Former Laureates

Joan Busquets


Joan Busquets (1946) is a Catalan architect and city-planner or urbanist. Since the 1970s he is professionally based in Barcelona with his office BAU-Barcelona. His projects include new urban centres, reconstructions of old or derelict city centres and the development of infrastructure. Mr Busquets served as Head of Urban Planning for the Barcelona City Council from 1983 to 1989 and in the preparations for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. His work extends far beyond the Iberian Peninsula. He participated in strategic urban planning and design projects in Europe, the United States, the Arab world and China. Examples can be found in Lisbon, Marseille, Singapore, Sao Paolo and several cities in The Netherlands. As a teacher Busquets passes his vision and knowledge on to younger generations. He was professor of Town Planning in the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Barcelona and, at present, teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. Mr Busquets takes the view that sustainable cities in the future should be equipped with user-friendly structures and public spaces. Mr Busquets bases his plans on thorough historical and social analysis of all aspects of an assignment, in this way ensuring that his solutions fit in well with the environment and are based on agreement among stakeholders.


delivered by H.R.H. the Prince of Orange, Patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

‘Public space’ is a fairly abstract term. It can be a virtual public domain on the internet but that is not what I mean here. What I mean is physical space, here on the ground. The areas where individuals, families, communities, even masses of people gather; where they go about their business, where they meet for leisure and pleasure and where they move from one place to another. The places where people live when they are not at home: squares, parks, shopping malls, railway stations, and so on. It is this public space that plays a vital role in ensuring quality of life.
All over the world, urban areas are growing faster and faster. More and more people are looking for work and fulfilment in the city. In many countries, large metropolises and their suburbs have grown into enormous, unlivable conglomerations. Big cities have their own dynamism that seems to defy human control. All the more reason to impose control through design.

The design of public space determines how individuals and groups experience and use it. This is the challenge for urban planners and architects. They have to meet people’s need for a place to live and work, and combine it with a shared public space, with easily recognisable orientation points where people can meet socially. What are the assumptions underlying urban planners’ planning processes? How do they perceive and formulate peoples’ needs? And finally, how do people experience the results?
To the Board of the Foundation these are crucial questions because they have to do with the design of a society that aspires to offer a home to many different groups of people. That is why we chose the design of public space in the city as the theme of the Erasmus Prize 2011.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Planning for a sustainable city of the future involves dealing with many unknowns. It requires visionary thinking.
Scientists once feared that by the end of the 19th century European cities would be deep in horse manure. That was their environmental nightmare, and they were convinced that the most pressing concern for urban planners in the 20th century would be how to deal with all that dung. That made perfectly good sense at the time. Horses had dominated commerce and transport for centuries, and as the population and economy grew explosively, it was logical to expect that this problem would loom large. Of course they could not foresee the invention of the combustion engine, which solved the excess manure problem before it happened. Of course, it created new problems of its own…

As Chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB), I would add that human excrement was also a big problem in our cities in those days. It continues to be a problem in much of the developing world. The construction of water and sanitation infrastructure led to a spectacular decrease in mortality and morbidity rates in Western Europe and North America. Sanitation is still recognised as the most important development in medical history.

Access to safe sanitation and the management of wastewater remain essential preconditions for sustainable development. And they are among the greatest challenges facing urban planners around the world today.

Current problems inform the way we build towards a better world. But the future needs of cities will almost certainly be very different from what we are planning for today. Successful solutions to the problems faced by cities need to address current needs and be sufficiently flexible to accommodate technological progress and unexpected changes in human behaviour.

Joan Clos, the executive director of UN-Habitat and a former mayor of Barcelona, often illustrates this point by pointing to the 1811 Commissioner’s plan for Manhattan. Two centuries ago, urban planners had the vision to allow for 35% public space in their designs – and that in a world without any need for or knowledge of large transport infrastructure. That is what I call Vision with a capital V. It also teaches us that master plans should not be over-detailed. The planning horizons extend too far for us to know exactly what will happen in the future.

Manhattan today is blessed by the vision of the 1811 Commissioner. The contrast with the one per cent public space in the developing world’s expanding, unplanned urban slums couldn’t be greater. It illustrates just what urban planners have to deal with. We all need some room to manoeuvre, room for human development.
Obvious as it may seem, city planning has many different faces. Much depends on the economic situation. You cannot compare urbanisation in South America and Asia with urbanisation in Europe.

In the western world, urban planning has run into some heavy weather. Until recently, detailed urban growth plans were taken for granted. But because of the economic crisis, urban development is no longer what it used to be. We have been forced to rethink how we should shape and improve the built environment. So urban planning is under stress and has to re-invent itself. This applies to the way work is commissioned, and to the relationships between stakeholders in decision-making on both architectural and urban issues. Amidst these changes, urban planners have to manoeuvre carefully, adapting flexibly to new circumstances.
Professor Busquets, I should now like to focus more closely on your work, and the reasons why our Foundation decided to award you the Erasmus Prize.

In your view an urban planner should work on a project with an open mind, not with a fixed idea in his head. To you, this is not some politically correct statement, but a matter of principle. Urban designers are often tempted to start the planning process by visualising the end product – how a railway station or a city square should ideally look. Such plans may be easily frustrated by new developments, by unforeseen practical obstacles, and by lack of funds.

Your approach is different. You hold the deep-rooted conviction that the urban design process should be non-dogmatic and leave room for future adaptations. One cannot and should not make rigid long-term plans for a project that is likely to undergo unpredictable changes along the way. In the view of our Foundation, it is this non-dogmatic approach to town planning and architecture that can set an example and help the discipline move forward.

Ladies and gentlemen,
It is typical of Professor Busquets to base his work on solid historical analysis and in-depth research of the environment in the broadest sense of the word. The first stage of any project is a thorough analysis of all its aspects: historical, sociological and morphological, the role of water, street patterns and technical factors. Professor Busquets calls this process ‘reading’ the city in different layers.

Once every aspect of an urban planning project has been analysed, he re-interprets the assignment. His solutions are based on this broad analysis and so are always rooted in the historical environment. What others would call an urban design, Professor Busquets prefers to see as constructing a programme for the city.

It is also this aspect of his work – high-level analysis of the different layers of a city – which he shares with his students. This is visible in his publications. An example is his book on New Orleans, entitled New Orleans, strategies for a city in soft land. The workshops with students at Harvard were held before Katrina. The book was finished after the disaster, and gained much more relevance.

I could say a lot more about Professor Busquets’ method of creating programmes for cities. Besides research, two other basic elements of his work are strategy and action. A typical example is mediating between the parties involved in a project. By listening to peoples’ own views about a space and presenting them with a range of different solutions, he manages to secure their commitment to the design process.

For example, in 2007 the Stadgenoot housing association in Amsterdam asked Professor Busquets to improve and condense an existing area round Amstel station and Wibautstraat – the Parool triangle – by adding new apartments, offices and other facilities. He held several workshops where he presented various ideas and a wide range of possible solutions. By involving the client and other interest groups he started a form of interaction that proved crucial to achieving consensus. By being flexible and adapting his plans time and again, he made all the parties concerned feel that their views were being heard and taken into account.

He was convinced that, in this way, the discussion between client and stakeholders would ultimately yield results. He adopted a similar approach to a new design for the old city centre of Toulouse. Professor Busquets’ idea of creating an octagon with green links between squares and boulevards became a topic of discussion well before the plans were executed.

Professor Busquets, your work started with projects in Barcelona. These projects have become exemplary of your work and have drawn much attention internationally. Despite the modest size of your office and staff, your oeuvre has grown steadily with assignments all over the world. You have been involved in such diverse projects as new metropolitan centres, reconstructions of old and neglected city centres, development of infrastructure, waterfronts, port areas, residential districts and individual buildings – too many to be mentioned here.

Many of your projects have been in the Netherlands, where your approach to urban planning has been appreciated for years. You have worked in The Hague, Rotterdam, Delft, Helmond and other Dutch cities. Now, your work can be seen in Europe, the US and China, and we expect to see even more of it in the years to come. Your work appeals not only to professionals, colleagues who admire your consistent approach, but also to non-professionals, ordinary members of the public. Your presentations show how urban spaces are structured, how they can be manipulated and how such interventions – sometimes small, sometimes substantial – can bring about a great change for the better.
Professor Busquets, allow me to congratulate you on winning the Erasmus Prize. Please come forward so that I can invest you with the insignia of the Prize.
Thank you.

Photo John Thuring

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished guests and friends,

My first words are ones of gratitude and excitement at receiving the Erasmus Prize and for this splendid celebration. I would like to highlight the importance of urbanism in defining the future of our communities and the extent of its influence on contemporary culture.

1-Times of major transformation in our society
When we welcomed the 21st century with enthusiasm, we became aware of new issues that had been underestimated: progress is not infinite, and we have to avoid waste.
We have to be rigorous in our approach to progress and avoid unnecessary alarmism such as that portrayed in the terms “risk society”. Our civilization has dealt with major challenges in the past, such as hygiene in the 19th century, and health care and modern urbanism in the 20th; why shouldn’t we be able to deal successfully with new challenges now?
There is a tendency to confuse civilization with civility. The former is constantly changing, and civilizations successively rise and fall. Civility, however, has to do with our individual condition, and it is here that urban life proves effective: we might say that human beings cease to be savages by means of collective life, which takes place predominantly in the city.

2- Urbanism is a question of ideas and it is a creative process.
The design of the city is a social and political issue, but it is also one of culture and aesthetics, and it is produced by projects and strategies.
The everyday discussion about functional values and the efficiency of the city is seen as a rational question, but there are also artistic values. Aldo Rossi compares logical and analogical thinking. The logical is easy to describe with words, whereas the analogical needs a series of images to be communicated, as affective objects, memory of a place. Everyone recognises analogical contents even if they don’t know how to express them. But both forms of thinking are vital when expressing the ideas that define a project.
Urbanism and urban Architecture have a creative component that is inventive but also cultural, capable of connecting with history and geography, that sometimes makes us uncomfortable, but which we have to be able to reason and explain.
This creative process is marked by a major evolution in working techniques that enhance our abilities, but it is also important to recognise that there are arts and disciplines that help us to define better the analogical component.
Painting offers new interpretations of the city that can inspire decisions in urban design projects, as in our contribution to the reorganization of the railway system and central urban spaces in Delft, with a reinterpretation of “View of Delft”, the fascinating painting by Jan Vermeer dated 1660. In this captivating work of cityscape, everything is rendered very real by the effect of the lighting and the clouds, creating the eye-catching effect of the city’s symmetry, in which simple elements become quite monumental. In today’s project, this rigorous combination of scales serves to recover a central public space by means of the major works of infrastructure that are anchored to the ground.
Similarly, El Greco’s interesting representation in “View and Plan of Toledo”, dated 1608, shows in great detail the synthesis between representation and reality, and heralds the possibility of its propositive capacity, combining “objects and context” in the rehabilitation strategy applied to the historic centre of Toledo, four centuries later.
This attitude is also put forward by Colin Rowe in Collage City, suggesting that we reconcile this challenge between architectural object and urban texture, represented by two constantly conflicting traditions: the radical who sees the city as a theatre of prophecy and the conservationist stance that sees the city as a theatre of memory.

3-Current issues
Today’s city is open to the territory. City walls disappeared in the 19th century, and the ring roads that separated city from countryside are fading. Today, infrastructures have to be “arteries of urbanity” that weave the territory together, giving rise to a different relation between city and countryside. Natural space is one component more of urban space. We have to eliminate the boundaries between ecology and urbanism, because only in this way can we produce sustainable cities.
Mobility changes with new forms of communication, though there is no decrease in the volume of movement. Today’s city dwellers want to be able to choose their forms of communication at a given moment.
The concern of the architect who is interested in the city is to take action, and this capacity is synthesised in the urban design project, with its multiple scales and variants. Many people have to be convinced in the case of propositive development, but it is vital for the ideas to be shared, otherwise failure is almost assured.

4-Thinking ahead
Urbanism provides answers for today’s society, but we feel the need for an innovative or utopian approach. Here, the discussion between Erasmus and More could be relevant.
The most notable works of Erasmus, The Praise of Folly, and Thomas More, Utopia, are set in the context of this common approach, despite differences in contents and ambitions. Their works are set in the transition from the Renaissance as an artistic and cultural trend to the Reformation, with the accompanying social and political transformation.
In Utopia, the urban formation is regular, as far as geography allows, and each house has its gardens with fruit trees and plants. The island is a federation of cities and land is the principal asset in Utopia, signifying an important social gambit in the Europe of the time. The residents moved house and land every ten years to give greater social mobility to this complex set-up.
Erasmus did not seem to share in the “communism” reflected in More’s stance and was not much attracted by such a “strictly regulated” society that “smelt of” a monastery, as he wrote in his treatise. In The Praise of Folly, too, he criticised the ideal “wise man” of Utopia as being completely inhuman and incapable of human feelings. Then we can see two interesting radical positions, innovative vs. utopian, to conciliate…

5-Some biographical notes
Barcelona has been my point of reference in training and experimentation—first at the LUB—for developing new forms of interpretation of the urban phenomenon and understanding its huge impact on the living conditions of the population, and I would like to thank my teachers and colleagues for their rigour and generosity. It was a rich period that continues to germinate in many of my present-day reflections. Barcelona is a city with brilliant episodes such as Art Nouveau, with Gaudí and Domenech, and urban projects such as the Eixample, designed by Cerdà for city expansion in the 19th century, but also with periods of grey growth and speculation during the dictatorship after the Spanish Civil War. Understanding these processes was a seminal stage.
I would also like to thank the democratic leaders at Barcelona City Hall who believed in our abilities and asked us to contribute our work and ideas to the rehabilitation of neighbourhoods in the city, opening it up to the sea and creating a vibrant urban economy. Barcelona has undoubtedly become a point of reference for good urbanistic practice in Europe, showing that city design is possible and that it has to work at several scales at once, involving the various social agents, if it is to be effective.
Then, the opportunity of taking part in Europe’s multicultural discussion in the 1990s was determinant. In particular, the contrast with Dutch reality and forms of intervention, in Rotterdam, the Hague, Amsterdam, Delft and Helmond, among others, highlighted the possible subsistence of forms of strategic national planning, with more liberal, open processes in the development of cities and their urban fragments. The debate between city project and innovative architecture, between public space and landscape, has been a rewarding one. The urban tradition of figures such as Berlage and Van Eesteren is still very much present.
The contrast with other cultures, such as those of Italy, France, Portugal, Germany or Switzerland, has served to produce more specific suggestions and projects for each local reality.
In the last decade, my platform in Cambridge at the GSD allowed me to take a new look at emerging realities with a view to experiencing other contents: the contrast between the New World of the Americas and the Old World of China and India, and their urbanistic challenges. As Cerdà said, in relation to Barcelona: a good method of designing the city has to address our closest reality, but it must also embrace what happens in other places and interpret all this in keeping with the progressive culture of the time.
In these emerging realities, we re-discover questions that were overlooked by the urbanistic dogmas of the last century, such as the virtues of high density, the richness of mixed uses or the potential value of public land in urbanistic strategies. These questions involve very diverse conditions for defining the urban form and its evolution; perhaps Western culture can benefit from these experiences in the near future.

6-Perhaps a new humanistic, cosmopolitan attitude is needed …
Cities no longer respond to the “idea of a machine” that inspired city design in the 20th century. Today, they are processes that are transformed and modify very fast; rather than machines that move, they are biological metaphors.
Here, the figure of Edgar Morin and complex thinking help us to decipher how to approach and work with complex structures, in processes where their development changes the rules, creating new patterns for mutation. Ultimately, it helps us to achieve a new simplicity for planning the unknown…
The form of the city is the result of many elements, but the configuration of “space”, be it built or un-built, is undoubtedly a key to its correct materialization. It is easy to understand the past and interpret the present, and designing the future requires us to understand both, but it has to be created, but future has no form, and has to be created, and its formalization is one of the most difficult and fascinating tasks for today.
This seems to call for an open, humanistic attitude that avoids the narrow dogmas of the past, and here, once again, the debate between More and Erasmus is highly relevant; let’s make intelligent use of their memory…


Sabine Lebesque and Vibeke Gieskes, Joan Busquets, De stad in lager/The city in layers, Architectura et Natura Press, Amsterdam 2011  € 35,-
ISBN 978 94 61400 18 5
Now in the bookshop

Joan Busquets
Special edition De Architect
Sdu Publishers, November 2011
available in specialist shops


VideoWatch video


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Guests:

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation tries to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2011 to professor Joan Busquets.

The Prize is awarded to professor Busquets on the following grounds:

Mr Busquets has an impressive, international oeuvre of city planning projects, best described as programmes for the improvement of the infrastructure of the city.

Mr Busquets takes the view that sustainable cities in the future should be equipped with user-friendly structures and public places.

In his working practice mr Busquets is non-dogmatic and flexible, always leaving room for adaptations and changes, seeking consensus among all stakeholders.

He bases his plans on thorough historical analysis of all aspects of an assignment, in this way ensuring that his solutions fit in well with historical and other physical elements of the environment.

As professor and teacher, mr Busquets involves students in his work and thus stimulates a new generation of urban planners to follow in his footsteps.

Sketch ZKZ Rotterdam by Joan Busquets

A sketch for ZKZ Rotterdam by the Spanish architect Joan Busquets, Erasmus Prize winner in 2011.