Barselona Art Reuveau
Text by LLUIS PERMANYER
Photography by MELBA LEVICK
BARCELONA ART NOUVEAU
London is famous for Big Ben; Paris for the Eiffel Tower; Rome for the Colosseum. Barcelona, on the other hand, is not identified by one or two famous buildings as these other European cities, but rather by an entire movement of turn-of-the-century architecture known simply as Modernisme. Familiar to Americans as art noveau, its most famous practictioner was the artist and architect Antoni Gaudi. But the city is filled with superb examples of art nouveau by many other architects, which are all revealed in vivid color in Barcelona Art Nouveau.
This book offers a tour of 46 houses, public buildings, and monuments in the art-nouveau style, including brand-new photographs of the work of Gaudi. Visit the famous literary cafe Els Quatre Gats, which was once patronized by Pablo Picasso, who also designed the menu. Lose yourself in the whimisical curves of Casa Josep Batllo, a wonderful example of the combination of artisan tradition and richness that exemplifies art nouveau.
These structures, fully restored to pristine condition for the 1992 Olympics, have been rediscovered by both foreigners and Barcelonans alike, and are captured inside and out in this fascinating record of the adventurous, undulating designs of an exciting era.
Barcelona Is Modernisme
Modernisme was Barcelona's Renaissance in both senses of the term: as a formal style and as a societal rebirth. There are two moments in the history of the twenty centuries of Barcelona that clearly and spectacularly mark the city we admire today: the Gothic and its counterpart at the other end of imperial Spain's rapid rise and long decline, Modernisme. It need not surprise us that Modernisme reached such heights of spectacle, since it was as the manifestation of a positive, creative, and dynamic social explosion. The recent centennial of the disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898 sharply highlighted the different attitudes that reigned in Spain on the one hand, and in Barcelona on the other, immediately following the loss of Spain's last colonies a hundred years ago. Indeed, the despair, crisis, and depression of Spain at large contrasted with the euphoria and rising prosperity of Barcelona. While the rest of Spain became disconcerted and forlornly inward-looking, Barcelona turned its gaze toward Europe, where it found inspiration.
It was in Europe that Barcelona discovered Modernisme, a style that in each country blossomed under a different name: "art nouveau" in Great Britain; "modern style" in France (in English, to reflect the style's English roots); "Jugendstil" in Germany; "Sezes-sionstil" in Austria; "art 1900" in Belgium; "stile Liberty" in Italy (after the London store promoted the style). And in Barcelona it was called Modernisme, a term that reflected its embrace of the new century and its rejection of the past. But wherever the movement took hold, it brought with it innovations and implied a way of seeing and reflecting on the past and the present that deviated from orthodoxies of all types, and particularly, the Catholic countries, from the line dictated by the Vatican. Indeed, the pope saw new ideas as so radical that he went so far as to condemn them as dangerous. But in Barcelona, the movement could not be limited to a new style in the decorative arts. Modernity was its essence; the adoption of the name Modernisme left no doubt as to the nature of the Catalan ambitions.
It was nothing new that Barcelona should admire Europe, since far from adopting a stance of introversion and isolation, throughout her history the city had invariably looked beyond her frontiers. Her geographical position—on the Mediterranean and near the border with the rest of Europe—and lack of natural resources led to the need for commerce and the readiness to make deals and be a cosmopolitan. Thus it is understandable that Modernisme should have been cultivated only in Barcelona and in those areas where Barcelona exercised influence: Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. And even in Melilla: it was in this North African city that the architect Nieto, highly influenced by Antoni Gaudi, did his military service, subsequently remaining there and introducing modemista architecture, cultivated also by other professionals and today considered a proud sign of local identity.
Modernisme represented the crystallization of many trends in Catalan society at the end of the nineteenth century. The decadence that had firmly set in over many centuries was finally dying and political nationalism was beginning to bear fruit. The Catalan economy was enjoying a period of exceptional prosperity, and large amounts of capital from abroad and from the rural areas sought refuge in Barcelona. As the biggest and best planned urban expansion in Europe (the Eixample) was being developed, the city was beginning to recover a spirit of confidence in her immediate future. The elite were convinced that they would soon be the protagonists of a historic moment. All these elements converged at the same time and in the same direction, and the major, original, and creative architectural style that came to predominate was a further reflection of this crucial moment. It would have been unthinkable at the time to continue with something as neutral, insipid, and banal as the architectural eclecticism that had been the style for much of the nineteenth century, fruit of its period of recession, with nothing better to do than turn its gaze toward the past in order to recover its familiar symbols: columns, pediments, moldings, and so on.
The signs of the movement went far beyond characteristic styles—of architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, theater, and the decorative arts—to be evident in the artists themselves. However, the movement went far beyond this, was much deeper and wider in scope. The modernista creator was immediately recognizable as such, since he let his hair and beard grow long, dressed in black, and invariably wore a wide-brimmed hat. He would smoke tobacco and other more potent drugs that would transport him to artificial paradises. He was an impassioned bohemian, enamored of everything new. There was therefore a modernista way of understanding and experiencing life.
At the close of the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, a number of key modernistas met at the exposition's Cafe-Restaurant; designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, to reflect on the main principles that were to inform the style that was emerging with such suggestive force. Such was the spirit of that coterie that they engaged in long discussions not only on architecture and craftsmanship but also on politics and nationalism. "What forms or sources of inspiration are we to cultivate?" these committed men eagerly asked themselves. They were aware that destiny had provided them with the opportunity to if not construct, at least to reconstruct the city and their homeland and provide them with an image to show the world. They were convinced that they were the protagonists and creators of a historical moment. Such politiciza-tion induced them to turn their gaze to the past, beyond the centuries of decline to the era when Barcelona and Catalonia were a power or even the imperial Mediterranean power, which at that time meant the world, since the course of Western history unfolded around that sea of civilization. Hence the Romanesque and themes that pervade Gothic Modernisme. The rediscovery of the Romanesque period in fact, was due in part to the work of the architect, historian, and politician Josep Plug i Cadafalch, who was the driving force (together with the critic Josep Pijoan) behind the salvation of a key Romanesque artifact, the Pyrenean murals.
In realizing the ambitions of Modernisme, Barcelona had two unique resources. First was the city's still-intact community of craftsmen. Modernisme's inexhaustible variety stems in part from the movement's close links to this community: all the movement's architects turned to the imagination of magnificent artisans who skillfully enriched their works by interpreting the ideas expressed in sketches, both finished and unfinished. In Barcelona the artisan tradition dated from medieval times and had been preserved ever faithful to the highest levels of quality. Some scholars have proposed that the host of professional craft workshops in existence in Barcelona around the turn of the century was possible thanks to the spectacle and richness of Modernisme, and not vice-versa. But such a tradition would have been impossible to improvise. What was possible, on the other hand, was to send a number of artisans abroad to perfect their craft or extend their knowledge. One such craftsman was the mosaicist, Lluis Bru, who, following the advice of Domenech i Montaner, went to Italy in order to learn the techniques of Roman mosaics. Without craftsmen capable of delicate handwork, it is questionable whether Modernisme's characteristic aesthetic of restless movement could have been realized. Unlike the more controlled movement of the baroque, Modernisme's movement is highlighted everywhere with the fuetada (coup defouet or whiplash), that interminable stem-and-flower motif that meanders through and fills modernista spaces; it also appears in less descriptive form, such as in the triumph art curves of La Pedrera, the sinuous stone that dominates the whole facade.
Barcelona's other great asset was its spectacular new building site the Eixample, the plans for which had been drawn up and executed just under two decades before by the engineer Ildefons Cerda. The Eixample not only provided sufficient room to accommodate everyone's tastes, its identical streets afforded architects with an unprecedented opportunity to show off their facades. Accustomed as the people of Barcelona were to the narrowness and congestion of a city straitjacketed by her walls, as soon as the Eixample began to be developed all doubts were dispelled about whether this meant a definite improvement. As evidence of this one need only contemplate the virtuosity of Casa Batllo and the Palau Gtiell: it was clear that Cerda's gridiron layout provided an incomparable added value. It has often been said that architectural excesses of modernista facades must be interpreted as the will to offset with eccentricity the uniformity imposed by the Cerda plan. I do not subscribe to this view. Modernista architects would have designed their buildings in exactly the same way, regardless of the site where they would eventually stand; proof of this is the fact that elsewhere in Barcelona they executed projects with the same dazzlingly differential fervor.
Barcelonans with sufficient capital at their disposal to erect a new building, believed from the very outset in the thrilling adventure of the Eixample. They did not hesitate to abandon the rural family seats they had inherited and choose an architect of renown to design their new residence, whether single- or multi-family. In the latter case they would occupy the first floor, which thus came to be known as the planta principal (main floor). Thus healthy social competition began to ascertain which were the best of the newly erected buildings in the setting of the Eixample. Everyone rushed to participate, and architects contributed the best, most audacious designs of which they were capable. There is no other period in the whole of the history of the city to compare with this one. The freedom and scope for eccentricity that Modernisme provided was decisive here. It was not very long before Barcelona became a city distinguished by self-perpetuating variety, unlike other capitals and cities dominated by uniformity offset here and there by the occasional palace. Indeed, since the city lacked a royal family and was not a national capital, palaces, in the strict sense of the word, don't really exist in Barcelona, though some extremely sumptuous, though relatively small, houses were built by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy.
Such dazzling disorder was not understood at the time, above all by foreigners. Georges Clemenceau for one. In 1910, having lost the presidency of the French government, Clemenceau was nearing the end of a long lecture tour in Latin America. He returned to Europe by sea and docked in Barcelona. The trustees of the Barcelona Athenaeum went to visit him at the Hotel Colon, in Placa de Catalunya, and invited him to give a lecture the following day. Clemenceau gladly accepted. Later that day he took a carriage up Passeig de Gracia, whose architectural fantasies so displeased him that when he reached La Pedrera he was so outraged that he ordered the coachman to return immediately to the hotel. He refused to give his lecture in a city of such hare-brained diversity and returned to Paris, whereupon reporters bombarded him with questions. He hastened to make it clear that he had fled not from his tour of Latin America but from a Barcelona so absurd that they were even building houses for dragons. In 1929 the novelist Evelyn Waugh, for his part, declared on contemplating Casa Batllo that it must be the Turkish consulate, since no one could imagine any other purpose behind such a bizarre facade.
Harder to understand than attacks by foreigners is why, in 1920, a campaign of discredit was launched within Barcelona itself to undermine the prestige that Modernisme had won for the city. What began as an intellectual movement—really a reaction against everything associated with modernism—called Noucen-tisme, became, by the 1930s, a call to action, with some examples of modernista architecture falling victim to the irreparable action of the pickax. Intellectuals, historians, and art critics ruthlessly attacked modernista works until such a negative atmosphere had been created that the mutilations and demolitions were looked upon with enthusiastic approval. The writer Josep Pla, among others, proposed in the 1940s that all the ornamentation of the Palau de la Musica Catalana be removed. The Palau Gtiell was on the point of being sold to be dismantled and rebuilt stone by stone on the other side of the Atlantic. Casa Fuster, at the upper end of Passeig de Gracia, was on the point of being demolished by none other than its owners, the enher electrical company. The facade and above all the planta principal of Casa Lleo Morera suffered from irreparable amputations. The luster of a great number of modernista buildings was dimmed by the addition of a number of stories of alarming, shameful mediocrity. The Barcelona city council did nothing to protect that heritage, disconcerted as they were by criticisms that discredited and disparaged Modernisme. Why was this campaign launched? Perhaps the novelist Gustave Flaubert had the answer when he wrote "le mauvais gout est le gout de la generation anterieure". For the fact is that the noucentistes hated everything the previous generation had left them so much that all they desired was to destroy them.
The first to come to the rescue of Modernisme were Salvador Dali and the surrealists in the mid-i930s. The great painter eulogized, to bizarre extremes, the works of what he termed "edible architecture." What really saved them from destruction, however, was the discovery in the United States of the oeuvre of Antoni Gaudi, thanks to the major New York exhibition organized by George R. Collins in 1952.
Once Modernisme's former glory had been restored in people's minds, the next step was to make the buildings themselves dazzling again. Thanks to the memorable restoration campaign launched in connection with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics under the slogan "Barcelona posa't guapa" (Barcelona, make yourself beautiful), the world discovered that the city was not gray but merely dirty. Indeed the results of the campaign were so unexpected, spectacular, and enthralling that polychrome facades were reborn that even the Barcelonans themselves never imagined were there. The challenge of hosting the Olympic Games had led to the rediscovery of all the quality, grandeur, and color of Modernisme, so that today Barcelona is again synonymous with Modernisme, the best Modernisme.