The architecture of Barcelona

Barcelona Travel Blog

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Casa Batlló
Our day in Barcelona was the tale of three buildings, Casa Batlló, Sagrada Família and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.

Casa Batlló is a beautiful townhouse remodeled in 1904 by Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí’s work is said to be in the Art Nouveau style, but this piece of architecture is unique even among a class of architecture known for its individualism. From the outside the building is stunning, it looks like it has been assembled from the skeletons of whales, with vertebrates making up the columns, ribs forming and arches and jaws bones the balconies. There are no hard lines and the fluidity makes even the delicate and intricate buildings next door seem harsh and clumsy.

Inside and the building continues the organic theme, but in a calming soothing manner. The floor, roof and walls flow into each other, mottled with a fish scale pattern, and luminescent tortoise shells bring in natural light. Even the doors and windows flow seamlessly into each other, the wooden frames warmly polished to almost glow organically and bubbles of light trapped within the glass sending ripples over the whirlpool roof. The most wonderful thing about the architecture is that it is not a pompous display of ability, rather every aspect is integrated into making the house liveable. The mushroom fireplace includes seats to sit inside and feel the warmth. The organic wooden panelling has fish-like gills built in to allow ventilation, the fluid design preserves warmth in winter and allows cooling in summer, and natural light is filtered from the central courtyard into even the smallest room in the house.

The attention to detail was simply suburb. Looking back from behind the house I thought it was a crime that such ugly buildings had been slammed up against this gem - only afterwards did I realise that the neighbouring buildings had beautiful frontages and the architects involved just followed standard procedure in ignoring the other aspects of their building. The loft had been used only by the neighbours for washing and Gaudí could easily have left the stagnant heat-filled design intact. Instead he recreated even this level for purpose, creating a cool dry level that breathed and using vaulted ribs to turn a drying room into a masterpiece.
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau


Our second building, Sagrada Família is another, more famous, piece of work by Antoni Gaudí. It is the unfinished cathedral of Barcelona, started by Gaudí in 1883. This piece of work ended up consuming Gaudí, by the end of his life he had given up all other projects and even lived in the completed crypt of the Church. By the time of his death, 43 years after starting the project, a lack of funds had nearly driven the project to a halt, and even now with the building continuing according to his plans, it is not slated for completion until 2026, the 100th anniversary of his death. It is perhaps unfair to judge an unfinished piece of work, but I did not find Sagrada Família to be a beautiful piece of architecture. Unique, certainly, more like a sandcastle melted by sprays of water in the wind than a piece of hewn rock. But something about the style just didn’t work in a Church - perhaps the master of adapting the building to fit the purpose struggled when designing a building with no purpose? Or maybe the problem is the age. The modern wings and spires worked quite well, the fresh cut of stone synergizing with the “sandcastle” feel, while the oldest portions (those built by Gaudí himself) created a discontinuity between the soot blackened age of the stone and the freshness of the carving. Gaudí once said “Gothic art is imperfect… gothic works produce maximum emotion when they are mutilated, covered with ivy and illuminated by the moon”. Perhaps then Gothic style is better for a building which will be mutilated, darkened and obscured with age, while Gaudí’s living breathing style is better suited to a house that will be lived in and loved.

More enjoyable than the outside of Sagrada Família was the inside. Here was a chance to see a sight granted only to a few. The inside of a cathedral not as a static piece, brooding with the age of centuries; but instead as the worksite of skilled craftmen, creating a monument that will live far beyond them. There was scaffolding, heavy equipment, piles of stone, vending machines and workmen busy working on a single block of stone to be integrated into the whole. It demolishes the illusion of the cathedral being built by the Church or King, cathedrals are built by people. The inspiring branching columns are painstakingly pieced together by unassuming disheveled men wearing hard-hats and tool belts, people who will be forgotten the minute they walk out, while those who simply gave money will have their names carved into the stone forever.

In the crypt below the Cathedral lies a museum with the models of Gaudí’s vision for Sagrada Família. One of his major innovations was the invention of an inverted model. Rather than build up a model and calculate forces and tensions, Gaudí modeled the Cathedral upside down, using cords and small weights. Each cord bent according to gravity, creating the most balanced and weight resistant structure possible, with the angle of arches and the position of columns falling out naturally. Gaudí then took photos of the inverted model from multiple aspects and reproduced the structure as a model.

Finally, we visited the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Catalan for Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul). The hospital was built between 1901 and 1930 and functioned as a hospital until June 2009.
Casa Batlló
Very different from the works of Gaudí, the building was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner, with a much more traditional approach to aesthetics, full of religious symbolism and sharp detail. It is amazing to stand at the entrance of Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau and look down the long boulevard to see Sagrada Família standing. How many cities in the world have two world heritage-listed pieces of architecture, built by different architects in different styles, facing one another down a single avenue?
sylviandavid says:
Adrian, this was a very well written piece... I read it and want to go see it for myself.... to see what emotions it give me.... Sylvia
Posted on: Dec 30, 2009
Adrian_Liston says:
Cheers. Actually writing is something that I find really soothing. If I am not travelling I try to find time to write about politics, science, religion or just random thoughts. A bit odd considering that most of my job is writing, but being able to just compose my thoughts on paper is very soothing to me.

We had rain in Barcelona too :( Actually we've had rain every day on the trip except yesterday, which was just glorious.
Posted on: Dec 28, 2009
lamadude says:
Nice write up, where do you find the motivation to keep writing, I always get distracted after 2 minutes of writing, kids these days, short attention span ;-)

I was in Barcelona twice, and both times it was raining very hard even though it was summer, so it's not my lucky city.

I noticed on the little travel map accompanying this blog that the distance Brussels-Milan isn't much more than Milan-Barcelona. Italy is closer than I thought.
Posted on: Dec 27, 2009
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photo by: fivepointpalm