A research and innovation centre, an alternative project to the Hermitage in Barcelona

The European Urban Tech, a space for technological and ecological transformation that would bring together entities from Barcelona and Europe, is being developed

5 min
The site where the Hermitage or the European Urban Tech would have to be erected

BarcelonaWhile the public debate has been restricted to the dilemma of Hermitage yes or no, a position in which the Port Authority and the Barcelona City Council are stuck without agreement, another project has been brewing in parallel that now appears on the scene, and to which ARA has had access. It is a facility that would be called European Urban Tech and would be a centre to address the ecological and technological transformation of cities. It would be installed in a lighthouse building, a unique and sustainable architectural project, with the desire to be emblematic of 21st century Barcelona, and which would be located precisely on the land that the Port has committed to the franchise of the Hermitage. It would have three parts: a laboratory and research cente; a training branch; and knowledge transfer to companies linked to urban innovation (energy, mobility, resources, housing, etc.).

European Urban Tech is an idea under construction that seeks consensus between administrations (initially, the support of the Port, which owns the land) and already involves several entities of the city. On the one hand, it would host a project that is already underway and promoted by the Barcelona Tech City, the Col·legi Oficial d'Arquitectes de Catalunya (COAC) and the Institut d'Arquitectura Avançada de Catalunya (IAAC). This is an initiative linked to education, research and dissemination of knowledge "for the ecological and digital transition of the city and buildings", bringing together architecture, urban planning, engineering, technology and innovation. Three months ago, the three institutions announced the promotion of this hub for which they were looking for a location in Barcelona, and which could find its ideal place in the Port (where the Tech City HQ is already located, in the Palau de Mar). Miquel Martí, CEO of Barcelona Tech City, confirms that he is aware of the project and that it requires broad agreements: "Anything that is taken forward will be in agreement with the Port of Barcelona", he says. Martí does not want to enter into any competition for space: "The Barcelona Urban Tech has not been made ad hoc for the Hermitage space, it could go to Morrot or to any other area we are offered; the port area and the city are very large". "If there is an agreement between the Port and the City Council, we will be delighted," says IAAC president Xavier Marcet, who argues that the new project would enhance Barcelona Urban Tech because of the "synergies" that could be created.

Because, on the other hand, the mobility centre of the Institut Europeu d'Innovació i Tecnologia (EIT), one of the three EU research centres based in Barcelona and which are scattered in different university buildings, would also be present. Daniel Sierra, director of the EIT Urban Mobility, assures that it is a "very interesting" project for an initiative like his that works on innovation, mobility and cities.

And still thirdly, the centre would be a business incubator in the field of urban innovation. The idea is also to generate economic activity and employment, in addition to changing the uses and urban planning of the place.

The site is in Nova Bocana, near the Hotel Vela

Aligned with Europe

Sierra believes that the project comes at a "good time" in relation to European policies. Indeed, the project is aligned with the concept of the New European Bauhaus launched a few months ago by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to lead the green transformation linking science, technology, art and culture - just yesterday the subject was discussed in a debate at Architecture Week. The European Urban Tech would raise its finger to become a sub-site of this new Bauhaus, if it has one. And, obviously, it would expect to be financed with the help of European Next Generation funds, in addition to the recovery funds.

The operation is estimated to cost €35 million, according to the document accessed by ARA. The financing of the project is still in its first stages, but the management model raises three scenarios: public, private or mixed promoter. It is considered that the location and quality of the building would make the price of between 16 and 20 euros per square meter competitive. The Port Authority, aware of the project, has not wanted to make statements. The Barcelona City Council has acknowledged that "the project exists, it is interested in it and it is in line with where it believes the future transformation of the city should be heading" and "it has been discussed with many actors" but it still "needs to be pondered, consensus reached and dialogue between the parties involved held so that it can go ahead".

International projection

In promoting this plan there is an element of a symbolic nature but of great weight: the idea that the flagship project that has to identify the post-pandemic Barcelona should not be a franchise of a Russian museum, but a laboratory that responds to contemporary challenges and that is a tractor of technological, climatic, sustainability and healthy living changes. The European Urban Tech would be located right next to the Hotel Vela, an emblem of the city of services that was projected in the 90s.

The new construction, christened Edifici Trencaones, would be a volume of 16,000 m2 in the Nova Bocana and would come out of an international competition. In the future it could be in dialogue with another adjacent building on municipal land where the City Council has proposed to move the Faculty of Nautical Studies. The forecast is that both buildings would attract a maximum of two thousand commuters a day, which is believed more manageable for this part of the city. Like the headquarters of the historic Bauhaus, the promoters of Barcelona Urban Tech want their headquarters to be another "manifesto building", says Xavier Marcet, meeting "maximum sustainability" requirements, also with regards to construction materials and in the management of water and energy. They even imagine the building having the possibility of generating food.

Mobility, the museum's risk

On April 28, the Barcelona City Council was to announce to the board of directors of the Port Authority whether to authorise the use of the Port's land for the Hermitage, but Mayor Ada Colau explained that they had asked to remove it from the agenda and that they had given themselves another month to "seek an agreement". Whether it will be included in this month's meeting "will depend, surely, if there is agreement," say sources at the Port Authority. Even so, its president, Mercè Conesa, explained she hopes to "consolidate a technological district linked to logistics and the blue economy with the ability to transform and dialogue with the urban and metropolitan fabric". "A Smart Port within a Smart City", he said. An idea that would also connect with this initiative. We will have to see the capacity of seduction and agglutination of talent of the European Urban Tech because nobody wants to "enter the war over the Hermitage", says the president of the IAAC; entering into a "long controversy" would delay his own project.

Virtual image of the Hermitage project presented over a year ago to the Port

What is clear is that the City Council's position has not moved since January 2020: the second deputy mayor, Janet Sanz, maintained this week that the sub-site of the Russian museum in the Port "is not compatible with the life of the neighbourhood" because the tourist pressure would be unsustainable, although the Barceloneta Neighbourhood Association contradicted her. According to El País the agreement that the Port presented to the City Council 11 months ago included the limitation of private transport and the reinforcement of public transport in this area, but the City Council sees it as equally unfeasible to bring 1 million more people a year to this end of the city, which is the public that the Hermitage calculates it can attract. They also consider that the space has to be brought closer to neighbourhood and non-tourist uses.

Even so, the City Council has opened the door to the possibility that it could be done in another location, since the museum is accompanied by a €50m private investment which is difficult to refuse in a Barcelona that has to go down the hard road of recovery after the pandemic. The project, according to the investors, is expected to generate 400 direct and indirect jobs and an impact of €30m per year. Its cultural project has already received a negative report from the city council and the architectural project was the work of Toyo Ito.