After visiting Barcelona, I came back to Rome with a new understanding of cities. In comparison to Barcelona, Rome is not quite a contemporary city yet. To be contemporary requires being connected to and currently relevant in the rest of the world. The local history of a city also matters, of course, but only to the extent that it flavours the city with its unique culture, not to the extent that the city needs to rely on it. Allow me to explain…
The physical manifestation of interconnection between cities and cultures occurs on wide, central avenues in large cities. Most contemporary metropolitan cities have one of these generic “global avenues”, which make visitors feel like they might be traveling anywhere in the world. New York has Fifth Avenue, Paris has the Champs-Élysées, Moscow has Tverskaya Street. Barcelona has the Passeig de Gràcia. Of course, the presence of the Spanish and Catalan street signs and spoken language, the unusual chamfered street corners at major intersections, and even the specific kinds of trees that grow along the street are all unique to Barcelona, and yet they exist among the infrastructure of the global avenue. Interestingly, some of the most famous architecture is built along these avenues, but it has become so recognizable that it seems to be site-less instead of belonging to a specific city. The Gaudi houses are so famous that they paradoxically seem to belong to everyone.
Walking along the Passeig, I was able to do anything I would normally be able to do on Fifth Avenue. I walked into a Starbucks and ordered a coffee in English; I strolled by a Louis Vuitton storefront and looked at the Yayoi Kusama window display; I bought generic street food for lunch; I dodged around tourist cameras. Although I was visiting a specific city, walking along its main avenue made the experience into one of visiting the universal contemporary city.
Sadly, although there are countless positives to this universality, it also means that people can easily travel without expanding their comfort zones if they stay on main streets in large cities. Even if I hadn’t left the Passeig de Gràcia and explored the rest of the city, I would have still technically visited Barcelona. I could even take photographs of Gaudi’s Casa Milà and Casa Batllò to show my friends without leaving the avenue. In reality, though, I would hardly have seen anything new or experienced Spanish and Catalan culture.
Rome, on the other hand, is different. It is still very much rooted in its history and fully depends on it for tourism. Although contemporary art has started to develop in Rome in the last decade, the movement is not fully realized yet. Contemporary cities also often have vibrant nightlife and diverse food options, and also the presence of the universal avenue and chain stores. Rome is getting there. It is going through an exciting transformation right now and finally starting to cater to younger visitors. This city will always have its history to show off, so it is great to see that soon it will have another facet to its personality.