Barcelona is our favorite big city so far. It’s Spain’s 2nd largest city (1.7 million in the center, 5 million in the greater city), but it doesn’t feel like a big city. Public transportation is fabulous, making the city seem smaller, and wherever you go there’s a neighborhood feeling. It’s a delightful city – anywhere you look there’s a feast for the eyes and an outdoor bistro for the stomach. Everywhere the surroundings are funky, or whimsical, or gorgeous, or all three together. Wide, tree-lined pedestrian boulevards are bordered by arresting architecture, chic shops, and relaxing sidewalk cafes that serve amazing tapas. Narrow alleys and winding lanes open to surprising plazas lined with classic architecture, palm trees, sculpture and – por supuesto (of course) – more delightful cafes and boutiques. In this amazing setting, the people bubble with life; how could you not? And did I say the food is fabulous? We’re here in December, and the weather is delightful (we suspect the summer might be tough). At night we can still dine in outside cafes wearing only light jackets, while street vendors sell roasted chestnuts that harken back to a colder climate. This city has charm. Are you sold yet?
There’s one problem in showing you this city – there is so much to show! Where to start! How to organize! I’m going to divide Barcelona into several areas and many posts: the Old City and its “Barri Gotic” quarter; the elegant Eixample which was built just beyond the Old City walls and was the heart of the Modernista movement; the city’s main street, La Rambla; Park Guell; the art museums; the Art Nouveau Sant Pau Hospital, and finally, saving the best for last, the stunning, incredible Sagrada Familia Cathedral that was started in 1882 and is still under construction. Just to whet your appetite, here’s a picture of Sagrada from the internet. My! Doesn’t that look just like 1882! No? Although that list of what I’m going to cover in Barcelona might sound like ‘way too much, I think you’re going to be as captivated by this city as we were.
One of the joys of Barcelona is its amazing architecture, so in this first post – por supuesto – a little background on that topic is in order. Barcelona has Roman ruins, a medieval cathedral, vestiges of a city wall, twisty Gothic lanes, and we’ll touch on those in later posts. Mostly, however, I’ll be focusing on Barcelona’s Modernisme architecture.
By the late 1800’s Barcelona had became an industrial powerhouse, and like other large cities in Europe there was an artistic reaction against industrialization, leading to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the Glasgow Style in Scotland (see post Glasgow I, The City), and ultimately Art Deco in the 1920’s. Barcelona developed a unique artistic style that it named “Modernisme” (Catalan for “modernism”), which lasted from the 1880’s to about 1914. Its main expression was in architecture but it included painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. Joan Miro was born in Barcelona, Salvador Dali nearby, and Picasso lived here as a teenager. Imagine asking these three to collaborate on architecture, and you’ll come close to understanding Modernisme. The three main Modernisme architects were Lluis Domenech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and (the most famous) Antoni Gaudí. Their style incorporated rich decoration and detail, frequent use of plant motifs, a predominance of the curve over the straight line, a taste for asymmetry, and … what to say … fantasy? Tomorrow’s future chic? You’ll see. It’s a hundred years later, but I think Modernisme is still ahead of its time. Oh, one other piece of information: the main symbol of Catalunya is the dragon, which was slain by St. George, the region’s patron saint. In Barcelona, “there be dragons”; they are everywhere.
I’ll start the Barcelona posts with a tour of the Eixample region. There’s much to show, so be forewarned – you’re going to see a lot of amazing buildings (and some interiors). The expansion out of the Old City at the turn of the century was an opportunity for the newly rich to build urban mansions designed by architects doing the bold experimental designs of Modernisma. It’s still the ritzy part of Barcelona. I’ll start with the mundane – the sidewalks of one of the major main streets, the swanky Passeig de
Gracia, shown above. Interesting, yes? They’re copied from floor tiles designed by Gaudi for one of his buildings. These wild sidewalks go for miles down the Passeig. The street itself is divided by a central very wide tree-lined pedestrian way that is filled with outdoor
seating for the cafes across the streets – picture harried waiters racing back and forth across those street carrying trays of amazing tapas. The pedestrian way also has occasional art, like those pasta sculptures above (and yes, young kids are allowed to play in them).
One of the first buildings we come to is the Casa Rocamora, built in 1914 in Neo-Gothic
style. Notice its fancy decoration! Almost universally in Barcelona, examples below, a building’s external walls are for embellishment (sgraffito, tiles, glass, colored stucco) and
the display of stone carvings; rooftops are for fanciful artistic displays; and doors are for fancy wrought iron.
As if the Passeig de Gracia needed more elegance, there are 31 fanciful street lamps with
incorporated benches that were installed in 1906 to light the boulevard. They’re pretty cool!
As we walk along, we come to an area set slightly back from the street, and we stop to investigate. We discover that “El Nacional” is an 1870’s textile factory converted to a restaurant complex that now houses 4 restaurants and 4 bars that also serve tapas. Oh,
this is soooooo much more than a food court! We’re talking upscale. For instance, at the fish restaurant shown above, you pick out the particular fish you want, and they cook it for you right there in the open. Some of the food options from the bars are shown below.
This swanky area of the Eixample is called the Golden Quarter (Quadrat d’Or), but we’re about to encounter the “Block of Discord” with 3 major Modernista buildings in very different styles. Here we go! The first house, Casa Lleo Morera, converted by Montaner
from a previously existing building in 1905, has been described as “Renaissance-influenced”. There’s a lot of decoration! There are art muses lurking on the balconies representing music, photography & theater, attack parrots and dragons protecting the
entrances, and awesome column decorations. However, the outside can not compare with
the incredibly beautiful Modernista design and art on the inside of this building. I’ll show it to you in a subsequent post.
A few doors down is the Casa Amatller, also a previously existing building, this one redone in Neo-Gothic style by Cadafalch in 1900. Neo-Gothic? I see quite a mix – an extravagant
Dutch-style gable combined with Moorish influences in the windows and in the sgraffito designs in the ochre-and-white stucco. Mongrel-ian comes to mind, but the facade is interestingly attractive. Entry into the foyer is allowed, where one can see that the
opulent exterior design extends into the building. A staircase leads to an upper landing and a continuation of the extraordinary detail, plus an impressive stained glass ceiling.
The next house over is Casa Batlló, and it too was a previously existing building, redone in 1904 in a unique Modernista style by the most famous of the Modernistas, Antoni Gaudí. The facade is pure fantasy, as shown below. The lower levels are stone, with
organic-looking windows whose columns are disturbingly reminiscent of carcass bones. The upper levels of the facade are decorated in colorful mosaics and circular disks, the balconies look like carnival masks, and everything is crowned by a roof that looks like a
scaly reptile’s back. Pretty wild, yes? Well, the inside is also wild, and wildly, crazily beautiful; and not just a pretty face – the design combines amazingly clever functional elements – I’ll show it off in a subsequent post.
Everywhere in this city there is incredible eye-catching detail on the buildings – stone carvings, sgraffito, tile, wrought iron and stained glass. Below are some examples
of this diverse architectural embellishment – like that on the Palau Montaner building from 1896, shown above, and on a variety of buildings shown below.
OK, let me show you just 4 more houses, near the end of the Passeig de Gracia. The house below is the elegant Palau del Baro de Quadras, built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1904.
This next house is Casa Bonaventura Ferrer, built by Pere Falques in 1906. It has an
outside door and an inner door with marvelous handles. The interior was under construction upstairs, so we snuck in long enough to shoot some pictures in the foyer.
Isn’t that woodwork gorgeous? I love the Modernista infatuation with floral motifs.
The third house is Casa Comalat, by Gaudí-influenced Salvador Valeri i Popurull in 1911. The front of the house is symmetrical and urban-looking, although there are some
impressive Gaudí-like fluorishes. The rear of the house, however, is something else!
It’s Clark Kent shedding his suit and glasses! Modernista is on full display, in a breathtaking way. In the last picture, a look through the upper floor window suggests a very interesting interior – so let’s go look through that door at the front of the house, shown below.
Remember, this is 1911! I could just as easily believe the building was from 2111! The Modernista architects were all control freaks; in addition to designing the building, they insisted on doing the internal decoration and even the furniture. Isn’t it interesting? And this is just to whet your appetite for what’s to come.
The final house is Casa Fuster, the last house that Domenech i Montaner built in Barcelona (1911) – and also the end of the Passeig de Gracia. The end of a long day of
sightseeing (and blog reading!) deserves a culinary celebration, yes? Some tapas and good wine? We’ll finish this blog with a look at a colorful fountain near the beginning of the
Passeig de Gracia, with Casa Rocamora in the background.
Well, it’s been a long post! Hope you enjoyed our initiation into Modernista down the Eixample.
Next post we’ll look at the interior of one of the more spectacular Modernista buildings (the exterior was shown earlier in this post), the Casa Lleo Morera by Montaner.