our city would have become? Perhaps Gaudí would have built the Sagrada Familia in the middle of Federation Square instead of in the Barcelonian Eixample?

But they never lived in Melbourne.

Other less prominent Catalans (called Spaniards in Australia, regardless of how they might self-identify) have however made their homes here. They were often renowned restaurateurs and hotel owners who claim to have introduced tomatoes to Australia, invented the meat pie, and even given Bendigo its name. Whether such assertions are completely correct is uncertain, but the truth is that several streets in our city have Catalan names, like Barcelona, Gerona, Borrell or Vert.

Times were different then, however. Today, if there is a distinct Catalan impact, it is not that obvious. Is it possible to exert an influence at all?

Darko Radovic, Head of Urban Design and Senior Lecturer in Architecture at Melbourne University, believes that it should be possible. “Because we are different and because there are differences between Melbourne and Barcelona we should be able to learn from each other, at an interdisciplinary level and across cultures,” he explains.

He is consequently working on a project to unite experts in urban design, planning, landscape architecture, and urban history from Barcelona and from Melbourne. They will be encouraged to exchange ideas amongst themselves, and also with others interested in music, art, literature and so forth; elements which are often outside the urban debate but essential to the city environment.

This idea is not new. As early as 1927, a Catalan author had a similar thought. Onofre Parés’ science fiction book first published by “Editorial Catalonia” and entitled “L’Illa del Gran Experiment. Reportatges de l’any 2000“, translates into English as “The Island of the Great Experiment. Reports from 2000″. It recounts an interesting ideological experiment. (1)

The story starts in 1930, when Hèctor Brau, born in Barcelona, publishes a book about idealism, a new social and economical alternative to capitalism, and it becomes a best seller. This new ideology becomes the foundation of a global agreement: idealists will have a country, Australia, where they can develop their ideal social organisation. Australians will not communicate with the rest of the World until year 2000, when a delegation of outstanding men and women, lead by Hèctor Brau’s son, travel there to determine what has been learned over the ensuing years. They arrive in Australia to discover a utopian society, highly technologically advanced, and with no sickness.

Not much is known about the author. He was 35 when he wrote the book and there are no records pertaining to how he lived and when, or where he died. “L’Illa” may have been his first and only book. A copy of it was found in a market in Barcelona, some years ago, and was subsequently published in 2000.

It is obvious Parés didn’t know much about Australia. In his book there are no Aboriginal people, deserts or kangaroos. Striking, however, is the dedication to “The Honourable Esteve Morell Illustrious Mayor of Melbourne”, who is known in Australia as Sir Stephen Morell, with one of the bridges over the Yarra named in his honour.

The Mayor Morell was born in Vila-seca (Catalunya) and migrated with his parents to Australia to become a rich and an outstanding citizen. Elected Mayor of Melbourne in 1926, he was accorded the title of Sir by the Dukes of York and re-elected in 1927 only to decide, in 1928, not to seek a third term.

In November 1927 Sir Morell’s secretary, Mr McCall, visited Barcelona in search of ideas on how to urbanise the city of Melbourne, and is said to have reported back to the City Council of Melbourne upon his return. That month, the Catalan newspaper, “La Veu de Catalunya“, published an article: “Una ciutat que no té angles rectes en els carrers” (“A city with no right angles in its streets”). The headline refers to the inexistence of straight corners in the streets of Barcelona. The article was then was translated into English and reportedly published by “The Herald” in Melbourne.

How Parés knew about Morell, and whether Melbourne’s urban design was influenced by McCall’s trip to Barcelona or Morell’s administration, is unknown. Probably the Spanish-styled Majorca Building, at 258-260 Flinders Lane and built in 1928–1929, was a result of their influence.

In Melbourne this week, international and Australian thinkers and practitioners of urban design, architecture and planning will discuss innovative challenges and responses to social, economic and ecologically sustainable development. The ECOEDGE, the latest in the CityEDGE conference series, hopes to have some sort of influence on the future evolution of our city.

The phenomena of cities as sites of environmental imbalance will be explored, with an examination of a range of actions that may be taken in response, viewed through the prism of case studies from the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States of America, South America, India, South Africa and Australia.

Among lecturers from all over the world, ECOEDGE features the Head of Urban Design in Barcelona City Council, Oriol Clos, who will be visiting Melbourne, a trip due since 1927.
(1) “La ciència i la tecnologia al servei de la utopia. La confiança històrica d’Onofre Parés a L’illa del gran experiment” Article de Mavi Dolç Gastaldo. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.