Barcelona’s Forgotten Master

The CaixaForum in Barcelona has just opened a retrospective on the life and work of an often-forgotten 20th century Catalan architect, Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia (1858-1931), which will run through early January. Sagnier is a man who, at this point, is almost certainly not as familiar to students of architecture as the famous triumvirate of early 20th century Catalan architects, Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner, and Puig i Cadafalch, men who set such an obvious stamp on the city of Barcelona. And yet, the lives of visitors to and residents of Barcelona are both surrounded and shaped by his work, likely without their even knowing it.

Those who have had occasion to visit my ongoing cataloging project over at CatholicBarcelona.com will find Sagnier’s name a familiar one. At the turn of the 20th century he was unquestionably the preferred architect of the Archdiocese when it came to building new ecclesiastical structures, such as parish churches, schools, and institutions. Among his many buildings in this general category are the parish churches of Mary, Help of Christians (1889) St. John in Horta (1905), the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Mt. Tibidabo (1902), Our Lady of Pompeii (1905), the Basilica of St. Joseph Oriol(1911),  Our Lady of the Rosary (1923), and St. Raymond Nonat (1924).

However, in addition to his work in this area, Sagnier also designed secular buildings of particular significance to the life of the city. Among other structures Sagnier co-designed the Palace of Justice (1886), which houses the city’s law courts, the Customs House (1896) of the city port, the original Royal Yacht Club (1911) which was, sadly, later demolished and replaced by a glass box, and numerous large apartment buildings, banks, and offices, which still dominate many of the main thoroughfares of downtown Barcelona.

Sagnier was on many occasions given both the luxury and the challenge of having to work with a building which would be sited on a prominent corner – a task which is not as easy as one might think. Because a structure which includes a corner is naturally going to have more exposure than one which sits in the middle of a block, the architect has various ways in which he can address the urban geography. He can ignore the corner entirely, choosing to front the building on one or another street; he can embrace the corner, by having it serve as the fulcrum to his design; or he can try to come up with some way to both acknowledge the corner but not make it the center of his plans.

Take for example, Sagnier’s monumental Caixa de Pensions (1914) savings bank, which sits on a rather awkward corner of the Via Laietana. This avenue was cut through the old city in the early 20th century, separating the Gothic Quarter from La Ribera and the Borne district, and whose construction involved the regrettable demolition of a number of historic structures. Toward the top of the avenue, where the Av. Bilbao juts off, there is an oddly shaped, but prominent corner, which Sagnier was commissioned to fill.

The resulting building, a mixture of Gothic, Romanesque, and Slavic architecture, among other things, exhibits the asymmetry which was characteristic of the Art Nouveau period, but which in this case was designed to address the particular problem of the site. The prominent clock tower on the SW corner faces the little square formed by the branching off of Av. Bilbao from the Via Laietana, which gets far more light and traffic than the opposite, SE corner, which has a much smaller, slimmer tower. Had the two towers been of equal proportions, the resulting building would have looked, paradoxically, to be out of balance in relation to the site.

Similarly, because the SW tower is about three times the width and height of the SE tower, Sagnier chose to locate the entrance to the building not through the center of the facade, but rather through the SW tower itself, via two archways set into the base of the tower. Although again, this lends an asymmetrical aspect to the building, it also allows the structure to take full advantage of the site. Rather than presenting a single facade to the south side of the intersection, it allows the facade to wrap around the sides of the building, drawing in those who are coming to do business there to approach it from multiple sides, while at the same time making very clear where the main entrance is.

Having said this, while he has some flashes of brilliance in his work, Sagnier is not an architect who strikes me as particularly impressive in his output. He is not as innovative in his interpretation of historical architectural styles, fusing these influences to create something entirely new, as did his better-known contemporaries. Nor is he what we might loosely call a “classical” architect, remaining true to certain established principles of design irrespective of trends or fashion, in order to produce something timelessly beautiful. His work is sometimes a bit fussy and contrived, almost as though he opened up an architectural salvage catalogue and threw together various disconnected elements, but without that spark of genius that characterized Catalan architecture at the turn of the previous century.

He was, however, a man who clearly cared deeply about his home town and about the Christian faith, producing structures which, in their grandeur if not always in their execution, were worthy of any of the great cities of the world. A re-assessment of his work was long overdue, and it is a very good thing that both the citizens of and visitors to Barcelona will become more familiar with his long career and extensive output. I am definitely looking forward to catching this exhibition when I am in Barcelona this Christmas.


Enric Sagnier i Villavecchia

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