Modernism in Barcelona: Movers and Shakers

No other architectural style has influenced the face of Barcelona as much as that of Modernisme. Over 2000 buildings can be attributed to the style or contain elements of it in this city. Antoni Gaudí is the architect of the period most associated with Barcelona due to his innovative designs, but there are many less known and equally prolific practitioners of Modernisme who are rarely acknowledged. Modernisme spans a period from the 1880s until about 1911 with the death of the most important Modernist poet, Joan Maragall and the rise of Noucentisme, a Catalan cultural movement of the early 20th century that originated largely as a reaction to Modernisme, both in art and ideology.

What is Modernisme? It is sometimes called Renaixença, not in the Italian sense, but reflecting a new energy and the revival of Catalan cultural traditions. It is probably best described as Catalan Art Nouveau but not merely a Catalan version of that. Art Nouveau can be defined as the aim of artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to modernise design and move away from historical styles. It would later become known as Art Deco, Jugenstil or the Glasgow Style. This modernisation was a general trend in Europe, but Catalonia acquired a unique personality, motivated by the desire to express Catalonian identity with an attachment to traditions, but also a movement towards a radical modernity. It is visible in several art forms: architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, music and the decorative arts. It is also defined by the introduction of modern techniques and materials such as brick, iron, steel, wood, ceramics and mosaics as well as a focus on shapes, colours and concepts inspired by Nature.

Modernisme was especially privileged in Barcelona due to a set of particular conditions that allowed for the introduction of ‘the new’. Firstly, Spanish politics of the late 19th century was marked by increasing stability, with the reestablishment of the monarchy paving the way for rapid industrial expansion, particularly in Barcelona in the shipping, textile and manufacturing industries. This, of course, allowed for the growth of a wealthy middle class who would become patrons of the new style. Secondly, Barcelona played host to two world exhibitions in which Barcelona wanted to impress the international crowds, celebrate its economic growth and showcase its modernity: the 1888 Universal Exposition of Fine and Industrial Arts and the 1926 International Exhibition. Finally, the impetus for the development of Modernist architecture came from the availability of space in Barcelona to provide for necessary urban expansion: a nine square kilometre area between the medieval city and the once surrounding small towns. The area, known as Eixample or ‘extension’, was a pioneering design from the visionary Modernist urban planner, Idelfons Cerdà. Begun in the late 19th century, it is characterised by a strict grid pattern crossed by wide avenues that, seen in an aerial view, resembles the imprint of a giant waffle iron.

The grid iron shaped streets of the Eixample

The streets are long and straight enclosing octagonal blocks with chamfered corners. Cerdà considered traffic, transport, sunlight and ventilation in these blocks and the daily needs of inhabitants such as schools, shops, hospitals and markets, many of which still exist today. Here the bourgeoisie vied with each other to build the most aesthetically refined modernista homes especially in what is now called the Quadrat d’Or or ‘Golden Square’.

Modernist inspired shopfronts dating from the period: a glove shop and a patisserie

Three key figures dominate the architecture of modernista Barcelona: Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Antoni Gaudí. Affectionately called ‘The Trinity’, their contribution was not only for outstanding architecture but also for the innovative theoretical knowledge they brought to their practice.

Montaner was a draftsman, an archaeologist, a publisher, and a politician in the Catalan movement for autonomy. Often called the Father of Modernisme he wanted to define a national architecture and wrote various treatises on the subject publishing a seminal article In search of a National Architecture, in 1878. This date and article are considered to mark the beginning of Modernisme. He became a professor of architecture at the university and Antoni Gaudí was among his students. An outstanding theorist and promoter of Catalan architectural nationalism, he was widely travelled and multilingual, as well as a scholar of everything from iron forging to medieval heraldry. He designed many buildings but four stand out as prime examples of his architecture: the Castell dels Tres Dragons, the Casa Lleó Morera, the Hospital de Santa Creu y Sant Pau and the Palau de la Música Catalana, perhaps the best known and most spectacular of all.

The Castell dels Tres Dragons, built between 1887 and 1888, is considered an early Modernist landmark and the departure point for Modernisme. It was one of the first buildings designed for 1888 Universal Exposition and is an innovative transparent structure of brick and iron. It looks medieval with its crenellations and white ceramic shields; however, these are an early form of Pop Art advertising Catalan produce and even drinks that the cafe was offering customers. Originally a cafe-restaurant it is now the city’s zoological museum.

The Castell des Tres Dragons, formerly the café-restaurant of the 1888 Universal Exposition, with its shields advertising drinks for sale

The Casa Lleó Morera was commissioned in 1902 by Francesca Morera and takes its name from her son Lleó Morera, a wealthy member of the Catalan bourgoisie. Its dominant wedding cake turret floats atop a sea of esoteric ornamentation with many puns on the family name with lions (lleó) and the mulberry bush (morera in Spanish).

The Casa Lleó Morera

Over forty leading artists and craftsmen were involved in the creation of this house with outstanding stained glass, sculptures, parquet floors with mulberry motifs, woodwork, cabinetry, mosaics and ceramics. Exceptional in this house are the stained glass windows by Antoni Rigalt, the sculptures on the façade and interior by Eusebi Arnau, the furniture and floors by Gaspar Homer and the ceramic wall panels by Antoni Serra.

Antoni Rigalt’s beautiful stained glass windows in the Casa Lleó Morera
Inside the Casa Lleó Morera: interior by Eusebi Arnau and the ceramic wall panels by Antoni Serra

The work of these artists can be seen in many Modernista buildings in Barcelona. The sculptures by Arnau on the façade are interesting as they show women carrying a gramophone, a camera, and a light bulb, referencing the technological advances of the time.

A light bulb, a gramophone, and a camera: ahead of his time, sculptures by Arnau on the façade of Casa Lleó Morera

He is also responsible for the stunning St George and the Dragon above the entrance to the main corridor in the house, St George of course being the patron saint of Catalonia. Antoni Serra is considered the outstanding ceramicist of Modernism and there is a museum dedicated to his work. For those interested in seeing more of the work of these artists, I recommend a visit to the modern art gallery within the Museum of Catalonian Art (MNAC) on the Montjuic Hill in Barcelona.

The Casa Lleó Morera forms part of the block called The Block of Discord, a group of existing buildings refurbished from 1898 to 1906. The Block is named for the visual clash between buildings each trying to outdo each other in four different interpretations of Modernisme architecture.

Montaner’s Casa Lleó Morera, Enric Sagnier’s Casa Mulleras, Cadafalch’s Casa Amatler and Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, the so-called Block of Discord, “Manzana de la Discordia”

Montaner’s Hospital of the Holy Cross and St Paul was commissioned in 1901 by the wealthy Catalan banker Pau Gil to replace the early, medieval hospital in the Raval district of the old city. The design of the whole complex was to be based on the cross and be dedicated to St Paul, to reflect both the name of the old hospital and the name of the patron saint of the banker financing it. The centre was to provide the latest innovations in architecture, technology, and medicine. The hospital rivals the Sagrada Familia in size, occupying 360 acres or 9 blocks of the Eixample area. Montaner designed the hospital as a ‘garden city’ in contrast to the usual design of hospitals. He planned forty-eight pavilions for the bedridden and twelve for services and administration: twenty-seven were finally built.

Domenech i Montaner’s Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

All the service areas were placed underground and access to the pavilions is achieved by a series of tunnels. His vision was a ‘healing village’. Therefore, it cleverly incorporates symbols of recovery and rejuvenation with subdued, restful colours for the interiors and is replete with sculptures by Eusebi Arnau, and stained glass by Antoni Rigalt. It functioned as a hospital until 2006.

Exterior and interior of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

The Palau de la Música Catalana is arguably Montaner’s finest contribution to Modernisme in Barcelona. It was commissioned and financed by the Orfeó Català choral society which was formed in 1891 to revive Catalan music. It has an organic appearance due to the use of curves and dynamic shapes and is revolutionary in its use of brick and iron. This was cutting-edge architecture with curtain walls and natural illumination. Antoni Rigalt’s collaboration can be seen again in his stained glass windows set into arches and the exceptional central skylight in the form of an inverted dome in shades of gold surrounded by blue, representing the sun and sky. This is the only auditorium in Europe illuminated during daylight by natural light.

The inverted dome of the interior of the sumptuous Palau de la Música Catalana filters natural light onto performances

The youngest of the Trinity, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, was a politician and from 1917 to 1925 was president of the Commonwealth of Catalonia: the four Catalan provincial administrations. He was also Director of the Institute of Catalan Studies, an archaeologist and an expert in Romanesque art. He was a prolific architect and town planner and was commissioned to direct the urban planning for the 1929 International Exhibition on Montjuic Hill. He was sacked for his political views when dictator Primo de Rivera seized power and subsequently lived in exile during the Civil War of 1936-39, returning in the 1950s. His architecture was inspired by Northern European traditions and is both Neo-Gothic and Neo-Classical. He considered Gaudí a little obsolete. His buildings are reminiscent of Flemish guildhalls and German palaces. Two exceptional buildings that can be found in the Eixample area are the Casa Amatller and the Casa Terrades. He also designed the Casa Martí that became famous for its café Els Quatro Gats, the hangout of artists, musicians and writers.

The interior of Els Quatro Gats, which was frequented by the likes of Picasso, Gaudí and Rusiñol

The Casa Amatller, a reconstruction of an existing building in the Block of Discord, was commissioned in 1890 by the chocolate baron Antoni Amatller. The architecture references buildings in Flanders that Amatller visited frequently for his chocolate business. The house showcases the work of fifty modernista artists. The façade is reminiscent of a chocolate box with its sgraffito pattern and blue, pink and cream tiles. Beautifully detailed it incorporates many references to the family name; for example, ‘A’ shaped balconies with almond trees and sculptures of almond tree flowers (Amatller is the Catalan word for almond tree). The gable structure is Cadafalch’s response to Amatller’s interest as an amateur photographer, as he incorporated a studio in the attic designing the unusual stepped gable to hide it from view.

Casa Amatller with its chocolate box front and St George and the Dragon motifs (the symbol of Catalonia)

The Casa Terradas is better known as the Casa de les Punxes, and was commissioned in 1905 by the widow of Bartomeu Terradas, a wealthy textile baron, for their three daughters, Àngela, Josefa, and Rosa. It is called Punxes (‘needle’ in Catalan) because of the spike shape of the towers. The design is full of medieval allusions and incorporates Gothic and Spanish Plateresque references with traditional Catalan motifs. Again there are many references to the sisters’ names with anagrams repeated as friezes around the bases of the towers and sculptural panels such as the Angel panel by Enrique Monserdà that refers to Àngela Terradas. Three outstanding artists collaborated with Cadalfach: Manuel Ballarín, Enrique Monserdà and Ramon Amigó. Ballarín was the main wrought iron artist of modernisme and worked with the principle Catalan architects. His company modernized and popularized the forging sector as he mechanized the production of serial parts to greatly reduce prices. Monserdà designed the ceramic panels of Sant Jordi, and of the Angel and Roses. Ramon Amigó owned another important glass workshop.

The Casa de les Punxes, or House of Spikes, with its Angel motif dedicated to Àngela Terradas

Last but not least, the third member of ‘The Trinity, Antoni Gaudí’, is difficult to pigeonhole but his work fits into this period of urban expansion and new ideas. Few architects are so much identified with a single city. His aesthetics were highly personalized and in a sense he transcended Modernisme. He is considered to have anticipated and influenced modern construction especially because of his application of innovative mathematics. His is an exotic, fruity Modernisme.

He was obsessed with two elements: natural forms and light. For Gaudí architecture was above all about light. He said, Architecture is the transportation of light. Glory is light, light gives joy and joy is the happiness of the spirit. It could be said that there was a contradiction between his life and his art. His life was one of severe austerity. Pious and celibate, he embraced an almost Franciscan concept of holy poverty. His mind, however, was wildly flamboyant and extravagant, almost kitsch. Three major factors influenced the development of his architecture: his birthplace, his background and training, and the context in which he lived. He was born in Reus in the province of Tarragona and was strongly influenced by the craggy, rocky nature of this landscape. This coupled with his frailty due to rheumatic illnesses meant he spent much time at home and studied the nature of his surroundings, making detailed drawings. Importantly for his later work he noticed the beautiful efficiency of natural engineering where natural construction tends to favour sinewy materials such as wood, muscle, and tendon. Of particular importance to his architecture was the structure of the oleander that he dissected in his garden. This structure can clearly be seen in the structure of the interior of the Sagrada Familia. He remarked, Nothing is art if it does not come from Nature, encapsulating the relationships that Gaudí continually established with what he called ‘the great book of nature’. From a family of ironworkers he first trains in this field and then studies architecture in Barcelona. His life was also linked to the city in the crucial period of political, economic, cultural, and social change from 1888 to 1929.

The keys to understanding his vision are: his relationship with God; an organic architecture inspired by God’s natural world in which nature dictates the construction and the form, and the functional aspects of structures where everything should be in the service of humanity. He saw himself as God’s architect. Several phases can be identified in his trajectory as an architect.

Gaudí’s early work is characterised by allusions to historical styles. He begins referencing Moorish and Gothic styles using buttresses which he discards later. The lampposts in the Plaça Reial in Barcelona were his first and only public commission, as he was often in conflict Barcelona authorities over breaking building codes. All subsequent commissions were from private patrons only. His first major patron was the Spanish industrialist Manuel Vicens, owner of a brick and tile factory. The Casa Vicens was his first important commission and its ceramic tiles pay tribute to Vicens’ business, the yellow referencing the marigolds found on the site becoming an ornamental theme. Several rooms pay homage to Moorish structures and ornamentation.

The smoking room and ceiling of Casa Vicens

The beautiful wrought iron gates resembling palm leaves can be seen in the MNAC collection. The cylindrical tower of El Capricho built in 1183 in Comillas, in Cantabria alludes to the minaret. Gaudi’s dabble with the Gothic can be seen in the Casa Figueres in Barcelona and in two of the few buildings he designed outside Barcelona: the 1889 Palacio Episcopal in Astorga for the newly appointed bishop and the 1891 Casa Botines in León for wealthy textile merchants, on recommendation by Eusebi Guell, Gaudí’s principle patron.

The lampposts of the Plaça Reial in Barcelona, the Casa Vicens in the Eixample and the Casa Figueres on the outskirts of Barcelona

After this period his building methods changed radically. He began to look more towards nature for inspiration, especially because he disliked the use of buttresses in Gothic buildings to support walls, finding this method of construction artificial. He examined trees and their structure, incorporating the tree trunk and its branches as a blueprint for supporting his structures. He said, There is no better structure than the trunk of a tree or a human skeleton. He hung weights on ropes and chains from a plan on the ceiling to understand the thrust and how gravity would shape the structure. He photographed this turning the photograph upside-down to give geometric shapes. He discovered catenary curves, the chain like structures found in spider webs.

The Casa Battló and the Casa Pedrera are emblematic buildings reflecting natural organic forms and are probably how his architecture is best known. Some elements to look for in these buildings are circular shapes, a repetitive element in his work, structures from the animal, plant and mineral world such as crystals, skeletons, plant stems and fruit and his use of broken pieces of glass or ceramic tiles (trencadís) to create mosaic-like effects. The façade of the Casa Pedrera resembles a sea ravaged, pitted cliff with windows like holes in the cliff face randomly sunk in to the structure. Its wrought iron balconies look like seaweed, its entrance courts like spongy grottoes and the rooftop like an ocean swell.

The wavy exteriors of the Casa Battló and the Casa Pedrera

The Sagrada Família is the pinnacle of his career. Indeed, it became his life’s work, being commissioned at just 31 years old to take over the design, after the first architect Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano resigned. Inheriting the traditional Latin cross plan, typical of Gothic cathedrals, he maintained this, but departed from the Gothic in significant ways. The Sagrada is the culmination of his studies of nature and his innovative mathematics, especially in the use of parabolas and hyperbolas to avoid buttresses. With its complex architectural iconography Gaudí envisioned a soaring visual narrative of Christ’s life. He realised that the massive project would not be completed in his lifetime and, therefore, viewed it as the collective work of generations. He said, I will grow old but others will come after me. What must always be conserved is the spirit of the work, but its life has to depend on the generations it is handed down to and with whom it lives and is incarnated.

The Sagrada Familia as it was at the time of Gaudí’s death and today, nearly complete with its forest like interior

Gaudí’s legacy is hard to quantify but perhaps can be summarised as follows: his architecture provides outstanding examples of the building typology of the Modernista period in Barcelona, in both the private and public sectors. Above all he anticipated and influenced modern construction especially because of his application of innovative mathematics. His architecture was ground breaking in its use of scale models and his ability to translate structures he observed in nature into innovative buildings with complex applications of mathematics.

When Gaudí graduated, Elies Rogent, director of Barcelona Architecture School said, We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show! His legacy and the accolades bestowed on his work are the perfect responses!

Rendered image the completed Sagrada Familia in 2026 – Construction is scheduled for completion in 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death

As the Sagrada Família finally nears completion after 140 years, engineers and architects working on the build will attempt to finish raising the six central towers that will make it the world’s tallest church. For those interested in how this ambitious feat will unfold, a great documentary, Building Giants: World’s Tallest Church, is available to watch on SBS. You will need an ‘SBS on Demand’ account (created via your email) to watch the episode online, or through your Smart TV. Click here to view:

Dr Jeni Ryde

Dr Jeni Ryde is a linguist and art history specialist with over fifteen years experience leading tours to Italy, Spain and Portugal. She is passionate about art, design and architecture both ancient and modern and particularly enjoys how both complement each other. Her special interests are the simplicity of the Romanesque and the breadth and depth of the Renaissance. Jeni holds two undergraduate degrees with majors in Anthropology and French and Interpreting and Translation with NAATI qualifications, two Masters degrees in Italian Linguistics and TESOL and a cross disciplinary PhD in Renaissance Art History, Tourism and Museum Management.


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