133 – Barcelona Chapter 1 – Modernism

As promised on several occasions, I finally got to sorting out the photos from the times when travelling was still possible and I took my Mum to Barcelona. This first part is dedicated to some of the works of the genius modernist architect Antoni Gaudí. Ladies and Gents: to you, first batch of shitloads of at best average photos from the Catalan capital. I am feeling very confident today, as you can tell, but my mood can likely be attributed to the fact that I have been listening Bach’s cello suites since this morning. On the other hand, since a week now one of my neighbours keeps playing in loop Miserere from the fourth act of Il Trovatore. The bit that claims that death is always too slow to come to those who long to die. So I am clearly not the only one in the building going insane. Maybe I should go over and ask if they’re feeling ok, maybe share a socially distant drink (or some recommendations of depressing music).

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La Pedrera

So, what have learned in these two months of confinement? Literally nothing seems to be happening in the world apart from coronavirus. Not much is happening about coronavirus either, to be quite honest. Many countries started easing the lockdown, but it mostly looks like “people have had enough and we cannot really get away with keeping them at home any longer while we do fuck all (like, start testing seriously), so let’s just reopen and see what happens, fingers crossed”. Oh, and apparently Adele lost weight. Even the CNN bangs on about it, so they must really be short of publishable topics. FFS,  the lady won about every popular music award there is (and multiple times), what does it matter how much she weights? She is a gifted singer-songwriter, she is clearly not defined by the number her scales currently show. If there is one good thing about this period, it’s that some of us finally realised we can happily muddle though without knowing what do second-tier Hollywood starlets wear (tracksuit bottoms like the rest of us right now, I’d imagine), and we are still alive while blissfully ignoring secrets of skin routine of any given member of the Kardashian clan (but frankly, would you take advice from someone who would not be allowed in the family photo without undergoing extensive aesthetic surgery first?). Right, best get on with the architecture then, or this degenerates into and indignant rant. Again.

Casa Milà (1906 – 1911) – a private residence built for Roser Segimón, a wealthy widow of a coffee plantation owner, and her second husband Pere Milà, manager of Barcelona’s bullfighting ring La Monumental and a politician who wanted to reverse general suffrage. An all-round renaissance man. No wonder the residence bears his name, even though it was almost certainly the missus who paid. Today the building is better known as La Pedrera – the stone quarry, but the nickname was originally pejorative and was invented by the local residents who disapproved of the modern construction (and feared it would cause decrease of property prices in the area). The legend goes the people from the neighbourhood even ceased to greet Milà, although the unusualness of the building may have been the very last reason to do so, given the galore of “progressive” ideas of the owner.

On all my previous visits to Barcelona, Casa Milà was closed for restoration, so I was excited to finally see it without scaffolding. When things are back to normal – and they will be, one day – best book your tickets online. Gaudí came up with many technical innovations in the building’s design: the geniality consists in the self-supporting stone facade (meaning the entire structure is free of load-bearing walls, which allows for large windows letting natural light in, and also enables the homeowners to add or demolish any internal walls at will without compromising stability). The two courtyards and many ventilation shafts improve the building’s ventilation. The attic (that once housed the communal laundry), is formed of 270 catenary arches (as in a gothic cathedral) that support the roof and the vault also insulates the building in the summer heat. The rooftop terrace is nicknamed “the garden of warriors”, as all the chimneys, ventilation shafts and staircase exits resemble armoured knights. All the architectonic elements on the roof are decorated with broken pottery or even shards of champagne bottles consumed at the inauguration party. La Pedrera was also the first building in Barcelona to be equipped with underground parking (apparently, the design of the garage was changed during the construction, as one of the future owners complained his Rolls Royce would not pass through the gate).

Casa Batlló (1904 – 1906) – is a private residence on Passeig de Gràcia, remodelled by Gaudí (as opposed to La Pedrera which was built from scratch and required demolition of the houses that had previously occupied the area). Casa Battló is located on the block locally known as “Mansana de la Discòrdia” – the Apple of Discord (alluding to the Judgement of Paris that sought to determine which Greek goddess was the fairest) – for it features four houses designed by four most prominent Catalan modernist architects in close vicinity: Casa Amatller (by Josep Puig i Cadafalch),  Casa Lleó Morera (by Lluís Domènech i Montaner),  Casa Mulleras (by Enric Sagnier) and finally Casa Battló.

Again, book your tickets online. There is even an option to enter before the official opening time, for people who are willing to pay a little extra to see the place relatively empty and take photographs without hordes of tourists. A total waste of money in this case, as the city was half empty anyway in the last week before lockdown, but who could have known. When Josep Battló (a textile entrepreneur) and his wife Amalia Godó (whose family founded the newspaper La Vanguardia) hired Gaudí to renovate their family home, they wanted an audacious, unique house that would resemble no other and decided to give Gaudí a free hand. The result is a striking facade decorated with a mosaic formed of little pieces of glass and broken ceramic tiles that go from orange to green and blue, elegant columns that resemble bones or plant stems supporting the wide window of the noble floor salon, with sculls for balconies and a dragon instead of a roof. The little turret topped with four-armed cross is said to represent the spear that St. George used to slay the beast. The noble floor itself, now a museum, covers over 700 sqm, and was home of the Battló family until the 1950’s.

La Sagrada Familia (1882 – 2026?) – In 1872, a Catalan bookseller Josep Maria Bocabella went on pilgrimage in Italy and returned with the idea to build an expiatory temple dedicated to the Holy Family. His initial idea to erect the exact replica of Basilica della Santa Casa of Loreto in central Italy was changed by the first chief architect Francisco de Paula del Villar into just a slightly bit more original project of (yet another) neo-gothic church and the building started in 1882. Villar resigned a year later over disagreements with his assistants and Antoni Gaudí was hired to supervise the project, which he completely revolutionised and came up with the magnificent design of the temple we may even see completed in our lifetime (at the moment the completion date is set to 2026,  matching 100 years anniversary of Gaudí’s death, but we’ll see).

Why has it taken so long? For once, Gaudí famously remarked, when asked about the completion in 1922, that “His client wasn’t in a hurry”. In fact the one thing he built before anything else was a school for the children of the construction workers. We may like to think that Gaudí was driven by christian charity and social conscience, but he was more likely just grooming the next generation of stonemasons and builders. By the time of Gaudí’s accidental death in 1926, only about 25% of the project was completed (the Nativity facade and the first four bell towers). Another problem was that Gaudí notoriously did not draw most his designs, but rather built a three-dimensional models, most of which perished when his workshop was set on fire in the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The construction was halted for the following 17 years, partly due to the war and the ensuing regime, partly because the little funding available was spent on trying to reconstruct Gaudí’s original projects. The Passion facade and bell towers were only erected after Franco’s death in 1976. As mentioned above, Sagrada Familia is an expiatory temple, which means it does not receive any funding apart from donations of the faithful and revenues from the tickets sold to visitors. The rise of the international tourism in the past 30 years boosted the anual budget to 40 million euro. With that and the availability of new technologies and computer models, the construction accelerated enormously over the last few years, and the 2026 completion now looks feasible. Those interested in the construction technique and what still needs to be built, check out this and this videos respectively.

What stands today (about 70% of the project) is simply magnificent. Extravagant, certainly. The contrast between the flamboyant Nativity facade and the stern Passion facade. The Glory facade, the most glorious one, as the name suggests, is yet to be started and is planned to be fully finished sometime in 2030’s upon addition of all the statues that will adorn it. The interior of the temple very much resembles a gothic cathedral, with tall stained glass windows and a forests (both in number and appearance) of columns. I guess something must support the 18 spires the completed basilica will have. When the highest tower dedicated to Jesus Christ is erected, it will reach 170 m, thus making Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world. Hopefully we will be around to see it.

More on Catalan Gothic in the next blog (as soon as I go through about 200 more photos) In the meanwhile, the magic behind the lens:


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