World Architecture: Barcelona Part 1

The capital city of the Catalan region of Spain, has had a turbulent and often tragic history. Once a completely independent state with its own language and culture, it was gradually ceded into mainland Spain as part of royal intermarriage over the centuries, although its identity and politics still remained fiercely Catalan. A hotbed of anarchists, revolutionaries and bohemians in the 19th and early 20th century, Catalan nationalism grew in the face of Franco’s rule, and pride in Barcelona’s Catalan roots is still present today. Catalonia has even given birth to its own architectural traditions: Catalan Gothic and Modernisme, to name a few. However, when Barcelona architecture is mentioned, most people automatically think only of Antoni Gaudí, the revolutionary Modernisme architect – albeit with good reason. Barcelona, however, is hiding far more treasures within its city walls than many realise.

1. PALAU DE LA MÚSICA CATALANA

The Palau de la Música Catalana (right: ticket booth); photos by Emilio Pereira, Jaime Meneses and su-lin

The Palau de la Música Catalana (right: ticket booth); photos by Emilio Pereira, Jaime Meneses and su-lin

Designed by Lluís Doménech i Montaner, who was also the creator of the Hospital de Sant Pau, the Palau de la Música Catalana follows the popular Modernisme (Catalan modernism) style of the late 19th and early 20th century. This style harnessed the growing Catalan nationalism and fused it with the popular European Art Noveau movement, creating a style that incorporated flowing curves, rich decoration, floral or organic symbolism and dynamic shapes, all of which often related back to Catalan history, culture and identity. In response to demand for more Catalan symbolism within the building, Doménech i Montaner commissioned local artists and craftsman to create some of the lavish decoration and ornamentation throughout the building, including Miquel Blay’s sculpture, ‘The Catalan Song’ (above left photo), which fuses fine detail and organic symbols with flowing lines and clear nationalistic pride.

Despite the beautifully decorated aesthetics of the building, Doménech i Montaner made sure that the structure was technically superb, using cutting edge technologies and materials in its construction. He also emphasized elements of space and light within the structure, using stained glass, columns, arches, mosaics, windows and colonnades to blur the lines between interior and exterior. Inside, the concert hall itself is lit in the daytime with natural light from stained glass windows on two walls and much of the ceiling, and the vestibule ceiling has star-shaped moldings, further confusing the inside/outside binary. The building itself was completed in 1908 and won an award for architecture from Barcelona City Council.

2. TORRE AGBAR

Torre Agbar; photos by Geoffrey Gilson and Jérôme Decq

Torre Agbar; photos by Geoffrey Gilson and Jérôme Decq

Nicknamed ‘the suppository’ for obvious reasons, Torre Agbar is the brainchild of Pritzker Prize winning French architect Jean Nouvel and is a 474 ft high office tower. The strange, and rather suggestive, shape is based on Montserrat, the chain of mountains near Barcelona that holds great significance for Catalonia, and the iconic Sagrada Familia bell towers (covered in Part Two of this ), and also loosely on the shape that a geyser forms when rising into the air, taking inspiration from the water utility company that occupies it. Nouvel rejects the idea of the traditional skyscraper in his use of these influences, bottling them down to their loosest form and creating this elegantly minimal shape.

As the third largest structure in Barcelona, Torre Agbar doesn’t exactly have to compete for attention. However, the structure defies the staticity of the traditional skyscraper model through 4,500 LEDs situated in its glass facade, capable of producing over 16 million colours. These LEDs create fantastic light shows, which its creator described as ‘a vaporous cloud of colour that seeks moiré’. In addition to this, the glass panes in the façade all have different inclinations and opacities, meaning that the colour of the tower changes with the time of day and the seasons.

3. BARCELONA PAVILION

The Barcelona Pavilion – Photos by gandolas, Gëzim Radoniqi and Toni Bianchetti
The Barcelona Pavilion – Photos by gandolas, Gëzim Radoniqi and Toni Bianchetti

The Barcelona Pavilion is perhaps one of the most architecturally important buildings of the 20th century, employing minimalism and the aesthetics of function to further the cause of modernism and Bauhaus. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the greats of modern architecture, for the 1929 International Exposition, the Pavilion represented the reborn Weimar Germany – prosperous, glamorous and forward-thinking. The Pavilion was designed to blur the lines between inside and outside through its extensive use of full height glass panes, the floating roof, the extension of the floor materials from inside to outside and the use of continuous, partitioned space rather than separate rooms within the house. The travertine, marble and golden onyx finishes added to the air of luxury, together with the purpose-built furniture – such as the world-famous Barcelona Chair, as seen in the photos above. Even the sculpture placement (Alba, by Georg Kolbe) revolutionized the interplay of art and architecture, with the statue being placed within the small water pool and not the large one so as to offer multiple differing views from within the house: “From now on, in the sense of equality for juxtaposing building and visual work, sculptures were no longer to be applied retrospectively to the building, but rather to be a part of the spatial design, to help define and interpret it. To the day, one of the most notable examples is the Barcelona Pavilion” (Ursel Berger).

Rather than relying on trade exhibits, the Pavilion became the exhibit itself, with visitors wandering through to reach the next part of the Exposition. Sadly, the building was temporary and torn down in 1930; however, it was rebuilt in the 1980s from old photographs and now stands as a permanent structure.

4. ESGLÉSIA DE SANTA MARIA DEL MAR

The Església de Santa Maria del Mar – photos by Trey Ratcliff and Son of Groucho

The Església de Santa Maria del Mar – photos by Trey Ratcliff and Son of Groucho

The Santa Maria del Mar (St Mary of the Sea) is one of the purest examples of Catalan Gothic architecture in Barcelona, not least because of the speed of construction of the Cathedral meant that it was uninfluenced by changing fashions in architecture. Construction of the Santa Maria del Mar began in 1329 and finished in 1383 – a mere 54 years. Because of this, the Cathedral’s features are typical of the Catalan Gothic era: flat-roofed octagonal bell towers, exceptionally tall interiors, rib vaults and soaring columns set thirteen metres apart. The exterior, unlike European Gothicism, seems to be a triumph of width over height, but the interior seems endlessly airy and tall, with the stained glass windows adding a tremendous amount of light. Whilst the furnishing inside may seem austere, much of this is because of Barcelona’s troubled history; during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, the Church backed General Franco, causing the opposing Republicans to set fire to the Cathedral in retaliation. Parts of the vault can still be seen to have smoke damage as a result of this fire.

5. WALDEN 7

Walden 7 complex: Photos by Vcolliga and Jacqueline Poggi

Walden 7 complex: Photos by Vcolliga and Jacqueline Poggi

Looking like something from a sci-fi film, Walden 7 is as far removed from the typical suburban housing project as possible – and, indeed, it was named for B.F. Skinner’s science fiction novel Walden Two. It was designed by the Catalan post-modern architect Ricardo Bofill and constructed in 1974 on a budget significantly lower than usual for subsidised housing, and was designed to subvert the usual grim aesthetics of large housing projects by creating a ‘vertical labyrinth’. Built on the site of a former concrete factory, the eighteen tower blocks are displaced from their bases, forming a ring-shaped complex with seven interconnecting courtyards housed inside. Whilst the amount of dedicated communal space was reduced in favour of extra accommodation, the complex still houses meeting rooms, games rooms, bars, shops and two swimming pools.

Next time we’ll complete our top ten with a look at works including the Sagrada Familia, Montjüic Communications Tower and even the Igualada Cemetery.

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