Barcelona Abundance: Two Architectural Landmarks Now Opening To Public

One of the joys of wandering around Barcelona – and there are many – is rounding a corner and being confronted with a remarkable bit of architecture. It could be coming across the ruins of a 1st century Roman temple built by Caesar Augustus (to himself, natch) standing in a courtyard, or an intact Baroque church hidden behind a nondescript façade down a dark alley. Yet for many, the real pleasure of discovery lies in coming across one of the flamboyant creations of “Modernisme”, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. Now, two highly important examples of this movement are being opened to the public for the first time.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of “Modernista” homes and apartment buildings sprang up all over Barcelona, as the citizens of a booming Catalan economy began to capitalize on their wealth. Take a look at the structures that line the famous “Block of Discord” on the Passeig de Gràcia, then as now Barcelona’s most prestigious street, and you’ll see bizarre architectural confections by three of the most famous and prolific exponents of the period – Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch – competing with one another for public attention and admiration. Homes by these and other architects working in this highly unusual style can be found throughout the city, and first-time visitors often marvel at the fact that many of these fantastic structures, which are often so unique as to escape any single architectural categorization, are still being lived in.

One of these is the Casa Terrades, built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1905. It is more popularly known as the “Casa de les Punxes” (The House of Spikes), because of the many turrets and pointy finials that mark its roofline. It is essentially a fairy tale castle from the Middle Ages, reimagined as an early 20th century luxury apartment building. One source of inspiration for the structure is believed to be the buildings which appear in the background of the 15th century altarpiece by Lluís Dalmau, “The Virgin of the Barcelona City Councilors”, now in the National Museum of Catalan Art. The highly visible exterior decoration is covered in references to St. George, Catalonia’s patron saint, who has been a favorite subject in Catalan art and architecture for centuries.

Ever since it was built, the Casa de les Punxes has remained a tantalizing mystery to both Barcelona’s citizens and visitors. The three sisters who owned and occupied it kept the best apartments for themselves, and lived off the rents which they received from the commercial tenants in the rest of the building. The rest of the apartments were sold to buyers whom the sisters found socially acceptable, a process functioning somewhat like an early version of a condo board application review, I suppose.

Yet while the commercial offices located within the building could be visited by members of the public if they had business to conduct, there were limits to what one could see. The upper floors and the roof were strictly off-limits, and the merely curious were not permitted inside. Given its prime location on a prominent intersection of the Avenguda Diagonal, one of the city’s main boulevards and a major retail area, everyone could see the building, but few had actually been inside it.

Now, after several years of renovation by its new corporate owners, part of the Casa de les Punxes has been opened to public tours for the first time. While there are still commercial and residential tenants occupying parts of the building, it is now possible to tour many parts of it, including the many-towered roof looking down over the city. Even if you have been to Barcelona before, this new stopping point on the architectural itinerary looks to be very much worth your time, next time you find yourself in the city. I myself plan to visit it next month, not only from architectural curiosity but also for personal reasons, since one of my great-great-grandfathers and his family lived here.

Another major Modernista structure which is currently being prepared for public tours is the Casa Vicens, the first residence built by the most famous of all Catalan architects, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet. Completed in 1888, the Casa Vicens was the young architect’s first major contract, and proved to be something of a shock at the time. In its extraordinary interior and exterior decoration, it was like nothing that the city had seen before. From this point, architecture in Barcelona became an all-out war for the next two decades, as each architect competed to see who was going to win the battle for the most innovative, over-the-top architecture – brought about, of course, by courting clients with deep pockets.

The Casa Vicens was originally built as a getaway for a well-to-do Barcelona stockbroker, in what was then the semi-rural suburb of Gràcia. Before the coming of the automobile, it was the custom for the Barcelona bourgeoisie to have apartments downtown, which they lived in during the week, and villas in the suburbs just outside the city, which they used on the weekends or for holidays like Christmas and Easter. They wanted something that felt like they were in the countryside, but which could be easily reached by a short coach or tram journey. Similar practices still exist today around the world, such as the weekly exodus of New Yorkers to The Hamptons on Friday afternoons.

While I have wandered around the outside of the Casa Vicens before, marveling at its extraordinary combination of Victorian decorated tiles and Moorish ornamental brickwork, I have never been inside. Until two years ago, when it was purchased by the cultural foundation of a bank, it was still being lived in by the descendants of the man who purchased it from the original owners back in 1899. Now, these descendants are helping art history experts in their efforts to restore and renovate the house for public tours, which are slated to begin next year.

The Casa Vicens is famous among the cognoscenti for its elaborately decorated rooms in bright colors and accompanying, sinuous furniture inspired by nature. I am particularly looking forward to seeing the dining room of the house, which features carved and painted beams bursting with fruit and flowers, while images of all kinds of birds fly about on the walls. It is a space of which any Gonzaga or Medici would be proud.

I will have to wait to report back to you, gentle reader, on the Casa Vicens, but stay turned to my Instagram account for shots from inside the Casa de les Punxes in late December.

Church Vandalism in Spain: Credit Where It’s Due

Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, one would be able to regularly blog about or even tweet regarding acts of church vandalism in Spain? From Madrid to Barcelona and beyond, it seems that every week there is a new story of uncivilized, sometimes politically motivated, acts of violence against the fabric of the Church. As appalling as these events are however, it is extremely important to stress that cooler heads must prevail when reporting on these events. Not every physical attack on a church building comes about as a result of political action.

Recently for example, I learnt of a new act of vandalism in the historically important city of Burgos, located in central Spain. Two 13th century statues on the main entrance portal of the church of San Esteban (i.e. St. Stephen) were decapitated sometime late on Holy Thursday or early in the morning of Good Friday by an unknown person or persons. San Esteban was built between the 13th and 14th centuries, and is considered by some architectural historians to be the most important example of Gothic church architecture in the city after the Cathedral of Santa Maria La Mayor. It was declared a National Monument of Spain in 1931, and at the present time it serves as the Altarpiece Museum for the Archdiocese of Burgos.

This morning Spanish authorities announced the capture and charging of an individual in connection with the case. The heads of the statues of St. Peter and St. Lawrence were recovered by the National Police from the individual, and these have been returned to the church for restoration. The defendant is a local man, who had been arrested and charged recently with antiquities theft in another matter, but was out on bond at the time of the San Esteban incident.

From the beginning the Archdiocese of Burgos has been very careful not to jump to the conclusion that this was an anticlerical act, and expressed its belief that this was probably an act of theft. Vandalism of ancient churches to feed the black market in looted antiquities is a problem throughout Europe, and Spain is no exception. When the incident was first reported, a spokesman for the Archdiocese noted the important detail that the heads were taken away, rather than left at the scene, as would normally be expected from leftist vandals. Nor was there any accompanying graffiti or other indications to suggest that the vandalism was a politically motivated act.

A similar, commendable restraint was shown by the Archdiocese of Barcelona and local authorities last week, when the sacristy of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was torched by a mentally ill man. Neither the Archdiocese nor the police alleged that there was any connection between the individual and leftist anti-Catholic actions. By taking this cautionary approach in Burgos, Barcelona, and elsewhere, the Church is doing exactly what it needs to do, even if authorities are often powerless to prevent vandalism – politically motivated or not – against its property.

There is a trait in the Spanish character at all points along the socio-political spectrum to jump to conclusions about the cause or motivations behind an act, which at the moment the Church appears to be avoiding institutionally, unless there is undeniable proof of an anti-Catholic motivation. Perhaps the most famous example in recent years of the Spanish tendency to form an opinion with insufficient evidence occurred on March 11, 2004, when the Madrid subway system was bombed three days before national elections were scheduled. The conservative government and some elements of the media immediately blamed ETA, the Basque separatist group, which denied all involvement – and admittedly the charge against them seemed rather bizarre to outside observers at the time, including this writer, since attacks like these are not the usual m.o. for ETA.

Through subsequent investigation it quickly came to light that the Madrid subway attacks were carried out not by Basque separatists, but rather by Muslim terrorists. The public reaction against the conservatives for making ETA the scapegoat for 3/11, as the subway bombing has come to be known, was harsh and swift; the small lead which the conservatives had enjoyed as the election was drawing to a close completely evaporated. This catapulted Mr. Rodriguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Party into office, where they remain at the present time.

There is without question a rising sentiment of anticlerical fervor in Spain, and this needs to be addressed both through engaging those who seek to harm the Church, and by insisting that civil authorities do their job to maintain law and order. However, the bishops, the media, and the laity need to act with restraint when assigning blame to acts of Church vandalism. Tarring with too a wide brush will only hurt the perception of the Church in the court of public opinion, creating a “boy who cried wolf” situation. And it is among the members of the law-abiding public, Catholic or not, where the real power to combat deliberate acts of anticlericalism resides.

The 13th century statues of St. Peter (L) and St. Lawrence (R)
on the entrance portal of San Esteban in Burgos, prior to last week’s vandalism

Put Some Clothes On

As The New York Times reported yesterday, the city of Barcelona intends to crack down on public nudity, taking a u-turn from a position which the government of that city adopted several years ago. Back in 2004, the city council issued a document encouraging citizens to consider “Expressing Yourself in Nudity”, and pointing out that there was no law on the books to prevent them from going naked in public. This followed a massive nude-in organized by photographer Spencer Tunick, in which thousands of people stripped off around Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya.

Although there has not been a rush to undress on the streets of the Catalan capital, in the years since the issuance of this publication celebrating immodesty Barcelona has experienced a significant increase in loutish behavior, which is having a devastating impact on its historic sites and tourist attractions. The open use of drugs is becoming common, as has publicly relieving oneself. The explosion in tagging and other graffiti on historic buildings and museums to shops, businesses, government offices and homes throughout the city is nothing short of epidemic. Despite its status as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, on street level Barcelona has, over the past decade of socialist leadership, come to look more like a war zone and less like a desirable place to live or visit.

This is the result of a rather anarchic way of thinking: a literalism which is subjectively adopted by the left when it suits its purpose. If public nudity is not statutorily prohibited, (presumably because previous generations of city leaders thought it self-evident that this practice was undesirable) then it must be implicitly permissible. Yet to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, there must be other lewd or destructive activities not expressly forbidden which the citizenry of Barcelona could pursue. What those activities may be I will not dare to suggest, for fear that someone may adopt them.

Realizing that as a result of relativistic, laissez-faire policies on public decency their city today looks more like a rubbish tip than the jewel of the Mediterranean, Barcelona is beginning to rein in such behavior. Banning public nudity is a start, though no doubt there will be those who seek to challenge such bans in the courts as a violation their human rights. While we can agree that everyone has the fundamental right to be a functional idiot, if that is the best level of mental acuity they can achieve, one would hope that when such a case comes before the courts – as it surely will – rational heads will prevail, even if solely on the basis of public hygiene.

To take the anarchic line of reasoning into our own hands however, if the courts decide that the citizenry and visitors to Barcelona have the right to go about starkers, then someone needs to assert their own fundamental human right not to be forced to look at something offensive. One can avoid a museum or film dealing with unpleasant subject matter: a gallery exhibition of blasphemous art can be sidestepped just as easily as a big-budget slasher flick. No one is forced to look at such things, and this is why they are generally found to be permissible by Western legal systems. In the public square however, such as in a commercial exchange or when seeking government services, these interactions cannot be avoided.

Therefore my proposal is that public nudity, if a fundamental right, be regulated through a quarterly permit process. Residents and tourists alike who wish to go about in the altogether in Barcelona will have to be inspected by a panel of aesthetic experts, chosen from the worlds of art and design, media, and health, to determine whether or not they are sufficiently aesthetically pleasing so as to be seen naked. If approved, the applicant will be charged a fee for a 90-day nudity permit. At the conclusion of each quarter, they will be required to return to the panel in order to undergo inspection once again, to determine whether they are still eligible for permitting.

This policy would have several highly beneficial effects on a naked Barcelona. It would deal with the increasing problem of obesity and bad eating habits, by encouraging physical fitness and proper diet. It would add revenue to the local government through the initial permitting and subsequent mandatory quarterly review process. It would increase commerce through multiple sectors of the economy, from the fitness and health industries to the organic and health food sectors, and would also lead to increased tourism and associated revenues from those who not only want to see good-looking naked folk, but also among those whose narcissism would lead them to seek official government recognition of their being attractive. This in turn would yield increased revenues in the form of taxation to city coffers, which would then be redistributed in the form of improved city services.

St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians addressed some of the hedonistic practices of the community at Corinth, which were not uncommon in the pagan world of his day – a world to which we in the West are rapidly returning. He noted that the libertine attitude adopted by some of his flock was going to end up doing them and others harm:

‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial.
‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything builds up.

1 Corinthians 10:23

Taking your clothes off in public is the ultimate way to draw attention to yourself by flouting common decency, and this is why those who engage in such behavior do so: it has nothing to do with being “natural”, and everything to do with being selfish. In the West, there is no natural reason for us to go about naked – particularly in a large, wealthy city like Barcelona. I hope that the good people of my favorite city will use this opportunity to continue the effort to take back their streets from the purveyors of relativism, whose way of thinking has quite literally sullied them.

“The Goddess” by Josep Clarà (1928)
Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona