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Rooms without corners, ceilings slung with rose garlands, legends played out on windowsills – more than a century later Barcelona’s modernist architects are still a thrill, says Robin Powell.


Barcelona's modernists were unafraid of colour or ornament and they worked with master craftsmen to produce incredible detailing. Photo - Robin Powell 


The iconic building of Barcelona is the temple of Sagrada Familia. It is to Barcelona what the Harbour Bridge is to Sydney or the Eiffel Tower is to Paris: the must-have shot for any tourist with a phone. Antoni Gaudi’s still-unfinished masterpiece is worthy of all the attention - and even of the queues, which snake around the building from early in the morning. But many visitors to Barcelona miss out on some of the other gems of the incredible flowering of creativity in architecture and design that occurred in Barcelona from the late 1880s to the early 1920s.

The spark was lit when the new capitalists, awash with profits from their colonial enterprises, turned to the city’s architects to help build (literally) their prestige. A status race developed to build the greatest, most original buildings. This marriage of money and art occurred as the whole city was enthused both by the modern, and by Catalan’s history and traditions. All around Europe this convergence of the modern with regional tradition was occurring, and when it took on an interest in forms from nature, it became known as all Art Nouveau. In Barcelona the movement was called Modernisme.


Mosaic'd wall, Montaner. Photo - Robin Powell


The grand master of the modernistas was Lluis Domench i Montaner (part of the fun of visiting these great buildings is practicing saying the fabulous Catalan names, which slide and clash like an onomatopoeic poem). Montaner was one of those people with impressively diverse skills. He was a publisher, artist, literature lover, historian, politician, architect and professor. Indeed he lectured in the School of Architecture of Barcelona and taught the two other stars of the modernista trio, Antoni Gaudi and Josep Puig (pronounced pooch) i Cadafalch.

Say it with flowers

What I love most about Montaner’s work is its extravagant decoration, his unashamedly romantic sensibility and his passion for flowers and gardens. You see all this at work in the Hospital de la Santa Creu i San Pau. On a vast site Montaner imaged a controlled environment in which all of the services of the hospital were underground, connected by tunnels. Above ground were pavilions for patients, each surrounded by gardens, one designed for summer and one for winter. Montaner believed in the healing power of colour and of beauty and he used flowers and flower motifs as part of the wellness program of the hospital. In recent times his beliefs have been vindicated by science - we know that patients with a view of greenery are discharged earlier from hospitals than those with views of the carpark.


Montaner. Photo - Robin Powell

The floral motifs and exuberant colours are perhaps even more extreme in Montaner’s masterpiece, the Palau de la Musica Catalana. The building was commissioned to house Barcelona’s community choir, the Orfeo Catalan, which specialised in Catalan folk songs. The singers must have been awe-stuck by what Montaner created for them. It’s still jaw-dropping today. You walk up a marble staircase with a golden glass balustrade to a reception room lit by enormous stained glass windows patterned with a garden of flowers. In the concert hall itself, rose garlands sweep along the ceiling and down the mosaic’d pillars. Giant baroque chandeliers seem to hang like earrings, and the whole room is lit rose pink and blue by an enormous stained glass dome featuring angels and more flowers.


Stained glass dome in Montaner's Palau de la Musica. Photo - Robin Powell


Montaner’s student Puig i Cadafalch was less inspired by gardens than his old professor. Cadafalch was an expert in Romanesque art (he gave his first lecture on the subject at 16!). For Casa Amatller, his best-known building in Barcelona, he mined the medieval and created an amazing façade. Against a background of ochre stucco is a veneer of white stucco like lace (the treatment is called sgraffito). Each window is treated as an opportunity to tell a story, with carved figures, gargoyles, flowers, plants, and references to St George slaying the dragon, St George being the patron saint of Barcelona. It’s an extraordinary building, and one you couldn't take your eyes off, if it weren't for the next door neighbour.


The façade of Casa Amatller (above) is as geometric as next door Casa Batllo (below) is curvaceous. Together they make an extraordinary streetscape. Photo - Robin Powell


Photo - Robin Powell

Keeping up with next door

A few years after the Amatllers moved in to their new home, Josep Batllo, an ostentatious textile tycoon, bought the building next door. With money no object he commissioned Antoni Gaudi, to design ‘a paradise on earth’. Paradise, like nature, has no right angles, and just one of the extraordinary things about Casa Batllo is that there is not a right angle in the place. Instead, spaces curve and swell and fall back on themselves, describing the shapes that Gaudi saw in nature. Everything in the house is hand made, from the door handles to the glass in the windows and the tiles up the light well. These gradually change colour from the palest blue at the bottom where the rooms need more light, to darker blue at the top where they need less. Looking down into the light well from the top of the building is like being underwater and looking up at the sky.


Attic in Casa Batllo. Photo - Robin Powell

Every room has new surprises, but the most singular element of the building is the façade, which is as curvaceous as Amatller next door is geometric. But the two might have more in common than first appears. The meaning of the Casa Batllo facade is much debated but there is a school of thought that it too pictures the battle of St George and the dragon. The sinuous line of the chimney tops is the dragon’s back, the tower is St George’s lance, and the balconies are the dragon’s victims. Or perhaps it is a story of Carnival, with the roof a harlequin’s hat, the balconies the ball masks, and the multi-coloured ceramic mosaic, which cascades down the façade, a rain of falling confetti.

More than a century after the Batllo’s moved in, their house still startles with its originality. A walk around Barcelona’s modernist masterpieces is not just a walk through history, it inspires with ideas for the future as well.


The large ceramic disks decorate the face of a wall planter that is built into the mosaic'd wall that backs the terrace of Antoni Gaudi's Casa Batllo. Photo - Robin Powell


Come with us - Barcelona’s modernist masterpieces are on the itinerary when we settle in for four nights in the Catalan capital as part of our tour of the Classic Gardens of Spain. Read all about it at or call for a brochure on 1300 233 200



Text: Robin Powell

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Author: Robin Powell