Exploring the Works of Barcelona’s Most Famous Architect and his Peers
Following our first Barcelona walking tour with Leon Parris, Simon, Otto and I jumped at the opportunity to let this remarkable guide lead us through the city’s most famous architectural sites including a number of the notable Gaudi creations. Now, architecture is a subject that usually makes my eyes glaze over after less than five minutes, but this was different. Not only did Leon present the facts in a language I could understand, he made me hungry to learn more about Barcelona’s unique structures and the men who created them.
Our unconventional guide began by giving us a choice of tour types. We could either spend two hours with Leon as he pointed at buildings and spewed facts, or we could explore the darker side of the buildings and the climate in Barcelona when they were being constructed through Leon’s extensive repertoire of stories. Of course, our group unanimously chose the latter, and we were off.
Palau de la Musica (Palace of Music)
We began our journey into the past in old Barcelona, facing a stunning structure created by Domènech i Montaner, one of Antoni Gaudi’s contemporaries.
According to Leon, it was music and not architecture that spearheaded modernism. The Palace of Music, which opened in 1908, was commissioned for the 400-member gothic choir. This was to be the venue where their voices would finally join to perform traditional folk music in Catalan. A language, which had been banned for 140 years.
This marvel of stone, brick, iron, glass, and ceramics seats 2,200, and emphasizes transparency. Two sides of the building and a magnificent skylight overhead bathe the interior with light from exquisite solid stained-glass panes. The Palace of Music is the only such auditorium in Europe illuminated solely by natural light during daylight hours.
Columns laden with glazed multicolored tiles, red brick, arches, curves and floral and nature-based motifs typified Catalan modernism. Although, unlike Gaudi, Domènech i Montaner focused only on the building, I’d love to explore the interior some day.
Over the decades, the building has undergone periods of expansion and restoration. Fortunately, care was taken not to compromise the rich decorations or the structure itself.
Our last view was of the choir tower, where singers were arranged over seven levels.
Before we moved on, Leon gave us a tip on how to enjoy a free concert and take advantage of an excellent photo op. He showed us a coffee shop from which the poor sound proofing of the Palace of Music made it possible to hear most performances. And after dark, the massive chandelier sparkling through stained glass made for a picture perfect view.
The Eyes Have It…or Perhaps Not
From a magnificent music hall, Leon led us to what he believed to be the ugliest building in Barcelona. He explained that the structure itself was beautiful, but the façade left much to be desired.
The original building was constructed in 1858, but as Leon explained, “The mess on the front and side of it came much later, in 2011.” The best way to describe this abomination is that it looked like fish eyeballs extending from stalks at weird angles. The entire rear of the building was painted blue. “It’s an exercise in how to ruin a building,” Leon concluded.
The creepy structure, known as the Ohla Hotel, is an accommodation in which I wouldn’t be caught dead staying. An artist by the name of Frederic Amat was responsible for the monstrosity the building had become. If he isn’t in hiding, he should be.
The Writing on the Walls
As we made our way out of old Barcelona into the modern city, Leon pointed out some of the quirkier gems displayed on building facades.
He pointed out wall ceramics that, to the unfamiliar eye, looked important. Instead, when translated, they made statements such as, “We have gas,” And “We may live on the shaded side of the street, but our dispositions are sunny.”
Guild symbols above numbers on some shops connected past and present. A former cheese shop is now a place where artisan cheese is made. A former distillery is now an apothecary shop. What was once a winery is now a Starbucks. Okay, there’s an abomination of another kind.
But as we passed through the Portal of Angels and into Plaza Catalunya, Leon explained how unrest was beginning to brew during the period of modernistic architecture we were exploring. The area in which we were walking was built for the wealthy. Workers who toiled to create posh neighborhoods were not allowed to walk in them.
Spain spent a fortune in preparation for the 1888 World Exposition in Barcelona. The Portal of Angels and La Rambla were built, as well as a statue of Christopher Columbus, pointing toward Algeria.
There was great excitement at the news that King Alfonso XIII would be coming for the exposition. Gaudi had been commissioned to inlay a road in the King’s honor, but when it became obvious it would not be completed in time, the red brick arch went up instead. Alfonso called it the most beautiful monument outside Madrid.
All this went on while anarchists were assassinating world leaders right and left. But the one they truly wanted to kill was Alfonso XIII. A botched assassination attempt on his wedding day killed 23 civilians when a booby-trapped flower bouquet was thrown, bounced back into the crowd and exploded. Alfonso called it an occupational hazard and continued to go about his business
As for Gaudi’s road. When it was finally completed, the pattern turned out to be so complicated and convoluted, it defied explanation.
Block of Discord
Our next stop was a street sporting three buildings that Leon proclaimed, “shouldn’t be in the same city, let alone on the same block.”
Lluís Domènech i Montaner
The first was the House of Lions and Mulberries (Casa Lleó i Morera) commissioned by a woman for her son, and i Montaner got the job. The original structure was covered with tiny statuettes and busts of everyone from the Virgin Mary to Hapsburg kings.
The house was bombed twice, once in 1937 and again in 1938. Lluís tried to pick all the statuettes off in order to save them, but what he did with them was unclear. After his death, many turned up in the Dali museum.
The woman had ordered pillars made of highly polished, common pink quartz. She wanted them to look like valuable rose marble in the hope people would think she was wealthy. She was outed by a man who commissioned Domènech’s pupil to design his own house four doors down.
The tattle tale was a chocolatier and founder of Barcelona’s Chocolate District. But the gable of his house hid a secret in the form of a massive photographic studio. Apparently, his hobby was adult photography, and he kept it quiet because it wasn’t cool to have a second interest. The architect wasn’t happy about competing with his friend and mentor, so he hid crafty clues about his employer’s secret in the windows.
We found our best view of the Gaudi house from across the street. Gaudi had been hired by a cotton plantation owner, who died just after commissioning the façade. The widow didn’t like or get along with Gaudi and didn’t want to live in a Gaudi house. It seemed no one got along with Gaudi. He never listened to what his paying employers told him to do.
The woman wanted a room for her daughter’s grand piano, but Gaudi refused to do it. When his employer threatened to cancel the contract, Gaudi built a room the exact shape and size of the piano. You couldn’t get a person in it. Gaudi bought the piano for a third of its value, and left a note and a new violin in the room. The note said he hoped the daughter would enjoy learning the violin.
There are several theories regarding the meaning of Gaudi’s facade. One is that it was a representation of St. George slaying the dragon. The roof was the dragon, the spire St. George’s sword, the balconies skulls of dragon victims and the pillars over the lower windows bones from the dragon’s nest. The house bears the nickname “House of Bones”.
This is Leon’s favorite building, so I’ll leave it to him to tell you about the remaining theories.
La Sagrada Familia
By 1921 modernism was out of style. Domènech hung on for a few years, Cadafalch committed suicide and Gaudi went over the edge, choosing to live like a hermit for the last seven years of his life in the crypt of his most famous masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.
So mammoth was the project, Gaudi knew he wouldn’t live to see its completion. In fact, he only lived to see one tower and half of the Nativity façade.
When completed, La Sagrada Familia will be twice the height and width it was when we saw it in 2015. It has taken longer to build than the pyramids. Already the tallest religious building in Europe, La Sagrada Familia will eventually be the tallest in the world. The irony is that Gaudi wasn’t even the second choice to build it.
The building is in the shape of a crucifix, and the carved facades are like a crash course in Catholicism.
The east wall, facing the rising sun, depicts the Nativity. Beginning with the road to Bethlehem, it takes us through the birth of Christ, the crowning of Mary as a saint and beyond. The west wall, facing the setting sun, focuses on the Passion, beginning with the kiss of betrayal. The south wall, the Glory, will honor the creation and will depict where man sits between heaven and hell
“Eventually,” said Leon, “there will not be one iota of the Greek Bible not shown in stone on this building.”
Death of a Mad Genius
Gaudi, the master architect, was struck by a trolley on a June evening in 1926. He had become so ragged and unkempt, taxis refused to take him. Gaudy was a deeply religious man, so, on that fateful day, he was walking home to the crypt after attending church. Gaudi was badly injured, but refused to allow friends to take him to a good hospital. Preferring to die among the poor, Gaudi did so eight hours later.
The second tragedy of Gaudi’s death came ten years later, when his blueprints and models were destroyed when anarchists set fire to the crypt.
Since then, a series of architects have continued Gaudi’s work as best they could. Josep Maria Subirachs carved the Passion wall, inserting Gaudi watching the crucifixion and taking notes.
La Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. It will have 18 towers including 12 apostles and four evangelists. The tower of Christ will soar approximately 558 feet into the Barcelona sky.
Leon, among many others is highly skeptical, but only time will tell. Whenever it’s complete, I hope to be around to see it in all its Gaudi glory.
As our tour wrapped up, bells began to sing out a beautiful tune. Leon told us it had been written by Antoni Gaudi himself. In fact, there were five different bell themes, three of which were Gaudi compositions.
Although he is long gone, Gaudi’s legacy lives on in Barcelona through his architecture and, as we learned on a sunny April afternoon, through his music as well.