Barcelona has such a rich history of Modernism it is difficult to know where to start. But without Gaudi and Miro, ‘Barca’ would not have the colours and sinuey shapes it has become so famous for in everything from the local Graffiti to its architecture. And Spain’s El Bulli would not have its extraordinary food. The red of the bull fights, azure blue of the sea and hot yellow of the extreme Barcelona sunshine that Gaudi and Miro were so enamoured with have inspired so many creatives who later walked in the footsteps of these pioneers of Modernism. Take Jean Nouvel as an example, whose Multicoloured gherkin, Torre Agbar, could never have existed without drawing on Antoni Gaudi’s colour palette.
You cannot fail to miss Barcelona’s vibrant tapestry of urban planning on any walkabout. Take a city bike, bus tour, walking tour, skateboard around like the younger locals or create a map for yourself allowing time to relax in the many eateries Barcelona has to offer along the way. The Gothic quarter is a maze of streets with interesting detail and a mix of subcultures. Fantastical Gaudi buildings pop up around the city calling you to enter the architect’s magical kingdom like the childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, although this is no illusion, prepare for a confectionary beyond your wildest dreams. The reality is even better than the fantasy. You have to immerse yourself in the total Gaudi experience to really understand him
The hill overlooking Barcelona where Miro set up his foundation and Mies Van der Rohe erected the German pavilion is a great escape from the criss cross of city life. From here you can see the city of buildings. Not only Gaudi, the two Joseps, Josep Lluis Sert and Josep Torres y Clave made their names here, the R group rethought the modern movement here. And, because there is such a feast for any lover of early modernism, you need to treat Barcelona like tapas and visit and revisit as we will do, taking parts of the city in bite-size pieces. Today we start at the beginning, with the bravest architect of all time, ‘God’s architect’ and Catalonia’s finest.
Early photo of Gaudi hanging in the Casa Musee Gaudi
Whether you see him as an early surrealist or inspired by a kind of twisted Gothic he was at the forefront of the Modernista movement. With little regard for formality he altered established visual order. Some purist architects sniff at him but they could learn a lot from a man who studied carving, glass blowing and ceramics in order to have an understanding of skills he would later employ in his buildings when you see them up close. Art, nature and religion meld in the bones of these works of art and feats of architecture, with doors that move in and out of their skin like babies in the womb, undulating waves of wood and concrete, reptilian ironmongery, nature-inspired textures to edifices and God, God, God in the crosses and shrines you see everywhere you go. No wonder artists were inspired by him in spades. And no coincidence he was friends with Andre Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement. Gaudi was and continues to be a huge inspiration to so many who experience his work.
Photo: Vitold Muratov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Book his unfinished masterpiece La Sagrada Familia in the Eixample district before you visit or your day will be wasted in a queue. Walk in and look up. The beauty of his concrete forest of leaning pillars is outstanding. Gaudi is buried here in the crypt. He was struck down by a tram and mistaken for a tramp. Taxi drivers refused to take him to hospital. He died five days later. It was June 1926.
Arches within La Sagrada Familia, author Rp22 Creative Commons License via Wikimedia
Gaudi was 31 when he took over from architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. Instead of sticking to the original neo-Gothic plans, Gaudí stamped his own trademark style on the church, basing his work on forms found in nature using emotion that can only come from one who has felt the exaltation of God. He left few designs and models. Most were destroyed in the 1936 Civil War. But the last version of his design called for a church 95m/312ft long and 60m/197ft wide, one that could accommodate 13,000 people. When finished in 2026, God willing, the Sagrada Família will have the total he dreamed of eighteen towers surrounding the largest, 170m/558ft tall tower, dedicated to Jesus Christ. The final tower, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, will be built over the apse. But will it be Gaudi’s great masterpiece with so many different ideas employed over the years? In the Sixties even Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier fought for Gaudi’s right to keep it his own, unfortunately many new additions have been added which can confuse.
In your awe do not forget to take the elevator and long walk which leads you to the top of a tower from where you have a magnificent view over Barcelona unless you have a fear of heights. Gaudi had an incredible way of creating a kind of jet lag feeling in towers. You often feel like a first time scuba diver thanks to his wonky floors.
We head to Parc Guell where Gaudi set up residence in a house designed by Francesc Berenguer in 1904. He lived between here and a bed in the Sagrada Familia and used the surrounding landscape as a laboratory for some of the styles he would adopt in some of his houses and famous church. Now a museum to Gaudi’s life and work, the Casa Museu Gaudi is well worth a visit. See the bedroom he spent his later years in, the window he drew from, his cross, bible, notepad and the simple cup and saucer he stoically drank from plus plenty of samples of his organic furniture.
The focal point of the park is the main terrace, surrounded by a long bench in the form of a sea serpent, the curves of which form a number of enclaves where people can play chess or chat. Around the park you will see many motifs of Catalan nationalism and elements from religious mysticism and ancient poetry. Bridges with arches in a kind of grotto-style sweep around, walls appear to be leant on. Head for the large cross at the Park’s high-point which offers a great view of Barcelona and the bay. At certain areas in the park you will see the main city in panorama, with the Sagrada Família visible at a distance.
We head for Casa Batllo, known locally as The House of The Dragon or House of Bones because of details Gaudi used. Had there been such a thing as a brand in those days Gaudi’s would probably have utilised a dragon or lizard of some kind for his logo.
Rather than knock it down and start again, Gaudí replaced the original facade with his new musical composition of stone and glass. He re-designed external walls to create his signature wavy shape, had them plastered with lime mortar and covered with a mosaic of fragments of coloured glass and ceramic discs.The roof is in the shape of an animal’s back with large iridescent scales. The spine is composed of huge spherical pieces of masonry in colours which change as you move along the rooftop.
The long gallery of the main suite, known as the Noble Floor, overlooking Passeig de Gràcia, is composed of wooden-framed windows which are opened and closed by raising and lowering using counterweights. It is possible to raise all of the window panes and have a continuous panoramic opening running the full width of the room which was unusual to the time.
The interior of the house is a dialogue between light and colour with textures that evoke the views from a submarine.
We are transported to the fantastical subterannean world of Jules Verne.
In his renovations Gaudí enlarged the light well to illuminate the building and covered the walls entirely in relief glazed tiles in varying shades of blue, which start darker at the top and lighter towards the bottom giving an even distribution of the light. The windows are smaller higher up where more natural light can enter, and get larger as you move further down. In the middle of the light well he installed a lift, a wooden cabin which still functions very well today.
Moving through the house, visitors are constantly surprised by the details which they discover with every step. The doors of each apartment are labelled in a modernist script Gaudi designed himself for Casa Batilo.
The massive windows on the landings of the communal stairwell, which are translucent rather than transparent, allow light to pass through selectively, while at the same time, depending on how you look at them, distort the shades of blue of the building well into beautiful waves of the sea. The shapes of the door handles, banisters, skylights, etc., are all ergonomically designed. It is the definitive work of art, with the artist encouraging everything to work together: design, space, colour, shape and light.
The building consists of a ground floor, a main floor (noble floor) with a courtyard, four further self-contained floors, a loft and a roof terrace. There is private access to the noble floor and a communal stairwell set within the building well which was expanded and artistically tiled as though it were part of the exterior facade. The Coach Houses are accessed from the street, at street level, and these occupy the area below the courtyard of the Noble Floor, and from here you gain access to the Coal Cellars below.
And if that was not enough to float your Barca boat. Casa Milà, or La Pedrera meaning the ‘The Quarry’, up next. Built during 1906 and 1912 for Roser Segimon the wealthy widow of Josep Guardiola, a Catalan who had returned from the American colonies with a huge stash, and her second husband, Pere Milà, a developer criticized for his flamboyant lifestyle and ridiculed by the contemporary residents of Barcelona for being more interested in”the widow’s guardiola” (piggy bank), than in “Guardiola’s widow”. One great vantage point to seeing this building from the outside, if it is not covered in hoardings as it often can be (check before you book your flights) is from the pool at the Hotel Omm, the Barcelona hotel known for its love of Arne Jacobsen egg chairs and visor lamps. If you are not planning on staying there book into the recently opened Roca Bar and see if you can sneak up for a peek.
Architecturally it is considered an innovative work for its steel structure and curtain walls with the façade being self-supporting. Other innovative elements were the construction of underground car parking and separate lifts and stairs for the owners and their servants. Gaudi, a staunch Catholic, planned for the Casa Milà to be a spiritual symbol. See an excerpt from the Rosary prayer on the cornice. He planned statues of Mary, specifically Our Lady of the Rosary, and two archangels, St. Michael and St. Gabriel but it was not to be – the local government fined the owners for any infractions of building codes ordering the demolition of anything exceeding the city’s height standard.
Gaudí began the first sketches in his workshop in the Sagrada Familia, where he drew the house as a constant curve, outside and in. He was uncompromising. When Mrs. Milà complained there was no straight wall in which to to place her Steinway piano, he said, “So play the violin.” Casa Milà is the result of two buildings, structured around two courtyards providing light to nine levels: basement, ground floor, mezzanine, main (or noble) floor, four upper floors, and an attic. The main floor acted as a 1,323 m2 flat residence for the super-rich Milàs, the rest was distributed over 20 homes for rent. The attic housed laundry areas leading up to the roof.
This, one of the most significant parts of the building, is now accessed by a fast lift so you see it before you walk down trough the building. Crowned with skylights or staircase exits, fans and chimneys constructed with timbrel coated with limestone, broken marble or glass, all with a specific architectural function,have also become sculptures integrated into the building. The rooftop of La Pedrera came from earlier experience at Palau Güell, which is worth visiting too, but this time he had more confidence and created larger shapes and volumes with gusto.
On the rooftop there are six skylights/staircase exits and twenty-eight chimneys in several groupings that look like early Spartans, twisted to make the smoke come out better. Poet Pere Gimferrer called the stepped roof “the garden of warriors”. Restoration stripped away added chimneys and TV aerials and brought back the splendour to the chimneys and skylights which Gaudi covered with left over fragments of marble and Valencia tiles he used in the building. One of the chimneys that was originally topped with glass Gaudi retrieved from smashing up bottles from the opening party has now been lovingly restored with the bases of champagne bottles from the early C20.
Stairways were intended for services, in that access to housing was by elevator except for the noble floor, where Gaudí added a sweeping bridge staircase.Gaudi wanted the people who lived in the flats to all know each other. Like with Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron tower, there were only lifts on every second floor so people had to communicate with one another on different floors.
Casa Milà has a self-supporting stone facade which allows for no load-bearing wall, and is connected by curved iron beams that surround the perimeter of each floor. This allows huge light-filled openings and walls can be knocked down without affecting the stability of the building. Owners could modify interiors at will changing the layout of the homes with the practicalities of the day.
Patios support the loads of interior facades. The floor of the courtyard is supported by pillars of cast iron. Elliptical beams and girders adopt a constructive solution in the courtyard too where Gaudí applied an ingenious solution by using two concentric cylindrical beams like the spokes of a bicycle that with a central girder keystone work in tension and compression simultaneously. The centerpiece was built in a shipyard which seems fitting since Gaudi was responsible for steering Barcelona into the future.
While in Barcelona stick Gaudi’s eyes on. While you may not be able to resist the Rioja and more meaty tapas as Gaudi had to. He was a strict vegetarian because of stomach problems. You will be able to see the azure of the sea, yellow of sun and sand, red of the bull fights (if you can stomach it). Check out the twisted Gothic of other architects as you take on the quarter famous for it. Take in the famous food market then head for Mies Van der Rohe’s Pavilion and Miro’s Foundation (which we will come back to in a future blog) , walk up the hill then look back over the urban sprawl that is Barcelona where Gaudi pops up like mirages in the distance.
Invaluable resource for anyone travelling around Barcelona: Spotted By Locals
Lucy Ryder Richardson, founding partner of Modern Shows, which produces this blog, Midcentury Modern, Midcentury East, The Modern Marketplace and Inside Modernism travelled to Barcelona from Stansted with Ryan Air on an amazing Wowcher deal for 3 nights at the fabulous 4 star Hotel Derby including flights.
To apply for the right to produce this or use any part of this c Modern Shows feature please contact Lucy@modernshows.com.
- Hotel Arts
- Hotel Omm
- El Palauet
- Casa Camper
- Chez Coco
- Los Toreros
- Quimet i Quimet
- Boca Grande
- La Fira
- Tinta Roja
- Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
- Casa Batllo
- Casa Mila/La Pedrera
- Palau and Parc Guell
- Barcelona Pavilion, More on this in further Destination Barcelona posts
- Joan Miro Foundation, More on this in further Destination Barcelona posts
- Museo del Modernisme Catala
- Caixa Forum
Ask for a table in the grand room at the back as it is where the Spanish hang out
- Don't Miss
Els Ecants flea market
Yes there is the famous food market but for every lover of hidden mid-century treasures Els Ecants is a must-visit. We are not promising anything. You may only find bull fighting souvenirs, a flamenco dress, old Julio Iglesias' records and some vintage Spanish porn however amongst the dust and bartering is a treasure trove for fabulous fabrics and smalls. Allow at least a couple of hours to browse this flea situated close to Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar. You will thank us