Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Modernisme Barcelona -- part I

For many visitors to Barcelona, the Modernisme architecture of Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Lluís Domènech i Montaner is the highlight of their trip. Modernisme is the Catalonian version of the Art Nouveau movement that swept Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is part of an overall Catalonian cultural revival, known as the Renaixença. While the early years of the Modernisme looked backward to Barcelona's glory days in the Middle Ages by utilizing a neo-Gothic palette of towers and castles and pointed arches, the later Modernisme architecture often favored curved and organic structures derived from plants or flowers or waves or other natural creations. To decorate the distinctive structures they often added a layer of tile mosaics, colored glass, or decorative carvings that sometimes slyly evoked images such as a turtle shell or a dragon's skull. The best of these Modernisme buildings are unforgettable -- beautiful, unique, striking, odd, colorful, playful.

Casa Batlló, designed by Antoni Gaudí.
I have written some recent posts (see here and here) blathering about the narrow, twisting lanes of Barcelona's medieval Gothic quarter, called the Barri Gòtic. The city's medieval walls were still encircling Barcelona in the mid-19th century, no longer serving to protect from outside invasions but functioning instead as a corset straining to contain hundreds of thousands of people within its crushing embrace. The central Spanish government in Madrid was keeping a tight grip on the ever-troublesome Catalonians. It forced Barcelona to cram within its medieval walls, leading to slums and pollution and overcrowded tenements. Not until 1854 did Queen Isabella II finally allow Barcelona to tear down its wall and expand to the mostly empty north.

Where the streets of the old city are twisting and happenstance, the new extension of the city is laid out in a grid of straight lanes and regular blocks. Designed by Ildefons Cerdà, a civil engineer, the L'Eixample (i.e., "extension") was designed as a progressive city with accessibility of schools, markets, hospitals, and other amenities available to all. He clipped the corners off each intersection, making them octagonal-shaped "squares" (for lack of a better term) that allowed more light, better ventilation, and easier visibility. Within each block was supposed to be a central courtyard for use by the inhabitants. Building heights, widths, and depths were restricted (a bit like Washington, D.C.) to make sure all inhabitants had access to light and air, in contrast with the old city. Although not all of Cerdà's plans were followed, a remarkable amount of the L'Eixample bears his stamp.

Because of the government restrictions that held it back, Barcelona was behind the times in terms of creating a modern metropolis. Cities like Paris and Vienna were far ahead in modernizing. Edinburgh had a similarly crowded and slum-like medieval old town, but started its New Town in 1765, almost a century earlier than Barcelona, and had it mostly complete by the 1850s. By the time wealthy Barcelonans were hiring the Modernisme architects to design their gorgeous homes, New York and Chicago had already erected towering skyscrapers.

On one city block in the L'Eixample you can see three contrasting Modernisme buildings built at the beginning of the 20th century by the three leaders of the movement: Montaner, Cadafalch, and Gaudí. Now called the "Block of Discord" because of the contrasting styles, the architects have many of the same philosophical underpinnings but strikingly different expressions of those ideas. At one end of the block is Casa Lleó Morera by Montaner, utilizing a hodgepodge of decorative styles, such as classical Greek columns on the lower floors, Gothic tracery in the middle, and Moorish stucco at the top.

Casa Lleó Morera has decorative angels and fish, among other figures. Some of those figures hold modern inventions such as a lightbulb and gramophone.
Further down the block is Cadafalch's Casa Amatller. At the top is an A-frame roof, echoed on a balcony below by a frieze with a pointed arch. These "A" indications are for the Amatller family, whose surname means "almond tree," and hence the frieze has sprouting branches. The building is covered with Moorish designs, as well as Gothic gargoyles and tracery above the windows.

Casa Amatller is representative of the earlier Gothic-influenced Modernisme style, mixing in heavy doses of Moorish elements.
Immediately adjacent to Casa Amatller is one of the star attractions in Barcelona, created by its greatest star architect. Casa Batlló is one of Antoni Gaudí's masterpieces. Where Casa Amatller has hard lines, restrained color, and relative balance, Casa Batlló has flowing curves, asymmetry, bright color, and poetic ambiguity. Some locals call it the Casa dels Ossos ("House of Bones") because of its skeletal quality. It has almost no straight lines in its construction, inside or out. One theory of the design -- never confirmed by Gaudí -- is that it represents a slain dragon. According to the legend about Catalonia's patron saint, St. Jordi (i.e., George) slew a dragon with his lance. Some viewers see the roof as the dragon's arched back; the turret on the left as the handle of the lance plunged into the dragon; the top balcony as a budding rose, because in the legend a rose grew where the dragon's blood spilled; and the lower columns and balconies as bones. Gaudí preferred to leave his designs open to interpretation.

While some see Casa Batlló as a slain dragon, others see it as a Mardi Gras celebration, with a harlequin hat on top, purple and yellow confetti tumbling down the facade, and the balconies as masks.
Modernisme facade of sculpted stone, colored glass and tiles, and curves, curves, curves.
Unlike Casa Lleó Morera and Casa Amatller, you can tour the interior of Casa Batlló. The owner wanted an audacious and unique design for his home and gave Gaudí free rein, offering to tear down the building he had purchased to allow Gaudí to build whatever he wanted. Gaudí instead chose to renovate the existing building to suit his aesthetic.

Looking out the central windows on the first floor.
The interior doors echo the exterior windows.
Mushroom fireplace nook.
Gaudí enlarged the previous atrium to brighten the interior rooms of the house.
Do these steps show the dragon's spine? Is the faint design on the walls alluding to the dragon's scales?
The engineering and construction techniques necessary for Gaudí's designs require strong materials like steel to hold them together. In contrast to a building such as the iron Eiffel Tower, with its self-evident engineering latticework a celebration of science and industry, Gaudí's Modernisme buildings (somewhat ironically) hide and soften their steel and iron structures behind curved concrete and decorative finishes that seek to express organic and artistic concepts. In Casa Batlló, the warm-toned wood floors and millwork, as well as colorful tiles, help to take the focus off the rigid underlying construction materials.

The rooftop is probably the highlight for most folks touring the house. As with the exterior, Gaudí embraces curves and colors.

The back of the house's facade.
Looking up the back of the dragon, next to the lance. Note the interesting tile work -- color fades, huge pieces and tiny pieces, dragon scales, etc.
Chimney stack (1 of 4) designed to prevent backdrafts.
Enjoying the view beneath catenary-arched railings.
Like many of Antoni Gaudí's works, Casa Batlló makes his contemporaries' structures seem dull. In my next post, I'll show you another of Gaudí's masterpieces, Casa Milà.

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