Barcelona humiliated by costly festival flop

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The Independent Online

Barcelona's Forum 2004, launched with much fanfare in May as a festival of international cultures and debate, closed yesterday with a €300,000 (£204,000) fireworks display. Crowds packed in for the last few days but even the organisers concede the project has been a damp squib.

Barcelona's Forum 2004, launched with much fanfare in May as a festival of international cultures and debate, closed yesterday with a €300,000 (£204,000) fireworks display. Crowds packed in for the last few days but even the organisers concede the project has been a damp squib.

The flop raises the question of whether Barcelona has lost its buzz. Could Europe's sharpest metropolis, paradise for avant garde architects and adventurous foodies, have slipped into the mainstream? Gone are the glory days of the early 1990s when Barcelona laid on an Olympic Games that is still considered a model. Stylish and efficient, Barcelona 1992 marked a harmonious marriage between public and private funds that rejuvenated a sad old port. Cutting-edge artists and designers transformed the grey city into a destination both fashionable and intellectually sizzling.

Now you are more likely to bump into stag-night party-goers, cultural coach tours or dreadlocked crusties as you crane to admire the Gaudi.

The Forum was supposed to be a fiesta of multicultural creative dialogue but its pulling power fell short of expectations. Five million people were expected; fewer than three million turned up. Some 120 associations worldwide pulled out, complaining their voices were not being heard. "We are silent guests at a party that had nothing to do with us," said a Mexican representative to the debate on Living Space.

Protesters harried the project from the start. The Assembly of Resistances to the Forum, representing 80 local collectives, said the Forum "failed because of its own arrogance". The organisers, confused about what they wanted the Forum to do, could not enthuse even the people of Barcelona, a breakdown in communication that destroyed the basis of the idea, critics said.

"They're going to sell the idea around the world as something they didn't know how to sell properly at home," the anti-Forum assembly said. "But we didn't even think it was a good idea in the first place. They've spent €340m on nothing more than a magnificent spectacle."

The sums just about add up but organisers admit the Forum was overblown. The Forum's manager, Jaume Pages, said: "There was a tendency to overestimate in the huge size of the area, the duration of the event, the number of activities and spectacles, and the complementary activities in the city."

Political authorities from right to left contributed funds, producing a political correctness that stifled the radical aim to be an "event that would move the world". That catchline soon sounded wildly exaggerated, and all but vanished from promotional publicity.

The disillusion reflects, in some degree, the atmosphere of the city itself, where commercialism may finally have outstripped the pursuit of beauty, excellence and social commitment. Barcelona's sensational success has produced a prosperity and sense of well-being, even complacency, that blunts its edgy, innovative spirit.

"Barcelona has become embourgeoised," says Francesco Costa, a software executive who has lived for years in the city. "It's too expensive for all but the most prosperous people to live and they tend to be conventional in tastes and ideas. The Forum was supposed to be a meeting point for anti-globalisers, and transmit messages of peace and dialogue. In reality, it was a hard-nosed urban development project. The image Barcelona presents has lost touch with the people who live there."

The dynamism that has driven the city since General Francisco Franco's death in 1975, is flagging, hobbled by institutionalisation and smothered by economic success.

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