Barcelona, Spain: Modernista works of art

An exploration of the most famous architecture in Barcelona

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The original Stormtroopers? Statues on the rooftop of Gaudí’s Casa Milà that some say inspired the imagination of George Lucas (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

In our last post, I wrote about the inimitable Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia.  While this may be his most famous creation and one of the most visited sites in Barcelona, Gaudí and his modernista contemporaries have a whole slew of other works in and around the city that are also worth exploring.

We only had a few days in Barcelona and so we maximized our time by taking a Gaudí walking tour.  On the tour we saw several of Gaudí’s works as well as a few created by his fellow modernista architects.

Note: In this post we have included several images from Wikimedia Commons in addition to our own photos.  Normally, we don’t do this; this blog is a record of our experiences, so what we see is what you get, but here I include pictures from outside sources as well as information about a few places that we didn’t visit to better illustrate what makes Gaudí so special.

The lampposts

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One of four Gaudí lampposts remaining in Barcelona; this one is in Plaça Reial

Gaudí’s first commissioned work was a lamppost.

In 1878, while he was still in architectural school, Gaudí was commissioned by the city to design a model for a lamppost that could be placed in key sites around town.  He produced two versions, and the city council selected the one above for use in the Plaça Reial, an important plaza in the Gothic Quarter.

The lamppost has six-branches and is made up of a marble base and cast- iron body.  It has several symbolic flourishes, including a snake with a winged caduceus (staff) that symbolizes Mercury, the god of commerce.  The shield of Barcelona can be seen in the center of the post.  While it was intended that these lampposts would be placed around the city, there are only a few to be found these days, two in Plaça Reial and two three-branched lamp posts in the Pla de Palau, another square in Barcelona.

Casa Vicens

Casa Vicens (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Casa Vicens (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Casa Vicens was one of Gaudí’s first commissioned buildings, created for a wealthy factory owner living in Barcelona.   It is one of the earliest examples of Art-Nouveau style.

We saw one of Gaudí’s other early works, El Capricho, in the town of Comillas when we were hiking the Camino del Norte.  Take a look.

Casa Milà

Casa Milà, built between 1906 and 1912, is a house commissioned by businessman Pere Milá and his wealthy wife Roser Segimon.  Gaudí wanted to make the house a reflection of his devotion to God by including spiritual symbols and religious elements on the façade, but most of these were left off of the house because of concerns about anti-church sentiment that existed in Catalonia at that time.  Gaudí contemplated quitting the project because he couldn’t design as he wished but was talked into continuing by a priest.

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Casa Milà. If you look at the balconies closely, you will see that each of the wrought-iron railings is unique, just one example of Gaudí’s careful attention to detail.

Casa Milà’s unconventional appearance made it controversial and unpopular.  The locals derisively nicknamed it La Pedrera (“The Quarry”) and compared it to a cake because of its white color and many “layers.”  Other property owners on Passeig de Gràcia ostracized Señor Milá because they felt his unusual house would lower their property values.  And Gaudí also had numerous disagreements with Roser Segimon over the design of the house, and after Gaudí’s death, she altered some of the decorative elements and removed much of the furniture that he had designed.

Interior of Casa Milá
Casa Milá atrium, looking skyward (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Casa Milà is much more admired these days due to its one-of-a-kind structure, with a curvy exterior that is consistent with the interior.   Gaudí planned the house down to the last detail, with handcrafted wooden doors and furniture and many unique ornamental elements.  It was built with the plan that the owners would live on the main floor and the remainder of the floors would be rented as apartments.

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Interior of Casa Milá (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a general assertion around town that George Lucas got his inspiration for the Stormtroopers’ helmets from statues on Casa Milá’s roof; our tour guide told us this, and I read this in multiple different online sources as well.  Tourist vendors sold t-shirts depicting a Storm Trooper with the word Barcelona underneath.  It was also suggested that Lucas’ designs for the planet Tatooine and the Cantina were also inspired by Gaudí’s works.  You have to admit that the statues do look a bit like Storm Troopers, but I could not find an acknowledgement from George Lucas confirming this.

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The curvy roof of Casa Milá. The “stormtrooper” statues are in the center of the picture.  You can get a closer look in the picture at the top of our blog. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The “Block of Discord”

There were plenty of wealthy people in Barcelona during Gaudí’s time, and some of them took an interest in the Modernista architects, commissioning expensive houses and office buildings.

Some of these houses can be found on Passeig de Gràcia, one of the main boulevards in Barcelona and also the most expensive street for owning property in all of Spain.  Passeig de Gràcia is one of several boulevards making up a city block nicknamed Illa de la Discòrdia (“Block of Discord”), so called because the designs of the various Modernista architects were very different and thus clashed with one another.  This one city block contains some of the most important architecture in Barcelona.

Casa Batlló

One of the houses on the Block of Discord is Casa Batlló.  Owner Josep Batlló hired Gaudí to renovate the home he was currently living in.  Wanting a house that was like no other, he gave Gaudí full license to design as he pleased, and Gaudí delivered something truly unique.

The house is nicknamed Casa dels ossos (“House of bones”) because of the bone-like appearance of the balconies and other features of the house.

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Don’t those balconies look like skulls?  See what else you can spot that looks like bones.

The façade is decorated with broken ceramic tiles, and the arched, tiled roof has been compared to the back of a dragon.  Some theorize that the turret and cross on the roof represent the lance of Saint George, patron saint of Catalonia, and that it is being plunged into the dragon.

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The roof of Casa Batlló, with its dragon’s back and St. George’s sword. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Casa Batlló, interior (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Casa Amatller

Like I mentioned above, Gaudí wasn’t the only important architect of the Catalan Modernism movement; he was just the most famous.  But the “Block of Discord” contains homes designed by other modernista architects, including Casa Amattler, designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch.  It was created for the chocolatier Antoni Amatller and built between 1898 and 1900.

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Exterior of Casa Amatller
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Decorative columns on the exterior of Casa Amatller
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Casa Amatller
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Casa Amatller

We were able to enter Casa Amatller free of charge because contained within was a wonderful chocolate shop, Chocolate Amatller.  (I would expect nothing less from a home owned by a chocolatier!)  I found some of the best chocolate bars we had in Spain here, and it was also a treat to see the interior of this beautiful home.

 

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Casa Amatller, interior light fixture
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Casa Amatller, doorway–look at those door handles!
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Casa Amatller, sculpture on stairway banister
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Casa Amatller, interior

 Gaudí’s most important patron: Eusebi Güell

The Catalan industrialist Eusebi Güell would become Gaudí’s most important patron, commissioning him to design numerous projects in and around Barcelona, including the Palau Güell and Park Güell, among others.

Palau Güell

The Palau Güell is a mansion designed for Eusebi Güell that was built between 1886 and 1888.  It is on La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous street, and is open to the public as a museum.

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Palau Güell, exterior, with very distinctive wrought iron artwork.  Two iron gates (in the left and right of the picture, above) allowed horse-drawn carriages to enter the house and drop off passengers; the horses were then led down a ramp to the basement, where they were kept in a livery stable.
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Palau Güell, basement, which housed the livery stable (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Park Güell

The Park Güell is a public park in Barcelona that contains gardens and intricate artwork. The park was designed by Gaudí and built between 1900-1914.  We didn’t make it to this amazing place during our stay in Barcelona, but I can’t not include it in this post because it’s one of the most remarkable sites in the city, and it would be wrong to leave it out of a post about Gaudí.

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Park Güell (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Park seems to capture everything that Gaudí is famous for–fantastical artwork, intricate mosaics, ornamental designs, and an absence of classical or traditional architectural elements.

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Park Güell, colorful mosaic benches (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Barcelona April 2004
Park Güell (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The work in Park Güell reflects Gaudí’s use of organic shapes inspired by his love of the natural world.

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Park Güell (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wouldn’t you want to stroll through a park like this? It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

Park Güell. Wouldn't you want to stroll through a park like this? It's like something out of a fairy tale.
Park Güell. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Legacy

After his death in 1926, Gaudí’s works fell out of fashion, and many of them suffered from neglect.  Throughout the Spanish Civil War, and then after, during Franco’s suffocating dictatorship, some buildings suffered further damage or fell into disrepair.  And then in the 1950s, there was renewed interest in Gaudí’s work; Salvador Dalí became one of his biggest champions, and he received increased attention from architects and artists.  Many of the buildings were restored, and in 1984 several of his most important works were named as UNESCO World Heritage Sites; in 2005, even more were added to this list.  He has since inspired new generations of architects.

Because of his devotion to the Catholic Church, the archbishop of Barcelona suggested that Gaudí be beatified, a recommendation that was approved by the Vatican in 2000.

Gaudí is revered by locals, and visitors from all over flock to Barcelona to see his works.  2016 is the 90th anniversary of Gaudí’s death, and Barcelona is preparing for an increase in visitors to the city to admire his body of work.  The Casa Vicens (see above) will open as one of several already existing public museums found inside Gaudí’s buildings.

Final thoughts

As I’ve been doing research for this blog post, I’ve seen Gaudí described by numerous writers as being ahead of his time, but maybe a better way to put it is that he lived in a whole other dimension.  His work is like nothing else out there, the stuff of childhood fantasies, Alice in Wonderland rabbit holes, or uncharted civilizations in a galaxy far, far away.  It’s so fantastical that your brain expands just a little as you struggle to take it all in.

There are several things Dale and I loved about Gaudí, the first being how accessible he is.  He may be a genius who pioneered a whole movement in architecture, but even the average person who’s uneducated as to the intricacies of architecture could still find things to relate to in Gaudí’s works.  We certainly did, and we know almost nothing about architecture.

He also had faith in himself and his vision, even in the face of the opposition that sometimes surfaced in response to his unorthodox way of thinking.  His work very deliberately reflected his love for God, his native Catalonia, and the natural world.  He exhibited an exquisite attention to detail, down to the doorknobs and windows, down to the very last handmade tile, with every twist and turn of wrought iron contributing to his big picture.  Whether you like his work or not, you have to admire the fact that you knew exactly what the man believed in.

He is also a perfect example of what someone can do when they THINK BIG.  And I’m not referring to the enormous size of the Sagrada Familia (although it is one big church).  What I mean is that he wasn’t afraid to have enormous ideas and to be wildly creative, and the outcome was  larger-than-life, amazing works that nearly 100 years after his death are still being talked about.

This is probably my biggest take-away from Gaudí: don’t play conservative with it comes to your vision for your life.  It’s human nature to think small, either because we don’t have faith in ourselves and our vision, or because fear and daily distractions interfere with even developing a vision at all.  We should open ourselves to the infinite possibilities that are out there.

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This is the Stickie note that I was inspired to put on my desktop the day that we took our Gaudí tour.  Good reminders, aye?

Gaudí’s first commissioned work was a lamppost, not the towering spires and cavernous, light-infused space of the Sagrada Familia, but he got to the point that he could create his masterpiece through persistence and faith.  As a writer going public with my writing for the first time (with this blog), I often feel timid and fearful about what I’m putting out there for the world to see.  I’m not even certain that I have a vision yet.  But I just have to keep writing, keep learning, and expect more from myself.  I need to go all-in and trust, like Gaudí did, that I have a vision that is worthy of larger-than-life treatment.

What if we all believed in ourselves that much?  I can only imagine how beautiful this world would be.