Visiting Vicens: Gaudí’s First House Opens To The Public

One of the things I’m hoping to see when I head to Barcelona in a few weeks is the Casa Vicens, the first private home designed by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). It was originally built to serve as a weekend retreat for a Barcelona stockbroker, over 125 years ago. The house served as a private residence until as recently as 2014, but as of this November, it has been opened to the public as a museum.

Regular readers will recall that I previously wrote about the ongoing restoration efforts at the Casa Vicens, a house which features a dazzling variety of materials and construction methods, both inside and out. As you can imagine, there had been a lot of wear and tear on the building, as happens in any home that is actually lived in. Yet while parts of the house were altered over the years, visitors to the new museum will still be able to witness many of the extraordinary architectural and design juxtapositions which the young Gaudí was able to pull off.

From the multimedia gallery on the museum’s website, I wanted to point out a few of the amazing details of the house, which was nothing like Barcelona – or indeed the rest of the world for that matter – had ever seen before. Here we see part of the façade of the house, along with its extraordinary gate and sidewalk railing. The color scheme is a mixture of salmon, turquoise, peach, and green, while an unusual range of materials from brick and stone to tile and concrete give some hint of the extraordinary design elements that await the visitor inside. Note also the ornate yet rather modern-looking wrought iron gate, which is composed of a series of panels in the form of palm fronds.

Facade

Once inside, many of the public rooms of the house have spectacular ceilings featuring bright color schemes, which forgo tradition and subtlety in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, this detail shows that Gaudí was quite capable of creating a ceiling design reminiscent of Perpendicular Gothic, which most architects would have left white. Here however, the stucco and tile elements are executed in a cobalt blue and a chartreuse yellow-green.

Ceiling

Here we see one of the public rooms of the house, with another extraordinary ceiling – this time of scallop shells and roses. The walls are covered with faux marble wainscoting below, and two-tone cranberry red plasterwork of vines up above. This room gives onto a tiled loggia, where the openings are simplified forms of architectural shapes that one would expect to see in Islamic buildings.

Interior

Head upstairs to one of the bathrooms, normally one of the more utilitarian areas of a house, and the unusual juxtapositions continue. Here, the architect places modern-looking corbels and compound support beams above a Pompeian red plaster wall with arcade detailing, baby blue and white checkerboard tile wainscoting, a slim chair rail border composed of tiles decorated with quinces and leaves, and bright yellow flowers festooned across the ceiling panels. Considered individually, none of these things should go together, and yet the overall effect is that of an ancient Roman bath somewhere in Provence

Bathroom

Finally, up on the roof of the house, we can admire a detail which hardly anyone would have ever seen up close, even when the house was filled with guests. The maids would have come up here to perform tasks requiring sunshine and breezes, such as drying the household laundry or beating the dust out of rugs. They would have seen not only the colorful elements of the building’s façade, but also this almost Mid-Century Modern railing of flowers contained within simplified, circular vines. The delicate design belies the sturdy, wrought iron craftsmanship that went into their execution.

Railing

Now, if you find all of this too much to take, don’t worry about it. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by this house, but I understand that it may not be to everyone’s taste. And truth be told, I wouldn’t want to live in it, myself. (Where would I hang all the paintings?)

That being said however, you certainly can’t call the Casa Vicens a boring piece of architecture or design. The young Gaudí, with his first major commission to complete, and his patron, a man who clearly didn’t fear trying something bold and original in his own home, managed to create a truly unique house, and to do so with a great deal of self-confidence and aplomb. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally have a wander around the place.

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The World’s Greatest Swimming Pool (That Never Was)

We could probably nominate a number of structures as candidates for “World’s Greatest Swimming Pool”. For example, the “Neptune Pool”, a Greco-Roman fantasy by architect Julia Morgan at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California comes to mind. It incorporates not only a wealth of decorative tile work, statuary, and other ornaments, but even the restored façade of an actual Roman temple which publisher William Randolph Hearst imported to the U.S. But for my money, the greatest of all swimming pools was one designed by the Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí – which was never built.

Back in the 1950’s, Dalí created a set of 6 tiles for a massive swimming pool, which was supposedly commissioned by a member of the regime of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco. Called “The Catalan Suite”, the tiles bore images of different elements which the artist associated with the seaside in Catalonia, including the sun, starfish, compass roses, birds, and trencadís (the broken tiles often used by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.) The bright colors would have sparkled beneath the surface of the water in the strong Mediterranean sunlight.

The most likely candidate for the commission, it seems to me, was Eugeni d’Ors, like the artist a fellow Catalan conservative and Franco supporter, who was often put in charge of overseeing artistic commissions by the Spanish government. Dalí and d’Ors had known each other for many years, since the older d’Ors was a friend of Dalí’s uncle and a fellow member of the Ateneu (“Athenaeum”), a private club for intellectuals and the well-to-do in Barcelona. They worked together on several projects, including publication of “The Cobbler of Ordis”, a collection of poems by Dalí’s lifelong friend Carles Fages de Climent, which contained a preface by d’Ors and illustrations by Dalí.

In 1954, a total of 100,000 of these Dalí-designed tiles were produced at a factory in Onda, a town in the Valencian province of Spain known for its high-quality industrial ceramic output. Yet although the materials were ready to go, the swimming pool itself, unfortunately, was never built. I suspect the reason is that d’Ors just so happened to have died in 1954, probably around the same time that the tiles were completed. As a result, Dalí was left with thousands and thousands of tiles, and nowhere to put them.

Enter German lawyer Peter Ackermann who, as this article explains, met Dalí twenty years later, when the artist was trying to get these unused tiles off his hands. About 60,000 of the tiles were left, and while it’s difficult to imagine a normal person losing 40,000 tiles, this is Salvador Dalí we’re talking about, after all. Presumably the rest disappeared as a result of breakage, theft, or the artist giving them away; they turn up at auction periodically.

Unlike his near-contemporaries Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, Dalí did not seem particularly interested in clay as a medium, which is highly unusual for someone hailing from the Iberian Peninsula. While Picasso designed pots and vases produced by French ceramics factories which today are highly prized by collectors, and Miró created enormous ceramic tile designs for walls or floors that were installed in public spaces, Dalí did not do much exploration in this area. Yes, he designed telephones that looked like lobsters, and couches that looked like Mae West’s lips, but things made out of dirt were not something that seem to have attracted his attention all that often. That makes this particular foray into the world of ceramics all the more special.

The Artsy article tells us that Mr. Ackermann is now selling his 60,000 tiles to whoever wants to take them off his hands. Since I didn’t win the Powerball jackpot last week, I won’t be acquiring them for my make-believe villa on the Costa Brava. But if you have around $20 million on your hands, and are thinking about building yourself a nice place in which to take a dip, consider the possibilities of paving that backyard oasis with tiles by the greatest Surrealist artist of the 20th century. You’ll almost instantly have the greatest swimming pool in all the world.

Sun

Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate