The Eixample (“extension”) is, in every sense of the word, Barcelona’s “modern” district. Designed in the mid-19th century by Ildefons Cerdà, the district occupies formerly vacant land between the old city walls and what once were surrounding towns and villages. Cerdà’s grid plan, with its straight streets and wide avenues, took into consideration things like traffic, transportation and ventilation. The corners of the blocks are chamfered (angled), so that they appear octagonal, allowing greater ease of movement for turning vehicles and more sunshine for residents. Cerdà’s plan also incorporated all the amenities of daily life, like markets, schools and hospitals, in the hope that the district would welcome all social and economic classes. This was not to be – instead, the airy new district became the fashionable enclave of the wealthy and their luxurious homes, many designed in the new Catalan style known as “Modernisme.”
In many ways, Modernisme was more than just an aesthetic movement: it was the artistic expression of a revived desire to reassert a Catalan national identity. When Count Ramon Berenguer IV of Barcelona married the Queen of Aragon in 1137 the two principalities merged, but maintained distinct rights. These rights began to erode with the 16th century unification of the Kingdom of Spain, which was dominated by Castille. Once-powerful Catalonia was marginalized, and her economy, language and culture began to deteriorate. Chafing at an unjust system of taxation, the peasants revolted in 1640, and were soon joined by others who wanted independence for Catalonia. The Reapers’ War (1640-52) ended in defeat; northern Catalonia was ceded to the French, while southern Catalonia was reincorporated into Spain.
The craving for independence reasserted itself during the War of the Spanish Succession (1705-14). Unfortunately, Catalonia once again ended up on the losing side. As punishment, Philip V reined in his unruly subjects, abolishing the Catalan parliament, suppressing Catalan universities and outlawing the administrative use of the Catalan language. The victors, however, were a corrupt and inefficient bunch, and their administration only served to spark Republican sentiment in Catalonia, along with a movement to recover Catalan language and culture. This desire found full expression in the ‘Renaixanca’ and Modernisme.
Modernisme tapped into international artistic and architectural currents to create a uniquely Catalan form of architecture. In its first phase, Modernisme reflected the neo-Gothic leanings of the English Arts and Crafts movement; in its second phase, it relied more heavily on the sinuous lines of French Art Nouveau. In all phases, it combined modern construction techniques and materials (such as cast iron and structural steel) with historic styles, eclectic ornamentation, and iconic symbols to reflect the Catalan roots of the new architecture.
There are hundreds of moderniste buildings in Barcelona, with the majority of them being in the Eixample. Of them, six carry the UNESCO World Heritage title. (The seventh UNESCO site, the Crypt of Colonia Guell, is in Santa Coloma de Cervelló, on the outskirts of town, while the eight and ninth sites, Palau Guell and Palau de la Musica Catalana, are in the Ciutat Vella.) If you’re only in town for a few hours, a guided walking tour should give you a good overview of some of the most important buildings. Tours depart from the Plaça Catalunya Tourist Imformation Center, May through September, and can be booked here: http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/Barcelona-Walking-Tours-Modernisme/_vf-SMlY1yIuKQTV1aq49kAo1OWJ1ZmyqsW8lMeMFwjmBy4iHT-xzYQ
If you have more time to spend (or you’re traveling in the winter months), you could buy the Ruta del Modernisme Guidebook, available for €12 at the Guell Pavilions (Av del Pedralbes, 15) or at the offices of the Institut Municipal del Paisatge Urba (Av. Drassanes, 6, 21st Floor). The book is structured around a single itinerary, with sections branching off to take in all of the 115 buildings and points of interest. If you’re interested in the decorative arts of the period, the Museu Modernisme Catala (Carrer de Balmes, 48) houses a collection of furniture, painting and sculpture. (Museum open Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-2pm – Admission €10) For information on events and programs: http://mmcat.cat/site/
Many people prefer an in-depth experience to a walk-by, and will probably visit at least one of the nine sites on the UNESCO list. Of the nine, seven were designed by Antoni Gaudi, while the remaining two were the work of Lluis Domènech i Montaner.
Casa Vicens (Carrer de les Carolines, 24) – Casa Vicens was Antoni Gaudi’s first major commission. The underlying design of this simple, four-storey house takes its cue from Mudéjar architecture in its ornamental minarets and iron window grilles, while the wrought-iron serpents that twist across the façade are a nod to the Far East. The building’s façade is a riot of colour, and is decorated with tiles in checkerboard and marigold patterns. The Arabic influence permeates the interior of the house in the shape of the ceilings and the use of ceramic tiles, but Gaudi has added whimsical details like the painted birds to the doorways. MoraBanc purchased the property from the owners in early 2014 for the sum of €30MM; it will be open to the public following restoration.
Palau Guell (Carrer Nou de Rambla, 3-5) – This is another of Gaudi’s earliest works. Just a few steps off La Rambla in El Raval, the house was designed in 1886 and completed in 1889, though the last of the signature Gaudi chimneys was not in place until 1895. The northern façade on Nou de la Rambla is distinguished by two ornate parabolic arches flanking the Catalan coat of arms: carriages entered via the arches, allowing guests to ascend a grand staircase to the hall while their horses were taken down a ramp to the basement livery. The house is organized around a soaring central hall topped with a 55-foot high dome; its walls are intricately decorated with wood, iron, glass and ceramics. Palau Guell also marks Gaudi’s first use of his famous trencadis technique, in which broken ceramic tiles were used to create mosaic ornamentation. (Open Apr-Oct, 10am-8pm; Nov-Mar 10am-5:30pm; closed Mondays. Admission €12)
Crypt of Colonia Guell (Calle Claudi Güell, 08690 Colònia Güell) – Located in Santa Coloma de Cervelló, Colonia Guell was conceived by Eusebi Guell as a model industrial village to house workers at his textile factory. Leading architects were commissioned to build the village factory, houses, school and shops; the commission for the church went to Gaudi. His original plan was for a church with an upper and lower nave flanked by towers and surmounted by a belfry, but when the Guell family withdrew funding in 1914, only the lower nave – the Crypt – was completed. Gaudi used the project to experiment with many of the architectural solutions he would later use at Sagrada Familia, including catenary arches and hyperbolic parabolic vaults. Colonia Guell is accessible via FGC Trains S33, S8 and S4 from Plaça Espanya; stop Colonia Guell. (Open May-Oct, Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat, Sun & Holidays 10am-3pm; Nov-Apr, Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat, Sun & Holidays, 10am-3pm – Admission + Audioguide: €9, Seniors €7.50 – Admission + Audioguide + Return Fare to Plaça Espanya €15)
Park Guell (Carrer d’Olot) – Park Guell was another of Guell’s housing projects, this time meant to house the wealthy in a luxurious enclave far from the smoky factories of turn-of-the-century Barcelona. Unfortunately, the development was a failure: only two of the proposed 60 houses were built, along with a grand entrance flanked by pavilions for visitors and park keepers. Twin staircases lead from the entrance to the Hypostyle, originally planned as a market for the residents; the Hypostyle is surmounted by a terrace encircled with a trencadi-encrusted, serpentine bench. The property was sold to the city in 1918, and became a public park in 1922. (Open Oct 27 – Mar 23, 8:30am-6pm; May 24 – Apr 30, 8am-8pm; May 1 – Oct 26, 8am-9pm – Admission to the Monumental Zone of entrance, staircase, Hypostyle and terrace: €8, Seniors €5.60. Separate Admission to Casa Museu Gaudi: €5.50, Seniors €4.50) For more information, including background on Modernisme, Gaudi and Guell, visit: http://www.parkguell.cat/en/park-gueell/
Casa Mila (Paaseig de Gracia, 92) – Built between 1906 and 1910, Casa Mila was Gaudi’s last private commission. The undulating façade of the building, made of rough-hewn stone, gave rise to the building’s nickname, “La Pedrera,” (the stone quarry). One of the most significant innovations in its construction is the elimination of load-bearing walls; using pillars, arches and steel, Gaudi was able to create irregular floor plans arranged around two central courtyards. Today the building houses the Fundacio Catalunya-La Pedrera, which manages the exhibition spaces and public visits. Public tours visit the most important parts of the building: the Roof-Terrace, the Courtyards, a fourth floor Apartment, and the Espai Gaudi (attic), an interpretive centre of Gaudi’s life and work. There is also an Exhibition Hall, which has a separate entrance from the street; it is open only when there is an exhibition. (Open Mar-Oct: Mon-Sun, 9am-8pm; Nov-Feb: Mon-Sun, 9am-6:30pm – Admission: €16.50, Disabled €14.85)
La Sagrada Familia (Carrer de Mallorca, 401) – Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece. Although appointed to the project in 1883, Gaudi did not focus on the actual construction until 1914. A massive church that will accommodate 13,000 worshippers when completed, only the eastern Nativity Façade, the St. Barnaby Tower and part of the crypt were completed when Gaudi died in 1926. In the years since, seven more of the planned 18 towers have been completed, as has the western Passion Façade (1990). The nave was roofed in 2000, and work begun on the southern Glory Façade in 2002: it is expected to be completed in 2026. (Open Oct-Mar, 9am-6pm, Apr-Sept, 9am-8pm – Admission: €14.80, Seniors €12.80) For information on prices for Guided Tours, Audioguide rentals, visiting the Towers, and combination tickets, as well as information on the architecture and symbology of the building, visit: http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/
The last of the Gaudi-designed UNESCO sites is located on a block in L’Eixample known as “The Block of Discord.” Here you will find three vastly different buildings designed by the three Moderniste masters, Gaudi, Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch.
Casa Batllo (Passeig de Gracia, 43) – Gaudi’s fanciful interpretation of the legend of St. George and the Dragon. The building is commonly known as “The House of Bones,” due to the skeletal appearance of its trencadis-encrusted façade, which shimmers through the rainbow from orange at the bottom to blue-green at the top. The irregular arch-shape roof, covered in “scales,” is said to represent the back of the dragon pierced by St. George’s “lance” (the cross-topped structure to the left of the roof’s center.) The dragon motif is carried through to the interior: the staircase is carved like the backbone of some huge animal, while the arched loft just beneath the roof has been compared to the rib cage of the dragon. There is a dreamy, underwater quality to the 700 square meter main floor due to entrance hall skylights shaped like turtle shells and views of the blue-tiled light well. The website has a surreal video (click on the blue scales) that gives some idea of the building’s incredible interiors: http://www.casabatllo.es/en/ (Open Mon-Sun, 9am-9pm – Admission: €21.50, Seniors €18.50)
Casa Amatller (Passeig de Gracia, 41) – Built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch for a chocolate baron, the neo-Gothic façade with its Dutch-inspired stepped pediment and roofline, could not be more different from Casa Batllo next door. Today the building houses the Amatller Institute of Hispanic Art and its Library. Closed to the public.
Casa Lleo-Morera (Passieg de Gracia, 35) – This Domènech i Montaner building opened to the public in early 2014 after a two-year restoration project. Completed in 1906, the Casa Lleo-Morera is in much the same style as Domènech’s Palau de la Musica Catalana: it boasts an ornate façade decorated with sculptures of nymphs and “modern” inventions like cameras and gramophones. The interior is a showcase for some of the finest craftsmen of the time, including Antoni Rigalt, whose stained glass windows line the rounded galleries overlooking the street. While not a UNESCO site, the Casa Lleo-Morera has been part of the Art Nouveau European Route since 2007. Visits are available in Catalan, Spanish and English and are guided by specialists in art and history; the tour is approximately 50 minutes. TICKETS MUST BE PURCHASED IN ADVANCE, either On-line or at the box office in the Palau de la Virreina. (Open Mon-Sat – Admission: €15, Seniors €13.50)
Modernisme has its roots in an 1878 article penned for the magazine La Renaixanca by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, who made the case for an independent Catalan architecture. Domenech put his theories into practice in 1888, when he was tapped to design the café/restaurant for the World’s Fair, the neo-Gothic Castel dels Tres Dragons (Passeig Picasso, 5). Arguably the first Modernist building, the Castel was a fusion of medieval style and eclectic ornamentation consisting of heraldic ceramic plaques and Moorish-style towers, coupled with modern construction of exposed brick and iron. Domenech’s crowning achievements, however, came during the second phase of Modernisme, when he abandoned the Gothic in favour of the graceful, flowing lines of Art Nouveau.
Palau de la Musica Catalana (Carrer Palau de la Musica, 4-6) – Domènech i Montaner won an award from the Barcelona City Council in 1909 for this Moderniste masterpiece tucked away at the northern end of La Ribera. If the building’s exterior, of red brick decorated with ceramic mosaics and monumental sculptures, is ornate, the interior is even more spectacular. Two grand marble staircases lead from the vestibule to the foyer, with its wide brick arches decorated with pastel ceramic flowers. More mosaics decorate the second story columns of the façade, a view of which can be had from the Lluis Millet Hall, a pre-concert gathering space. The Concert Hall itself is naturally illuminated in daylight hours by an enormous stained glass skylight and side panels, while the stage is surrounded by an elaborately sculptured arch. Guided visits are available in Catalan, Spanish, French, English and Russian, and are 55 minutes long. TICKETS MUST BE PURCHASED IN ADVANCE, either On-line or at the Palau’s Box Office. (Tours every 30 minutes daily, from 10am-3:30pm – Admission: € 18, Seniors €11)
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167) – The largest Moderniste complex in the world, the Hospital de la Santa Creu covers the equivalent of 9 Eixample blocks and was Domenech I Montaner’s innovative solution to the health and medical sanitation concerns of his day. The Hospital was planned as 48 separate medical pavilions, but only 27 were built; all were surrounded by gardens and linked by underground passages. The buildings have a light, airy feeling thanks to the use of structural steel and exposed brickwork; painting, mosaics, ceramics and stained glass elements were all intended to provide a soothing, beautiful interior to help speed convalescence. Medical operations were shifted to a more modern facility in 2009, and restoration of the old Moderniste hospital begun. Hour-long guided tours of the site are conducted in English, Spanish, French and Catalan. See website for Tour Schedule: http://www.santpaubarcelona.org/ca/horaris (Open Nov-Mar, Mon-Sat 10am-4:30pm, Sun 10am-2:30pm; Apr-Oct, Mon-Sat 10am-6:30pm, Sun 10am-2:30pm – Admission: €8, Seniors €5.60, Tours €14, Seniors €9.80)