Exploring the city
My wife and I visited Barcelona together for a long weekend during the spring of 2019 as part of a series of city break “mini-moons” we embarked on to celebrate our marriage.
Four days isn’t a lot of time to explore this city, but thanks to Mamiko’s military-esque sightseeing agenda, we managed to take in quite a few of the important locations, as well as fit in much needed relaxation time in friendly tapas restaurants, cosy bars and recharge our caffeine batteries in some trendy cafes.
Enough with the intro, let’s get into this whirlwind tour of Bar—ce—loon—aaaa!
The very trendy El Born area, situated between the much busier Gothic Quarter and Parc de la Ciutadella, is characterised by narrow mediaeval streets serving up a diverse array of designer boutiques, small and welcoming art galleries, and cafes by day, and bustling cocktail bars, tapas restaurants and samba music during the night.
It’s a welcome respite from the touristy hustle and bustle of Las Ramblas and its neighbouring Barri Gotic. Also, during warmer periods I can imagine the solid stone buildings would offer some relief from the sun.
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Many of the mediaeval alleyways in this area proudly fly the Estelada, or given it’s full name Senyera estelada, lit. 'starred flag' from the Spanish word estel; "star") — is an unofficial flag typically flown by Catalan independence supporters to express their support for either an independent Catalonia or independent Països Catalans (Catalan Lands, the territories in which Catalan is traditionally spoken).
A succinct Barcelonan art history class
Barcelona's architectural gift to the world is Modernisme, a flamboyant Catalan creation that exploded in the latter period of the 19th century.
Modernisme, which is simply the Catalan word for ‘Modernism’ and refers to the region’s cultivation of end-of-century ideas and trends from the Art Nouveau movement, that has perhaps been anthropomorphized primarily by the visionary work of Antoni Gaudí, and also by others such as the architect and philanthropist Lluis Domenech i Montaner; two works of each we will explore over the course of rest of this essay.
Barcelona's architectural gift to the world is Modernisme, a flamboyant Catalan creation that exploded in the latter period of the 19th century
However, before that I’d like to share a thought or two on this city — Wandering the streets, boulevards and quarters of Barcelona, it’s rare not to be amazed by the beautiful buildings, facades, public spaces, winding alleyways and parks — and I’m not referring the ‘big ticket’ architectural icons here, whose grandeur speaks for itself — there’s something special and intangible about Barcelona that’s difficult, yet important to articulate; I think it’s safe to say that all cities have a kind of ‘personality’ which is created and nurtured, however unintentionally, by the people who live and call it their home.
Throughout its history, Barcelona has welcomed various cultures and civilizations, all having contributed their concepts of art, design, culture and architecture. These historical rungs have left behind their indelible legacy for posterity, from the first Iberian settlers, through the Roman colonisers, the Visigoths, and a brief yet influential Islamic period, until the emergence in the Middle Ages of Catalan art, language and culture, in which the Romanesque and Gothic were particularly fecund periods of artistic development for the city.
It’s with this incredibly brief historical context that I feel it’s just about possible to start to scratch the surface of what lies behind these beautiful vernacular facades and grand architectural achievements; a deep appreciation and understanding of different cultures, artistic styles and historical contexts coalescing to form an essential part of the cultural vocabulary of the people who live here — which they weave effortlessly into their daily lives, and Barcelona is the culmination of this writ large.
Antoni Gaudí i Cornet
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Born in Reus, Catalonia, Gaudí [1852-1926] studied architecture in Barcelona, where he later became a professor. He worked on a number of notable projects throughout his career, including the Park Güell, Casa Milà, and the Sagrada Família, his most famous work and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Gaudí's designs are typically characterised by their sinuous organic forms, the use of innovative materials and construction techniques, and a strong connection to nature. He was also deeply committed to incorporating ornate and intricate religious symbolism and meaning into his designs.
Gaudí's work was not fully appreciated during his lifetime, and he died before many of his most famous projects were completed. However, his legacy continues to inspire architects and designers around the world, and his buildings remain some of the most popular tourist attractions in Barcelona and beyond.
He is considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern architecture, and remains a pioneering figure of Art Nouveau and modernisme; Catalan Modernism.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família
Meaning — Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family — is considered to be the symbol of Barcelona by many residents, and is probably one place you shouldn’t miss when you visit the Catalan capital, regardless of your religious persuasion.
La Sagrada Família is a large, unfinished Roman Catholic church located in Barcelona, Spain, and it is Antoni Gaudí's most famous and ambitious work. The construction of the church began in 1882, and a year later Gaudí took over the project, dedicating the rest of his life to its construction until his death in 1926.
The church's design is characteristic of Gaudí’s typical distinctive blend of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, as well as its intricate sculptural details that are inspired by nature and Catholic religious symbolism. The façade of the church is adorned with sculptures depicting various scenes from the Bible, and the interior is filled with enormous columns that resemble trees, as well as stained-glass windows that flood and bathe the space with rich hues of colourful light.
Gaudí's original plans for the church were so elaborate that he knew it would take many years to complete, and he once famously said that "My client is not in a hurry." Indeed, construction on the church has been ongoing for more than 140 years, and it is still not yet complete.
Today, the church is being completed by a team of architects and builders who are working to bring Gaudí's vision to life while also incorporating modern construction techniques and technologies. It is expected to be finished by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí's death, although some experts predict that it could take several more decades to complete the project fully.
Gaudí planned for 18 spires, each representing a different figure from the Bible, but only 8 have been completed so far. The tallest spire, 172.5m, represents Jesus Christ and is surrounded by four smaller spires representing the four Evangelists.
Each spire is adorned with intricate sculptural details that reflect the figure it represents, and they also serve a practical purpose by supporting the weight of the church's roof and providing ventilation.
From the Nativity Facade's visual assault, to the calming interior forest canopy
Although it's not my cup of tea, I can certainly appreciate its brilliance — The Nativity Facade is one of the three facades of the Sagrada Família church, and it was designed by Antoni Gaudí. It depicts scenes from the Nativity story and is adorned with highly detailed and realistic sculptures of natural forms, such as leaves, flowers, and animals.
The centrepiece is a large portal with sculptures of the Holy Family, surrounded by a sculptural representation of the Tree of Life. Above the portal are sculptures of the Apostles, and at the top of the facade are three towers that represent faith, hope, and love. The Nativity Facade is a testament to Gaudí's artistic vision and Catholic faith.
The forest canopy
Although not a religious person myself, it’s difficult to overstate the brilliance and genius of Gaudí here. The interior of La Sagrada Familia is a masterpiece of design and engineering, with a sense of grandeur and majesty that is sure to leave a lasting impression.
The space is designed to create a sense of awe and wonder, with soaring ceilings, intricate stonework, and beautiful stained glass.
The interior was designed to bear semblance to a forest canopy, with a network of columns branching out like trees to support the weight of the roof. The columns themselves are designed to resemble palm trees, with twisting trunks and branches that reach up towards the heavens and feature a series of overlapping elliptical structures that filter the sunlight and create dancing dappled light effects on the interior walls — It really is quite beautiful.
The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau
Also known as the Hospital de Sant Pau, is a complex of modernist buildings located in Barcelona, Spain. It was designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and built between 1901 and 1930.
The complex was originally built as a hospital and was intended to provide a more humane and comfortable environment for patients. The buildings are designed in the modernist style, which as we now know emphasises organic forms, decorative details, and the use of natural materials.
The site consists of several interconnected buildings arranged around an expansive central courtyard. Each building was built to serve a specific medical function, such as surgery, obstetrics, or psychiatry, and is connected to other buildings by a network of underground tunnels.
The buildings are adorned with decorative details such as intricate mosaics, detailed stained glass windows, and sculptural reliefs, which were created by a team of artists and craftsmen under the direction of Domènech i Montaner. The use of natural light and ventilation was also a key feature of the hospital's design, with large windows and open-air courtyards providing a comfortable and healthy environment for patients.
During the 1990s-00s, the medical hospital was gradually phased out and replaced by a more modern facility in a separate location. Today, the buildings have been beautifully restored and repurposed as a cultural centre, with exhibition spaces, conference rooms, and a museum of modernist art and architecture.
The Hospital de Sant Pau is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the finest examples of modernist architecture in Europe. Its innovative design, attention to detail, and commitment to the well-being of patients make it a significant landmark in the history of healthcare and architecture.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner
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A prominent Catalan architect, historian, writer and politician; a true polymath. He was one of the core figures in the Catalan Modernisme movement.
Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) was born in Barcelona and studied architecture at the Escola Tècnica Superior d'Arquitectura de Barcelona.
In addition to his work as an architect, Domènech i Montaner was also a prolific writer and historian. He published several books on Catalan art and architecture, as well as political essays and articles. He was an advocate for Catalan culture and identity and played a prominent role in the architectural, cultural and political movements of his time, and his legacy continues to be celebrated and studied today.
The mosaics and tiles in the Hospital de Sant Pau are an important part of the building's decorative scheme and reflect the artistic and cultural richness of the Catalan Modernisme movement.
The mosaics are primarily made of glass, ceramic, and stone tesserae, arranged in intricate patterns and designs. They can be found throughout the Hospital de Sant Pau, both inside and outside the buildings, and they incorporate a variety of themes and motifs centred around the primary themes of health and purification.
As we have explored through the photos thus far, modernisme architecture is characterised by its ornate, highly decorative style, often incorporating elements of nature, such as flowers, animals, vines, and leaves. The movement was influenced by the Gothic and Islamic styles, as well as the Arts and Crafts movement, and it sought to create a distinctively Catalan style that reflected the region's culture and identity.
Some of the most notable features of Modernisme architecture include the use of mosaic, stained glass, and wrought iron, as well as the incorporation of sculptural elements into building facades. Modernisme architects often designed entire buildings, including interior spaces, furniture, and decorative objects, in order to create a cohesive aesthetic — Domènech is quoted to have said “the structure, construction and decoration of all the rooms of the Hospital are considered so linked that they form a single concept.”
Hospital de Sant Pau is a beautiful example of this cohesive design aesthetic — Domènech i Montaner's attention to every detail here has created a space that is harmonious, deeply rich and engaging to the senses.
The St. George's cross is a symbol of Catalan identity and heritage, and its presence at the Hospital de Sant Pau is a reflection of the building's significance as a cultural and historical landmark in Catalonia.
Gaudí’s Parc Güell
Is the reflection of Gaudí's artistic abundance and belongs to his naturalist phase, where it is understood he perfected his unique style of combining geometric and natural patterns and symbolism.
The public park is located in Barcelona, and was built between 1900 and 1914, and was originally intended to be a housing development for the wealthy, but it was ultimately converted into the park we see today, due to lack of interest from buyers.
The park is known for its unique blend of natural elements and whimsical, colourful design. Gaudí incorporated many of his signature architectural features into the park, including curved forms, bright colours, and intricate tile work. One of the most iconic features of the park is the long bench that curves around the main terrace, which is covered in colourful mosaics and offers stunning views of the city.
In addition to the main terrace, the park includes a number of other attractions, such as the Dragon Stairway, the Hypostyle Room, and the Greek Theatre.
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The long mosaic bench in Park Güell is one of the most iconic features of the park, it is designed to curve around the terrace, creating a continuous undulating seating area that can accommodate dozens of people, and is a wonderful place to relax and take in the views out across the park to the city and Mediterranean Sea beyond.
The tiles in the park are quite beautiful, and their creator deserves a special mention I feel. They were designed and created by Josep Maria Jujol, a close collaborator of Gaudí's who worked on many of his projects. An architect himself, and one whose works I’d like to explore more of on our next visit to the region.
Gaudí's Naturalist Phase
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Gaudí's Naturalist phase was a period in his career during which he was heavily influenced by natural forms and organic shapes, and Park Güell typifies this phase.
This phase is generally considered to have taken place between 1878 and 1900, during which time Gaudí is said to have perfected his personal style inspired by the organic shapes of nature, putting into practise a whole series of new structural solutions originating from his deep analysis of ruled geometry, accompanied by imaginative ornamental styles and the asymmetry found in the natural world.
Gaudí began to incorporate his new visual language in all of his architectural and artistic work, seeking to replicate these forms inspired by nature, mathematics and the cosmos. In modern parlance this approach is now often referred to as biomimicry; the imitation of nature in design.
Palau de la Música Catalana
One of my favourite places on our whirlwind tour of Catalan Modernism was Palau de la Música, and partly because of its fairly unassuming facade (apart from the mosaic columns of course) — the building is nestled cosily on a typical side street in the El Born district; yet once inside and you enter the grand concert hall and immerse yourself in the beauty of the interior decor, and that of the stunning skylight, it’s hard not be taking over my its musical magic.
It was designed by our friend Lluís Domènech i Montaner and built between 1905 and 1908. The building is another very fine example of Catalan Modernism, and is typical in its use of ornate decorations, including colourful stained glass windows, mosaics, and sculptures. In this case they are used to evoke the idea of music as a universal language that transcends borders and cultures.
One of the most striking features of the Palau de la Música is its grand concert hall, which seats over 2,000 people and is illuminated by a breathtaking and richly colourful central skylight that floods the space with natural light.
Another beautiful feature of the building's architecture is the ornate mosaic covered columns that decorate the building’s entrance vestibule and balconies, and are made up of a series of colourful imagery depicting various musical motifs and themes.
In 1997, the building was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its outstanding cultural and historical significance.
The skylight in the concert hall of the Palau de la Música Catalana has to be its most iconic feature. It is located in the centre of the hall's ceiling and measures nine metres in diameter. It’s a stunning example of a modern take on stained glass design; the use of bright colours and imagery is beautiful.
Lluís Domènech i Montaner designed the skylight to represent the sun and the stars, which are universal sources of all life and inspiration. By incorporating natural light and warm colours into the design of the hall, he hoped to create a space that would inspire both performers and audiences alike. He certainly succeeded in this regard.
The design of the skylight is also interesting because it combines elements of both traditional stained glass work and modern construction techniques. The panels are made up of a mosaic of coloured glass, which is set in a framework of metal bars and supported by a system of steel cables. This combination of materials allows the skylight to withstand the weight of the dome and the forces of nature while still providing a visually stunning effect.
The columns are another beautiful feature of the building's architecture. They are located in the entrance vestibule of the concert hall and are made up of a series of colourful mosaics that depict various musical motifs and themes.
The mosaics on the columns were created by the artist Lluís Brú, who was a close collaborator of Domènech i Montaner. Brú used a variety of materials to create the mosaics, including ceramic tiles, glass, and stone. He employed a technique known as "trencadís," which involves breaking up pieces of these materials and arranging them in a mosaic pattern.
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Each column is dedicated to a different musical genre, such as opera, folk music, or choral music. The mosaics depict scenes and characters from these genres, as well as musical instruments, notes, and symbols. The overall effect is a vibrant and dynamic celebration of music and its importance in Catalan culture.
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