Barcelona in the Details Part II: Streetlights

My last piece dealt with sidewalks in Barcelona, something which many people do not notice as they are hurrying past. Now let’s move on to something a bit more obvious, if often ignored: street lights. As with its sidewalks, Barcelona puts a lot of thought into the look of how it illuminates the neighborhood. Although there are many interesting new lighting designs around the city, I want to concentrate on what I would consider some of the classic 19th and 20th century urban light fixtures.

What one might call the “classic” cast-iron Barcelona streetlight comes in a variety of forms: single, multi-branched, and even fountain-based. These elegant Victorian lamps feature slender posts and tapered, almost conical glass shades, surmounted by open crowns:

A few of these ornate 19th century lamps sit atop of public drinking fountains, which themselves can hold one or more spigots. The most famous of all is the Font de Canaletes, located at the top of the Ramblas, where Barça fans usually gather to celebrate. Local legend, as is well known, is that if you drink from the Canaletes fountain you will be certain to return to Barcelona someday.

A variation on this classic design was made by Gaudí himself, on his first public commission for the city of Barcelona. He came up with a somewhat unusual, if a bit clunky, variation on this style – complete with Mercury’s helmet – for the Plaça Reial just off the Ramblas:

Also along the Ramblas, one finds an incongruous Chinese Dragon lamp above the former Casa Bruno Quadras umbrella shop, built in 1891:

Nearby, the unusual triple globe pendants of the Carrer Feran almost resemble fishermen’s glass buoys suspended in nets, as one sees along the Costa Brava.

Ferran is one of the few (comparatively) wide streets to cut into the heart of the medieval city and these lights make the most of their space. They are attached to the facades of buildings so as to free up space on the sidewalk, but take full advantage of the additional height and width available to them. More typical of the cramped and twisting corners of the old city, which make full street lighting virtually impossible, is the simple sconce shown below:

Just as the Passeig de Gracia features perhaps the most unusual sidewalk surface in Barcelona, visitors cannot help to notice the equally unusual combination of sinuous broken tile bench and cantilevered street lamp that appears all along Barcelona’s most fashionable street:

Surprisingly enough, this is not the work of Gaudí, but rather of Catalan architect Pere Falqués i Urpí. These unusual pieces of street furniture were installed in 1906. Falqués also designed the overwhelmingly monumental, massive streetlamps that form the spine of the Avinguda de Gaudí, though these were moved here from their original location on a square some distance away:

There are other street lights in Barcelona that catch the stroller’s fancy. Some of them are not even, at present, working lights – for example the ancient torchieres one sometimes finds on very ancient buildings, like the parish church of Sant Vincenç in Sarrià, or the Monastery Church at Pedralbes. Then there are the bizarre, white-painted spiderweb lamps around the Arc de Triomf at the Parc de la Ciutadella. Just as when considering its sidewalk surfaces, there are multiple ways that Barcelona has considered and addressed the question of how to light the way for its residents.


Archbishop Chaput at the CIC

Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of spending nearly an hour with His Excellency Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, before he spoke about his new book, “Render Unto Caesar” at the Catholic Information Center. Since I have been given permission to spill the proverbial beans, I can tell you that my friends Thomas Peters and Alexander Buder of American Papist News had managed to arrange an interview with the Archbishop, and asked me to come along and help out. To be honest this was more of an act of charity on their part, since there was not really much that I could do to help them given that I am still not doing so well post-accident.

Naturally when you are a Catholic and in the presence of a bishop, and particularly a rather well-known Archbishop, it is a bit intimidating. However, Archbishop Chaput could not have been more gracious and engaging in putting the three of us at ease. The lads did great work, with Tom asking a number of thoughtful questions and receiving great responses, and Alex working in constricted filming conditions. I am looking forward to seeing the final results when they appear in the next update of American Papist News.

For myself, I was merely an interloper trying to stay out of the way, but the Archbishop made time for me as well. Not only is his best-selling book (which he very kindly inscribed to me) a call to put our faith into practice in the political sphere, but he himself is a wonderful example of generosity, good humour, and Christian leadership. I was deeply honored to have met such an inspiring and courageous leader of the Church.

Barcelona in the Details Part I: Sidewalks

Anyone who knows me knows that I am endlessly fascinated with Barcelona – its history, architecture, food, etc. I am never so happy in any one place as I am walking about the streets of the city, just absorbing the joy of being there and the myriad details of daily life. I first went to live in Barcelona briefly, as a small child, over thirty years ago, and my most recent visit was last Christmas. In all of that time, the city has continued to evolve in my thoughts, and serve as a source of inspiration.

Barcelona unquestionably has great monuments, beautiful art, amazing restaurants, etc. For me however, these aspects in and of themselves are not what makes Barcelona special. Rather, the love for La Ciutat Comtal, as it is known, comes in the little details. It took the rest of the world long enough to catch up with the fact, but Barcelona is a very stylish city – it usually *thinks* about how something is going to look before it makes it, and it is that which I hope to write about over time.

Since this is a topic of personal curiosity I intend to return to again and again, I decided to start at perhaps the most basic level: under one’s own feet.

One thing that many of us take for granted as we go about our daily business is the fact that the sidewalk – or pavement if you are a Limey – is simply a paved surface on which we walk. Usually that surface is made of concrete or, if you live in an historic district like I do, brick pavers. The brick of course looks perfectly nice, but in nasty wintry weather it isn’t much fun to slip and slide on.

In Barcelona however, the question of sidewalk materials is not purely an utilitarian one. I was relaxing last evening and thinking about how nice it would be to have a wander around Barcelona. The wind was howling outside, and it reminded me of the Tramuntanya that blows down from the Pyrenees at times, knocking everything and everyone about in the city streets. And one thing that instantly popped into my reverie was the thought of the different sorts of sidewalks I might be walking on as I wandered about.

Sidewalks in Barcelona are, generally speaking, composed of tiles or stamped concrete. The most famous of all Barcelona sidewalks is probably this one, which was designed by Antoni Gaudi i Cornet, an ancestor of mine:

It’s a bit difficult to see in this photograph, but the cast of these unusual hexagonal tiles is a blue-green reminiscent of the sea, and thus all the more appropriate to the design. These tiles are only to be found on the sidewalks of the Passeig de Gracia, roughly the Bond Street of Barcelona, and on no other city street. It’s even possible to purchase coasters in the shape of these molded tiles.

There are other types of tile that are ubiquitous to various parts of the city. For example, that found in the old city (the Gothic quarter and thereabouts), is a slab tile in a running bond pattern:

This choice is a nice accommodation of the desire to provide a functional surface with easy access to sewage and utility mains located in ancient, historic areas, that does not detract from the aesthetics of the surroundings. Unfortunately these tiles tend to collect water underneath and pop up at times, or squish out water when you step on them. Still, if you are laying sidewalk tile in an area that has been populated for around two to three thousand years, nothing is going to be perfect.

Two stamped concrete tile designs that are very commonly used in central areas of Barcelona include the pattern I call “the flower”, which features interlocking circles surrounded by a square:

and another pattern I call “the circles” showing a simple circle surrounded by a square:

There is also a third pattern that is a variation on the preceding circle theme, showing four smaller circles around an “x” or cross shape, each circle occupying one quadrant, but that particular tile does not seem to have been as popular in recent years.

My father often complains that the patterns stamped into the concrete tend to collect rainwater and make thing slippery, which is certainly true. However, they are such an iconic part of the experience of being in Barcelona, that I do not begrudge them their impracticality. Anyone who has been there and paid attention to their surroundings cannot help but feel their heart leap if they see this simple detail of everyday life there in an unexpected setting – for example, as chocolate.

Another feature often found on Barcelona sidewalks is the bronze plaque honouring a long-established city business, such as this one installed in 1993 on the sidewalk in front of the 19th century Xocoloteria Fargas, a famous chocolates shop on the Carrer del Pi. In Catalan, the sign reads, roughly, “City Government of Barcelona in recognition of Fargas Chocolates’ years of service to the city”:

These are actually just a few examples of the variety of sidewalk tiles in Barcelona, and there are others that are equally interesting. The Ramblas has alternating curved bands of white and red tiles down its center, while northern parts of the city sometimes have pale gray square tiles with a rough, tumbled surface that resembles stone. All of these variations are a pleasure to the eye, since there is always something new and interesting to look at, and enjoy. They are one of the many reasons why it is in its details that Barcelona proves to be so memorable, at least to this writer.