Casa Vicens: Gaudí’s Early Masterpieces

“To be interesting, ornamentation must present objects that remind us of poetic ideas, that constitute motifs. Motifs are historical, legendary, active, emblematic; fables relating to men and their lives, action and passion.” – A. Gaudí

This week, one of Antoni Gaudí’s most impressive –and bizarre- houses finally opened its doors to the public. Considered as his first masterpiece, Casa Vicens (1883-1888) is everything you would expect from Catalan Modernism: polychromy, curvilinear forms, wrought iron railings, geometrical and zoomorphic motifs, the interplay between light and shade, to the end of the long list, all with an unmistakable ‘organic’ twist that is a constant in Gaudí’s work.

One particularly interesting detail in Casa Vicens is the use of the ‘muqarnas’ (stalactite) decoration in one of the rooms. Guadí incorporated elements of the Islamic-influenced mudejar style in many of his buildings, but the use of muqarnas breaks the mudejar mould and betrays a clear fascination with Islamic art, not only of al-Andalus, but also of the Orient. In his notebooks, Gaudí explains:

“In the East, everything blends into the horizontal supports and vertical struts. The arch is a simple ornamental motif set within a system of pillars and lintels. Its vaults are simple spherical caps or stalactite vaults – a flat ceiling supporting stalactites as a reminder of the coolness of the cave.”

Click any image to enlarge it.

Farewell Subirachs: The Post-Gaudí Sagrada Familia

The death of Gabriel García Márquez a week ago totally eclipsed another ‘cultural’ tragedy: the death of a man that was deemed ‘Catalonia’s Most Important Artist Alive’, namely Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014).
Few artists can ‘divide’ and polarize the public opinion as he did, his works never leave you indifferent: you either love them or you reject them totally. One only needs to see the expression on the faces of the visitors to Barcelona’s ‘Sagrada Familia’ as they contemplate the ‘Passion Façade’ to understand this fact. The story is an interesting on.

Subirachs was born the year after Gaudi’s death, not knowing that he would ‘take over’ the responsibility of continuing Gaudi’s most important work: the legendary and iconic Sagrada Familia. A sculptor of obvious talent, he was commissioned in 1986 to create the statues and the sculpture groups for the church’s ‘Passion Façade’, featuring the last days of Jesus Christ. It took him 18 years to finish the work (something reminiscent of great works by Ghiberti), and the outcome was a bomb.

As his formal expressionism gave way to abstraction, his figures became more geometrical and angular, and the Façade ended up looking like an alien body compared to Gaudí’s original organic (and ‘melting’) designs. Some celebrated the Façade as a revolution; others saw it as an assault on “Saint” Gaudí’s work. The provocation was so intense that demonstrations were held in 1990 against Subirachs’ involvement in the Sagrada Familia, and a manifesto was signed. Prominent intellectuals and artists voiced their objection (both to continuing work on the Sagrada Familia to start with, and to Subirachs), including Le Corbusier, Joan Brossa and others.

But there is more: It is rumored that Subirachs was an atheist. Imagine the rage of the conservative and clerical circles of Barcelona at the ‘sacrilege’ done by an atheist sculptor to a sacred space originally conceived as an expiatory temple to clear the city of its sin!

Apart from the Passion Façade, the quality of Subirachs is evident in many public works that still adorn the squares, buildings and garden of Barcelona, and which can be visited by anyone interested. It’s a luxury to have sculptures by the likes of Subirachs, Josep Clarà, Josep Llimona, Joan Miró, to the end of the long list of great Catalan artists, and it’s a pity they have all died.

Subirachs’ work on the Sagrada Familia marked a before-and-after. The Post-Gaudi Sagrada Familia has come to an end with the death of Subirachs, and now we will see how the post-Subirachs Sagrada Familia will look like.

Barcelona’s Sant Pau Hospital: World Heritage Pearl

A walking distance from Gaudí’s famous Sagrada Familia is another masterpiece of Modernism, namely the Hospital of Santa Creu and Sant Pau, somehow eclipsed by its mammoth neighbor and the fame of its builder. But make no mistake: this hospital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it comes as no surprise in a city where architecture seems to descend from heaven rather than rise from the ground!

Following years of restoration work, the hospital finally opened its doors to visitors. Long serpentine queues basked in the sun, waiting for their turn to contemplate firsthand the miracle of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of Barcelona’s legendary architects that championed the Modernist style together with Antoni Gaudí.

Once through the entrance, and following the initial aesthetic shock passing through the Administration Pavilion, one comes face to face with a wonderland of domed pavilions and colored towers that glitter under the sun: a symmetrical labyrinth of spikes, chimneys, chimera, gargoyles, and everything fanciful. A panoramic view of this huge space features more of a landscape/skyscape than just a fragmented group of buildings. The harmony of the complex embodies the very essence of an ‘ensemble’, and any itinerary offers a tour de force of Modernist glamour.

The construction work for the hospital started in 1903 in response to a growing population propelled by the feel-good factor of a confident city thanks to the industrial revolution. Lluís Domènech i Montaner wanted a hospital that would be not only functional, but also inspiring and cheerful. His attention to the human element was translated into a ‘garden-city’, where separate pavilions dedicated for different diseases are surrounded by greenery and pleasant walkways over a huge space. On the inside, the pavilions are no less impressive, with murals, tailor-made ceramic tiles, wrought iron lanterns, colored glass windows, and all the luxury of detail.

So far, six of the twelve pavilions have been fully restored and opened to public, and I think the photos can speak better for the charms of this site.

Cultural Walk in Barcelona (16 Nov. 2013)

From today’s cultural walk for my class in Barcelona:

Throughout its history, the city of Barcelona has always produced and attracted artists, writers and intellectuals. Whether Catalan or not, the city provided the perfect setting for all of them to be creative and leave a legacy that we can still trace today in the streets and the cafes of Barcelona.

Today we talked about such artists as Picasso, Miró, Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol… architects like Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech i Montaner and Josep Vilaseca…writers like Jacint Verdaguer, Rubén Darío and Aribau…and other important figures like Granados, Ocaña, Subirachs, Pere Romeu, Josep Clarà, etc.


Passeig de Gràcia – Plaça Catalunya – Portal de l’Àngel – Carrer Montsió – Avinguda de Portaferrissa – Rambla de Sant Josep – Plaça Reial – Carrer Avinyó – Carrer Ferran– Plaça Sant Jaume – El Call – Plaça Sant Felip Neri – Plaça de la Catedral and the Roman City Walls.


Casa Batllò – Casa Ametller – Casa Lleó Morera – La Diosa – Monument to Francesc Macià – Els Quatre Gats – Roman City Walls and Aqueduct – Palau Moja – Escribà Pastry Shop – House of the Umbrellas – Miro’s Circular Mosaic – Cafè de l’Òpera – Lampposts of Gaudí – Generalitat – L’Ajuntament de Barcelona – The Interpretation Centre of the Jewish Quarter – Picasso’s Mediterranean Friezes – The Roman Temple of Augustus – The Barcelona Cathedral.

Key terms

L’Eixample – Modernism – Trencadís – Renaixença –Els Jocs Florals – Tertulia

L’Eixample is the name given to the XIX-century extension of Barcelona towards the mountains as a result of the population boom. It was the plan of Ildefons Cerdà in 1859, and it resulted in the inclusion of Sants, Sarrià, Gràcia and other villages/suburbs.

Modernismo is the Spanish name given to a continental style of art, architecture and literature that flourished between 1880 and 1914 and had a strong expression in Barcelona thanks to Gaudí and his colleagues. It coincided with the Catalan industrial revolution.

Trencadís refers to the broken ceramic shards that are used in Modernist buildings to cover facades and walls in colourful mosaics, lke the façade of Casa Batllò in Passeig de Gràcia.

Renaixença refers to the Catalan Renissance of the second half of the 19th century. It was golden age of the Catalan culture, championed by the likes of Jacint Verdaguer, Aribaul and Maragall. The Catalan language was celebrated and epic poems were written.

Els Jocs Florals are the Floral Games revived during the Catalan Renaissance. They were competitions between writers and poets, inspired by an old Greek tradition.

Tertulia is like a cultural salon. Tertulia gatherings were gatherings of people with a common passion for art and culture to exchange their creative works (whether art, poetry, music, etc.) and to discuss the latest trends and events. Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona was very famous for tertulia.


Gaudí’s Fantasies: The World’s Most Unearthly Chimneys

Much can be said about Antoni Gaudí and his genius, but here I focus on one of the most striking features of his designs: his chimneys, which seem to turn the cityscape into some sort of an alien, unearthly horizon. Three perfect examples are Casa Milà, Casa Batlló and Palau Güell.

In Casa Milà, the chimneys (which would later inspire the design of the Star Wars warriors) resemble the veiled men ‘Almoravids’ that once ruled the Iberian Peninsula.

In Casa Batlló, the chimneys are inspired by marine forms, which fits perfectly with the façade and the interior desing.

In Palau Güell, the story is different, as the chimneys are topped by colorful fruits and cones, turning the roof terrace into an alien garden.

In all three houses, the brilliant use of trencadis (small broken ceramic pieces juxtaposed carefully to form mosaics) is evident, and the imprint of Josep Maria Jujol (who collaborated with Gaudí) is omnipresent.

Modernism’s ‘Apple of Discord’ – Tales & Photos from my Walk

Well, it’s not exactly an apple, but it’s a story that I told during the cultural walk that I organized for the ECSA presidents last weekend.
The Apple of Discord is a famous Greek myth, supposedly provoking the Trojan War. When Eris -the Goddess of Discord, was not invited to a banquet hosted by Zeus, she decided to take her revenge: She threw a golden apple into the banquet with a few words written on it: ‘To the fairest one’. It had the expected result immediately as three of the goddesses present disputed the title of ‘the fairest’: Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. Zeus was too smart to fall into judging the dispute, and instead he directed them to a Trojan shepherd named Paris, whom he praised as a man of good taste. Each of the three goddesses tried to win Paris to her side with temptations and promises, but it was Aphrodite that made the most irresistible promise, and accordingly was voted by Paris as the fairest. The promise was to give him the fairest mortal woman, who happened to be Helen, the wife of the King of Sparta This ‘Judgment of Paris’ provoked the Trojan War as the Spartans moved to bring back Helen from Sparta.

The Spanish word for apple (manzana) has a double meaning: apple (the fruit) and a block of buildings. The ‘Apple of Discord’ is the name given to the most famous block of buildings in Barcelona, dominated by three Modernist buildings, each of which seems to claim being ‘the fairest’ (here there is a double-play with words using both meanings):
Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí;
Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadafalch;
Casa Lleó Morera by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.

The three architects are what you can consider to be the holy trinity of Modernist Architecture in Catalonia and Spain in general.
I am attaching photos of all three houses, and you can sit back and think of yourself as Paris: Make your judgment as to which of the three buildings is the fairest, bearing in mind that there are no promises or temptations other than the beauty of design and the exquisiteness of the details.