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.