While there is an endless supply of things to do and see in Barcelona, one of my favourites is exploring the architecture of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in this city. In Robert Hughes incredibly detailed history, Barcelona, he points out that the architecture and design of the city, and its expansion, clearly reflect the class tensions that would finally erupt violently as Franco’s regime began to take control. Like many European cities at the end of the nineteenth century, Barcelona experienced a rapid growth in population as industrialization promised work for many leaving the countryside for waged labour in the cities. Because of the Roman wall that contained the old city, expansion to accommodate the growing population would be a problem. Eventually the municipal government agreed to demolish the wall – portions of which can still be found near the port – in order to construct more living space. The civil engineer chosen to design the new neighbourhood of Eixample, Ildefons Cerdà, envisioned a place of wide-open spaces unlike the cramped, dark, and often plague-ridden areas of the old city. A progressive thinker, he wanted wide avenues, public gardens, and hygienic conditions affordable for the workers. He was a lone voice. The growing bourgeois class saw the new neighbourhood as theirs alone, a place of beauty far removed from the squalor of the old city. The end result is a fragmented city that meets incongruously at Plaça Cataluñya. Below the plaça as you walk down La Rambla is the old city, divided on the left by the neighbourhood of Gotico and on the right, Raval. But above this, as you stroll along Passeig de Gràcia, you will find the largest concentration of Modernist architecture, particularly reflected in the Art Nouveau movement, anywhere in Europe according to Hughes. Modernisme, as the Catalan architects like Gaudí, Puig, and Domènech i Montaner envisioned it, combined the aesthetics and opulence of nature with the ideologies of Catalan identity, particularly in its difference and separation from Spanish nationalism. While the most famous project remains the still unfinished Sagrada Familia, designed by Gaudí, it is Domènech’s Palau de la Música de Catalana that made me catch my breath. Built between 1905 and 1908, the building combines the decorative arts and the architectural design intended to bring in as much natural light as possible in a space crowded by other buildings and narrow streets.
Even the interior staircase supports use coloured glass to attract more light.
The crown in the auditorium is the stained-glass skylight.
The stage pays homage to eighteen muses, all from different countries and mythologies, each playing a different instrument, particular to her national origin.
As part of the Catalanist project envisioned by the architect, music of all kinds is performed here. And Catalan pride is woven into the very fabric of the structure, as witnessed in the stained-glass windows of the Catalan flag. Following the victory of the Franco regime, the building was not destroyed or altered, like many others were, but the windows promoting Catalan nationalism were covered until after Franco’s death in 1975.
The guided tours are well worth doing. They are offered in multiple languages in the mornings. Late afternoons are reserved for rehearsals of choirs and concerts that continue to provide entertainments in the auditorium that still demonstrates some of the best acoustics anywhere. I attended an evening of Spanish guitar by Manuel Gonzalez a few nights later, and was not disappointed. This beautiful hall represents the vision intended by Domènech and his contemporaries, of a place for the bourgeois to celebrate the arts, and be continually reminded of the Catalan spirit.
But what of the working class, and their role in Catalanism? That will be for my next post.
Until then, I wish a peaceful day for all of us.