Facade gazing in Barcelona
By Gery de Pierpont
Where houses reveal their inner personality to passers-by, by playing the seduction card
Have you ever experimented Facade gazing in Barcelona? An original and refined cultural exploration that involves flair, observation, the five senses, emotion and creativity!
I love the old city of Barcelona with its narrow medieval streets and chunky houses all bunched up tightly together, hidden from prying eyes behind sturdy oaken doors. And its little squares, in the shadow of venerable old churches, which buzz with life at every hour of the day and night
I also like its port, where every era has left its mark, from its old ramparts to its breathtaking aerial bridges built for the last world fair. Let your eyes gaze into the distance, facing the Orient, so they cross the water to Constantinople or Egypt with the ships which left to trade their treasures.
Güell Park, so familiar to fans of Art Nouveau, certainly deserves its reputation. What imagination, what tranquil exuberance in this marriage between architecture imbued with wacky creativity and domesticated southern nature. What a feast for the eyes! It’s the thrill experienced by a child in world concocted of gingerbread and fresh cream. A lair of fantastical animals set against a profusion of multicoloured mosaics.
And the stunning moment when you catch sight of the extravagant Sagrada Familia, which is such an immense hollow structure, the imaginative delusion of one of the most fascinating architects the world has ever known: Antoni Gaudi. This profusion of elongated stone shafts, with white radiating branches and ribbed walls encrusted with bright and shiny stained glass fuse together in this incredible oeuvre. A feat of architectural prowess a century ago, it is still under construction as considerable innovative and audacious savoir-faire is required. Disproportionate, with touches of the baroque in its green and fluorescent-orange lighting effects; pretentious and inspired by turns, the Sagrada Familia leaves no one indifferent, certainly not the Catalans, whose cultural specificity it symbolises.
What a pity that the above two sites are so expensive and the queues to visit them so agonisingly long … and the same applies to all Gaudi’s other masterpieces, from the Palau de la Música to the Casa Milà, not forgetting the Palau Güell.
If you spend a few days in Barcelona, might I suggest you go on another cultural foray, every bit as sophisticated but much more original: facade-gazing! This activity will hone your observation powers, involve all five senses and evoke deep emotions, heightening your artistic talents!
Get yourself a map of the city (ideally not too detailed, so you can get yourself lost), a pair of binoculars, a camera (preferably with a telephoto lens) and a sketchbook. Why not take along a small voice recorder as well (today most smartphones come equipped with a dictaphone). Then go the Eixample district near the Passeig de Gràcia metro station.
Here you are right in the heart of the new city, the “Extension”, laid out in 1860 by the town planner Cerdà following the demolition of the old ramparts. At that time, Barcelona was one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean. Trade with Central America and the Caribbean, as well as India and China via the new Suez Canal contributed considerably to the city’s wealth.The new bourgeoisiesettled on the outskirts, building sumptuous mansions along the new straight boulevards.
L’Eixample is a gigantesque chessboard of 113 metres wide blocks of buildings, with bevelled corners.
The architects of the time, stimulated by full order books, rivalled each other in terms of imagination, putting their personal stamp on every development. They took their inspiration from classical, gothic, Renaissance and Hispano-Moorish art. These “neo” movements, merging easily with one another, spawned some astonishing eclectic buildings, very typical of the period.
The last years of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century saw the burgeoning of Art Nouveau. This flourished simultaneously in several important European cities, acquiring a particular identity in Barcelona where it was closely linked to the cultural and nationalistic movement of “Catalan Modernism”. This style of subtle curves and multi-coloured tonalities makes reference to nature, which is interpreted with elegance and freedom. It is used in architecture, painting, sculpture, furniture, glassmaking and jewellery. Art Nouveau features especially wrought iron, stained glass, ceramics, mosaics, precious woods and plaster mouldings.
The World Exhibition of 1888 boosted the expression of this artistic flowering which left its mark on many buildings throughout the city.
At the corner of Passeig de Gràcia and Carrer d’Arago are three such houses, all particularly good examples of this creative outpouring. They were designed by three of the greatest, most talented architects of the period: Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Antoni Gaudi. La Casa Lléo Morera, La Casa Amatller and La Casa Batllovie with each other in terms of decorative effusion, in a totally new and ground-breaking exuberance. Romantic sculptures, gothic dragons, sea monsters, floral garlands and ceramic waves instill these façades with an astonishing life of their own. It is as if these private mansions, with their traditionally sober and restrained exteriors, had decided to express their inner personality to the world – and reveal a little of their secret garden and the fantasies of their owners. The confrontation between these particularly extravert houses, almost next door to each other, reflects the rivalry between these three competitive architects, who were equally great and fantastic. This block of houses has actually been nicknamed “the Isle of Discord”, in reference to Greek mythology (cf. The Apple of Paris).
So much for the context. Enough said: now let yourself be guided by your inspiration through the city streets, on the look out for hundreds of façades, each with a tale to tell. Above all, raise your eyes; stop and turn back if a sculptureintrigues you, a balcony attracts your attention or a legendary animal gives you the eye. Every detail has its raison d’être. Each has been conceived, drawn and sculpted to reflect a thought and express a facet of the purchaser’s personality. Many highly skilled craftsmen have brought them to life, making skilled use of their abundant savoir-faire.
Take the time to interpret these monumental works from top to bottom. If need be, cross to the opposite pavement to get a better view. Traditionally, architecture is at its most crude at ground level, acquiring greater finesse the higher up you go.
What can you learn about the initial occupants of such places? Over and above their opulence, what image did they wish to give of themselves? In which business sectors did they flourish? Did they return from their journeys with souvenirs which have been depicted in stone or wrought iron?
If a building “speaks” to you, don’t hesitate to take notes or record your impressions. Describe the house as you see and feel it: distinguished, provocative, refined, “Look at me!”, tortured, rational, poetic, strict, appliqué … As if you were promoting it to a potential buyer or discovering its decoration like a dwarf alpine climber, going from balcony to balcony and protruding moulding to gutter. I am sure with a little imagination you will be able to see its former residents at the windows dressed in period costume, hear gramophone music and smell coffee and teatime chocolate …
Reproduce the most audacious curves and original motifs in your sketchbook. Mark the shadows with hatching, emphasize the proportions and invent a pot pourri of your own. Then there’s photography, playing with various levels, surprising angles and combinations of materials. Pick out the details. Wait for the sun to go down before capturing the amber light that caresses and lingers on the surfaces.
The show continues after nightfall: the façades take on a completely different relief under artificial light. As with the theatre, so the stage is lit with a thousand fires; the masks metamorphose into caricatures, the scrollwork acquires a dramatic dimension and the shadows become immense. Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of some indoor atmospheres with their coloured chandeliers and wave-likecurved ceilings…
But before you go to sleep, flip through these images, like an archaeologist contemplating the table where the fruits of his day’s excavations lie. Combine these images, sort the colours according to shade, provoke contrast and mix up styles … time to dream! Then, and most importantly, share your discoveries with us below …