Barcelona, the Catalan capital of modernisme, continues its architectural evolution while keeping its roots firmly planted in its past – another facet of its independent spirit
To see Barcelona's Passeig de Gràcia is to see the city itself. Modernisme (literally 'modernism') was the movement that sought a distinctive Catalan identity and its icons, which have come to define the city, flank glass towers and mid-century deco buildings. On either side of the block architecture historians have dubbed the Illa de la Discòrdia – the 'block of discord' – for the competing facades that went up in the late 1800s, visitors can check in to re-imagined banks (the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona) or ultramodern hotels (Hotel Omm) and take in the discord as it was meant to be experienced – from an architectural standpoint rather than, perhaps, the conflict sparked by recent calls in some Catalan quarters for independence.
THE HOUSE THAT GAUDÍ BUILT
At the heart of this urban museum is La Pedrera, one of renowned Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí's remaining masterworks. Built as Casa Milà for industrialist Pere Milà and his wife Roser, La Pedrera – meaning 'the quarry' because of its unconventional and undulating stone facade – incorporates all the hallmarks of the modernisme movement that f lourished between 1888 and 1911: asymmetry, curving lines, natural and anatomical motifs, bright colours, allegorical and mythical imagery (like that of St George and the dragon, the patron saint of Catalonia), and trencadís (broken tiles) mosaic work. When the pianoplaying Roser saw the curved walls, she exasperatedly asked where she would put her piano. Legend says Gaudí's response was simple: "Learn the violin".
Gaudí's influence extends up and down Gràcia, a wide, leafy boulevard that shows off its modernisme at every turn, such as the shells and fish of the stone tiles on the pavement and the trencadís of the once heated wrought iron street lamps – allegedly lit to keep overly amorous, unmarried young adults from getting too frisky on evening walks. Passeig de Gràcia was a key avenue in urban planner Ildefons Cerdà i Sunyer's Eixample, the 1859 city extension connecting the town of Gràcia to the new Plaça Catalunya. Directly to the east of La Pedrera is La Sagrada Família.
The still-under construction Sagrada Família broke ground in 1882 and is now the symbol of Barcelona, even in its unfinished state. It is as divisive a structure as exists anywhere in the world. The exterior marries modernisme motifs with Gaudí's religious devotion: the minor basilica's three facades depict the life and death of Jesus. Many would call it ugly, yet on a typical day hundreds of tourists strain to get a look at the distinctive ornamentation.
But its interior is what truly sets it apart as an ingeniously designed, welcoming and breath-taking house of worship that breaks all the rules of traditional church architecture. Rooted in natural geometry, the interior hyperboloid columns of the nave evoke a forest, soaring 45m from a Latin cross f loor plate. Light shifting from warm to cool spills through the stainedglass windows in homage to the natural world as God created it, according to Gaudí.
This is an excerpt from the “Harmonious Discord" article from the November 2017 issue of Perspective magazine.
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