“The straight line belongs to man, the curved line belongs to God”
Since the very beginning, even before the actual word was coined, architecture has been influenced by nature.
Whether leveraging existing resources like caves to protect ourselves from the elements, to using the universal laws of physics that govern everything in this world to build the magnificent buildings, temples and monuments we so much enjoy visiting, one way or another, nature has always been present.
Although throughout history men have used, for symbolic purposes, representations of flowers, plants and animals in different art forms, it was not until the late eighteen hundreds that a new movement began to emerge. This style had nature itself as a muse.
This movement had different names depending on which European country we are talking about. Perhaps the most well-known name is Art Nouveau, but it is also known as Symbolism, Decadence, and Jugendstill – Jugend was a cultural weekly publication that soon became a style-setting icon and launched the German Art Nouveau movement, named Jugendstil after the magazine.
In Barcelona this period was called Catalan Modernisme, and it began as a search for a national architecture, which is the title of an article by Luis Domènech i Montaner, the actual founder of the movement in Spain.
At this point you’re probably asking really? Yes, really! We normally think it was Gaudí, but although Antoni Gaudí is the one that takes this movement to its most glorious moment, it was Domènech i Montaner (1849-1923) the one that defined the architectonic Art Nouveau in Catalonia. In his article “En busca de una arquitectura nacional” (In search of a national architecture) title that I borrowed for this post, he explains how he was planning to develop a modern architectural style reflecting the national Catalan personality.
It’s important to understand that the whole movement in Europe had as an objective to create a unique individual style by moving away from the traditional heavy architecture that characterized the two previous centuries with the imitation and revival of old historical styles. This was accomplished by developing new architectural repertoires, decorative elements and techniques using nature as inspiration and an array of different high quality materials such as glass, marble, colored stucco, majolica, hand-painted tiles and metal applique. Besides architecture, these features were found in decorative and applied arts; stained glass, ceramics, iron and other metals, and furniture.
Needless to say for a travel photographer like me who is fascinated by architecture –among many other things- these buildings were a “photographer’s feast”. With limited time to explore I focused my “photo safari” on the famous Barcelona’s district know as “The Eixample” Catalan for extension. The best way to discover Modernist Barcelona is just to walk as much as you can through the many streets that are part of this district.
So I began my walk at Plaça de Catalunya (Catalunya Square). The plan was to see as much as I could walking through “Passeig de Gràcia” towards “Avinguda de la Diagonal”, and finish my day at the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia. I should say that almost every building on that avenue is incredibly beautiful and I shot pictures of each one of them, windows, balconies, doors, every single detail but nothing that I had not seen before in other European cities. Now when I arrived at the end of the first block, I finally saw something that I had never seen before, the first modernist building of the avenue the Casa (house) Lleó-Morera built by Domènech i Montaner. This beautiful house stands on the southern corner of the block known as the “mansana de la discòrdia” (block of discord), where the Casa Amatller, by Puig i Cadafalch, and the Casa Batlló, by Antoni Gaudí, are also located. The locals gave this prime property in the heart of the Eixample that name due to the very different styles or should I say modernist approaches of the three outstanding buildings. After taking many pictures of the different details using a 24-105mm L Canon lens for perspective and a 70-200mm L Canon for details, I moved on to the next building, the Casa Amatller.
The refurbishing of this building was commissioned in 1898 by the Amatller family to another great Modernist and a disciple of Lluís Domenèch i Montaner: Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1867-1956). The architect based his design on the typical Catalan mansion and incorporated Germanic elements. In the case of the Casa Amatller of Barcelona, the basic layout is the typical urban Gothic dwelling.
This means that what is really a block of flats looks like a single palazzo, an impression accentuated by the delicate porticoes on the balconies on the first floor. The Germanic element is the bold ridged cornice, highlighted with ceramic tiles.
Right next to the Amatller house is Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, for me far away the most beautiful of these houses, the whole house is like a sculpture, and the building, either on the inside or the outside, offers an infinite number of photographic opportunities. This house, which will get its own post, clearly shows Gaudí’s evolution towards an organic style of architecture based on the observation of nature.
Still in Passeig de la Gracia and right across the street, another one of Gaudís’ masterpieces was waiting for my camera. The famous Casa Milà, also known as La Pedrera (the stone quarry), which many consider the culmination of Antoni Gaudí’s career.
Comissioned by Pere Milà as a residential block, the building was tailored to the new social needs, without forgetting his main source of inspiration: nature and organic forms. Built between 1906 and 1912, the Casa Milà occupies an entire corner of the Passeig de Gràcia. The curved, sinuous forms are the main elements inside and outside and its façade resembles the moving sea, the waves interacting with the seaweed-motifs on the wrought-iron balcony railings.
Once I was done with Casa Milà I began the long walk through Avinguda Diagonal and other streets towards the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia, one of the things on my “must see before I die” list.
Although I never stopped taking pictures of whatever caught my attention, one particular house, made me stop and dedicate a little more that just a a couple of pictures.
Later I learned this house although very different to the previous ones, is also a modernist relic, it’s the Macaya House. Built in 1901 by Puig i Cadafalch, this house has a white stucco-finished façade decorated with baroque-style sculpted stone around the windows, the balcony and the asymmetric platform of the entrance hall.
Finally when I though my legs were going to fall-off I saw the towers and cranes of The Sagrada Familia. What can I say….it was a breathtaking experience! Because this unfinished masterpiece deserves its own post as well, I will only say that The Sagrada Família is probably Antoni Gaudí’s best-known work and has become an undisputed symbol of Barcelona.
Extravagant, ambitious and controversial, this unique modern temple has been under construction since 1882, and is expected to be completed by 2030…..will we have the opportunity to see this masterpiece finished while still in this world? Well only time will tell…
If you want to see more pictures of these buildings visit Art Nouveau Catalan