Barcelona | 1967-1972

Photographs by Sergio Dahò, Text by Francesc Magrinyà, Interview by Habitat Project

Barri de Can Baró, seen from the Turó de la Rovira

When we take a picture we have so many possibilities, points of views, situations, that the simple fact of choosing is already a creation

Francesc Català-Roca

With its route through the suburbs of Barcelona between 1967 and 1972, Sergio Dahò helps us to understand a decisive moment of the architectural development of the city.

As suggested by Català-Roca, the simple choice of a theme as the subject of a photographic project is already part of the creative act, and in fact Dahò, with this series of images, allows us to see a reality that, although described on several occasions, it remains unknown to many of us.

The photography of Dahò focuses on the essential elements of urbanization on the outskirts of Barcelona. His photographs go beyond the aesthetics of situations and characters: his choice is to use a detached point of view, yet intense, of territories which become now more comprehensible thanks to his work.
The look on outlying regions that we find in the photographs took in Colita on Somorrostro or Català-Roca on Montjuïc always starts with a character. In the fifties, a group of photographers as Xavier Miserachs, Ricard Terré, Ramon Masats, Oriol Maspons or Joan Colom, offering an observation about the boundaries of the society centered in unknown situations and characters. In this period the privileged places are undoubtedly the historical center of Barcelona and especially the neighborhood of Raval.

The attention of Sergio Dahò moved instead to the districts of the new suburbs, which is rising under the pressure of immigration to Barcelona between 1950 and 1970, to the architecture, to the borders of the city and its outskirts. In that time the eastern borders were Somorrostro and Montjuïc, southern border Zona Franca, the line connecting the Carmel, the Vall d’Hebron and the Turó de la Peira is the border to the north-east and the line from Roquetes until Singuerlín, across the river Besòs, represents the northern border.

The dialectical relationship between center and periphery
Polygon of Vall d’Hebron, seen from the Turó de la Peira

Sergio Dahò gives us a vision of hope, but it’s also a vision that wants to claim the importance of the working class who work in the formal city but live with difficulties inside the informal city. It’s a period of claims and criticism to urban society as a system of power. Contemporary to the photographic work of Sergio Dahò there’s the essay: “Le droit à la ville”¹ (1968) of Henri Lefebvre showing how the relationship between center and periphery is comparable to the relationship of subordination were the working class are under the political power of the ruling classes.

In this context, the vision of Dahò can be interpreted as a new interpretation of urban space. In his essay “La production de l’espace”² (1974) Lefebvre make a distinction between social space and physical space, and adds a third type: the lived space, which fits between the space conceived and the one perceived. The representations of conceived space are the perceptions of intellectuals, technicians and urban planners that anticipate its material realization, the physical space.

But the reality is not only what we see (the perceived space) and we think (the conceived space), but also what we can’t see or know, and that inevitably pass through the lived space, where everything is happens simultaneously and which can never be explained in its entirety, because the lived space is not an absolute truth, but multiple and complex as the experience itself. The vision of Dahò is, in this sense, clarifying its lived space.

Shapes of urban development: a reading about the urbanization through photography
First housing blocks at Canyelles

Dahò observes the constructions and the people in it. The slum, the marginal urbanization, the residential areas are the references of urban development in this new territory the administration responds to the new needs of this place with slowness and inefficiency. After that, speculators have already done a roaring trade: they constructed accommodations without urbanization, services or green spaces. The polygons of Singuerlín or the Vall d’Hebron are exemplary. However, administrators and technicians have attempted to solve the problems, as in the case of Montbau that Dahò visited with special care.

What appears to be really important is the choice of how you choose to direct your sight or not, pointing the gaze on certain territories and not on others. If the references in the fifties were the historic center of Barcelona and the Raval, the interest of Sergio Dahò focuses on the urban periphery, on the other Barcelona so well portrayed by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán in “Los mares del sur”³ and Juan Marsé in “Últimas tardes with Teresa”4. In his search about some neighborhoods – which together show different forms of urban development, with the appearance of the polygon as a new residential model that coexists with marginal urbanization, degradation and the slums – Dahò perfectly captures the cerdenians duality5 between the container and the content, the built shapes and the people who inhabit these new spaces. In these images we find different forms of urban development: the barracks of Montjuïc, the polygons of Montbau, Vall d’Hebron, Sistrells or the intermediate fringes of Roquetes and Carmel, self-managed spaces by the citizen outside the public administration.


Any city in the world arise from a first settlement, a house or – in its minimum expression – a simple shelter, and from the access to a primary service, a water source. Gradually housing characteristics get improved and from a precarious roof we move to a shelter with a more solid structure. Then, its inhabitants will demand essential services: electricity, public transport, waste management. And later: facilities such as kindergartens, schools, health centers or first aid structures. With the expansion of the city also increases the need of other essential services, that usually come with difficulty and most of the time under the pressure of claims from the inhabitants. When the administration fails to meet these needs, the same people organize themselves into committees of self-management, like in Roquetes where the sewer was extended to new roads through the initiative “Urbanizar en domingo” and the seizure of a public bus was used to obtain the lines of public transport in their neighborhoods. This is what is called today “right to the city”, that the people who work in the formal city but are forced to live in informal city have guarantees about the minimum conditions of habitability: basic equipment, supply of water and electricity , public transportation and more generally access to the public space. The right of housing extends to the right to the city.

Montjuïc and La Perona, reference of the slums

The immediate visual association with the urban periphery is the slum. It’s the representation that we find in the photographs of the barracks of Montjuïc. It’s where much more clearly is perceived the extreme precariousness condition. The slum is characterized by a sum of precarious buildings, without a clear subdivision, without services. In fact, the first thing is to limit the settlements, even if everything remains illegally. The only essential service that we always find in any group of shacks is the access to water, which Sergio Dahò resumes with the fountain as a single point of supply and remind other scenes of poverty in many parts of the world and especially in Africa.
Dahò also photographs the shacks near the Verneda settlements, on Calle Guipuzcoa. These settlement are situated along the railway line, a place known as La Perona, the last complex of shacks from the 80’s. These marginal areas of the city were converted today like the under construction 22@ district of Sant Martí, in response of the new wave of sub-Saharan migrants.

Vall d’Hebron and Montbau Sistrells, experiences of blocks generated by speculation
Polygon of Vall d’Hebron, from the actual Ronda de Dalt, near the polideportivo of Vall d’Hebron

One of the territory observed by Sergio Daho there’s the neighborhood called Vall d’Hebron, next to the Ronda de Dalt, near the ancient footpath between Sant Genìs and Horta. Its origin is in the construction of “Parque de la Vall d’Hebron” in 1968, a residential polygon built according to the Regional Plan of 1953 that qualified the territory as a city park and garden-city. The project consisted in the approval of a partial plan, submitted by the real estate company JM Figueras y Bassols, who would build houses without the related services. The polygon was built on the old properties of Can Travi  Vell and Can Travi Nou, Can Marcet (Salesians),  Can Brasò y Can Rossell which were part of the old town of Horta. The buildings of the Vall d’Hebron stand out, isolated and imposing on the landscape and the result is an area of old farms dotted with esplanades hosting the subway depot.

In this landscape we find the image of a person walking in an informal territory, yet to be developed, directed perhaps to his place of work in the formal city. Only in 1987, when the nomination of Barcelona for the Olympic Games of 1992 was approved, was set out a project to reorganize this area. Finally the old esplanades, the illegal gardens and the hollows turned into a major city park with important sport facilities for the city.

Roquetas, Quarter de Simancas

Near the Vall d’Hebron, in Montbau, there are three prefabricated blocks with good construction characteristics, in what must be one of the exemplary neighborhoods of the area. The eye also targets a number of small white houses, a place of architectural experimentation. The Montbau neighborhood is located at the foot of the Serra de Collserola, on the north side of the Ronda de Dalt, an area that began to urbanize following a rational model since 1956 to deal with the housing demand generated by immigration after the war. The Patronato Municipal de la Vivienda promoted the project of 1,300 homes which was developed by a prestigious group of architects of Xavier Subias, P. López Iñigo and G. Giráldez Dávila, who were following the urban rationalistic guidelines of CIAM6. The second phase, started in 1961, was modified in order to double the housing capacity planned initially.

Carrer Torres, at the corner with Carrer Artesania

Sergio Dahò is also interested in Singuerlín, a district of Santa Coloma de Gramenet located on the opposite bank of river Besòs. In this place were built residential settlements coexisting with ancient farms and self-built homes on the road to the mountain. This territory, which in the nineteenth century was the favorite resort of the upper classes for summer holidays, has become today a mixture of planned city and self-built city. Survival, the right to housing and housing as commercial business, intersect in complex ways.

In his photographs Dahò captures elements such as street lamps, associated to electricity, the bus up the hill, expression of access to public transport, as elements defining the urban dimension, like Edward Hopper represented in his paintings the North American periphery. Dahò also registers this new lived space by finding a balance between the architecture and the new urban life.

Via Favencia
Singuerlin, Santa Coloma de Gramenet
Roquetes and Carmel, examples of self-building at the margins of administration

But where the visual reflection of Dahò, in its walk along the periphery, gets more intense is in the district of Roquetes. His gaze is focused on the margins, where the houses constitute the frontier with nature, as a last borderline. The photographer observes the terrain vagues that will be crossed by the Ronda de Dalt and the hollows where people barely can circulate, but also other important areas of pedestrian flow crossed by a high voltage line. And the famous ’40m Road’ that with the urbanization of Via Julia, will become a central area of Nou Barris. And in this area soon we find the first temporary facilities for recreation, such as Buñoleria Mariano, a kiosk selling pancakes, typical fluid architecture of a neighborhood under construction, an area in transition.


Tinitat Nova, now Carrer de 9 Barris

His photographs also show scenarios of a periphery built by improvisation, with different height between the road and the buildings, due to the need, in many cases, to build on safe ground, directly on the rock, avoiding the danger of the water streams generated by the rain but hindering a more reasonable road section; roads that run between two facades of houses, with narrow sidewalks that are in fact the thresholds of the houses; the road, not yet urbanized, as a playground; the first cars moving in the unpaved roads; trucks that move with difficulty between depressions and steep slopes. His gaze goes instinctively toward the urban signs of an unfinished city.


The city is a living organism, with its rhythm of growth and urban renewal; It’s a space in constant transformation. We can find the public space at the margins of suburbs, so well described by Manuel Delgado in “Sociedades movedizas”7, in the cartography of the evictions in the metropolitan area. Barcelona is constantly evolving and Sergio Dahò depicts in his photographs of the late sixties a peripheral space that, with time, will be swallowed up by the city that grows relentlessly: the neighborhoods arise spontaneously, with just a few hints of planning. The photography of Sergio Dahò is the view of a precise time and space in the outskirts of a town under construction. His observation skillfully captures the different forms of urban growth: from the precarious shacks of Montjuïc to the architectural experiments of Montbau, from the speculation on agricultural land in the Vall d’Hebron to the old plots of Roquetes; a city whose neighborhoods have been built up in a gradual way, thanks to a set of protagonists -in this case the citizens themselves- whose actions resulted in the developing of their own urban model. The eye of Sergio Dahò brings us to the edge of the city in the outskirts of Barcelona in the late sixties but, although his work is the legacy of a living space in that remote period, it doesn’t appear far from a present which need, once again, critics and claims.

1 Henri Lefebvre, Il diritto alla città. Padova: Marsilio Editore, 1978.
2 Henri Lefebvre, La produzione dello spazio. Milano: Moizzi Editore, 1976.
3 Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, I Mari del Sud. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1996.
4 Juan Marsé, Últimas tardes con Teresa. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 2005.
5 The author refers to the bibliography of the engeneer and urbanist Ildefonso Cerdà (1815 – 1876)
6 Congreso Internacional de Arquitectura Moderna.
7 Manuel Delgado, Sociedades movedizas. Pasos hacia una antropología
de las calles. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2007.

Habitat: When you arrived in Barcelona in 1967, what was the economic and political situation?

Sergio Dahò: We were still in full dictatorship. The Generalissimo Francisco Franco, El Caudillo, exercised his power with extreme hardness. All major democrats and progressives were in exile abroad or were killed during the civil war. Timid dissent were repressed with imprisonment, torture and sometimes even with the garrote, although very little leaked from the walls of prisons. There still were the ban on association that prevented the meeting of more than four people, and even for an innocent evening with friends it was recommended to the guests to arrive no more than two or three at a time, because there was “El Sereno” that saw everything: some kind of security guard, one for each block, which had keys to all the doors, he watched and reported suspicious movements to the Guardia Civil. All the Western world tolerated this with laid-back cynicism in the name of the claims of the Cold War.

At the end of the sixties, after three decades of absolute economic autarky, the dream of a possible industrial development generated powerful waves of internal migration. Mostly they were farmers who abandoned the countryside, debased by landowners to grazing for fighting bulls. Those people sought fortune in the city: hundreds of thousands of improvised workers, more than one million only in the province of Barcelona, condemned to live in slums that reminds Cesare Zavattini’s movie, new proletarians in a fascist country with the strength and merit of having given life to the progress. Around them, the city that just before the civil war Le Corbusier had called one of the most beautiful in the world, quickly changed skin: architecture suited to urbanization, and next to the popular blocks to resolve the spreading of shacks settlements the first skyscrapers sprouted, contemporary counterpoint to the creations of Gaudì and Cerda, the first highway linking Barcelona to the French border, but a real boost to the modernization came only after many years with the 1992 Olympics.

H: In 2014 you were in Barcelona to inaugurate the exhibition of this reportage: you’re back in the areas where you had taken the photographs? What has changed and what’s stayed the same?

SD: Everything changed and nothing has changed. I went back twice in a month and a half, but a dense agenda of commitments allowed me only two afternoons for this kind of reconnaissance. I went through the large arteries such as Via Julia, Via Favencia, La Meridiana, and then areas like Roquetas, Canyelles, Montbau, Horta. Almost everywhere the old buildings were gradually replaced by new good quality buildings, some well-kept garden with lovely water features. But the city, meanwhile, has spread like wildfire, and new suburbs have sprung up with the usual problems  of almost all big cities of the world. Maybe there were no more shacks made of recycled, corrugated iron and some scrap of canvas asphalt. But infrastructure and basic services, as always, come belatedly compared to residential buildings.

H: According to you, how your work has a social relevance?

SD: Last year (2014 ndr) I donated all original negatives to the AFB – Arxiu Fotografic de Barcelona, a beautiful place run by Jordi Serchs. With their help we staged an exhibition at the Barcelona Vision Gallery with a selection of images curated by Marta Dahò and printed by Jordi Calafell from the AFB. From the same selection, always curated by Marta Dahò, we printed a catalog with a comprehensive written contribution of Francesc Magrinya, a Catalan urbanist that pays special attention to the problems of the suburbs.

Thanks to the considerable media coverage and people-to-people communication, the exhibition was visited not only by people who ordinarily follow the activities of the gallery, but also by a diverse audience that in those images recognized and found himself in a piece of his history, or his life; some teachers have brought entire schools and this has been very rewarding.